Study Guide

Walt Whitman Introduction

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Walt Whitman Introduction

"The work of my life is making poems,"

Walt Whitman Trivia

Whitman's novel Franklin Evans sold more copies during his lifetime than any of his other books, despite the fact that Whitman himself described it as "damned rot - rot of the worst sort."

In 1847, Whitman reviewed Omoo, an early novel by a young writer named Herman Melville, who later wrote Moby Dick. "We therefore recommend this 'narrative of adventures in the south seas,' as thorough entertainment - not so light as to be tossed aside for its flippancy, nor so profound as to be tiresome," Whitman wrote in the Brooklyn Daily Eagle.

The title of Leaves of Grass 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.

Ralph Waldo Emerson thought Leaves of Grass was genius; however, for later editions he told Whitman to cut out parts he thought were too sexy. Whitman refused.

Whitman wrote several shamelessly glowing reviews of his own work. "An American bard at last!" he wrote in one such unsigned tribute to Leaves of Grass in 1855. This talented young new poet, Whitman anonymously declared, would bring "hope and prophecy to the generous races of young and old."

The writer Henry James wrote a scathing review of Drum-Taps, Whitman's 1865 collection of Civil War poems. "''To become adopted as a national poet," then 22-year-old James wrote, "it is not enough to . . . discharge the undigested contents of your blotting-book into the lap of the public." An embarrassed James later called the review a "little atrocity . . . perpetrated . . . in the gross impudence of youth."

An English fan of Whitman's, named Anne Gilchrist, sailed to America with the intention of marrying Walt Whitman and having his baby. The two became friends and saw each other frequently, but it took Gilchrist two years to realize that she was not exactly the gay poet's type.

As rumors circulated of Whitman's failing health in 1889, a local cemetery owner in New Jersey contacted the dying poet and asked him to write a poem about the cemetery that they could use in their advertisements - all this in exchange for a free burial plot.

Walt Whitman Resources


Walt Whitman, Leaves of Grass (1855)
There had been no books like Leaves of Grass before it appeared in 1855, and there have been few books like it since. The first edition of Whitman's opus contained only twelve poems and a striking engraving of their author staring down the reader. Whitman spent the rest of his life revising and adding to it. Whitman's poems are bold, beautiful, musical, and true. Read them.

Library of America, Whitman: Poetry and Prose (1982)
Walt Whitman isn't like other writers, who have clearly defined bibliographies of individual books. His life's work was Leaves of Grass, a collection revised so many times that it is really several books in one. He also wrote assorted poetry and prose that is collected here in this volume. Read it to get a sense of Whitman beyond Leaves.

Justin Kaplan, Walt Whitman: A Life (1980)
Whitman scholar Kaplan wrote this definitive biography of the poet's life. Kaplan is a gifted biographer (he won a Pulitzer Prize for his biography of American icon Mark Twain). And his narrative of Whitman's passionate, uniquely American life is an engaging read.

David S. Reynolds, Walt Whitman's America: A Cultural Biography (1996)
"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," _CITATION41_ Whitman once said. Popular culture played an important role in shaping Walt Whitman and his poetry. Reynolds' biography looks at Whitman as a product of his time and place; it also unearths some interesting insights on nineteenth century America in the process.

Roy Morris, The Better Angel: Walt Whitman in the Civil War (2001)
When Walt Whitman received news that his Union soldier brother had been wounded in the Civil War, he rushed from New York to Washington, D.C. to find him. When he got there, he found that his brother was safe, but thousands more wounded men were in desperate need of care. He volunteered as a nurse. This biography examines Whitman's experience in the Civil War, which was an important, transformative episode of his life.


Fred Hersch, Leaves of Grass
When he received a Guggenheim fellowship in 2003, American pianist Fred Hersch used it to compose a jazzy arrangement of Whitman's poems. The original score featured a chorus singing the words to Whitman's poems, accompanied by a musical ensemble.

Paul Taylor Dance Company, Beloved Renegade
"I am the poet of the Body and I am the poet of the Soul." This line from Whitman's "Song of Myself" was the inspiration for this choreographed piece by the Paul Taylor Dance Company. Beloved Renegade is a modern ballet that celebrates Whitman's life and his love of the human body.

Billy Bragg & Wilco, "Walt Whitman's Niece"
An awesome song by awesome musicians that does not really have all that much to do with Walt Whitman, but we really like it and the title is "Walt Whitman's Niece," so here it is. We have to believe that Walt would have enjoyed it too.

William Bolcom, A Whitman Triptych
The steadfast optimism of Whitman's poetry is uplifting. To honor it, the Pulitzer Prize-winning American composer William Bolcom created this three-part chamber music piece based on Whitman's poems. The poems that he selected as his inspiration were "Come Up From the Fields, Father," "Scented Herbage of My Breast" and "Years of the Modern."

Paul Hindemith, When Lilacs Last in the Door-yard Bloom'd: A Requiem for Those We Loved
Whitman wrote the poem "When Lilacs Last in the Door-yard Bloom'd" to commemorate the death of fallen President Abraham Lincoln. When President Franklin D. Roosevelt died unexpectedly in office in 1945, conductor Robert Shaw commissioned this piece from the German composer Paul Hindemith. Hindemith found Whitman's elegy as comforting and relevant as it had been 80 years earlier.

Alexander Blechinger, Leaves of Grass
Many musicians have been inspired by Whitman's lyrical poetry. Composer and conductor Alexander Blechinger created this arrangement of Whitman's work for a baritone voice, piano, and string quartet.


A New American Poet
The iconic engraved portrait of 37-year-old Whitman in the 1855 edition of Leaves of Grass.

Leaves of Grass
The cover of the 1883 edition of Whitman's famous book.

Elder Poet
Whitman in an 1887 photographic portrait by George C. Cox.

Elderly Whitman
The poet at home in Camden the year before his death.

Emerson's Letter
An image of Emerson's famous letter of congratulations to Whitman.

Whitman and Doyle
A Civil War-era photograph of Whitman and Peter Doyle, one of his lovers.

Walt Whitman House
Whitman's home on Mickle Street in Camden, New Jersey.

Walt Whitman's grave at Harleigh Cemetery in Camden.

Movies & TV

Dead Poets Society (1989)
O Captain! My Captain! In this schmaltzy classic, Robin Williams is an inspiring English teacher at a stuffy boys' boarding school, who uses the words of classic authors to break through his students' boredom and touch their hearts. A young Ethan Hawke's dramatic recitation of Whitman in the final scene would have made the old poet proud.

The Civil War (1990)
Ken Burns' documentary on the American crisis is not only the best movie ever made about the Civil War, it's one of the best documentaries ever made. Period. Whitman was deeply touched by the war, serving as a military nurse in Washington D.C. and tending to his brother who was fighting for the Union. In this documentary, Garrison Keillor gives voice to Whitman.

Beautiful Dreamers (1990)
This film is a dramatized account of the true friendship between Whitman and Dr. Maurice Bucke, a Canadian psychologist. Bucke advocated mental health care that treated patients with dignity and compassion. He was a great fan of Whitman's poems, and the two men offered each other valuable insights.

Leaves of Grass (2009)
This indie movie starring Ed Norton is not really about poetry, more about ... well ... a different type of grass. We're just warning you, so that you don't rent it the night before an English quiz, thinking it will get you out of reading the book.


The Walt Whitman Archive
This outstanding site should be the first stop on the Web for Whitman scholars. Written by Whitman scholars Ed Folsom and Kenneth M. Price, the site offers an extensive online archive of Whitman criticism, correspondence, poems, and primary documents. Check it out.

Walt Whitman Birthplace
Whitman's place of birth in West Hills, New York is now a museum. The museum's website has some interesting photographs and biographical information about the poet, as well as literary activities sponsored by the Walt Whitman Birthplace Association.

Academy of American Poets
The Academy of American Poets site is always a great resource for students. Whitman's page has a concise biography. It also has links to the text of his poems, critical essays, and other fun info about the poet. We especially like the walking tour guide of Whitman's New York.

The Walt Whitman House
In 1884, Whitman purchased a home on Mickle Street in Camden, New Jersey, where he lived for the rest of his life. The house still stands, and it is now a New Jersey state historical site. The museum's website offers some interesting insight into the poet's life in the Garden State.

Leaves of Grass
This site was established in 2005 to mark the 150th anniversary of the publication of Leaves of Grass. At the time it was a place for Whitman-philes to coordinate their commemoration efforts. Now, it is sort of an Internet meeting spot for Whitman news, projects, and other info. Its creator is working on animating Whitman's poems.

Revising Himself: Walt Whitman and Leaves of Grass
This website accompanied a 2005 exhibit on Walt Whitman at the Library of Congress. The pages move through different stages of Whitman's life, with primary documents illustrating his different careers. Though it would be cooler to see Whitman's pen in person, the image of it here is still interesting.

Video & Audio

Whitman's Voice
An 1890 recording thought to be Whitman reading from his poem "America."

"Song of Myself"
A reading of Whitman's poem by William Hootkins.

"I think I could turn"
A video of Whitman "reading" his poem.

Emerson's Letter
Ralph Waldo Emerson "reading" his 1855 letter congratulating Whitman.

O Pioneers!
A Levi's commercial using Whitman's poem.

"O Captain! My Captain!"
Ethan Hawke busts out some Whitman in the final scene of Dead Poets Society.

Primary Sources

Leaves of Grass
A 1900 edition of Whitman's opus.

"Song of Myself"
The signature poem of Leaves of Grass, which appeared in every edition from 1855 onward.

"Out of the Cradle Endlessly Rocking"
The poem celebrating Whitman's birth as a poet.

"I Sing the Body Electric"
An example of Whitman's celebration of the human body in verse.

"When Lilacs Last in the Door-Yard Bloom'd"
Whitman's poem in tribute to slain President Abraham Lincoln.

"When I Heard the Learned Astronomer"
One of Whitman's shortest, sweetest poems.

"A Backward Glance O'er Travel'd Roads"
An essay by Whitman reflecting on the history of his career.

"As I Ebb'd with the Ocean of Life"
An 1881 poem Whitman published in The Atlantic.

The collection of Whitman's notebooks at the Library of Congress.

A look at the notations Whitman made to his poems.

Contemporary Review
An 1882 review of Leaves of Grass in The Atlantic.

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