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Timeline: Walt Whitman's Life

Year Event


enlarge Louisa Van Velsor Whitman, c1855.

Louisa Van Velsor Whitman, c1855. Library of Congress, Prints & Photographs Division

May 31: Walter Whitman is born to Louisa and Walter Whitman in Huntington Township on Long Island, New York. He is the second of eight surviving children. His father will struggle to support the family as a farmer, a carpenter, and an unsuccessful real estate speculator.


May 27: Whitman's family moves to Brooklyn, across the East River from New York City.


enlarge Walt Whitman, 1848.

Walt Whitman, 1848. ©Bettmann/CORBIS

Whitman's father takes young Walt out of school at age 11 to help support the family; he has attained more formal schooling than either of his parents. He finds work as an office boy, and then apprentices as a printer for a local newspaper. In 1833, his family moves back to Long Island. Whitman works at several newspapers in Brooklyn, Long Island and New York City.


Whitman teaches school on Long Island. He stops teaching from 1838-39 to publish a weekly newspaper, the Long Islander.


Whitman moves back to New York City to work as a printer. He also begins publishing fiction and poetry, as well as journalistic pieces, in newspapers and journals. In 1842 his didactic temperance novel, Franklin Evans, or the Inebriate, appears in print. He stakes out radical positions on labor issues, women's property rights, capital punishment and immigration -- putting him in near constant opposition to society's prevailing sentiments. In just four years in Manhattan, Whitman works briefly at the Tattler, the Daily Plebeian, the Statesman, the Mirror, the Democrat, the Sun and the Star.


Whitman moves back to Brooklyn and writes for newspapers there.


enlarge Stereoscopic image of a New Orleans street corner.

Stereoscopic image of a New Orleans street corner. Courtesy Eugene Groves

February: Whitman and his brother Jeff travel to New Orleans. Whitman has been offered a job at the New Orleans Crescent. His stay will be brief; by May he will resign and return to Brooklyn.


Whitman founds and edits the Brooklyn Weekly Freeman, which advocates the "free soil" position that new states entering the Union should declare slavery illegal.


Whitman runs a printing office and stationery store, and also does freelance writing and house building.


enlarge Engraving of Walt Whitman, frontispiece to <I>Leaves of Grass</I>, 1855.

Engraving of Walt Whitman, frontispiece to Leaves of Grass, 1855. Library of Congress

May 15: Brooklyn printer Andrew Rome prints the first edition of Leaves of Grass. (There is no credited author, although Whitman is named in a poem and is credited on the copyright page.) Whitman himself helps set some of the type.

July 11: Whitman's father dies.


Whitman writes for Life Illustrated, and publishes a second edition of Leaves of Grass.


enlarge Walt Whitman, in foreground, seated, at Pfaff's, New York, NY, 1857.

Walt Whitman, in foreground, seated, at Pfaff's, New York, NY, 1857. Library of Congress

Whitman edits the Brooklyn Times. Much of his spare time in this period is spent at Pfaff's, a restaurant in lower Manhattan favored by bohemian artists and writers.


The third edition of Leaves of Grass is published in Boston. In Massachusetts to see his new publisher, Whitman also visits with his literary hero, Ralph Waldo Emerson.


The Civil War begins. Whitman's younger brother George joins the Union Army.


enlarge George Whitman, in his Union army uniform, c1862.

George Whitman, in his Union army uniform, c1862. Rare Book, Manuscript, Special Collections Library, Duke University

December: Whitman travels to Fredericksburg, Virginia, after George Whitman appears on a list of wounded soldiers in the newspaper. George's injury is minor and he will continue to serve in the Army.


Finding he has a talent and desire to give comfort to wounded soldiers, Whitman relocates to Washington, D.C. and makes the rounds of the local military hospitals. He gets a part time job at the Army Paymaster's Office to pay for his modest rented room.


enlarge Drawing,

Drawing, "Assassination of President A. Lincoln," 1865. Library of Congress, Prints & Photographs Division

January 24: Whitman takes a job at the Department of the Interior.

March 4: "With malice toward none, with charity for all, with firmness in the right as God gives us to see the right, let us strive on to finish the work we are in, to bind up the nation's wounds. ... " Whitman watches President Abraham Lincoln give his second inaugural address.

April 14: During the performance of a comedic play at Ford's Theatre, John Wilkes Booth assassinates President Lincoln.

June 30: After his supervisor reads Leaves of Grass, Whitman is fired from his job at Interior. He finds a new job at the attorney general's office.

October: Whitman publishes Drum-Taps, a book of poems on the subject of the Civil War and Sequel, containing a new poem inspired by Lincoln, "When Lilacs Last in the Dooryard Bloom'd."

Autumn: Whitman meets and begins a relationship with a trolley conductor named Peter Doyle. Doyle was in the audience at Ford's Theatre on the night of Lincoln's assassination and gives Whitman a first-hand account.


Whitman publishes his fourth edition of Leaves of Grass.


After a move back to Brooklyn, Whitman publishes the fifth edition of Leaves of Grass, Democratic Vistas, and Passage to India; all are dated 1871.


enlarge Walt Whitman's House, Camden, New Jersey.

Walt Whitman's House, Camden, New Jersey. ©Bettmann/CORBIS

January 23: Whitman suffers a stroke, debilitating his left arm and leg. He intends to stay temporarily with his brother George in Camden, New Jersey; he occupies the rooms of his mother, who has recently died.


A second stroke affects the right side of Whitman's body.


On the American Centennial, a special commemorative edition of Leaves of Grass is published, as well as the collection Two Rivulets.


Yet another edition of Leaves of Grass is published, this time in Boston.


The district attorney in Boston threatens to prosecute Whitman's Boston publisher unless certain "obscene" sections of Leaves of Grass are edited out. Whitman finds a publisher in Philadelphia who is willing to publish and distribute the unexpurgated book.


enlarge Ticket to a lecture by Walt Whitman, 1887.

Ticket to a lecture by Walt Whitman, 1887. NYPL Digital Gallery, The New York Public Library

April 14: Whitman appears on stage in New York to give a lecture on President Lincoln. Among the celebrities in attendance are writer Mark Twain, author and future secretary of state John Hay, U.S. Army commander William Tecumseh Sherman and sculptor Augustus Saint-Gaudens.


November Boughs is published. The poems in this collection will later be appended to printings of Leaves of Grass.


enlarge Walt Whitman, 1889.

Walt Whitman, 1889. Library of Congress

Whitman's friends and disciples organize a seventieth-birthday dinner celebration for the poet, featuring mailed-in greetings from literary notables including Mark Twain, William Dean Howells, John Greenleaf Whittier, and Hamlin Garland.


Realizing he has just a little more time to consolidate his legacy, Whitman revises his signature work one last time by adding some "annexes" to his 1881 edition. The final version of Leaves of Grass is also known as the "death-bed edition."


March 26. Whitman dies and is buried in Harleigh Cemetery in Camden, New Jersey.










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