Walt Whitman

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What makes Walt Whitman a symbol of America as a nation?

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Walt Whitman is just about everybody's candidate for "greatest American poet," although few people would have agreed to that judgment in the 19th century. Whitman's explosive new vision—of poetic language, of the common man and woman, of America as a new subject for poetry, of the nature and power of the body, of the strange beauty and appeal of the modern city, of the ubiquity of death as an informing spirit, of the bond with the reader, and of democracy itself—has so stamped our view of these matters that it is hard to realize how new they appeared in mid-19th-century America.

Even though Leaves of Grass , which first appeared in 1855, looks as though it were literally prescribed by Ralph Waldo Emerson, the American public at large, and the polite New England critics in particular, were shocked by the rowdiness and explicit sexuality of these poems. Americans have all grown up with Whitman's celebration of America, but it is sometimes hard to get clear of the view of a facile Whitman, a jovial, all-embracing poet whose work seems to ignore the subtleties and complexities of national and personal life. Yet we see that Whitman is more various than we think, that his muscular optimism is balanced by a surprising precariousness, and that his call for universal brotherhood and empathy is matched by a strange sense of distance and mystery. He is also very funny and very smart, about his country (America) and about his poetry. Perhaps the Whitman signature is best found in the special...

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