Historical Background

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When Walt Whitman was born on May 31, 1819, the United States was entering a period of great internal political conflict that would culminate 40 years later with the Civil War. During the first half of the Nineteenth Century, the young nation was growing and expanding its territorial holdings as daring easterners and newly arrived immigrants headed west across the Mississippi River to explore and settle the western frontier. In his poetry, Whitman describes these settlers as intrepid Americans who were inspired by a determined pioneering spirit, a need for raw materials, and even competition with other countries who were also actively acquiring new territory. Following the American Revolution, European nations had lost much of their territory in North America; however, the great European powers continued to broaden their colonial empires, focusing their efforts in Asia and Africa. Americans kept pace on their own continent, and by the end of the century, the wild frontier Whitman celebrates in much of his poetry had drastically changed and had almost disappeared. Whitman’s “pioneers” had built settlements, farms, and communities throughout the West, while much of the Native American population was displaced and resettled on government-controlled reservations.

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As American writers chronicled the monumental changes in their country, the American Romantic movement began in the 1830s and 1840s. Ralph Waldo Emerson and a group of writers known as the Transcendentalists became highly influential during this time. In 1854, Henry David Thoreau published Walden or Life in the Woods which was based on his experience living at Walden Pond in Concord, Massachusetts. A year later, in 1855, Walt Whitman published a slim volume of poetry titled Leaves of Grass. He dedicated this first edition of what would become his life’s work to his mentor, Emerson. Other important writers of the time included Emily Dickinson and Nathaniel Hawthorne. Although Dickinson published few poems during her lifetime (and remained relatively anonymous until the 1920s), her work was rediscovered years after her death. Hawthorne wrote stories of America’s Puritan past, including The Scarlet Letter (1850), which was set in Puritan New England. Another important and highly influential author of the time was the British naturalist Charles Darwin. Not known for poetry or fiction, Darwin published his Theory of Evolution, developed on a 1831–1836 scientific voyage, and a scientific treatise Origin of Species by Means of Natural Selection (1859). Both works presented the theory that species evolve through the process of natural selection. Meanwhile, Whitman, always interested and aware of current political, artistic, and scientific events, was continuing to expand his Leaves of Grass, writing with bold and often controversial originality.

After 1815, as the American economy began to expand, a new western state entered the Union, on average, every two and a-half years until 1850. Fueled by immigration from Europe, the nation’s population grew from almost 10 million in 1820 to over 31 million in 1860. As the country grew, so did the spirit of political and social reform, especially in the northern states. During the 1830s, reformers known as Abolitionists began a movement to end slavery. Andrew Jackson, who was president from 1829–1837, made enemies in the South by instituting a number of controversial policies, especially the 1832 Nullification Proclamation which stated that the federal government was the supreme authority of the nation. A new political party, the Democrats, supported Jackson and two-party contests became common in every state. By the 1840s, modern political parties had appeared. Meanwhile, tensions between states in the North and those in the South increased as the slavery debate continued. After South Carolina seceded from the Union in December...

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