Whitman (1819-1892) was one of the great innovators in American literature. In the cluster of poems he called Leaves of Grass he gave America its first genuine epic poem. The poetic style he devised is now called free verse¡Xthat is, poetry without a fixed beat or regular rhyme scheme. Whitman thought that the voice of democracy should not be haltered by traditional forms of verse. His influence on the poetic technique of other writers was small during the time he was writing Leaves of Grass but today elements of his style are apparent in the work of many poets. During the 20th century, poets as different as Carl Sandburg and the "Beat " bard, Allen Ginsberg, have owed something to him.
Whitman grew up in Brooklyn, New York, and worked there as a school-teacher, as an apprentice to a printer, and as the editor of various newspapers. He had very little schooling but read a great deal on his own. He was especially intrigued by the works of Shakespeare and Milton. Strangely enough, his only contact with the Eastern religions or with German Transcendentalists, whose ideas he frequently used in his poetry, was what he had read of them in the writing of Emerson.
In the 1840s Whitman supported Jackson's Democratic party; he also favored the exclusion of slavery from new states in his newspaper writing and because of this, in 1848, he was dismissed from his job. He then worked sporadically at carpentry and odd jobs, and had some of his writing¡Xwhich was conventional and undistinguished¡Xprinted in newspapers.
In 1848 he visited New Orleans, Chicago, and the Western frontier; the latter impressed him greatly. There is speculation that some of his experiences on this trip marked a turning point in his career, though it is more likely that he was gradually developing as an artist. At any rate, soon after this period he began to write in a new style¡Xthe "free verse" for which he became famous. He published the first edition of Leaves of Grass in 1855, setting the type for the book himself, and writing favorable reviews of it in the papers, anonymously. He continued to add new poems to the collection, and to rearrange and revise them, until his death in 1892. His best work is usually considered to have been done before 1871.
Most of the poems in Leaves of Grass are about man and nature. However, a small number of very good poems deal with New York, the city that fascinated Whitman, and with the Civil War, in which he served as a volunteer male nurse. In his poetry, Whitman combined the ideal of the democratic common man and that of the rugged individual. He envisioned the poet as a hero, a savior and a prophet, one who leads the community by his expressions of the truth.
With the publication of Leaves of Grass Whitman was praised by Ralph Waldo Emerson and a few other literati but was attacked by the majority of critics because of his unconventional style. He wanted his poetry to be for the common people but, ironically, it was ignored by the general public.