Rediscover: Walt Whitman

This past May 31st was the 200th birthday of Walt Whitman, considered a cornerstone of American literary canon and the father of free verse. Whitman's contemporaries held divided opinions. Many thought his work was quintessentially American, that he was a national poet in a new and literal sense. Others considered his best known work, Leaves of Grass, to be obscene, with its frank depictions of human sensuality. Though Whitman's sexuality is still debated, he is thought to have been homosexual or bisexual. His poems often reference the interconnectedness of people and nature among other facets of his humanist philosophy.

Whitman spent his early years in the printing business, first as an apprentice typesetter, later as a journalist and briefly as a newspaper publisher. His first book was a temperance novel, Franklin Evans (1842), which he later disavowed as written for money and while drinking. Whitman published the first edition of Leaves of Grass himself. It received strong praise from Ralph Waldo Emerson and was republished, with new additions and edits from Whitman, many times throughout his life. During the Civil War, Whitman volunteered as a nurse in army hospitals while working several government clerical jobs. He was left largely housebound after a stroke at age 54. A complete collection of Whitman's prose and poetry is available from Library of America ($40, 9780940450028). --Tobias Mutter

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