Walt Whitman

Written by Barb Legault 

Walt Whitman, born in 1819 in Long Island, New York. Travelled to Toronto in 1880, recording his visit in his diary (later published).

“In Toronto at half-past one. I rode up on top of the omnibus with the driver. The city made the impression on me of a lively dashing place. The lake gives it its character”(Diary entry, July 26-27, 1880) Walt Whitman’s Diary in Canada (1904)

Library of Congress

Walt Whitman (1819 – 1892) is one of the most influential poets in the American canon. He is often referred to as the “father of free verse”. (1) His humanist philosophies were expressed in his poetry, which focused on the physical beauty of nature, death, immortality, transcendentalism, the body, and the human soul. His subject matter and prosaic style challenged the boundaries of nineteenth century poetic form. He was highly controversial during his time, for the overtly sexual undertones in his poetry.

Born in Long Island, New York in May 1819, Walt Whitman’s first career was as a printer, at age twelve. He then worked as a journalist, editor, teacher, and government clerk. During this time he published sentimental stories and poems in newspapers and popular magazines, as well as a novel in 1842. (2)

Whitman’s first major work of poetry, Leaves of Grass, was published in 1855. The first edition consisted of twelve poems and a preface, listed no publisher or author, but included an image of Whitman in work clothes on the cover. (3) Like this image, the poems were an attempt at reaching out to the common person, and embraced American speech, rhythms and slang. (4) The collection was a dramatic break from traditional literary aesthetic form and a deliberate reflection of the American experience.

In 1862, Whitman travelled to Washington to work as a volunteer hospital aide during the American Civil War where he tended to wounded and sick soldiers. The images of war he encountered had a profound impact on him. His collection ‘Drum Taps’, published in 1865, captured the “horror, loneliness and anguish caused by war.” (5)

In 1873, after suffering a paralyzing stroke, Whitman moved to New Jersey with his brother. It was at this point in his life that he became close personal friends with Dr. Richard Maurice Bucke, a Canadian psychiatrist and medical superintendent of the London Insane Asylum in Ontario. Bucke is best known for his work on neuropsychiatry and the nervous condition. (6)

After reading Whitman’s Leaves of Grass, Bucke became convinced that Whitman possessed extraordinary moral qualities and was “an average man magnified to the dimensions of a God” (7) Bucke wrote to Whitman in 1872, sparking a 15-year friendship. The two men corresponded frequently and Bucke travelled to New Jersey on a number of occasions to visit Whitman. Bucke wrote Whitman’s first biography which Whitman advised throughout, revised Bucke’s text, and wrote portions himself. (8)

In spite of his deteriorating health, Whitman travelled to Canada to spend four months with the Bucke family in 1880, before travelling to Toronto, Kingston, Montreal and Quebec City. Whitman’s free verse often presented rhythms and chanted lists of American place names and objects. (9) His diary entry of his visit to Toronto includes a similar list:

“in Toronto, July 27 ’80”
Front St, wholesale pretty solid and
Church Street
King Street, stores, ladies Shopping (“The Broadway”)
Sherbourne st., Jarvis St &c long and elegant streets of semi-rural residences, many of them very costly and beautiful.” (10)

Whitman would continue to expand and revise Leaves of Grass throughout his lifetime. It was published nine times in total before his death in 1892. (11) Indeed, Leaves of Grass is considered a seminal work, and has been widely translated and interpreted internationally.


“Old Walt” Lake Mazinaw, Bon Echo (Wikipedia)

In Canada, Whitman’s humanist ideals and poetry inspired the Whitmanite movement led by Flora Denison Macdonald. Macdonald created a retreat dedicated to Whitmanite ideals at her country property, Bon Echo, and published a magazine called the Sunset of Bon Echo. (12) Although, Whitman himself never visited Bon Echo, in 1919 the Whitmanites commissioned two stonemasons to chisel his words into a rock face on Lake Mazinaw in eastern Ontario. (13) It took several months to complete, but the etching can still be seen today. (14)


1 “Walt Whitman” http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Walt_Whitman
2 “Walt Whitman” http://www.biography.com/people/walt-whitman-9530126
3 Ibid.
4 “Walt Whitman Biography” http://www.notablebiographies.com/We-Z/Whitman-Walt.html#b
5 Ibid.
6 “Richard Maurice Bucke” http://www.whitmanarchive.org/criticism/disciples/tei/anc.00247.html
7 Bucke, Richard Maurice. Dictionary of Canadian Biography. http://www.biographi.ca/009004-119.01-e.php?&id_nbr=6588
8 SED Shortt, “The Myth of the Canadian Boswell: Dr. R.M. Bucke and Walt Whitman.” Canadian Bulletin of Medical History, 1 (1984): 58http://www.cbmh.ca/index.php/cbmh/article/view/41/40,
9 “Walt Whitman Biography” http://www.biography.com/people/walt-whitman-9530126
10 Gay Wilson Allen and Sculley Bradley, Daybooks and Notebooks: The Collected Writings of Walt Whitman (New York: New York University Press, 1977), 625.
11 Walt Whitman Biography” http://www.biography.com/people/walt-whitman-9530126
12 “Flora Denison Macdonald” The Canadian Encyclopedia. http://www.thecanadianencyclopedia.com/index.cfm?PgNm=TCE&Params=A1ARTA0002222
13 http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/File:Bon_Echo_-_Old_Walt.png
14 http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/File:Bonecho_oldwalt.jpg

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