Early American poetry
America's two greatest 19th-century poets could hardly have been more different in temperament and style. Walt Whitman (1819–1892) was a working man, a traveler, a self-appointed nurse during the American Civil War (1861–1865), and a poetic innovator. His magnum opus was Leaves of Grass, in which he uses a free-flowing verse and lines of irregular length to depict the all-inclusiveness of American democracy. Taking that motif one step further, the poet equates the vast range of American experience with himself without being egotistical. For example, in Song of Myself, the long, central poem in Leaves of Grass, Whitman writes: "These are really the thoughts of all men in all ages and lands, they are not original with me ..."
Whitman was also a poet of the body – "the body electric," as he called it. It is said that Whitman "was the first to smash the old moral conception that the soul of man is something 'superior' and 'above' the flesh."
Emily Dickinson (1830–1886), on the other hand, lived the sheltered life of a genteel unmarried woman in small-town Amherst, Massachusetts. Within its formal structure, her poetry is ingenious, witty, exquisitely wrought, and psychologically penetrating. Her work was unconventional for its day, and little of it was published during her lifetime.
Many of her poems dwell on death, often with a mischievous twist. One, "Because I could not stop for Death", begins, "He kindly stopped for me." The opening of another Dickinson poem toys with her position as a woman in a male-dominated society and an unrecognized poet: "I'm nobody! Who are you? / Are you nobody too?"
American poetry arguably reached its peak in the early-to-mid-20th century, with such noted writers as Wallace Stevens, T. S. Eliot , Robert Frost, Hart Crane, , Ezra Pound, William Carlos Williams and Langston Hughes, in addition to many others.
Realism, Twain and James
Mark Twain (1835–1910) was the first major American writer...