Walt Whitman's free verse poetry style flouted traditional meter and rhyme and gained him the label, "the father of free verse." The voice in his works is said to breathe the new American spirit of broad open lands and enterprising, hard-working people.
Born in 1819 in Long Island, New York, Walter Whitman was the second of nine children born to liberal parents Walter Whitman and Louisa Van Velsor. He was educated in local public schools until he quit at age eleven to work as an office boy for a doctor and a lawyer. A year later he became apprenticed to a printer for the Long Island Patriot newspaper, which led to his becoming a scrupulous proofreader. He worked on and off at other newspapers until he accepted a position to teach school at age seventeen. Two years later he became a newspaper editor for his own newspaper, the weekly Long Islander. But the newspaper failed and his early writing gained little attention.
A lifelong free spirit, Whitman continued to fill a variety of positions in his life, including printer, political campaigner (most notably for Martin Van Buren), writer, editor, freelance journalist, house builder, newspaper publisher, hospital volunteer, office clerk, lecturer, and official in the Bureau of Indian Affairs. Whatever capacity he filled, he never stopped writing. But it wasn't until he self-published Leaves of Grass in 1855 that he really garnered critical attention, particularly as a poet. Ralph Waldo Emerson immediately wrote to Whitman, calling Leaves of Grass "the most extraordinary piece of wit and wisdom that America has yet produced." With it, despite its controversies, Whitman began gaining the attention of noted British as well as American authors. One of these British authors was William Michael Rossetti (brother of Christina Rossetti) who selected and edited a collection of Whitman's poems published in London in 1868 (Poems by Walt Whitman. London: John Camden Hotten, 1868).
When Whitman's brother George was wounded in the American Civil War, Walt volunteered as a nurse in army hospitals in Washington, D.C. He supported himself by working as a part-time clerk in the Army Paymaster's Office. The experience produced several war poems and sketches, and an elegy on the assassination of President Lincoln. At the end of the war, Whitman went to work for the Bureau of Indian Affairs, but was purportedly fired because he was a writer of obscene poetry. So he transferred to clerking for the Attorney General's office.
Whitman's writing never made much money, and as he grew older he was sometimes supported by subscriptions collected by author friends and admirers (including Mark Twain, Henry James, Robert Louis Stevenson, etc.). Whitman never married, although widowed English author Anne Gilchrist, deeply moved by Leaves of Grass, moved to America for a year apparently with the hope that the two would wed. They became close friends, but nothing more. Whitman suffered poor health in his last years, living with his brother George in Camden, New Jersey, for several years after a stroke in 1873. Here and at the home he was finally able to buy for himself nearby, he was often visited by other great authors. He died in Camden in 1892, having become recognized as one of the greatest poets of his age.