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Welcome to Biography Out Loud. I am your host, Dane Allred.

Second of nine children, he was born in 1819. He had brothers named George Washington, Andrew Jackson and Thomas Jefferson, but he had the same name as his father. When he was six, he recalled being lifted up and given kiss on the cheek by the Marquis de Lafayette at a fourth of July celebration. Some of his earliest poetry was published in the New York Mirror. He started a newspaper in New York, sold it and then worked for many different newspapers, also working as a schoolmaster. When the “Free Soil Party” was founded in 1848, he was a delegate to the first convention. Who was this American poet born on Long Island, and often called the “father of free verse”?

We’ll find out in a moment on:

Biography Out Loud

By 1855, Walt Whitman had printed his first version of “Leaves of Grass”, a poem he continued to work to perfect throughout his entire life. No name is listed as author on this first edition, but in the text Whitman describes himself as "Walt Whitman, an American, one of the roughs, a kosmos, disorderly, fleshly, and sensual, no sentimentalist, no stander above men or women or apart from them, no more modest than immodest”. He paid for this first printing himself, publishing 795 copies. Ralph Waldo Emerson approved of the book, writing a five page letter to Walt Whitman praising the poem.

Whitman wrote “Leaves of Grass” as an attempt to make an American epic poem, using some of the cadence in the Bible and writing in free verse. Others condemned the book as overtly sexual, and the second edition was delayed due to the controversy. “Leaves of Grass” was reprinted many times, with Whitman revising it several times.

At the beginning of the Civil War, Whitman wrote the patriotic poem “Beat! Beat! Drums!” to help rally the North. Walt Whitman feared his brother had been injured in fighting and went to find him. He walked day and night, had his wallet stolen and after finding his brother with only a superficial cheek wound. But seeing the wounded and dead changed his course forever, and he left for Washington to serve as a part-time pay clerk and to volunteer as a nurse in the army hospitals. William Douglas O’Conner helped Whitman get a better job, and later defended the poet in a pamphlet call “The Good Grey Poet”, which would become Walt Whitman’s nickname. Whitman also published one of his most famous poems at this time, “Captain, O My Captain”, which was written to mark the death of Abraham Lincoln.

Modernist poet Ezra Pound called Whitman "America's poet... He is America”. For the 150th anniversary of “Leaves of Grass”, the literary critic, Harold Bloom wrote:

“You can nominate a fair number of literary works as candidates for the secular Scripture of the United States. They might include Melville's Moby-Dick, Twain's Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, and Emerson's two series of Essays and The Conduct of Life. None of those, not even Emerson's, are as central as the first edition of Leaves of Grass.”

Whitman died in 1892, suffering from bronchial pneumonia the last years of his life. It is estimated he had only one-eighth of normal breathing capacity, and an autopsy revealed a large abscess on his chest. At his public viewing, the casket was almost hidden from the quantity of flowers.

Beat! Beat! Drums!

by Walt Whitman

Beat! beat! drums! Blow! bugles! blow! Through the windows—through the doors—burst like a force of armed men, Into the solemn church, and scatter the congregation; Into the school where the scholar is studying; Leave not the bridegroom quiet—no happiness must he have now with his bride; Nor the peaceful farmer any peace plowing his field or gathering his grain; So fierce you whirr and pound, you drums—so shrill you bugles blow.

Beat! beat! drums! Blow! bugles! blow! Over the traffic of cities—over the rumble of wheels in the streets; Are beds prepared for sleepers at night in the houses?       No sleepers must sleep in those beds; No bargainers' bargains by day—no brokers or speculators. Would they continue? Would the talkers be talking? would the singer attempt to sing? Would the lawyer rise in the court to state his case before the judge? Then rattle quicker, heavier, drums—and bugles wilder blow.

Beat! beat! drums! Blow! bugles! blow! Make no parley—stop for no expostulation; Mind not the timid—mind not the weeper or prayer; Mind not the old man beseeching the young man; Let not the child's voice be heard, nor the mother's       entreaties. Recruit! recruit? Make the very trestles shake under the dead, where       they lie in their shrouds awaiting the hearses. So strong you thump, O terrible drums—so loud you       bugles blow.


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Walt Whitman

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