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Walt Whitman Bookmark Walt Whitman (1819–1892)

“He most honors my style who learns under it to destroy the teacher.”

Until 1855, journalist and printer Walt Whitman had written some moralistic fiction and some conventional verse, nothing of any particular distinction. Then, at the age of 35, he produced an extraordinary book, Leaves of Grass, which would forever change the direction of American poetry.

Whitman oversaw the printing himself. On the frontispiece was a picture of Whitman dressed in workman’s clothes. Inside, the 12 untitled poems used no particular meter, no rhyme. A celebration of democracy, individuality, and the joys of the body, his style was innovative, his voice original and already mature. The copyright notice gave the only clue to authorship: “Walt Whitman, one of the roughs, a kosmos.”

Most reviews were poor, but Ralph Waldo Emerson recognized its genius. He wrote to Whitman, “I greet you at the beginning of a great career.”

Whitman became a tireless promoter of his work, printing Emerson’s letter in the second edition and continuing to put out new editions of the book throughout his life, adding, removing, and editing poems each time. His reputation grew slowly. By the time he died, in 1892, he was recognized as the founding voice in a new poetic tradition.
Walt Whitman