Walt Whitman

Great Writers

Leaves of Grass title page

Walt Whitman

Along with Emily Dickinson, Walt Whitman was one of America’s most significant and influential 19th-century poets. Although his work wasn't well known or well received during his lifetime, he was considered the first writer of a truly American poetry and a major influence on later poets, including Ezra Pound, William Carlos Williams, and Allen Ginsberg.

Whitman (1819–1892) was born on Long Island and grew up in Brooklyn. He was largely self-taught, having received little formal education. He worked as a printer, teacher, clerk, reporter, and editor. His monumental work, Leaves of Grass, which was self-published, celebrated democracy, nature, love, and friendship. It was inspired in part by his travels through the American frontier and by his admiration for Ralph Waldo Emerson. Emerson declared the first edition of Leaves of Grass “the most extraordinary piece of wit and wisdom that America has yet contributed.” Over the course of his life, Whitman expanded and revised the poems of Leaves of Grass in eight subsequent editions. 

Photo of Walt Whitman
Walt Whitman, Photo by Library of Congress/Corbis/VCG via Getty Images, https://www.poetryfoundation.org/poets/walt-whitman

During the Civil War, Whitman worked as a clerk in Washington, D.C., for three years, visiting soldiers during his spare time, dressing wounds and giving solace to the injured. These experiences led to the poems in his 1865 publication, Drum-Taps, which includes, “When Lilacs Last in the Dooryard Bloom’d,” Whitman’s elegy for President Lincoln.

The Academy of American Poets notes that Walt Whitman was — and is — America’s poet, the man who, in the words of Allen Ginsberg, “began to define his own person, who began to tell his own secrets, who outlined his own body, and made an outline of his own mind, so other people could see it.”




[Leaves of Grass illustration (Boston: Thayer and Eldridge, year 85 of the States, 1860-61, New York Public Library]


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