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The Colorful, Poetic Life of Walt Whitman

Today marks the 198th anniversary of Walt Whitman’s birth. We look at some colorful facts about the poet’s life and work.

Walt Whitman had three brothers named after three U.S. Presidents.

Walt Whitman was born on May 31, 1819 in New York. He was the second of nine children born to Walter and Louisa Whitman who showed their love for country by naming three of Walt’s brothers after U.S. presidents: George Washington, Thomas Jefferson, and Andrew Jackson. The only difference with their names and the actual presidents’ names? They added Whitman at the end.

Whitman was known to be a fiery editor who got fired often.

As a journalist, Whitman had the opportunity to work for numerous newspapers. The reason being: he kept getting ousted from his job as an editor. Whitman was known for raising very controversial issues and defying orders from his bosses, hence why at one point he had been barred from working at seven newspapers in a four-year stretch.

‘Leaves of Grass’ was word play.

The gravitas that Whitman’s Leaves of Grass holds in literature belies the real meaning behind its title. As a means of self-deprecation, Whitman’s “Leaves” refers to sheets of paper, while “Grass” connotes nothing of value. Essentially, Leaves of Grass meant, as one source bluntly described it, Pages of Crap.

Critics initially hated ‘Leaves of Grass.’

Just like in his newspaper days, Whitman caused controversy with the publication of Leaves of Grass. Critics denounced it as obscene and immoral for its overt praise of sexual pleasures. However, no one could deny the entire work itself, especially the admirable qualities it elicited through its poetic musings on nature and its relationship to the individual. Leaves of Grass also broke new ground for its use of free verse.

Whitman was a nurse during the Civil War.

The American Civil War had a profound effect on Whitman. Fearing his brother’s name was written incorrectly in a newspaper, which listed dead and wounded soldiers, he once traveled south to search for him. Luckily, Whitman found his brother, George Washington, alive and only suffering from minor injuries. Still, Whitman’s experience seeing wounded soldiers all around him inspired him to volunteer as a nurse in various military hospitals.

Without Whitman there would be no Dracula.

Interestingly enough, Bram Stoker and Whitman were friends and corresponded consistently. Stoker drew from Whitman’s character an idealized masculinity, which he used to create his monster Count Dracula.

Whitman might have kissed Oscar Wilde.

Although historians have differing opinions, Whitman’s sexual orientation is usually described as either homosexual or bisexual. Upon his first and only visit to an ailing Whitman in New Jersey, Oscar Wilde playfully remarked “I have the kiss of Walt Whitman still on my lips.” Although no one really knows if the Irish poet was being literal or figurative in his statement, he certainly didn’t help quell the rumors about where Whitman’s sexuality stood.