In 1855 Whitman was working as a printer, journalist and property developer when he published his first collection of poetry. It began:
I celebrate myself,
And what I assume you shall assume
For every atom belonging to me as good belongs to you.
The book was called Leaves of Grass. In it, Whitman set out to break away from European literary forms and traditions. Using long lines written in free verse, he developed a poetry meant to express a distinctively American outlook.
Leaves of Grass is full of verse that celebrates both the sovereign individual, and the deep fellowship between individuals. Its optimism about the American experience was challenged by the Civil War and its aftermath, but Whitman emerged as a celebrity and a key figure in the development of American culture.
Professor of American Literature and the Public Understanding of the Humanities at the University of London
Lecturer in 19th Century American Literature at the University of Exeter
Professor of English and American Literature at University College London
Producer Luke Mulhall