Two hundred years after his birth, Walt Whitman (1819–1892) remains one of America’s most influential writers, arguably our national poet. His life’s work, Leaves of Grass, is a perennial bestseller, and Whitman himself has attained the status of cultural icon—his name a byword for notions of inclusivity, equality, sensuality, and the value of the individual.
Whitman’s rise to prominence, however, was relatively slow, marked at times by public indifference, confusion, and hostility. In hindsight, such initial reactions are understandable. Eschewing traditional rhyme and meter, and treating themes such as democracy, nature, death, and sexuality in an idiosyncratic diction, his verse was like little else that had gone before. Yet for all its strangeness, Leaves of Grass derived squarely from its author’s world, from the myriad events and ideas he absorbed and ultimately expressed.
The years preceding Whitman’s death would see his encompassing vision—a mix of earthy and cosmic, common and highbrow—gradually embraced and celebrated by readers throughout the world. And his advances in format and language, resulting in a distinctly American poetics, would prove formative for generations of writers, artists, and thinkers.
Drawing from collections across The New York Public Library, Walt Whitman: America’s Poet examines many of the individuals, beliefs, and experiences that shaped Whitman’s work while exploring his literary legacy and continuing cultural impact.
This exhibition is organized by The New York Public Library and curated by Michael Inman, Curator of Rare Books.