Leaves of Grass has been considered by many critics to be the first and best example of American poetry, and Whitman to have been the first major American poet. Yet other critics have found the work obscene. Its greatness has been the topic of much debate for over 150 years. As one scholar has noted, Leaves of Grass has undergone more than a century of "abuse and worship...."
Leaves is a chronicle with many layers. First, it is Whitman's own chronicle of his journey through eighteenth century America. He writes of the spiritual nature of his path and his experiences of war, peace, love, and death. On another level, it is a song of and for America. Whitman first began writing Leaves just seventy-five years after the American Revolution and only several decades after the formative political administrations that first shaped the country. His "songs" are songs of democracy and freedom, of an unwavering belief in patriotism, and of the promise of American freedom.
Whitman first began writing Leaves of Grass after failed attempts at newspaper publishing and teaching. He wrote the initial edition of the book in the early 1850's and published it in 1855 to several glowing reviews from literary titans such as Ralph Waldo Emerson. Other reviewers, however, were not as kind to the book and focused on its sexual themes. The book was called obscene and tasteless, and Whitman was chastised for verse that seemed to describe a multitude of sexual proclivities - many condemned by society at the time.
Whitman's book cannot be understood outside of the political and social conflict that embroiled the nation from the time of Whitman's birth until 1865. Although slavery had been a major political and ethical issue since the country's founding, the early nineteenth century saw a drastic polarization and intensification of opinions. Whitman's poems were purposefully political and Whitman described himself as a "poet of America," though he was unarguably a poet of the Union. Some of his most stirring poems were written during and about the Civil War. The section "Drum-Taps" can be read as a poetic narrative journey from the first call to arms to the final call for reconciliation. Although Whitman himself did not serve in the military, he experienced the tragedy of the war secondhand: his brother was wounded as a member of the Union army.
When the war was over, corruption and unregulated capitalism became widespread in the government. For Whitman and many contemporary thinkers, the democratic ideal remained unfulfilled. To him, democracy was a spiritual and poetic force, a force to inspire us to higher achievements. The many editions of Leaves of Grass show a transformation in the author's thinking during his lifetime. The first editions were ode's to the promise of America. The middle editions added the horrors of war mixed with the call of patriotic duty. Whitman's final "deathbed" edition fused these earlier ideals with a look forward into America's future and a reassessment of its past. By the time of Whitman's death, in 1892, the United States had doubled its number of states, increased its population fivefold, and turned from an agricultural and rural country into one dominated by urban and industrial affairs. Whitman saw this as the regeneration of life and vitality out of the somberness of death, just as seasons go through their cycle.
Whitman is considered America's greatest poet, in part perhaps because his life is a metaphor for the country's own transformation during the nineteenth century. His doubts, patriotism, unwavering belief in America's promise, and even his frank, licentious manner mirror his times and his country. Whitman's imagination embodied America's belief in itself and its future.