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Biography

In 1855, Whitman's poetry collection Leaves of Grass appeared. The title was a play on words - "grass" was a slang term for the silly, informal pieces that compositors like Whitman would set in type when things got slow at work. 10 The first edition contained the iconic portrait of Whitman in his working man's clothes, along with twelve poems totally different than anything anyone had seen before. "I am the poet of the Body and I am the poet of the Soul," Whitman announced in the opening poem "Song of Myself." "The pleasures of heaven are with me and the pains of hell are with me,/ The first I graft and increase upon myself, the latter I translate into a new tongue." 11

Whitman had grand ambitions for his little book. The United States was already fraying at the seams, pulled apart by debates over slavery and states' rights that would erupt a half-decade later into the Civil War. Whitman wanted to unite his nation under the expansiveness of his poetic voice, a voice that deemed itself "the poet of the woman the same as the man," 12 of North as well as South. Whitman's poems were completely rooted in their place and time; he later said, "I know very well that my 'Leaves' could not possibly have emerged or been fashion'd or completed, from any other era than the latter half of the Nineteenth Century, nor any other land than democratic America." 13

Whitman celebrated the human body with a frankness not seen elsewhere in American popular culture at the time - at least not in the respectable, church-going aspects of popular culture. His poems like "I Sing the Body Electric" embraced the human body in all its parts, even those covered up by clothes. He wrote about women's sexuality, and he also wrote frankly about sexual relationships between men. Whitman was gay (though he wouldn't have used words like "gay" in his lifetime) and wrote about erotic love between men in his poems with joyful fearlessness.

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