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The Modern Man I Sing

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Walt Whitman

LIKELY THE GREATEST of all American poets, Walt Whitman (1819-92) extolled individual identity and liberty, as well as the youthful American democracy that nourished them. His Leaves of Grass, probably the most influential volume of verse in American literary history, was unconventional both in its subject matter and in its apparently free form. Reflecting on Leaves of Grass later in life, he said that the work arose out of his "life in Brooklyn and New York from 1838 to 1853, absorbing a million people, for fifteen years, with an intimacy, an eagerness, an abandon, probably never equalled."

Whitman left school in 1830, then went to work as a printer's devil and later as a compositor. In 1838-39 he served as a schoolteacher on Long Island, while also editing the Long Islander, a newspaper. By 1841 he had become a full-time journalist, editing various papers and writing prose and verse for Eastern journals, including the Brooklyn Daily Eagle, a Democratic party paper, from which he was fired for his passionate views against slavery and his advocacy of the "free-soil" movement. He later worked as a carpenter.
In 1855 he self-published a slim volume of 12 poems, Leaves of Grass, whose first poems probably date as early as 1847. The volume included the poem later known as "Song of Myself," in which the Whitman declared himself the symbolic representative of the American common people. Although a commercial failure, critics and writers of the time, Ralph Waldo Emerson the most famous among them, recognized the emergence of a highly original new poetic voice. "I find it the most extraordinary piece of wit and wisdom that America has yet contributed... ." Emerson wrote. "I greet you at the beginning of a great career." Others, however, condemned the book for its celebratory sensuality and its highly unconventional free-verse form. Following the organic conception original to the book's earliest edition, Whitman continued to add poems to Leaves through 1892.
From 1862 to 1865 Whitman worked as a volunteer hospital nurse in Washington. His Civil War poetry, Drum-Taps (1865), reissued with Sequel to Drum Taps (1865-66), included two poems about Abraham Lincoln, "When Lilacs Last in the Dooryard Bloom'd," considered one of the finest elegies in the English language, and the uncharacteristically rhymed "O Captain! My Captain!". He suffered a paralytic stroke and afterward lived as a partial invalid. His prose collection Democratic Vistas appeared in 1871, and his final long poem, "Passage to India," appeared in the 1871 edition of Leaves of Grass. From 1884 until his death he lived in Camden, N.J., where he continued to write and to revise his earlier work. November Boughs, his final book, was published in 1888.
Whitman's personal contradictions and complexity have lent themselves to some historical misinterpretation. Though once characterized as a robust, swaggering sensualist, an image he and his poetry cultivated, his health faltered past youth, and his later years were sickly and childless. Hermetic and gentle, he is now generally thought to have been homosexual. His lyrical genius had an enormous impact on later poets, liberating both the form and the content of their work.