In high school, as far as I knew, Walt Whitman was just a boring, famous, old man who wrote poems. What I didn’t know was how powerful he was at defining his own moments, instead of letting the not-so-good moments define him.
Among his challenges, Walt Whitman…
- was raised in an economically challenged family
- only had formal schooling until the age of eleven
- had a brother who died of tuberculosis and alcoholism, another who was captured by Confederate soldiers, and another who was an invalid all of his life
- financed and self-published the first edition of Leaves of Grass which critics called “obscene and indecent”
- worked many difficult, manual labor jobs to help support his poor family and his writing
- worked as a volunteer nurse during the Civil War because he was so moved by the pain and tragedy soldiers suffered
Walt Whitman had a definitive influence on poetry, on American literature, our high school English curriculum, and my own hope because, somewhere along the way, he decided to define himself and his moments rather than hand that job over to someone or something else.