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 tonality of his work, in the mix of whimsy, intimacy, and heart-wrenching pathos that calls out to us and weaves us in its spell, as much today as it did in 1855.
Ralph Waldo Emerson, the spokesperson for mid-century literary America, memorably asked when America would have the poet it deserved. Leaves of Grass is the dramatic answer to Emerson's question. Whitman celebrates, in pure Romantic fashion, the uniqueness and grandeur of the political, moral, and verbal America. Above all, Whitman fashions a poetry of democracy, freed from the weight of the European past, saluting the variety and commonness of American people, and displaying a rare ability to fuse with the groups and individuals he presents. Leaves of Grass is a ground-breaking innovation that Whitman brings to American poetry, in terms of both forms and themes, while also considering the very concept of a "democratic poetry."
Whitman is a symbol of America as a nation because the poetry of democracy is what Whitman aimed for; readers of poetry realize the crucial elitism of past poetry, an art form intimately related to aristocratic figures of politics, religion, or legend.
Whitman's programmatic inclusiveness meant that there was a place for everyone in his work. People who had never before appeared in poetry began to arrive on the scene. His goal consisted of presenting American voices never before heard, and we need to measure the political as well as the literary dimensions of such an aim. That is what makes him "so" American.