What Walt Whitman did... and why you should care
"The work of my life is making poems," 1 declared Walt Whitman, the former printer and journalist who burst onto the literary scene in 1855 with his groundbreaking poetry collection Leaves of Grass. From the moment of its publication, Leaves of Grass was unlike any book that America had ever read before. It was bold, lyrical, sexual, sensual, and uniquely American. The Transcendentalist sage Ralph Waldo Emerson (a huge Whitman fan) described the poem as "a remarkable mixture of the Bhagvat Ghita and the New York Herald."2 Whitman spent the rest of his life revising and expanding Leaves of Grass, issuing new editions right up until his death in 1892 at the age of 72.
Readers of the book had one of two reactions: the poems were a work of genius, or they were obscene filth. Whitman's embrace of the body and his frank discussion of erotic love, including love between men, were scandalous to many of his mid-nineteenth century readers.
He did not back down. Whitman was the self-appointed bard of American life, singing of men and women, North and South, soaring ideals, and the gritty reality of the physical world. His poetry reflected the truth of daily life. Yet possibly the truest thing he ever wrote came near the end of his career, when he pondered the legacy of his poems: "I tickle myself with the thought how it may be said years hence that at any rate no book on earth ever had such a history." 3