Largely self-taught, Walt Whitman read voraciously, becoming acquainted with the works of Homer, Dante, Shakespeare, and the Bible. He worked as a printer in New York City until a devastating fire in the printing district demolished the industry. In 1836, at the age of seventeen, he began his career as teacher in the one-room schoolhouses of Long Island. He continued to teach until 1841, when he turned to journalism as a full-time career. He founded a weekly newspaper, and later edited several Brooklyn and New York papers. In 1848, he became the editor of the New Orleans Crescent, but soon returned to Brooklyn where he founded the newspaper, Brooklyn Freeman, in response to the viciousness of the slave markets he witnessed in New Orleans.
In 1855, Whitman published his first edition of Leaves of Grass, a slim volume consisting of twelve untitled poems and a preface. He designed the cover, and typeset and paid for the printing of the book himself. Upon the completion, he sent a copy to Ralph Waldo Emerson, who praised it so highly that Whitman reprinted the letter, in subsequent editions—without obtaining Emerson’s permission. The letter from Emerson included the now famous line: "I greet you at the beginning of a great career."
A year later, in 1856, Whitman released a second edition of the book with a total of thirty-three poems. Over the course of his life, Whitman continued to rework and enlarge the volume, publishing several more editions of the book. The version left in 1892, at the time of his death, contained 383 poems, including "When Lilacs Last in the Door-yard Bloom’d" and "O Captain! My Captain!" both written to memorialize President Lincoln.
Well-known poems in the 1855 edition include "I Sing the Body Electric," "The Sleepers," and "Song of Myself, " a long poem in fifty-two sections, which is considered by many to be his masterpiece. It contains lines such as "I am large, I contain multitudes" and "I bequeath myself to the dirt to grow from the grass I love, / If you want me again look for me under your boot-soles."
The critical and popular response to Leaves of Grass was overwhelmingly positive. One critic noted, in an 1855 review in Life Illustrated, "It is like no other book that ever was written, and therefore, the language usually employed in notices of new publications is unavailable in describing it." Unusually prescient, even now, Leaves of Grass has become an unavoidable influence on American poetry.
Though considered to be a transcendentalist alongside Henry David Thoreau and Emerson, Whitman's greatest legacy is his invention of a truly American free verse. His groundbreaking, open, inclusive, and optimistic poems are written in long, sprawling lines and span an astonishing variety of subject matter and points of view—embodying the democratic spirit of his new America.