Walt Whitman, Man of Influence


Walt Whitman’s literary works have occupied the highest place in the world of American literature. He has been recognized as the focal center of creativity having truly American experience in the literary expression. Although a late bloomer in the literature world, Whitman embodies the elements of indigenous realism and the New England philosophy which makes him a truly national spiritual synthesis. His works touched on the trying times in the American history during the civil war and a story that influenced the society in many ways. Though a very individualistic poet, his works have influenced many other modern poets, who take after his style and themes. The most exceptional characteristic feature of his work is that he endeavored to always produce a mystical vision where everything was a part of something bigger and was equal in every aspect. Walt Whitman, indeed, embodies many qualities that highlight the real American character like viciousness, diversity, love for adventure and the ever pioneering fortitude of the American people. He is a symbol of variety, largeness and the tendency toward innovation.

Brief History

Walt Whitman was born on May 31st, 1819 in West Hills, a village near Hempstead in Long Island, New York. His mother, Louisa Van Velsor was a farmer, while his father, Walter Whitman was a carpenter. The family moved to Brooklyn where Walt attended school. He left school at the age of eleven, after completing his formal education and started learning the printing trade. In 1836, he started teaching at school in Long island and it was during this period that he founded the weekly magazine Long Islander. This magazine cultivated his interest in journalism where he started writing short stories and poetry. His early works in literature were to say the least, indistinguishable from the rest of the popular works of the day. In the year of 1842, he published his first novel, “Franklin Evans” or the inebriate. This work did not receive much recognition in the literature world and thus went unnoticed. He later worked with the Brooklyn eagle from where he was fired for holding different political views with the owner of the magazine. He then took up a job with the New Orleans Crescent.

Therefore, Walt was essentially a late bloomer in the world of poetry and literature and yet his influence was so extensive that one would think that he started writing at an early age. Before venturing into poetry, he had practiced so many other trades that gave him a lot of experience and may be attributed to the style and thematic compositions of his works. For instance, he was a printer, a teacher, a newspaper writer, an editor, a stationer, a real estate speculator and a carpenter. He did all these things from the time he was born till the age of 34. His real interest in poetry took off in the 1850s during the period in which a civil crisis was brewing in America. This crisis gave him a play ground where he identified himself as an agent of democracy and change. Walt Whitman was a transcendentalist, although not like other transcendentalists like Henry David Thoreau, Benson Alcott and Louisa Alcott, who were of an educated class, he was an inspiring philosophic, religious and social reformist who encouraged a literary and educational movement. He fought for self-reliance and the liberty of each individual. In the world of literature he is considered to be a prophetic voice of, for and by the people who brought new subjects into poetry. He believed that everyone was divine because nature is divine and thus all are equal including women.

The Works of Walt Whitman

He is a late bloomer whose first poem was published in 1855, at the age of 36. The poem entitled, “Leaves of Grass” was self-published by Whitman himself and contained a collection of 12 poems, which upon first publication did not stir a lot of interest. However, few who read the poems considered them deep-seated in the form of content that he became an innovatory figure in the American literature. The edition portrayed a casual image of Walt as the self-professed “poet of the people” dressed in the workman’s clothes. The most known poems from the collection today are, “Song of Myself”, “The Sleepers”, “There was a Child went Forth”, and “I Sing the Body Electric”.

The second edition of “Leaves of Grass” was published in 1856, which included an addition of twenty new poems to the initial twelve. In this edition, the most recognized poems were, “Crossing Brooklyn Ferry”, “Salute au Monde!”, “A Woman Waits for Me”, and “Spontaneous Me”. The second edition did not receive much attention just like the first one and thus the sales were poor. The third edition was published by a Boston publisher in 1860. This edition contained over a hundred and forty new poems.  The unique addition to the third edition was the introduction of an arrangement of his poems in special groupings, such as “Children of Adam”, which was a gathering of love poems. There was also “Calamus” which was a group of poems celebrating the brotherhood and comradeship of men.

During the period of the civil war, Walt Whitman went to search for his brother, who had been injured in the battle. This gave Whitman an opportunity to experience the war at firsthand as he was involved in treating and helping the wounded soldiers. The impact of the civil war was evident in his late publication of another collection of poems. The collection was a separate one aptly named “Drum-taps” which was released in 1865. It had a collection of poems like, “Calvary Crossing a Ford”, “The Wound-dresser”, “Come up from the Fields Father”, and “Vigil Strange I kept on the Field one Night”. These poems illustrate the simplicity of testimonial of the horror, loneliness and suffering by war.

In the final phase of his career, Whitman shifted focus from the nationalistic point of view to addressing themes related to the soul, death and immortality. This was highlighted in the publication of the 4th edition of Leaves of Grass. This edition included poems such as “Whispers of Heavenly Death”, “Darest Thou Now O Soul”, “The Last Invocation” and “A Noiseless Patient Spider”. The prominent theme in the “Leaves of Grass” is the call to the renewal of American democracy through self-cultures and the conversion of the personality by transcendental self. (Albanese 13-14). In general, Whitman gathered motivation from every gamut of the nineteenth-century American life; the convulsions of slavery and hopelessness; the jaunty dandyism of the bowery b’hoys and the enthusiastic rhetoric of the actors, orators and divines (David).

Influence on Other Poets

Walt Whitman was a transcendentalist with ideas that changed America by contributing to reforms and ways of thinking that created modern America. These ideas are still evident in the society today, expressed through open-minded theologies, the rise of the monthly press, creation of the non-violent protests, and the environmental movement. Many poets looked to continue the legacy of Walt Whitman, and this has been seen through prominent themes of prophecy, radicalism, change and form as well as stylistic modes of free verse. Few notable writers who exhibit similarities with Whitman include, Allen Ginsberg, Richard Maurice, Oscar Wilde, T.S Elliot, and Bram Stoker.

Allen Ginsberg

There are extensive scholarship materials which compare the writings of Allen Ginsberg and Walt Whitman. Allen Ginsberg is a poet of the 1950s and one of the leading figures of the Beat Generation, who vigorously opposed militarism, materialism, and sexual repression. He is known for many writings including “a supermarket in California” which was one of his masterpieces. In many of his works, there is noticeable influence by Walt Whitman both stylistically and thematically.

Walt Whitman is recognized for his experimentation with meter and rhythm and eschew of the structured line and stanza which was the normal practice of poetry. His works deal with nature and intrusion of the developed society to all that is natural and good about America, in terms of prominent themes. A lot of Ginsberg’s poetry has a lot of these features related to thematic concerns. His poem, “Howl” was usually compared to that of Walt Whitman, “Leaves of Grass”, which were both considered to be too pornographic and obscene in the nineteenth century. Ginsberg, therefore, chooses to continue Whitman’s legacy both in style and themes. His use of the long line was inspired by Whitman’s varying lengths of line and breath. Thematically, Ginsberg looked to carry on Whitman’s poetic attack on industrialized society by writing about the cost of commercial and industrial growth that Whitman could only foresee in his work (Thomas ).

Ginsberg drew encouragement from the grand, free verse style introduced by Walt Whitman. They both wrote fervently about the pledge and perfidy of American democracy, the vital importance of erotic knowledge, and the spiritual quest for the truth of everyday existence. The influence has been even extended by some to the notion that they were both homosexual. Although the fact of homosexuality is rather clear for Ginsberg, the same cannot be said of Whitman as the arguments vary from being homosexual and bisexual. The influence by Whitman on Ginsberg can also be on how religious both men were; as Whitman enjoyed reading the Bible, Ginsberg was a committed Buddhist.

When comparing the works of the two writers, the influence becomes obvious and direct. Ginsberg’s ”A Supermarket in California” is perhaps the most obvious and direct example of Whitman’s influence on Ginsberg poetry. He directly refers to Whitman, constantly picturing a relationship developing between them among vegetables and shoppers and spreading out into the streets ruing the lost America. In the poem, Ginsberg considers Whitman a fatherly figure from which he seeks answers to his doubts of consumerism. The aspect of generational time difference is highlighted which is also used to draw similarities between the two writers. Whitman wrote his poems before; during and after the American civil war while Ginsberg started writing after World War II. The impact of this period played a critical role in the thematic issues that the two writers addressed in their poetry.

The common themes that the two seem to favor revolve around the America of their time and the democratic change that the society required. Ginsberg’s “Howl” is compared to Whitman’s “Song of Myself” with the common element of opening up and symbolizing America using lists to construct metaphorical representative of as much of the country and of the people as possible (Albanese). The two poems show the structural similarities between the poets as they both write in rivulets of thought with punctuation governed by breathing. Ginsberg thus draws immense influence from Whitman through his use of common place language and imagery. He is perhaps, one of the writers who actually exhibit obvious and direct influence from Whitman.

Pablo Neruda

The major influence that is attributed to Walt Whitman in Pablo’s poetry is the themes that he writes about. Although separated by a century and half a hemisphere, by different languages and cultures, the two poets merge successfully through the reflection of their shared Natives\American visions and oral poetics. Pablo Neruda often spoke of the weighty influence that Walt Whitman had on his writing life. Having discovered Whitman at the age of seventeen, he considered himself indebted to him for the great lessons that he had learned. Indeed both Pablo and Whitman are viewed in the literature world as grassroots poets when put into a modern-day applicable context.

The two poets share their primary bond in their sacrosanct role of voicing American distinctiveness, both for North and South America. They are similar in their prominent themes as they manage to coalesce with the diversities present in their cultures to create a unified voice. Their works highlight the civil wars of different centuries which serve to remind people of the constant struggle involved in giving a country its appropriate identity that reflects its people. Pablo Neruda’s poem; “Canto General” of 1960, has similar thematic concerns as Whitman’s “Leaves of Grass” of 1855. They were both inundated by the desire to give artistic expression to the rambling landscapes and cultures of the Americas. They advocated for social change through poetry as they pushed for democracy and communism in their countries. Communism, Nerudo’s ultimate system was battling the long reach of Western capitalism and the legacies of Europe and aristocratic culture. While democracy was Whitman’s ideal and stills a test, waiting to be proved feasible or an unrealistic dream designed for failure. They turned to poetry to respond to this situation in their respective countries. They assumed the responsibility of epic bard and wrote poetry to “Discover it [Latin America], to Build it” (qtd. In santi’s Canto General 258). Like Whitman, Neruda believed that a political culture must be in place before a political system is set-up (John ).

Pablo Neruda’s goal in “Canto General” was similar to that of Whitman’s in “Leaves of Grass”. Neruda wanted to craft a splendid poetic work to function as apolitical spring book for democratic culture, something that Whitman had done in his poem. Whitman achieved this by refiguring the epic with lyric. Form studying his work, Neruda attempted to construct a new style, culture and tradition that is detached from but equivalent to that of Europe and to help Latin Americans comprehend the vision of unified Latin America. Canto General has provided a foundational work for Latin American poetry just as Leaves for Grass did for American poetry. Both writers use poetry and political civilization to build a relation that could, with impartiality be termed natural because it maintains its wide-ranging goals regardless of radical changes in time, language, social structure and political ideology between the two poets. Neruda therefore, drew his confidence that poetry could affect politics from Whitman’s attempt to do just that in his Leaves of Grass.

Both Whitman and Neruda faced many challenges, but their desire to write Epic-Lyrics never died. Whitman had the aspiration to revolutionize the face of the contemporary American literature and he believed that it relied too heavily on European literature. His goal was to have literature that was specifically American. His democratic ideals fostered the belief in the need for an entirely American literature devoid of European influence. He believed that all democratic laws in the US were investigational and required a shift in the system of beliefs and practices for them to succeed. He believed that America needed a religion, rituals, ceremonies, traditions, and histories for democracy to succeed. These are the goals that Pablo Neruda expressed in his canto general. He believed in the influential function of poetry in establishing a political background necessary for a political institution. He used his epic poem to create the cultural and political atmosphere through which autocrats of Latin America will be deposed in favor of communism. Both writers made their lyric-epics existing, breathing, world-changing forces that exist even in today’s world. They successfully juggled the dissimilar elements of the Americas and modeled this unbounded variety into a viable worldview.


The influence of Walt Whitman has gone beyond just the above mentioned writers, as many other writers have been inspired by him. Renowned writers such as Bram Stoker, Richard Maurice Bucke, Oscar Wilde, and T.S. Elliot all exhibits to certain extend considerable influence by Walt Whitman. His influence goes beyond the borders of the US and extends to the entire world. A century after the first publication of the final edition of “Leaves of Grass”, his place in the American literary history remains as inscrutable and as indefinable as the ideas upon which America was founded. The poem “Leaves of Grass” has been translated into most of the major languages and is commonly studied in countries such as France, Italy, Germany, China, and Japan. His importance springs not only from his literary qualities but also as a prophet of emancipation and revolutions, he has served as a major emblem for socialists and communists. His control internationally has been most felt in noninterventionist circles as a writer who articulated the exquisiteness, authority, and always incompletely fulfilled the promise of democracy.   Walt Whitman is an example of originality and creativity, introducing artistic bravery to try new ideas in stylistic approach as well as thematic concerns. An advocate of change using the only tool available to him to bring about the desired change, he is truly, a man of influence.

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