Thanks for exploring this SuperSummary Study Guide of “America” by Walt Whitman. A modern alternative to SparkNotes and CliffsNotes, SuperSummary offers high-quality study guides that feature detailed chapter summaries and analysis of major themes, characters, quotes, and essay topics.
Walt Whitman, among the first generation of authentically American poets, that is, the first generation of poets born in the United States and hence not subjects of the British crown, spent most of his adult life—across more than six decades of remarkable productivity—wrestling with what the term “American poet” actually meant. By the time “America” appeared in the back pages of The New York Herald in 1888, Walt Whitman had grown into his self-appointed role as The Poet of Democracy, America’s Good Gray Poet. In declining health and only four years from his own death, Whitman used the brief poem to celebrate what he perceived as America’s triumphant vitality, its emergence from the long, dark shadow of the mid-century civil war that had nearly ended the American experiment. America had survived the kind of internecine war that routinely destroyed European countries. In the process, America had expunged after three centuries the deep national sin of slavery. For Whitman, America was now destined to be a towering and eternal exemplum built on the radical principles of individual freedom, universal equality, the rule of law, and the generous cooperation of community.
Walter Elias Whitman was born on New York’s Long Island, May 31, 1819, just five short years after the Treaty of Ghent officially ended the War of 1812 and solidified American independence from Britain. He was the second of eight children born to Walter Whitman, a struggling farmer and part-time carpenter, and Louisa, a loving, if smothering, mother. His father spiraled into debt (and alcoholism) following a disastrous attempt to speculate in real estate development in Brooklyn. When the family returned to Long Island, Walter, only 14, remained in the city.
Despite barely finishing sixth grade, Whitman, an accomplished autodidact, secured several positions as a schoolteacher; but he loathed the soul-sucking regimen of the classroom. After a stint as a printer, at 22, he became the editor of the Brooklyn Daily Eagle. He wrote incendiary editorials supporting public education reform, women’s rights, workers’ rights, prison reform, immigration reform, and, supremely, abolition. During this time, Whitman drafted the 12 poems that would make up the first edition of Leaves of Grass, published in 1855.
Sales were disappointing. The city’s literary establishment was uncertain over how to respond to Whitman’s eccentric open verse. Save for glowing reviews Whitman himself authored, the critical reaction was lukewarm. Over the next four decades, however, Whitman returned to Leaves of Grass, adding to it, revising, and reordering the poems, believing the collection to be organic and always growing.
The Civil War sorely tested Whitman’s confident vision of America as an expression of cosmic unity. After the war, Whitman released two massive updates of Leaves of Grass between 1868 and 1872, the collection now featuring close to 100 poems. Now established, Whitman relished playing America’s Poet—amid the theaters, oyster bars, and cellar taverns along Broadway, he became a presence, a self-generated celebrity. Then, in January 1873, Whitman had the first of two strokes that partially paralyzed him. During the country’s centennial in 1876, Whitman was hailed as America’s greatest living poet. With his carelessly flowing white beard, his floppy hat, and his piercing eyes, he became, save for Mark Twain, America’s most photographed celebrity.
On March 26, 1892, Whitman died at the grand age of 72. In three hours of public viewing, thousands braved a chilly spring rain to view Whitman’s body on display in the front room window of his Camden, New Jersey home. Whitman was interred in a mausoleum in nearby Harleigh Cemetery, an ornate edifice he had designed (and paid for) himself. It reads simply “Walt Whitman.”
Centre of equal daughters, equal sons,
All, all alike endear’d, grown, ungrown, young or old,
Strong, ample, fair, enduring, capable, rich,
Perennial with the Earth, with Freedom, Law and Love,
A grand, sane, towering, seated Mother,
Chair’d in the adamant of Time.
Whitman, Walt. “America.” 1812. Poetry Foundation.
The poem begins by celebrating America as a nation made up of men and women, or sons and daughters, who stand next to each other, equal in the eyes of the law, equal in the hearts of the nation. Throwing off the abomination of slavery with its assumption that men (and women) were anything but created equal, the nation is now defined by equality. All, the poem intones, all “alike” (Line 2).
The poem then offers a cavalcade of adjectives that capture the variety of the nation, the union of disparate parts, a manifestation of the e pluribus unum credo that had since 1782 been the de facto motto of the United States. Now in postbellum America, the concept had special relevance. Rent asunder by the Civil War, the country was once again prepared to be one made up of the many, the “endear’d, the grown, ungrown, young or old / Strong, ample, fair, enduring, capable, rich” (Lines 3-4).
“Perennial with the Earth” (Line 4) serves to remind Whitman’s era that, despite the deep divisions and simmering grudges between the North and the South still lingering a generation after Appomattox, the United States is destined to abide, destined for longevity, akin, by the poet’s own enthusiastic taste for hyperbole, to nothing less than the Earth itself.
It is that grand and distinctly American-style swagger that pitches the poem into its finale. What defines this America, the poet argues, are three elements that separate America from European cultures. There is the love of freedom and the rejection of unreasonable authority and the embrace of the potential for any individual to earn success; there is the rule of law and the bedrock belief that no individual is above it; and finally there is the American sense of community, the environment of cooperation that defines the American experiment, neighbor to neighbor. “Freedom, Law and Love” (Line 4), all capitalized, elevated to the virtues of a nation just 20 years beyond its near-brush with empire-collapse.
In the end, the poem sees America as a maternal figure, a “grand, sane, towering, seated Mother” (Line 5). Mother America now is restored, back on her rightful throne, once again ready to be the international exemplum of the righteous good that people, simple and unrefined, can realize when given the chance to create and sustain their own country without the interference of kings and generals.