In honor of his birthday, today we dive into the world of early American poetry and the incredible, lasting impact of Walt Whitman. In the mid-19th century, American literature was primed to experience an almost seismic shift. That’s where Whitman – with his larger-than-life personality, strong opinions and groundbreaking verses – stepped in and became a figurehead of the American dream. As poet Ezra Pound once said about Whitman… “America’s poet… He is America.”
Walt Whitman was born on May 31st, 1819, in West Hills, New York. After a rather long period of time working in editing and freelancing (and getting fired from several jobs in the process), Whitman decided to write poetry. He began writing poems in 1850, and in a time when strict poetic forms and rhymes were expected – Whitman broke free from these conventional norms. His first book of poetry and magnum opus, “Leaves of Grass,” first published in 1855, shattered the traditional poetic protocol of the time. He celebrated the beauty of everyday life (what a novel idea!), embraced a democratic spirit, and wove together the interconnectedness of all beings, human and nature alike. He opted for free verse, aiming to set poetry free from the rigid confines it had been heeding to. It even seemed to some that Whitman wished the art of poetry to be as free as he himself was.
Whitman’s ideas aligned perfectly with the transcendentalist movement of the time. Transcendentalists believed in the power of the individual, the transcendence of the self, and a connection between humans and nature. Minds like those of Ralph Waldo Emerson and Henry David Thoreau were Whitman’s philosophical comrades, Emerson praising Leaves of Grass far and wide, and almost certainly aided in the work’s popularity. Transcendentalists were all about embracing spiritual in the mundane, finding beauty in the everyday, and recognizing the oneness of all existence. Whitman’s revolutionary approach to form and subject matter not only rocked the American literary scene, but paved a way for future poets to break free from using more traditional verse. Emily Dickinson, often regarded as one of the greatest American poets, was profoundly influenced by Whitman’s somewhat unorthodox style, and proceeded to use her own brevity and lyricism to explore similar themes of individualism and the human condition. Other notable poets who fell under Whitman’s spell include Langston Hughes, Allen Ginsberg, and Adrienne Rich. Each poet, in their own way, channeled Whitman’s spirit of rebellion, using poetry as a tool to challenge societal norms, advocate for social justice, and shed light on the diversity of the American experience.
Walt Whitman’s celebration of democracy, inclusivity, and everyday beauty continues to inspire modern American readers. Whitman’s embrace of individuality and his refusal to be confined by societal expectations serves as a powerful reminder that we all have a unique voice and our own stories to tell… if only we have the courage to open our mouths!