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Article Commentary on "I Hear America Singing"

Walt Whitman, 1864

Walt Whitman walked about in his America, noticing and noting down. Famously containing multitudes. Famously willing even to contradict himself. Including minute details of ornithological observation and the sky studded with stars. The butcher-boy, the blacksmith, the surgeon, the Negro teamster. Occupations and classes of people. Men, women, children. The solitary wilderness hunter and the crowds thronging city streets. The President, the planter, and the panting fugitive slave. Encompassing even the common grass, everywhere. "One of the Nation of many nations, the smallest the same and the largest the same."

Words: cymballine, quoits, simulacrum, gamut, Paphian, agonistic, melange, trottoirs, coreopsis, interstices, mulleins, chyle, riant, autochthons... Whitman's words, more than 13,000 different ones, by some estimates. And many discourses. Whitman, looking back on his early years in New York, recalls frequent visits to the antiquities of the "Egyptian Collection" on Broadway and to the "Phrenological Cabinet" of the Fowler Brothers and Samuel Wells (Whitman had his own "chart of bumps" prepared). Whitman studied Ormsby MacKnight Mitchell's Course of Six Lectures on Astronomy and used its lessons in his poems (his own astronomical observations were so detailed that some of the poems can be dated using his descriptions of the night sky). He was familiar with contemporary thought about electricity and atoms, with the theology of Elias Hicks, with the historical theory of Thomas Carlyle.

And then there was music. The poems use more than two hundred different musical terms and mention more than two dozen different instruments. In Whitman's youthful journalism and in the memoirs of old age, music appears often, music of all kinds. Popular family singing groups like the Cheneys and the Hutchinsons. Visiting European virtuosi of the violin and the piano. Oratorios and operas. The minstrel singer Daddy Rice. The "Swedish Nightingale" Jenny Lind, on a tour of America promoted by P. T. Barnum. The American classical composer Anthony Philip Heinrich. The songs of Stephen Foster. A Beethoven septet. A performance by a group of nurses and convalescing soldiers in a Civil War hospital. Whitman wrote an editorial urging the regular study of music in American schools. He proposed an American opera using three (or more) banjos in the orchestra and including arias accompanied only by the banjo. He told a friend that more of his poems than he could remember had been inspired by music, heard in the streets, in the theater, or in private. In defending his poetry against accusations of formlessness, he claimed to construct his poems in the manner of Italian opera. "Nobody could write in my way unless he had the melody singing in his ears... in the older pieces I always had a tune before I began to write." And in the poem "I Hear America Singing," he celebrated the music welling up all around him.

The America which Whitman heard singing was one which he imagined shared many qualities with himself.

Exuberant. Expansive. Adhesive. Inclusive.

And here it is.

David Kresh was the reference specialist in poetry in the Humanities and Social Sciences Division of the Library of Congress. He served as poet in residence at Capitol Hill Day School, where he introduced his students to Walt Whitman in second grade.

Learn More About It

  1. See Whitman's notebooks in Poet at Work: Recovered Notebooks from the Thomas Biggs Harned Walt Whitman Collection -
  2. Read articles and poems by Whitman in The Nineteenth Century in Print: Periodicals (search on "Walt Whitman") -
  3. Read more about Whitman in Today in History, May 31 (Whitman's birthday) -
  4. Read about how Walt Whitman relates to The World of 1898: The Spanish-American War
  5. Search the Prints and Photographs Online Catalog for photographs of Whitman (enter the key words "Walt Whitman" in the search box) -
  6. View the finding aid for the Charles E. Feinberg Collection of the Papers of Walt Whitman in the Manuscript Division -
  7. View the finding aid for the Thomas Biggs Harned Collection of the Papers of Walt Whitman in the Manuscript Division -
  8. View the finding aid for the Walt Whitman Papers (Miscellaneous Manuscript Collection) in the Manuscript Division -

About this Item


  • Commentary on "I Hear America Singing"


  • Kresh, David -- 1940- (author)


  • -  Whitman, Walt -- 1819-1892 -- -- poet
  • -  Articles
  • -  Songs and Music


  • article

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Kresh, David. Commentary on "I Hear America Singing". Web..

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