Magazine August 26, 2019, Issue

Walt Whitman Isn’t America’s Greatest Poet

Walt Whitman in Brooklyn, N.Y., September 1872 (New York Public Library)
He’s more the father of empty celebrity than of the Democratic spirit

In its May issue, The Atlantic published what may be a new acme (or nadir) of literary hagiography, “Walt Whitman’s Guide to a Thriving Democracy.” The article, by Mark Edmundson, is one of some quite vigorously spurting celebrations to mark the 200th anniversary of the poet’s birth. But Edmundson goes so far as to anoint Whitman America’s greatest poet, necessary for the country to “discover its spirit” after the Founders shaped its mind. 

I fumed and fumed. Whitman is, factually, the poet whom ordinary Americans most reviled (inasmuch as they noticed him) in the days when the genre was democracy’s main

This article appears as “Song for Himself” in the August 26, 2019, print edition of National Review.

Sarah Ruden’s most recent books are the extensively revised second edition of her Aeneid translation and her new translation of the Gospels.

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