10 Things You Might Not Know About Walt Whitman

Wikimedia Commons // Public Domain
Wikimedia Commons // Public Domain / Wikimedia Commons // Public Domain

Known as the “Bard of Democracy,” poet and journalist Walt Whitman—who was born on May 31, 1819—used unconventional verse and frank talk of sexuality and politics to become one of the most lauded writers of the 19th century. He might be best known for Leaves of Grass (which also happens to play a crucial role in the climax of AMC’s Breaking Bad). But there’s a lot more to Whitman than that. Check out some facts about his life, his love of nudity, and how he managed to write rave reviews of his own work.

1. Walt Whitman started working at age 11.

Whitman’s formal education didn’t last very long. Living in New York with his parents, and with his father struggling to make ends meet, Whitman left school at age 11 to help contribute to the household. He got work assisting a law office in the city before turning to the printing business, developing skills that would later inform his work in self-publishing. He continued to educate himself, eventually becoming a teacher at the age of 17.

2. Whitman kept revising Leaves of Grass.

After stints in teaching and journalism, Whitman collected 12 of his poems for Leaves of Grass, a self-published 1855 book that would go on to become his best-known work. But where most authors leave finished titles behind, Whitman considered Leaves to be a malleable volume. He repeatedly went back to it, changing the order of poems, adding new ones, retitling old ones, and tinkering with the typeset. By the time of his death in 1892, nine versions of Leaves had been published, the last with around 400 poems (including two annexes).

3. Whitman reviewed—and raved—about Leaves of Grass (anonymously).

To stir up interest for Leaves, Whitman took the audacious step of “reviewing” his book for New York area newspapers without a byline. “An American bard at last!” he wrote, raving, “Transcendent.” The endorsements apparently didn’t help sales much, with the initial run of the book selling just a few copies.

4. One version of Leaves of Grass was banned in Boston.

Whitman’s tinkering with Leaves of Grass reflected his evolving attitudes regarding human sexuality, including the then-unpopular belief that homosexuality was natural. In 1882, Boston district attorney Oliver Stevens banned a version of the book that Whitman purposely had printed to resemble a Bible. The contents, Stevens believed, violated statutes about “obscene literature.”

5. Whitman was a missionary during the Civil War.

Whitman, nearly 42, was an unlikely candidate for a soldier when the Civil War began, but his brother George enlisted in the Army. When Whitman saw his brother's name listed as one of the wounded in 1862, he traveled to Washington and then Virginia to visit. George was fine, but Whitman was struck by the physical toll the war had taken on other soldiers. He stayed in Washington and began a steady rotation of the area’s hospitals, bringing food and books to the wounded. The goods were paid for by donations from friends, as well as Whitman’s own salary working for the Army Paymaster.

6. Whitman was a health and fitness guru.

Whitman did not cut a figure as a man of action, but he was still very much interested in physical fitness. He wrote a series of articles for the New York Atlas in the 1850s under the pen name “Mose Velsor” that detailed his approach to diet and wellness. Whitman advocated “manly training” like brisk walks, dancing, and frequent bathing to cure ills and ward off depression. He also considered beards to be effective barriers against germs.

7. Whitman liked to be nude around friends.

Whitman’s exhortations about nature extended to having a cavalier attitude about being constrained by clothing. In the 1870s and 1880s, Whitman was known to visit with friends while being completely nude. Nakedness, Whitman wrote, was freeing: “Nature was naked, and I was also.” Whitman historians continue to debate whether a series of photos taken by photographer Thomas Eakins in the mid-1880s were of an elderly Whitman posing in the nude.

8. Bram Stoker was a big fan of Whitman's.

The future author of Dracula was so enamored with Whitman’s work that he and his friends called themselves “Walt Whitmanites.” Stoker didn’t consider himself a peer, however: After composing a gushing letter to Whitman in 1872, he kept it in a drawer for four years before working up the courage to send it. “I do not know whether it is unusual for you to get letters from utter strangers who have not even the claim of literary brotherhood to write you,” Stoker wrote. “If it is you must be frightfully tormented with letters and I am sorry to have written this. I have, however, the claim of liking you—for your words are your own soul and even if you do not read my letter it is no less a pleasure to me to write it.” Whitman wrote a gracious letter back thanking him for the kind words.

9. Whitman wrote a mystery novel that was lost for more than 165 years.

In 1852, Whitman serialized a short 36,000 word mystery novel titled The Life and Adventures of Jack Engle in a New York newspaper. Few readers paid it much attention, and fewer still had any reason to try and retrieve it from any archives—Whitman published it without a byline. It was rediscovered in 2017 by Whitman historian Zach Turpin, who found some familiar phrases during an online newspaper search for Whitman material. The book was reissued that year. The finding pleased Whitman enthusiasts but probably would not have been pleasing to Whitman himself, who threatened to “shoot” anyone who dredged up his earlier, “crude” works for republication.

10. Whitman designed his own tomb.

As a final creative impulse, Whitman elected to design his own granite mausoleum in Camden, New Jersey’s Harleigh Cemetery. Shaped like a house, the monument was paid for using monetary gifts given by admirers. Visitors sometimes leave letters or pennies at the iron gate in front of the grave—the latter because the coin bears the image of Abraham Lincoln, whom Whitman wrote a well-known elegy for following his death in 1865.