America's Bard
The Writings of Walt Whitman

By Travis Copeland

No poet incarnates the American spirit more completely than Whitman.

Walt Whitman was the people’s poet of the nineteenth century. Roaring with sentiments for democracy, agriculture, and nature, he embodied the high ideals of the Romantic period in the United States. Alongside other Romantics, he propelled and reflected the common republican virtue that the young American nation enjoyed.

The Romantic movement stretched from the beginning of the century to the late 1880s, in both the United States and Europe. Romantics on both sides of the ocean gloried in the beauty of nature, and expressed themselves in various artistic forms. Romantic painters favored vast, impressive landscapes suggesting nature’s dominance over man in the world; with industrialization still in its infancy, the American countryside remained generally unspoiled by machines and their noise. Short stories, essays, and other writings in the tradition often invoke a pantheistic tone (William Wordsworth’s sonnet “The World Is Too Much With Us” is a famous example). For the United States in particular, the Romantic Era is embodied in Transcendentalism. Transcendentalism was a movement that elevated the essential goodness of mankind alongside the glory of nature, and it took root primarily in New England after the American Revolution. Many great American writers hail from the Transcendentalist movement, such as Ralph Waldo Emerson and Louisa May Alcott. Walt Whitman, born in 1819 in upstate New York, brought his own unique style and ideas to the Transcendentalist movement. He came to embody that spirit of Romanticism as the great democratic poet of the Antebellum era.

At his coming of age, Whitman began his ventures into manhood working for several printing presses and newspapers, including one run by Samuel Clemens (better known by his pen name, Mark Twain). This experience would encourage his literary interest and give him the ability to self-publish much of his poetry in later years. Between the 1830s and his notable works of the 1850s, he wrote and published as a freelance essayist and poet for a variety of New England newspapers and periodicals. Whitman’s writing developed alongside the young American republic, which had only been freed of British rule some five decades previously. Between 1840 and 1850, Whitman would refine his style and vision for American literature and poetry. Around 1850, he would begin writing Leaves of Grass, just as American letters began to break out into their own unique voice.

In this broad earth of ours,
Amid the measureless grossness and the slag,
Enclosed and safe within its central heart,
Nestles the seed perfection.

Walt Whitman, "Song of the Universal," Leaves of Grass

Early American writings were accused by Europeans and scholars as being unoriginal, merely copying European style and form. The 1850s helped to diminish that critique, and Whitman began contributing his own writings to that rebuttal. Between 1850 and 1860, the United States saw a boom in distinctly American writings: many celebrated American works of literature appeared in this decade, such as Nathaniel Hawthorne’s The Scarlet Letter (1850), Herman Melville’s Moby Dick (1851), Harriet Beecher Stowe’s Uncle Tom’s Cabin (1852), Henry David Thoreau’s Walden (1854), and one of the few poems published by Emily Dickinson during her lifetime. Whitman self-published Leaves of Grass, a collection of free verse poems, in 1855. Whitman’s new, monumental work was a collection of twelve groupings of poetry concerned with the themes of democratic ideals, republican virtue, the beauty of nature, and elevation of the self. Free verse (not to be confused with blank verse, which lacks rhyme but has meter) was new to the poetic tradition in the West. Unbound by rhyme and meter, the poet was free to construct meaning, pattern, length, and style in an extremely new and personal way. The very form of free verse reflected the growing individualism of the nineteenth century.

Within Leaves of Grass is one of the most recognized poems in American history, “Song of Myself.” Its vivid sense of self in the place of nature is in every way unique and exultant. Whitman praises the good in humanity and in the natural world: “I celebrate myself, and sing myself, / And what I assume you shall assume, / For every atom belonging to me as good belongs to you.” He connects himself to the rest of the nation through strikingly physical images that evoke the common nativity of the nation: “my tongue, every atom of my blood, form’d from this soil, this air, / Born here of parents born here from parents the same, and their parents the same.” Whitman offers to the world a distinguishable American voice and elevates the young republic’s unity and rootedness in the glorious, romantic natural world. 

Whitman’s spirit exemplified nineteenth century America. His transformative free verse writing changed the way Americans understood poetry, and lent a popular luster to the pursuit of letters. Walt Whitman is essential to the American literary tradition, but he is also a reaction to, and even against, the heritage of verse-form as such—in many ways, Whitman broke the poetic structures’ back. In this way, Whitman also exemplifies the modern mind, at once distinctive and authoritative in its independence, and often all too separated from its older sources; these two things can and must be held in tension as Whitman is taught and read.

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Travis Copeland holds bachelor’s and master’s degrees in history and teaches humanities at Covenant Classical in Charlotte, NC. When not writing or teaching, Travis aspires to a “Hobbit” lifestyle of poetry, gardening, baking, and conversation with good company around good food.

If you enjoyed this piece, you might also like this post on the role of poetry in education, or this discussion of what makes a book a classic. And be sure not to miss our podcast on education, policy, and culture, Anchored.

Published on 1st June, 2022. Page image of the Adirondack Mountains of upstate New York.

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