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American Passages: A Literary SurveyUnit IndexAmerican Passages Home
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5. Masculine Heroes   

5. Masculine

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Activities: Author Activities

Walt Whitman - Author Questions

Back Back to Walt Whitman Activities
  1. Comprehension: Critics have called Whitman's 1855 Preface to Leaves of Grass a literary declaration of independence. What does Whit-man call for in a national literature? Why does he feel America needs one? What kind of role does he envision for the new American poet?

  2. Comprehension: In Song of Myself, Whitman attempts to reconcile and bring into harmony all the diverse people, ideas, and values that make up the American nation. Which groups of people does he choose to focus on particularly? How does he describe people of different races, social classes, genders, ages, and professions?

  3. Context: Whitman was the most photographed American writer of the nineteenth century (there are 130 extant photographs of him). He frequently sent pictures of himself to friends and admirers and included portraits of himself in his editions of Leaves of Grass. Consider how Whitman presents himself in the portraits featured in the archive. How does he manipulate clothing and expression to achieve different effects? How does his self-presentation change over time? Why do you think Whitman might have been so interested in circulating photographs of himself?

  4. Exploration: Why do you think Whitman's poetry was so controversial in the mid-nineteenth century? (Consider both his poems' formal qualities and their subject matter as you answer this question.) Do his poems still seem controversial? In what ways? Where do you see Whitman's influence in later developments in American poetry? (Do you see echoes of Whitman in Allen Ginsberg's Howl, for example?)

  5. Exploration: What is "epic" about Song of Myself? Can you think of other American texts that might be described as epic? What do these texts have in common? What defines an epic?

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