Who Was The First Distinctively American Poet?

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Walt Whitman (1819–1892) is considered the first American poet to compose a verse that showed no references to European traditions. He was the first to discard the narrative and the ode (praise poem), creating a unique and new American style. Today he is regarded as one of the greatest American poets. He published his book Leaves of Grass in 1855 and, in an effort to get recognition, sent copies to American essayist Ralph Waldo Emerson (1803–1882), Scottish essayist Thomas Carlyle (1795–1881), American poet Henry David Thoreau (1817–1862), and American novelist Nathaniel Hawthorne (1804–1864). This bold move led to high praise from both Thoreau and Emerson, who predicted that Whitman was "at the beginning of a great career." Despite critical acclaim, however, the book was publicly criticized because of Whitman's unconventional exaltation (praise) of the human body, sexual love, and the use of free-verse structure. More than a century later, biographer Justin Kaplan claimed that in its time Leaves of Grass was "the most brilliant and original poetry yet written in the New World, at once the fulfillment of American literary romanticism and the beginnings of American literary modernism."

During the late twentieth century the poet Emily Dickinson (1830–1886) was recognized as an artistic equal to Whitman. Though writing at the same time as Whitman, Dickinson had few poems published in her lifetime; most of her work appeared after her death. Scholars now consider her to be one of the great early American poets.

Further Information: Allen, G. W. New Walt Whitman Handbook. New York: New York University Press, 1986; Brasher, T. L. Early Poems and Fictions. New York: New York University Press, 1963; Emily Dickinson. [Online] Available http://userweb.interactive.net/-krisxlee/emily/, October 23, 2000; Walt Whitman. [Online] Available http://underthesun.cc/Classics/Whitman/whitman.htm, October 23, 2000; Walt Whitman. [Online] Available http://members.tripod.com/more_coute/whitman1.htm, October 23, 2000; Wicher, G. F. This Was a Poet Hamden, Conn.: Archon Books, 1980; Zweig, Paul. Walt Whitman. New York: Basic Books, 1984.

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