In this lesson, students will learn about Walt Whitman’s brave actions and highly regarded writings. After viewing a video about his life, students will examine the frontispiece and title page of an early edition of Leaves and Grass and will analyze one of its most famous poems. The lesson concludes with students writing an updated version of “I Hear America Singing” reflecting what they have learned about Whitman’s beliefs about our country.
20 - 40 minutes
- Burgeon - to develop quickly
- Contemporary - a person or thing living or existing at the same time as another
- Seminal - original and influential of future events
- Modest - showing a humble assessment of one’s skills
- Garner - to get or earn
Transcendentalism was a literary and philosophical movement that developed in New England during the 1820s and 1830s. Transcendentalists rejected conventional institutions such as organized religion and government, and instead sought wisdom from nature, sensory experience, and self-examination. Most closely associated with Henry David Thoreau and Ralph Waldo Emerson, transcendentalism influenced many mid-nineteenth-century thinkers and writers.
Learn more about Transcendentalism:
- Walt Whitman | The Transcendentalists | U.S. History, PBS LearningMedia
- Literary Elements, PBS LearningMedia
Background on Walt Whitman | Journalist and Poet
Before the Civil War, the United States was a deeply divided country. While having all but disappeared from the North, slavery was still a keystone of the Southern economy.
Walt Whitman, the son of proud Americans with progressive sensibilities, was born and raised in New York with seven siblings. He began working when he was only 11 to help support his family. By 17, he was working as a teacher, a job he held for five years before leaving to fulfill his true passions in the world of journalism.
Whitman had some experience in the news industry from a brief run of his own weekly publication he had written while still teaching, and in 1846 succeeded in landing the role of editor at the Brooklyn Daily Eagle. In his two years there, he became known as an opinionated journalist, less concerned with pandering to his readers and his bosses than with making strong statements on sometimes highly controversial issues. For instance, he was anti-slavery, believed women should own property, and believed immigrants posed not a threat to the US, but an opportunity to enrich the country.
Because of his views and unpredictable writings, Whitman often spent little time working at any given newspaper. In 1848, he witnessed slavery first hand when he was briefly the editor of the Crescent in New Orleans. He returned to New York with a growing rage over the continued practice of slavery in a supposedly free country, worried about its ramifications for the future of democracy in the U.S. He began writing down his thoughts and observations, working in a notebook that would eventually become his first book of poetry.
Whitman self-published Leaves of Grass in 1855. His poetry was like nothing that had been published before; he often abandoned traditional mechanisms of rhyme and meter in favor of a more prose-like style, written in the first-person. His book alerted a few prominent writers to his presence on the literary scene, but otherwise received little recognition. Eventually Whitman released a second edition, and in 1860, a publisher in Boston released a third.
In 1862, Whitman went to Virginia in search of his brother, who had been wounded in the Civil War. He ended up moving to Washington, D.C., and began the life-changing journey of volunteering as a nurse, visiting and helping wounded soldiers. He spoke with tens of thousands of them, and in 1865, he published a new book of poetry, Drum-Taps, followed by 18 more Civil War poems in the collection Sequel the same year.
After the Civil War, Whitman remained in Washington. He worked as a clerk and wrote two new collections published in 1870, Democratic Vistas and Passage to India, followed by another edition of Leaves of Grass.
In 1873, at age 53, he suffered a stroke that caused partial paralysis, forcing him to move in with his brother in Camden, New Jersey. For the next twenty years, he continued to work on Leaves of Grass, and finally began to receive widespread recognition for his groundbreaking poetic voice. He was able to buy his own house in Camden. His final book Good-Bye, Mr. Fancy was published in 1891, one year before his passing on March 26, 1892.
Whitman’s writing and style continue to influence countless poets. A bridge connecting Camden County to Philadelphia bears his name and several books have been written about his life and profound influence on the American literary scene. He is remembered as a proud American and an exemplar of the ideals on which his country was founded.
- Ask students: Can you love a place, such as your hometown or your country, and still find fault with it?
- Introduce Walt Whitman:
Walt Whitman was an American writer who both loved and criticized the United States. Through actions and poetry, Whitman attempted to improve the country he believed in.
Video and Class Discussion (10 minutes)
Distribute the Graphic Organizer for students to fill out while viewing the video.
Discussion questions after viewing:
1. How would you describe Walt Whitman’s vision of the United States?
2. Do you think that Whitman’s biggest contribution to American society was serving as a nurse during the Civil War or writing poems?
3. If Whitman were alive today, what do you think he would like and dislike about the current state of our country?
Examining Primary Sources
Visual Primary Source Activity (5 minutes)
Project or make copies of the image to the right. This frontispiece and title page of the second edition of Walt Whitman’s Leaves of Grass is from the collection of Drew University in Madison, New Jersey. A frontispiece is an illustration opposite the title page of a book. Typically, the title page would have the name of an author along with the book’s title and information about the place and date of publication. Whitman, an experienced printer, changed the look of Leaves of Grass numerous times. He chose different images of himself, fonts, layouts, binding, cover designs and colors for each edition. Additionally, he edited the order of the poems and the content of the poems from printing to printing. He also added twenty new poems to this edition that had not been in the first printing. Other poems were added in later editions.
- What type of image of himself do you think Walt Whitman is trying to project in this edition of the book? What are some adjectives you would use to describe the man you see in the etching?
- Notice that Walt Whitman’s name does not appear on the title page. Although his name did appear on the binding of this second edition of Leaves of Grass, his name did not appear at all in the first edition. Can you think of a reason you might want to leave your name off of a collection of poetry you’ve written? Why do you think he would have made the choice to keep his name hidden from readers?
- This edition is pocket-sized, much smaller than the first edition. What do you think was the intent of producing a pocket-sized book of poetry? How do you think Whitman envisioned it being read?
Written Primary Source Activity (15 minutes)
Students will read and analyze one of Walt Whitman’s best-known poems, “I Hear America Singing.” This poem was written in 1860 and thus did not appear in the earliest editions of Leaves of Grass.
This can be done as an in-class follow-up to the lesson, as a homework assignment or as a multi-day in-class project.
To be completed using the graphic organizer.
In “I Hear America Singing,” included below, Walt Whitman refers to many job titles that are no longer common in the United States. Furthermore, his poem describes an America in which women play very limited roles. Given what you’ve learned about Whitman’s views of American society, what would he celebrate about twenty-first century America? Write an updated version of “I Hear America Singing” that takes into account the way that United States has changed since the 1860 in terms of:
- Economy (what kinds of jobs are now more widespread?)
- Gender roles
- Diversity of the population
I HEAR America singing, the varied carols I hear;
Those of mechanics—each one singing his, as it should be, blithe and strong;
The carpenter singing his, as he measures his plank or beam,
The mason singing his, as he makes ready for work, or leaves off work;
The boatman singing what belongs to him in his boat—the deckhand singing on the steamboat deck;
The shoemaker singing as he sits on his bench—the hatter singing as he stands;
The wood-cutter’s song—the ploughboy’s, on his way in the morning, or at the noon intermission, or at sundown;
The delicious singing of the mother—or of the young wife at work—or of the girl sewing or washing—Each singing what belongs to her, and to none else;
The day what belongs to the day—At night, the party of young fellows, robust, friendly,
Singing, with open mouths, their strong melodious songs.