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Walt Whitman At A Glance
Thinker, Lover, Patriot, Poet
Context for His Work: Then
Whitman lived in a pivotal time in world history. In his lifetime, the United States went from a divided slave-holding agrarian nation to a commercially and politically powerful one.
He was a 19th century American liberal, supporting issues like free trade, the Mexican-American War, sexual freedom, and liberation of the human spirit.
The end of the Civil War brought a new form of patriotism to the States, and Whitman felt that as deeply as anyone. This shows up as a theme in much of his work, though not as directly stated as, say, eroticism.
Whitman’s book of poems, Leaves of Grass, faced various receptions depending on the edition and the country. The early editions were self-published and poorly received or ignored.
Later editions included increasingly more poems. They faced a critical American indifference but were hugely popular overseas, specifically in France.
Context for His Work: Now
Whitman has influenced all aspects of American life and literature. Many American writers, even today, are classified in the context that Whitman created. Some even argue that all post-Whitman American writers can be classified into two categories: those who descend directly from his influence and those who strive to reject it.
He has had lasting political influences, as well. The people involved in the gay liberation movement in the 1970s used Whitman as a sort of poster-boy. He was an established poet who had already written for their cause, but a hundred years before.
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Common Themes, -isms, and Questions
- Life, patriotism, liberation, the body and soul
He witnessed beginning of the rise of the United States as a world power and liked the increasing equality that he saw. And how should we view the soul and the body? What about the relationship between the two? Whitman not only explored how life should be led; he expressed how beautiful he thought that it was.
- Male brotherhood, homosexuality, and homoeroticism
The way in which he wrote about eroticism, hetero- or homosexual, was a new and politically charged issue at his time.
- War, death, and the afterlife
The carnage that he witnessed during the Civil War greatly influenced much of his work. While he did enjoy contemplating life and freedoms, he could not escape writing about the feelings that war aroused in him.