"If you are an American, then Walt Whitman is your imaginative father and mother, even if, like myself, you have never composed a line of verse."Walt Whitman (1819-1892) was an American poet probably best known for his revolutionary book Leaves of Grass. His work has elements of transcendentalism and humanism, and his poetry greatly influenced all the poets that came after him.Also notable because of continuing debates about his sexuality and because of the mad love The Beat Generation had for him and his wandering ways.A native of Suffolk County on Long Island who began his career in Brooklyn, he is also revered as a local great in Washington, D.C. (where he served during The American Civil War as what amounted to what we would call today a hospice/palliative care nurse to Union soldiers; his recitations of poetry, including his "weird" free verse stuff, proved a great comfort to many of the wounded, maimed, and dying) and in Camden, New Jersey (where he spent his last years).You probably know him for his poem about Abraham Lincoln, "O Captain, My Captain".Whitman was a fierce proponent of democracy and egalitarianism. He was known to ride the bus, sitting up front quoting William Shakespeare to the driver.
Works featuring Whitman as a character
- Ken Burns' epic 1990 documentary The Civil War includes many observations by and stories about Whitman from his time in Washington, DC. Excerpts from Whitman's writings are narrated by Garrison Keillor.
His work features these tropes:
- Ambiguously Gay: Well, not really. The majority of scholars believe he was either this or bi. Oscar Wilde once said he made out (at least) with Whitman at his Camden home in 1882.
- Does This Remind You of Anything?: "love-flesh swelling/and deliciously aching,/Limitless limpid jets of love hot and enormous, quivering jelly of/love, white-blow and delirious nice"—from "I Sing the Body Electric"ers
- Genre Popularizer: For free verse. It had been around for centuries, but Whitman is responsible for making it the dominant poetic mode of the modern era.