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Featured Books

Featured Books

Leaves of Grass (three separate editions)Summary and Reviews of Leaves of Grass (three separate editions)
Specimen DaysSummary and Reviews of Prose Works 1892: Volume I: Specimen Days (The Collected Writings of Walt Whitman)
Drum-TapsSummary and Reviews of Drum-Taps
Walt Whitman's Memoranda During the WarSummary and Reviews of Walt Whitman's Memoranda During the War
Complete Poems (Penguin Classics)Summary and Reviews of Complete Poems (Penguin Classics)
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Walt Whitman

Click the banner or the individual items listed to buy and read Whitman's work.

Walt Whitman (1819-1892) seems to have come from nowhere to become a superstar of the literary world with the publication of the first edition of Leaves of Grass in 1855.  In fact, he had published several poems before this, and he had been the editor of two publications, the Aurora and the Brooklyn Daily Eagle.  So, he was in the middle of the publishing world that stirred within him the need to write about all humanity, especially American humanity.  While editing these publications, he was part of the battles over slavery, the Mexican War, states' rights, sectionalism, and other issues that were inextricably linked and led to the Civil War.

Leaves of Grass was a lifelong work in progress for Whitman.  In 1855, he declared American literary independence, so to speak.  In 1872, Whitman published its fourth edition and considered it effectively complete.  However, in 1881, responding to the high praise English readers were giving him at the time, he published the final edition of his epic collection of poems.  Beginning with "Song of Myself," Leaves of Grass broke new ground in poetic subject matter, dealing with topics like female sexuality, homosexuality, and repression.  These subjects were, of course, controversial at the time and still provoke strong reactions today.

Whitman's purpose in writing Leaves of Grass was not simply to shock his readers.  He was trying to express his deeply held belief in democracy.  His mother was a follower of Elias Hicks, a Quaker preacher whom Whitman called "the democrat in religion as Jefferson was the democrat in politics."  His father took Thomas Paine as his political model and subscribed to the Free Enquirer, a democratic socialist newspaper that attacked church as well as state authority.

Thus, Whitman's Leaves of Grass and other poetry and prose reflect this radical democracy.  He wrote in an early notebook that "I am the poet of slaves, and of the masters of slaves," language that sounds much like language he would use in Leaves of Grass.  He saw himself as the poet of the "kosmos."  Whitman was concerned about issues like slavery, but by the time he published Leaves of Grass, he had come to the conclusion that the best way for him to affect the system was to write poetry.  He believed that America needed to realize the promise that their form of government and society held and look at everyone who was a part of it as free and equal human beings.

Whitman was very disturbed by the Civil War.  It clashed with everything he believed in concerning how human beings should live together.  It also changed his literary perspective from romanticism to realism.  He wrote Drum-Taps and Sequel in 1865-66 and the prose piece Memoranda During the War in 1875-76 as sort of cathartic memoirs of his time as a "wound-dresser" in the military hospitals in Washington during the war.  The bloodshed of the war so affected him as to turn him back to active involvement in the political process, as a government employee in both the Indian Affairs Bureau and the Attorney General's Office.  His essay, Democratic Vistas, from this period, reveals a conflict within Whitman that he never resolved but appeared to make Whitman a more nationalistic rather than individualistic democrat.  Eventually, Whitman became disillusioned with the America he lived in but still retained hope for the future.  In his late poems, he looks to God as the One who could change the circumstances of men to produce the democratic golden age America could have in the future.


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