The Atlantic

Why Walt Whitman Called America the ‘Greatest Poem’

The 19th-century writer believed that the power of poetry and democracy came from an ability to make a unified whole out of disparate parts.
Source: Library of Congress

Updated at 4:45 p.m. ET on July 6, 2020.

Shocked at the election of their next president, many Americans at the end of 2016 turned to social media, petitions, polls, and the streets in protest. A century and a half ago, shocked at the assassination of the sitting president, who had overseen the reunification of a divided nation, Walt Whitman turned to poetry. In “O Captain! My Captain!” Whitman famously eulogized Abraham Lincoln as the fallen leader of the great ship of America, which he called a “vessel grim and daring.”

But for Whitman, poetry wasn’t just a vehicle for expressing political lament; it was also a political force in itself. In his preface to the first edition of (1855)Whitman claimed of the United States, “Their Presidents shall not be their common

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