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Walt Whitman was looked upon as the forerunner of 20th Century poetry, praising democracy, and becoming a proclaimed poet of American democracy. He was known as the "Son of Long Island," and he loved his country and everything about it. (Current, Williams, Freidel- page 292-293). Whitman lived during the time of the Civil War; a fact that increased his patriotism. Whitman was considered one of the most important American Poets of the 19th Century. (Encyclopedia of World Biography- page 249). He influenced the direction of 20th Century poets such as Erza Pound, William Carlos Williams, Carlos Sandberg, and Allen Ginsberg. Whitman praised democracy and spoke of the flesh as well as the spirit. (Encyclopedia of Biography- page 249). He rejected the normal rhyme and meter of poetry and wrote in free verse, relying on Native American language. In general, Whitman's poetry is idealistic and romantic. Whitman identified strongly with the outcasts of society. He said to one outcast, "Not till the sun excludes you do I exclude you." (Lowen, Nancy- page 11) People hailed him as the most authentic voice of the United States of America. Edgar Allen Poe had said, "The vitality and variety of his life was the mere reflection of the vitality and variety of the United States of America." Walter Whitman was born into a family of nine children and he had a rough childhood. The Whitman family first settled in the Huntington area by the middle of the seventeenth century. This helped him to write two of the world?s greatest literary works, "There was a Child Went Forth" and "Song to Myself." (Lowen, Nancy- page 6). "There was a Child Went Forth" was about his siblings and his childhood. Out of nine children, only four survived to live to old age. He spoke of how his siblings died and how it affected his family. Whitman had one sibling who was insane, one who was severely retarded, one who died at infancy, one who died of alcoholism, one who died of tuberculosis, and one who fought and almost died in the Civil War. These things directly effected the writing of this poem. (Lowen, Nancy- page 6). "Song to Myself" spoke of his childhood and how it directly affected the fact that he was going to reject the norm, how he did not care about what people thought about him, and his work. "Song of Myself," was considered Whitman?s greatest. It was a lyric poem told through the joyful experiences of the narrator. Sometimes the narrator was the poet himself. (Lowen, Nancy- page 6). In other passages, "I" speaks for the human race, the universe, or a specific character, which was dramatized. Like all Whitman's major poems, "Song of Myself" contained symbols. For example, in the poem he described grass as a symbol of life "the babe of vegetation," "the handkerchief of the Lord." Whitman praised God and nature. He exposed his gentle nature to his fellow man, and in doing so expressed his love of the world. This was a love he grew up with and carried with him everywhere he went. Whitman loved Long Island and it became a major part of his works. (Webster, Orville III- page 122). He held various jobs throughout his life. He was a printing apprentice, journalist, editor, and school teacher. Walt Whitman sold his first story to "The Democratic Review" shortly after leaving his teaching job. This publication was known to pirate literature from Europe to save money, but it also printed the works of Poe, Lowell, Whittier, Hawthorne, as well as other well-known American lyricists. (Webster Orville III- page 123). It was this publication which gave Whitman his first break as a professional writer. The editor of "The Democratic Review," John L. O?Sullivan, was so impressed with Whitman and his work, he bought at least three more stories from Whitman that very same autumn for the magazine. He also gave Whitman a job writing political speeches for Tammany Hall Democrats. When Whitman turned 19, he took an apprenticeship at a local paper. Later he founded the weekly newspaper, the Long-Islander. He wrote, printed, and delivered his paper himself. Then, he became a school teacher. These factors would later aid him in publishing his own work, especially his first book of poems, Leaves of Grass in 1855. (Encyclopedia of World Biography- pages 249-250). When Whitman compiled poems for his book, Leaves
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