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ALTER WHITMAN (commonly known as
Walt) was born at West Hills, a village in Huntington Township, Long Island, on May 31, 1819. He was a son of Walter Whitman, a carpenter and house-builder, who followed his trade chiefly in New York and Brooklyn. The Long Island Whitmans claim descent from the Reverend Zechariah Whitman, who came to America in 1635, and settled at Milford, Connecticut. Zechariah's son Joseph crossed the Sound 'sometime before 1660,' and may have been the original purchaser of the farm where successive generations of his descendants lived, and where the poet was born.
Blended with this English blood was that of a line of Dutch ancestors. Whitman's mother, Louisa Van Velsor, daughter of Cornelius Van
John Burroughs: Notes on Walt Whitman as Poet and Person, second edition, 1871.
R. M. Bucke : Walt Whitman, 1883.
Velsor of Cold Spring Harbor, was of the old race of the Netherlands, so deeply grafted on Manhattan Island and in Kings and Queens 'counties.' The Van Velsors were noted for their horses, and in her youth Louisa was a daring rider.
Whitman's education was such as a Brooklyn public school of the early Thirties afforded. After a little experience as an office-boy he learned to set type. To vary the monotony of life at the composing-case he taught in country schools or worked at farming. Occasionally he dabbled in literature, publishing tales and essays in the Democratic * Review. In 1839 he started at Huntington a 'weekly paper, the ‘Long Islander,' publishing it at such intervals as pleased him best. For a time he edited the ‘Brooklyn Eagle' (1848), diverting himself in the intervals of journalistic work with "an occasional shy at “poetry.'
Nomadic by instinct and of a curious and inquiring turn of mind, Whitman, accompanied by his brother Jeff, made a leisurely journey and work‘ing expedition' through the Middle States, down the Ohio and Mississippi to New Orleans, returning in the same deliberate manner by the Great Lakes, Lower Canada, and the Hudson. During his stay in New Orleans (1849-50) he was an editorial writer on the 'Crescent.' In Brooklyn (185051) he edited and published a paper called “The Freeman,' then for three or four years he built and sold small houses.
The first edition of the extraordinary and notorious Leaves of Grass (for which Whitman himself helped to set the type) appeared in 1855, and was described by Emerson to Carlyle as ' a nondescript monster, which yet had terrible eyes and buffalo strength, and was indisputably American. An enlarged edition appeared in 1856, to be followed by yet a third in 1860. The sales were slow and the reviews for the most part hostile and often abusive.
There was some discussion in the Whitman family over the merits of the book. The poet's brother, George Whitman, said in after years: 'I re'member mother comparing Hiawatha to Walt's, and the one seemed to us pretty much the same "muddle as the other. Mother said if Hiawatha 'was poetry, perhaps Walt's was.':
In 1862 George Whitman was wounded at the first battle of Fredericksburg. Walt went immediately to the front to care for him. His sympathies were enlisted by the sight of the misery on every
hand and he became a volunteer army nurse, serving for three years in the hospitals in Washington. He saved many lives' was the testimony of a surgeon who had observed Whitman at his work. But his powerful physique broke under the strain, and a severe illness followed.
When he recovered, a clerkship was given him 1 “Conversations with George W.Whitman,' In Re Walt Whitman, p. 36.