Walt Whitman: Builder for America Summary
Ernest Hemingway maintained that American literature began with Huckleberry Finn, but if he had narrowed the category to American poetry, he would have had to acknowledge the primacy of Walt Whitman. "It was you that broke the new wood," Ezra Pound once said in grudging acknowledgment of a poet he disliked but whose extraordinary originality he recognized. While some excellent poetry had been written in the United States before Whitman's publication of Leaves of Grass on July 4, 1855, it was essentially British in form, style, and diction. Whitman pointed this out in a letter to Ralph Waldo Emerson in 1856, when he declared that "old forms, majestic and proper in their own lands here in this land are exiles," and set for himself the epic task of creating a body of poetry that would capture the spirit, values, and character of a still newly emerging nation.
To do this, Whitman attempted to locate and employ the poetic qualities of ordinary American conversation, a goal in agreement with Henry David Thoreau's contention that "poetry is nothing but healthy speech." Whitman created an open stanza that expanded the possibilities of conventional metric organization, and he developed a long, flowing line that established rhythms beyond the limits of rhyme and standard meter. He used a particularly American vocabulary that led to the formation of an American "voice," eliminating the gulf between a poetic performance and an audience that had to be "educated" to appreciate the poet's song. He understood the power of poetry as sound, connecting his work directly to the vitality of an oral tradition that tapped an energy long lost to a print dominated literary culture.
But Whitman was more than just a strikingly original poet. Even before the publication of Leaves of Grass, he had begun to think of himself as an artist who could express the full range and vitality of American cultural and political experience. This visionary ambition became his operating principle at a time when European models in the arts were still dominant in the United States, and it enabled him to claim artistic equality for the American experience. He saw his poetry as releasing and directing the forces latent in an untapped national consciousness. Because he believed that the ordinary citizen of the republic had an open, easy, accepting, and generous character unspoiled by artistic pretensions, he described and wrote for the "common man" and believed his poetry demonstrated that this commonality was the basis for heroic individuality. In a direct challenge to the vestiges of puritanism in American social life, he extolled the senses and praised the physicality of experience, believing as Emerson did that human beings were a part of the natural world and that nature was an example of God's bounty. At a time when the issue of slavery threatened to dissolve the Union, Whitman tried to show what was most valuable in American democracy. His mighty image of a confident, openhearted, and great-spirited human on the threshold of an open road leading outward to the entire "kosmos" (as he spelled it) still stands as an emblem of what is most inspiring in American life.