G. Frank E. Pearsall (active c. 1871–1896)
Albumen silver print, 1872
Creating a distinctly American verse, Walt Whitman kicked down the doors and jambs of genteel Anglo-American literature and took poetry out into the streets and roads of a turbulent and expansive democracy. Whitman sounded his “barbaric yawp” across rooftops and into Leaves of Grass (first published in 1855).
His poetic tendency to list, categorize, or catalogue was a legacy of the Enlightenment, yet his joyful earthiness was a far cry from the Enlightenment’s cool rationalism. And whereas his contemporaries, especially Nathaniel Hawthorne and Herman Melville, recoiled from the unfixed and unmoored nature of American society, Whitman alone vaulted into the future, not simply walking on the open road but building it as he went along, surveying the ever-changing face of America and Americans.
Whitman was also one of the first Americans to comprehend the power of photography to shape a reputation. Photography’s ability to project multiple, diverse personas to the public was naturally appealing to a poet celebrating his—and our—multiple selves. Everywhere and nowhere—that is the paradox of Walt Whitman. In all of his chanting, he still has time to sum himself up in a way that endures: “I know I have the best of time and space, and was never measured and never will be measured. / I tramp a perpetual journey, (come listen all!).”
I celebrate myself, and sing myself, And what I assume you shall assume, For every atom belonging to me as good belongs to you. I loaf and invite my soul, I lean and loaf at my ease observing a spear of summer grass. Walt Whitman From “Song of Myself,” 1855