'Leaves of Grass' Published 150 Years Ago

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Karen Grigsby Bates presents an appreciation of Walt Whitman's Leaves of Grass, a volume of poetry that transformed American verse. It was published 150 years ago this month.


New York has been home to many American artists. One of the best known is poet Walt Whitman. He published the classic "Leaves of Grass" 150 years ago this month. DAY TO DAY's Karen Grigsby Bates has this appreciation.


There's hardly a high school in this country that doesn't, at some point, teach Walt Whitman, the poet who's been called America's voice. Even fictional classes recognize Whitman's place in the American canon. Here's actor Robin Williams using Whitman to inspire his boarding school students in the Oscar-winning 1989 film "Dead Poets Society."

(Soundbite of "Dead Poets Society")

Mr. ROBIN WILLIAMS: (As John Keating) Oh, me. Oh, life of the questions of these recurring, of the endless strains of the faithless, of cities filled with the foolish, what good amid these, oh me, oh life? Answer: That you are here, that life exists and identity, that the powerful play goes on, and you may contribute a verse.

BATES: Kenneth Price is co-editor of the Walt Whitman Archives and a professor of English at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln. He says Whitman's voice--personal, urgent, couched in plain everyday language--appealed to Americans in the mid-1800s when they were first exposed to his work. The elevation of everyday people in occupations had not until then been much heard. In fact, Whitman's work was such a departure from the poetry of the period, Ken Price says, that he decided no conventional publisher would take it. So Whitman published and promoted "Leaves of Grass" himself.

Professor KENNETH PRICE (University of Nebraska-Lincoln; Co-editor, Walt Whitman Archives): Well, I think it was his recognition that he not only had to write the new poetry, but he also had to create the new readership, to show people how it was that they could build the frameworks that would enable them to understand this radically new type of literature.

BATES: The novelty of Whitman's phrasing and unpretentious language soon made him a literary celebrity. So did the furor that arose over some of his poems on earthy subjects that were then not discussed in polite society, like this musing on the female body.

Unidentified Man: (Reading) `Hair, bosom, hips, bend of legs, negligent falling hands all diffused. Mine, too, diffused. Ebb stung by the flow and flow stung by the ebb. Love flesh swelling and deliciously aching.'

BATES: Work like that was enough to get "Leaves of Grass" banned in Boston, which, of course, made it immediately desirable to great numbers of American readers. But scandal could only draw interest to Whitman's work, says Ken Price. The work itself endures for other reasons. Because of his ability to make daily American life poetic, Walt Whitman became the essence of our national sensibility.

Prof. PRICE: Whitman speaks of matters that are of real importance to all human beings, questions about, you know, the nature of death and about love and about sexuality and American democracy and the potential of democracy as a world movement. So all of those things have resonated with people.

Mr. ED BEGLEY Sr.: (Reading) `Afoot and lighthearted, I take to the open road healthy, free, the world before me, the long, brown path before me leading wherever I choose. Henceforth I ask not good fortune. I myself am good fortune. Henceforth I whimper no more, postpone no more, need nothing, done with indoor complaints, libraries, querulous criticism. Strong and content, I travel the open road.'

BATES: As Ed Begley Sr.'s reading from "Song of the Open Road" illustrates, Walt Whitman has managed to remain fresh through several generations. His admiration and ours are mutual. As Whitman celebrated Americans in his poetry, Americans are now celebrating him on the 150th anniversary of his seminal work.

Karen Grigsby Bates, NPR News, Los Angeles.

BRAND: And to hear the Whitman poem "O Captain! My Captain!," visit our Web site,

NPR's DAY TO DAY continues. I'm Madeleine Brand.

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