Walt Whitman wrote in an era of significant transition and heightened tensions. As a nurse during the Civil War, he saw death caused by the desire to maintain a fabricated hierarchy. While he was a poet in New York City, this pervasive belief in superiority also fueled immigration policies, gender roles, and an elitist socio-political structure. Despite these exhausting stratifications and divisions, Whitman flaunted a confidence in human equality in his classic work, Leaves of Grass.
Walt thrived on celebrating our individual distinctions in a way which demonstrated our overarching unity. Through ordinary language he shows that all people are worthy of attention and participation, a truly democratic proposal. To grant rights to one but not another denies not only our inclusive national ideals but our basic nature. Suggesting that we all share fundamental passions and yearnings made him a radical...and an enduring American story.
I Sing the Body Electric, Part 4
I have perceiv’d that to be with those I like is enough,
To stop in company with the rest at evening is enough,
To be surrounded by beautiful, curious, breathing, laughing flesh is enough,
To pass among them, or touch any one, or rest my arm ever so lightly round his or her neck for a moment—what is this, then?
I do not ask any more delight—I swim in it, as in a sea.
Song of Myself, Section 17
These are really the thoughts of all men in all ages and lands, they are not original with me,
If they are not yours as much as mine they are nothing, or next to nothing,
If they are not the riddle and the untying of the riddle they are nothing,
If they are not just as close as they are distant they are nothing.
This is the grass that grows wherever the land is and the water is,
This the common air that bathes the globe.