38 pages 1 hour read

Walt Whitman

I Hear America Singing

Fiction | Poem | Adult | Published in 1860

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Summary and Study Guide


First published in 1860 ironically to a nation edging into the dark cannibal logic of civil war, Walt Whitman’s “I Hear America Singing” celebrates the can-do work ethic and the complex diversity of a vast nation just beginning to realize its potential as a single thriving community. The volume of poems in which “I Hear America Singing” was in, titled simply Leaves of Grass, with its thematic boldness, its loving use of American topics, its irreverent and spacious sense of verse freed from the restrictions of anticipated rhyme and rhythm, became for the new generation of American poets born after the War of 1812 their Declaration-at-Long-Last of Independence. Everything about Whitman’s 11-line poem defied the conventions of poetry American writers had inherited from England, models that the generation of national poets before Whitman, dubbed the Fireside Poets, tried so valiantly, and so deliberately, to mimic. “I Hear America Singing” did not look like a British poem, did not read like a British poem, did not scan like a British poem—and happily, defiantly it did not want to. Indeed, with the emergence of Whitman in the decade leading up to the Civil War, America found its first truly native voice.

Poet Biography

Walter Elias Whitman was born in West Hills, just outside the hamlet of Huntington on New York’s Long Island on May 31, 1819. He was the second of eight surviving children born to Walter Whitman, a struggling farmer and part-time carpenter, and Louisa Van Velsor Whitman, a loving, if smothering mother. After the father spiraled into debt following a disastrous attempt to speculate in real estate development, the family relocated to take advantage of the employment opportunities for unskilled blue-collar work in the village of Brooklyn. Whitman’s father still struggled (and began turning to alcohol). Whitman left school at 11 (although neither parent had completed even that much education). He worked first as office help for a law office and then as an apprentice typesetter in a printing firm, thankless and grimy work, certainly, but the young Whitman relished it, loved the physical feel of words as he set line after line of inky type. When his family returned to Long Island, the boy, ever self-reliant, remained in the city. He was all of 14.

Despite his limited formal schooling, Whitman was an accomplished autodidact and over the next several years secured positions as a schoolteacher; but he loathed the classroom. And he missed the hustle and hum of the city—he abandoned teaching in 1841. After a brief stint as a printer in New York City, at the age of 22, he returned to Brooklyn, becoming the editor of the Brooklyn Daily Eagle. He began to write pieces of his own, incendiary editorials on education, women’s right, workers’ rights, prison reform, immigrant policy, and, supremely, slavery. It was during these years that Whitman began composing what would become the cycle of 12 poems that would make up the first edition of Leaves of Grass, published in 1855.

Although sales were disappointing (the critical response was tepid—save for the glowing reviews Whitman himself wrote and published, anonymously, in Manhattan newspapers), Whitman now relished playing the New American Poet—amid the theaters, oyster bars, and cellar taverns along Broadway, he became a presence, a self-conceived and self-sustaining celebrity. Over the next four decades, Whitman would return to Leaves of Grass, add to it, revise poems, reorder poems, believing the collection was an organic thing and needed to grow. In 1860, Whitman published the third edition with more than 140 new or revised poems, among them “I Hear America Singing.” The outbreak of the Civil War, however, shook Whitman emotionally and psychically. The pressing realities of the war sorely tested the very integrity of Whitman’s compelling vision of cosmic unity and spiritual transcendence.

When the war finally ground to its conclusion, Whitman returned to writing poetry with a new vigor, releasing two new editions of Leaves of Grass between 1868 and 1872. Then, in January, 1873, Whitman suffered a catastrophic stroke that rendered his left side largely paralyzed (a second stroke four years later would similarly impair his right side). By the country’s centennial in 1876, Whitman was hailed as America’s greatest living poet, the Poet of Democracy. Although his optimism lapsed as he grew increasingly weaker, Whitman continued to play Walt Whitman, America’s Good Gray Poet (with his carelessly flowing white beard, he became, save for Mark Twain, America’s most photographed and most recognized celebrity).

Over the next several years even as his health deteriorated. Whitman became the center of a kind of cult-like following among America’s younger poets who discovered in Whitman’s unconventional poetry with its celebration of the spiritual dimension of the organic world a clear rejection of the staid middle-class values of Gilded Age America. Just past his 70th birthday, in the closing months of 1891, Whitman felt a disquieting urgency to conclude what had been a nearly 40-year long revision of the poems in Leaves of Grass. In short order, he finished what he dramatically termed the Death-Bed Edition. After years of heroic resistance to a host of physical debilities (Whitman’s autopsy would read like one of his own massive catalogues), in the gloaming of dusk on March 26, 1892, Whitman, nearly paralyzed, died. In the three hours set aside for public viewing, an estimated 2,000 admirers braved a chilly spring rain to view Whitman’s body on display in the front room of his Camden, New Jersey, house. Four days later, thousands more took the day off work to line the streets of Camden just to get a glimpse of Whitman’s hearse heading to nearby Harleigh Cemetery. Crowds packed the shallow hillside in the cemetery as Whitman’s body was interred in a 650 square foot mausoleum he had designed (and paid for) himself. It bore no elaborate inscription, no verse, no dates—it read simply “Walt Whitman.”

Poem Text

I hear America singing, the varied carols I hear,   

Those of mechanics, each one singing his as it should be blithe and strong,   

The carpenter singing his as he measures his plank or beam,   

The mason singing his as he makes ready for work, or leaves off work,   

The boatman singing what belongs to him in his boat, the deckhand singing on the steamboat deck, 

The shoemaker singing as he sits on his bench, the hatter singing as he stands, 

The wood-cutter’s song, the ploughboy’s on his way in the morning, or at noon intermission or at sundown,     

The delicious singing of the mother, or of the young wife at work, or of the girl sewing or washing, 

Each singing what belongs to him or her and to none else, 

The day what belongs to the day—at night the party of young fellows, robust, friendly,  

Singing with open mouths their strong melodious songs.

Whitman, Walt. “I Hear America Singing.” 1860. Poetry Foundation.


On first read, Whitman’s poem seems reassuringly straightforward, a poem meant to be declaimed, raucously and irreverently, a poem meant to be immediately grasped, that mocks the stuffy and pretentious assumption that serious poetry needed to be studied. Whitman designed the poem to appear off the cuff, spontaneous, unrehearsed, an irrepressible, almost giddy celebration of work. The poem offers the cacophony of America’s workers as they go about every day doing their jobs, each worker becoming an element of a vast harmonious weave, a joyous and celebratory national carol, a song more transcendental than actual, the poet more mystical than real. The crazy complex of the songs of these Americans hard at work creates for the visionary poet a kind of single grand national voice that he alone hears, a kind of musical expression of e pluribus unum, emerges out of the wealth of many individuals (Whitman never pluralizes the workers he celebrates), a single striking, stirring voice that affirms the new country’s faith in the virtue and rewards of work.

To capture the vastness and diversity of Whitman’s sprawling nation, the poet packs this brief lyric celebration with a dozen different occupations that represent the richness of America’s work force. They are representative occupations, they work the land and the city, they work the farms and the city, and (when the poet expands his catalogue to include women), they work the home as well as the factories. In shaping such a brief poem around so many occupations, Whitman approximates the expansiveness of the country itself. And for Whitman, versed in the generous vision of Transcendentalism (Ralph Waldo Emerson famously sent Whitman a laudatory letter upon the publication of the first edition of Leaves of Grass, one of the few laudatory reviews the controversial collection received), the device of listing so many different occupations within the same short lyric riffs on Emerson’s notion of the essential connectedness of the material world, the entire planet, really the entire cosmos, a vast, vibrant single grand organism.

The poet moves through the list occupations: a broad-shouldered mechanic, a patient carpenter, a bricklayer, a boatman, a shoemaker, a hatter, a wood cutter, a ploughboy on a farm, a mother, a young wife, a girl doing sewing and washing. The poet captures each in animated pose, each joyfully going about their job. In fact, they each sing as they work—and those are the joyous carols the poet hears. As an emerging capitalist society, America sustains workers who are just that happy to work, just that fulfilled by productivity, that elevated by the routine of work that might otherwise seem like soul-numbing drudgery. Work lifts and sustains. A carpenter measuring out wood, a deckhand swabbing the deck, a shoemaker repairing the sole of shoe, a young girl doing a load of wash, all energized by an act they have presumably done hundreds of times, acting as if this moment was the first time they had done such an onerous job—wait, no, the first they get to do such an onerous job.

And it is through the efforts of this collective, repeated every day, that creates the kinetic power of America itself. America is not about the rich living off the labor of others, not the owners of factories and businesses, but the workers themselves, blue collar, defiant, nameless, and faceless, committing their heroic energies to spectacularly unspectacular jobs that are dangerous, dirty, and dull, but who find in labor itself meaning and purpose for their lives through joining into the synergy of a country happily at work. Indeed, the poet argues they find in such thankless work the grace, the reward, and elevation far earlier generations and far different cultures had found in religion. The poet assures that once the work ends, these American workers seek the vitality and camaraderie of their co-workers, a “party of young fellows, robust, friendly” (Line 10).

The closing lines suggest exactly that spacious sense of the spiritual rewards of work. The poet assures that these workers do not cut the stacks of wood planks or swab the boat decks or sew the torn cloth or plow the endless fields with eyes downcast and shoulders hunched in resignation, all but overwhelmed by the evident (and oppressive) pointlessness of their Sisyphean lives. Rather they sing “with open mouths their strong melodious songs” (Line 11); work does not oppress the heart but enlivens it, does not shatter the spirit but animates it, does not deaden the soul but transforms it.