American Poetry: Walt Whitman and the Songs of Ourselves

How one American man’s poetry affected the future of his country.


| February 2015


Life in the United States today is full of uncertainty: about our jobs, mortgages, retirement, health, relationships and our childrens’ future. Author John Marsh identifies four sources of our contemporary malaise in In Walt We Trust (Monthly Review Press, 2015) and then looks to the American poet Walt Whitman for relief from it. By doing so, Marsh argues that Whitman has the capacity to show us how to live and die in America today. This excerpt, which takes a look at Whitman’s life and poetry, is from the Introduction, “Walt Whitman—A Poetic Comfort.”

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The Life of Walt Whitman

Walt Whitman was born in 1819 in West Hills, New York, on Long Island, and moved with his family to Brooklyn when he was not quite four years old. Like many children from working-class families (his father was, at various times, a farmer, carpenter, and house builder), Whitman left school before he turned twelve. He worked as an office boy, and at age thirteen he was apprenticed to a printer. In his late teens and early twenties, he taught school in various Long Island small towns. There he made his first tentative steps into journalism and Democratic Party politics. In 1841, he moved to New York City, and over the next few years wrote for various newspapers and published very bad short stories in literary magazines. In 1845, he left the city and moved back in with his family in Brooklyn. Shortly thereafter, Whitman became editor of the Brooklyn Daily Eagle.

Within two years, though, he lost the job when he got ahead of the Democratic Party, which controlled the newspaper, on the issue of slavery. Whitman opposed the extension of slavery into the western territories newly acquired during the recently concluded Mexican War. His Party dithered on the issue. After a brief sojourn in New Orleans, in 1849 Whitman returned to Brooklyn, where he sold articles to newspapers and, like his father, took up house building.

Then everything changed.

No one is quite sure how, or even when, but at some point in the first half of the 1850s, probably around 1853 or 1854, Whitman began writing some of the strangest, most ambitious, and moving poetry in all of American literature. Overnight, it seemed, he went from unenthusiastic house builder and middling journalist to inspired prophet and groundbreaking poet. In 1855, he self-published Leaves of Grass, which consisted of a visionary preface about the responsibility of the poet in America and twelve untitled poems that did not rhyme and did not keep a soothing, iambic beat and therefore did not seem, for some readers, like poetry at all. The first edition of the book contained Whitman’s masterpiece, a long, erotic, omnivorous poem he would eventually call “Song of Myself.” In the opening lines of the poem, he wrote: