Wednesday, May 31, 2017

Born Today May 31: Walt Whitman


Famed American poet Walter Whitman was born on this date on Long Island, New York.  When Whitman was four years of age, his family moved into the city, settling in Brooklyn.  He generally didn't experience a happy childhood; as the family was greatly unsettled both financially and in housing due to a series of bad investments that Walter Whitman Sr. had made. By just he age of eleven, he had concluded his formal schooling, and was forced to seek employment to help supplement the family income (he was the second oldest of 9 children).  He started out as an office boy for a very small law firm, and then moved on to apprentice in the printing business for a Long Island Newspaper.  He was taken with the typesetting.  It is around this time that is thought that he was also allowed to write bits as filler for a few issues.  A year later, he got another job at another printer, this time in Brooklyn.  In the spring of the following year he landed a job at a local Whig newspaper there called the Long-Island Star; it was at this time that he became a frequent visitor to the local library and discovered the theater.  He also published his first poems in the New-York Mirror, albeit anonymously.  He moved further into the city, taking a job in Manhattan as a compositor--an advanced type-setting job.  He returned to Long Island in 1836, where he took various local teaching positions--a profession he did not enjoy.  In Huntingdon, New York, tired of teaching, he founded his own newspaper the Long Islander.  For the longest of times, it was basically a one man operation.  After just ten months, he sold the operation and went back to type-setting in Jamaica, Queens; but left shortly after--taking up more teaching positions.  During this period of time he published a series of editorials: "Sun-Down-Papers--From The Desk of a Schoolmaster."  After this, he returned to New York City to take up a lower level position at New World; he also continued to work in various capacities at newspapers working his way up to editor.  Through the 1840's he worked also as free-lance fiction and poetry writer.  By 1852, he was penning as serialized novel Life and Adventures of Jack Engle: An Autobiography: A Story of New York at the Present Time in which the Reader Will Find Some Familiar Characters. He then published, under the pen-name Mose Velsor the curiosity that is Manly Health and Training.  This is when he decided to take up poetry seriously and devote his life to the writing of it.  By the early 1850's he was working on pieces that would become his most famous work Leaves Of Grass.  Though Whitman's portrait appears on the front piece of the first edition, the work was published without a name attached to it.  Despite high praise from Ralph Waldo Emerson, the book caused a sensation.  A second edition was almost not released--all through out the 1850's Whitman would continue to have financial difficulties--keeping him working hard in the newspaper business.  The coming of the extreme violence of the Civil War had a profoundly negative impact on Whitman, at one point he left for Washington D.C., with no intention of returning to New York.  In D.C., a friend of his helped him to secure a part-time job at the army's paymaster office, leaving Whitman time to work as a nurse at army hospitals in the area.  Family woes also plagued him at this time, with one brother having been captured by the Confederates, another dying from consumption, and yet another that he personally have to have committed to a mental facility.  Nonetheless, he managed to find a full time, well paying job the Bureau of Indian Affairs in the Department of the Interior.  He was abruptly fired from this job by the new Secretary of the Department--a former Senator from Iowa.  In Whitman's case, it is thought that he was fired because the Senator had found a copy of the 1960 publication of Leaves Of Grass.  He was then transferred to Attorney General's office, where he spent time interviewing former confederate soldiers for presidential pardon, and found many of them "real characters."  All through this time, he had continued to publish poems sparsely and a variety of subjects, including one of the death the President Abraham Lincoln.  Whitman remained at the Attorney General's office until 1873, when he suffered a stroke that left him partially paralyzed.  He then retired to the home of one of his brother's in Camden, N.J.  He remained there until 1884, suffering bouts of depression, until he could purchase his own home in the town.  By this time, he was almost completely bedridden; though he was able to continue to work from bed editing various editions of Leaves of Grass.  He had a live in housekeeper who had a menagerie of animals and lived with him rent free in exchange for work.  While working on what he called his "deathbed edition" of Leaves, he commissioned a granite mausoleum shaped as a house, overseeing it's construction was the last real work of his life.  Walt Whitman finally gave up the ghost on the 26th of March 1892 at the age of 72.  An autopsy revealed him to have been suffering from a myriad of afflictions, any one of which would have taken a person's life.  A public viewing of his body was held in his home and four days later, he was placed in his self designed tomb located at Harleigh Cemetery in Camden.  Very few films have used Whitman's writing as source material--and the most that have are either shorts or episodic art television. However the very first use of his work comes in a doozy of a silent film.  A section of D. W. Griffith's 3 hour and 20 minute sprawling epic Intolerance: Love's Struggle Throughout The Ages, which dates from 1916, used Whitman's poem "Out of the Cradle Endlessly Rocking."  His work would not be used again until 1954 in the television series Your Favorite Story.  The most recent use of his work for film source material came in an animated video short Manahatta which was made in 2011.  

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