In 1855, a poetry collection appeared by an unknown 36-year-old poet, until then known primarily as a printer, teacher, and journalist. The twelve poems contained within were some of the most daring, musical, poignant, and joyful poems to have been published in the United States. They were written in a distinctly American voice and were about American men and women. Their author, Walt Whitman, wanted nothing less than to unite a fraying nation under the banner of his poetic voice.
The frontispiece of Leaves of Grass featured an engraved portrait of Whitman dressed in working clothes. His shirt unbuttoned, his hand placed cockily on his hip, Whitman stared down his reader with an insouciant gaze. The cheeky gaze suggested to both author and reader that they both knew that there had never been anything like his book. Talk about confidence - or chutzpah.
Whitman spent the rest of his life working on Leaves of Grass, revising, expanding, and deleting its poems up until the final edition issued two months before his death in 1892. The poems and their poet were both hailed as genius and denounced as the most obscene filth. One hundred and fifty years after Leaves of Grass first appeared, we have at last come to understand their author as a gifted translator of the American consciousness. We also know that he was a master of self-promotion, an American patriot, a fiercely independent person, and a tireless observer of human nature. "Whatever you do, do not prettify me," Whitman told one biographer. "Include all the hells and damns." 4 For a poet who spared nothing in his verse, it makes sense that his life story should be told honestly as well.