Walt Whitman at 200

Celebrating America's groundbreaking poet and his legacy.
Steel engraving of Walt Whitman.

Though not widely known or celebrated in his lifetime, Walt Whitman (1819–1892) is often thought of now as the United States’ great poet-philosopher and poet of the people—a humanitarian, a poetic genius, and a latter-day successor to Homer, Virgil, Dante, and Shakespeare. In his central book of poetry, Leaves of Grass, he celebrated democracy, nature, love, sexual liberation, and friendship. This expansive work chanted praises to the body as well as to the soul, championed American individuality and the power of the collective, and found beauty and reassurance in life as well as in death. 

When Whitman was writing poems, from the 1850s until his death in the 1890s, most American poetry sounded like its British counterpart. In the United States, the popular Fireside poets, such as Longfellow and Whittier, were known for metered and rhymed poems in an elevated diction, reminiscent of a Victorian style. Whitman wanted to create an original, distinctly American form and style that would better embody the American voice, identity, and ethos. Many of his poetic ideas, which have influenced generations of poets, were articulated in his famous preface to Leaves of Grass.

Although Whitman’s poetry did not garner popular attention from his American readership during his lifetime, more than 1,000 people attended his funeral. Whitman was the first writer of a truly American poetry, and his legacy endures. Readers now often discover his remarkable empathy, acceptance, and compassion for others; his positivity and belief in American representative democracy; and the singularity of his genius and redemptive vision.

We’ve compiled this selection of his poems to mark the 200th anniversary of Whitman’s birthday, as well as articles, audio recordings, and videos about Whitman’s poetry. Read our Walt Whitman biography and read more of his poetry.

Prose about Whitman
Whitman’s Legacy