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Think we're exaggerating? We're really not. Whitman, whose life and career spanned the nineteenth century, helped to define what it means to be an American. The dude loved his country. He loved the bustle of the cities and the expansiveness of the wilderness. He loved Abraham Lincoln and the fallen soldiers of the Civil War. He loved technology and industry and he loooooved the American promise of freedom. But most of all, Whitman loved the regular Joes of America, the guys and gals with regular jobs, living out their regular American dreams. Walt Whitman was as impressed by the life of an American shoemaker as he was of the life of Abraham Lincoln. The poet had some serious American pride, and he directed it toward everyone.
Published in Whitman's 1860 edition of his epic collection Leaves of Grass, "I Hear America Singing" is all about this American pride. And it's specifically about pride in work. (What could be more American than a hard day's work, after all?) In the poem, Whitman describes the voices of working Americans toiling away at their jobs; he details the carpenter and boatman, the hatter and the mason, the mother and the seamstress alike. And by imagining that they are all singing, he celebrates them and their hard work, and also creates a vision of an America unified by song and hard work.
Sure, working as a mason isn't glamorous, but cheer up, mason. Walt Whitman hears your voice! He loves your voice! And gosh darn it, he's gonna celebrate your voice in his poetry. For Whitman, the average Joe stone mason is just as important as the president of the U.S. of A. Now that's a vision of democracy we can get behind.
Let's face it: life ain't all about sniffing roses; sometimes, we gotta work. And work is not always pretty. Whether we're building bridges, sewing dresses, taking care of kids, or mending shoes, work can be grueling—both physically and mentally. And so much of our work goes unappreciated. Sure, the president gets accolades, and sure, Mark Zuckerberg gets lots of (monetary) love, but most of us average Joes and Janes lead quiet lives in which our labor goes mostly unacknowledged by the world at large.
Enter Walt Whitman.
In "I Hear America Singing," Walt acknowledges the work of us regular guys. The masons, the seamstresses, the stay-at-home moms, the boatmen—they're basically the nineteenth-century versions of cashiers and personal assistants, construction workers and secretaries. Not all of our jobs are flashy or super-lucrative, but we all help make our nation the awesome nation that it is. Whitman knows you work hard, and he appreciates your work. So sit back, relax, and enjoy "I Hear America Singing," and let an awesome American poet appreciate you.
The World of Walt
Here's a useful bio from the Academy of American Poets.
The Walt Whitman Archive
Check out his original docs here.
If Walt Whitman had written Game of Thrones…
Check out some pretty extreme silliness here.
Creepy, Animated Walt
Here's an animated version of Whitman reading the poem. It's… well, a bit odd.
Creepy, Animated Walt (Version II)
Here's an animated version of Whitman's "The Sleepers." You will love or hate it—nothing in between.
Bloom on Walt
Check out one of the premiere critics of poetry, Harold Bloom, lecturing on Whitman.
"I Hear America Singing"
Do you dig it?
Whitman Out Loud
Writer Richard Rodriguez lays his interpretation on us (scroll down to find it).
Walt Himself Reads "America"
Warning: this recording is old-timey central and you may have to save the file to listen to it.
This image comes from the first edition of Leaves of Grass.
Here he is, the best beard-haver in the history of time.
Modern American Whitman
Check out some thoughts on "I Hear America Singing" by the good folks at Modern American Poetry.
Leaves of Grass
We firmly believe every American should have a copy of this baby.
Walt Whitman's America: A Cultural Biography
Here's everything you ever wanted to know about our dude and his time but were afraid to ask.
Whitman's American Experience
Here's a PBS documentary on Mr. W.W.