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American Passages: A Literary Survey

Masculine Heroes Walt Whitman (1819-1892)

[5513] Anonymous, Walt Whitman (1854), courtesy of the Library of Congress [LC-USZ62-79942].

Walt Whitman’s publication of Leaves of Grass in July 1855 represented nothing short of a radical shift in American poetry. Written in free verse–that is, having no regular meter or rhyme but instead relying on repetition and irregular stresses to achieve poetic effects–Whitman’s poems flouted formal conventions in favor of an expansive, irregular, and often colloquial expression of poetic voice. Whitman unified his poems through the use of repetition of key opening words and ideas, parallelism between lines, and lists to bridge together the diversity he found around him. Critics have tended to see this mode of verse-making as more democratic, as it allows for both autonomy and unity in a startling new way. Whitman also flouted convention in his choice of subject matter: in his efforts to tell the epic story of American democracy in all its diversity, he excluded almost nothing from his focus and emphasized the body as much as the soul, the rude as much as the refined. Figuring himself and his poetry as the visionary representation of the American body politic, Whitman constructed an inclusive, all-embracing identity that could, as he characterized it, “contain multitudes.” In the first edition of Leaves of Grass (which he printed himself), he did not include his name on the title page. Instead, he presented his readers with a picture of himself, dressed in casual working man’s clothes, as the representative of the American collective self. Challenging tradition and shocking readers, Whitman’s book was a revolutionary manifesto advocating a new style and a new purpose for American literature, as well as a new identity for the American poet.

No one could have predicted from Whitman’s upbringing that he would emerge as a revolutionary poet. Born to a working-class family in New York, Walter Whitman received only six years of formal education before going to work at the age of eleven. He started out as an office boy and later became a printer’s apprentice, a journalist, a teacher, and finally an editor. Over the course of his career, he edited or contributed to more than a dozen newspapers and magazines in the New York area, as well as working briefly in 1848 in New Orleans as an editor for the New Orleans Crescent. As a newspaperman, he was exposed to and participated in the important political debates of his time, usually affiliating himself with the radical Democrats.

By 1850 Whitman had largely withdrawn from his journalistic work in order to read literature and concentrate on his poetry. Given the ambition of the project–Whitman intended Leaves of Grass to be an American epic, that is, a narration of national identity on a grand, all-encompassing scale–it is perhaps unsurprising that he continued revising, rearranging, and expanding this collection for the rest of his life. Between 1855 and 1881 he published six different editions of Leaves of Grass. Many literary critics were shocked by Whitman’s convention-defying style, reviewing the work as “reckless and indecent” and “a mass of stupid filth.” Ralph Waldo Emerson, however, praised the book in a private letter to Whitman as “the most extraordinary piece of wit and wisdom that America has yet produced.” Elated by this generous praise, Whitman immediately circulated Emerson’s letter and supplemented it by anonymously writing and publishing several enthusiastic reviews of his own book.

In subsequent editions of Leaves of Grass, Whitman caused more controversy with his inclusion of a number of sexually explicit poems. The cluster titled Enfans d’Adam (Children of Adam) in the 1860 edition focuses on the “amative” love between man and woman, while Calamus celebrates the “adhesive” love that erotically links man and man. While many nineteenth-century critics do not seem to have grasped the homoerotic import of Whitman’s “Calamus” poems, the sensuality and explicitness of all the “sex” poems made the collection extremely controversial.

With the onset of the Civil War, Whitman threw himself into nursing wounded soldiers in the hospital wards of Washington. His collection Drum-Taps, including his moving elegy on the death of Abraham Lincoln, records his struggle to come to terms with the violence and devastation of the war. Whitman remained in Washington after the war, serving as a clerk in the Bureau of Indian Affairs. Dismissed as a result of his controversial poetry, he found another government job in the Attorney General’s office in 1865. Whitman suffered two severe blows in 1873 when he had a paralytic stroke and then lost his mother to heart disease. Devastated, he moved to Camden, New Jersey, to be near his brother. Although he was physically weakened, Whitman continued working on his poetry, meeting with influential artists and intellectuals of the time, and even making several journeys to the American West to see first-hand the expansive landscape he lovingly chronicled in his work. In 1881, he composed his final edition of Leaves of Grass, and in 1882, he published a prose companion to his poetry entitled Specimen Days.

Teaching Tips

  • Although students will probably pick up on the homoerotic imagery of many of Whitman’s poems with little difficulty, it is worth reminding them that the male-male eroticism was not so clear to nineteenth-century readers, who were far more scandalized by his explicit descriptions of heterosexual sex. You might point out that the term “homosexual” did not exist in 1860, so Whitman’s poems were struggling to construct a new sexual identity and create a new language for erotic love between men. Ask your students to analyze stanzas VII and VIII of Live Oak, with Moss and/or the “Twenty-eight Bathers” section in Song of Myself in this context. Why does Whitman adopt a feminine persona in his narration of the “Twenty-eight Bathers”? How does Whitman struggle with his commitment to being a “public,” national poet and his desire to record his private erotic feelings in Live Oak, with Moss? How does he describe his love for men, given that a vocabulary for homosexuality was unavailable to him?
  • Although the early editions of Leaves of Grass contain many eloquent celebrations of the vastness and grandeur of the American continent, Whitman had actually done very little traveling when he wrote them (his trip to New Orleans was his only significant travel experience until late in life). Ask students to think about why cities and landscapes Whitman could only imagine affected him so deeply. To what kinds of cultural myths and ideals was he responding? How might Whitman’s lyrical descriptions of America’s geographic expanse and demographic diversity have impacted his readers’ ideas about the landscape and the nation?
  • When he wrote “The Poet” in 1844, Ralph Waldo Emerson proclaimed that “Poets are liberating gods . . . they are free, and they make free.” He wished for the emergence of a poet “without impediment, who sees and handles that which others dream of, traverses the whole scale of experience, and is representative of man.” Have students read Emerson’s essay and stage a debate whether Whitman has indeed answered this passionate plea for a truly American poet.

Author Questions

  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?

Selected Archive Items

[5130] Walt Whitman, Leaves of Grass (Brooklyn, 1855),
courtesy of the Library of Congress.
Frontispiece and title page to the first edition, first issue of Whitman’s Leaves of Grass. Whitman became a new kind of American hero, writing exuberantly about the exploits of Americans and their beautiful land.

[5513] Anonymous, Walt Whitman, Washington, D.C. 1863,
courtesy of the Library of Congress [LC-USZ62-98624].
Whitman spent much of the Civil War working in Washington hospitals, tending to the needs of wounded soldiers. His view of war and life would be forever changed by this experience.

[5758] Thomas Eakins, “Naked Series”–Old Man, Seven Photographs (c. 1880),
courtesy of the Getty Museum. The model in these photographs looks strikingly like Walt Whitman. Debate continues as to whether or not the image is indeed of the poet “undisguised and naked.”

[6242] Phillips & Taylor, Walt Whitman, Half-Length Portrait, Seated, Facing Left, Wearing Hat and Sweater, Holding Butterfly (1873),
courtesy of the Library of Congress [LC-USZ62-77082].
Eve Sedgwick has noted that during the nineteenth century, before the term “homosexual” was invented, Whitman’s writings, image, and name came to function as a code for men to communicate their homosexual identity and their homoerotic attractions to one another. Whitman was often photographed and liked to present himself in a variety of personae.

[6287] Frank Pearsall, Walt Whitman, Half-Length Portrait, Seated, Facing Left, Left Hand under Chin (1869),
courtesy of the Library of Congress [LC-USZ62-89947].
Modernist poet Hart Crane considered himself an artist in Whitman’s tradition of optimism and exuberance. Both tried to represent America and modernity.

[8267] Blake Allmendinger, Interview: “Whitman’s Celebration of Expansion” (2001),
courtesy of Annenberg Media.
Blake Allmendinger, professor of English at UCLA and author of The Cowboy: Representations of Labor in an American Work Culture and Ten Most Wanted: The New Western Literature, discusses Whitman’s celebration of expansion.

[8912] Allen Ginsberg, excerpt from “A Supermarket in California,” a dramatic reading from American Passages: A Literary Survey, Episode 15: “Poetry of Liberation” (2002),
courtesy of Annenberg Media.
Walt Whitman had a tremendous influence on generations of free-verse poets, including Allen Ginsberg. This is a dramatic reading of an excerpt from Ginsberg’s poem “A Supermarket in California,” in which he addresses Whitman.

Series Directory

American Passages: A Literary Survey

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Produced by Oregon Public Broadcasting. 2003.
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  • ISBN: 1-57680-564-6

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