Photo of Walt Whitman

American Voices: Walt Whitman

The authors featured in our exhibit American Voices represent the evolution and flourishing of American writing. Writers of the 1600s and 1700s borrowed forms and themes from Europe, applying them to New World settings and issues. Then, over the course of the 1800s, a new, democratic style emerged, rooted in the way Americans talked and thought. Previously underrepresented voices began to be heard, culminating with an explosion of perspectives in the modern era. Taken together, this rich literary heritage reflects America in all of its complexity: its energy, hope, conflict, disillusionment, and creativity.

Estimated reading time: 3 minutes

Walt Whitman



Photo of Walt Whitman
Courtesy of the Archives & Special Collections at Amherst College

Walt Whitman grew up in working-class New York City. He was largely self-taught, having left school at age 12. He worked as a newspaper journalist in and around New York and, for a short time, in New Orleans, developing a lifelong love for an expanding and ever-evolving America.

In 1855, Whitman self-published Leaves of Grass. His poems celebrated America, freedom, and individualism. His unconventional free verse, without rhyme or meter, shocked many readers but others found Whitman’s style and voice distinctly American and democratic. He continued to revise Leaves until the end of his life, often adding entire new sequences of poems, such as “Drum-Taps,” which chronicled his complex response to the Civil War.

Note how 1950s Beat poet Allen Ginsberg emulates Whitman’s free-verse style and long lines in this tribute poem:

“What thoughts I have of you tonight, Walt Whitman, for I walked down the side streets under the trees with a headache self-conscious looking at the full moon. In my hungry fatigue, and shopping for images, I went into the neon fruit supermarket, dreaming of your enumerations!”

— Allen Ginsberg, “A Supermarket in California” (1955)

“Whitman’s poetry taught Americans how to begin to think and speak democratically, in a freer and looser idiom, in a more conversational and less formal tone, in an absorptive and indiscriminate way. He achieved an uncanny combination of oratory, journalism, and the Bible-haranguing, mundane, and prophetic—all in the service of identifying a new American democratic attitude, an accepting voice that would catalogue the diversity of the country and manage to hold it all in a vast, single, unified identity.”
— Ed Folsom, Roy J. Carver Professor of English, University of Iowa; Co-Director, Walt Whitman Archive

Learn more about Whitman’s life and writing and his enduring legacy on our podcast Nation of Writers. In this episode, we are joined by three poets and scholars who have studied and been influenced by Whitman. Rosanna Young Oh is a Korean American poet and essayist who was born in South Korea, and grew up on Long Island. She is the author of The Corrected Version, which is her first book and is influenced by Whitman, who also grew up on Long Island. Margaret Guardi currently serves as the Historian and Assistant Curator at the Walt Whitman Birthplace Association. And finally, Cynthia Shor, who is the Executive Director of the Walt Whitman Birthplace Association. You can listen to the episode below or wherever you listen to podcasts.

Select Works by Walt Whitman

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