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Americans Who Tell the Truth

Walt Whitman

Writers, Journalists and Filmmakers

Walt Whitman

American Poet (1819-1892)

This is what you shall do: love the earth and sun and the animals, despise riches, give alms to everyone who asks, stand up for the stupid and crazy, devote your income and labor to others, hate tyrants, argue not concerning God, have patience and indulgence toward the people, take off your hat to nothing known or unknown.

~ Preface to the 1855 edition of Leaves of Grass


Additional Quotes by Walt Whitman

A morning-glory at my window satisfies me more than the metaphysics of books.

After you have exhausted what there is in business, politics, conviviality, and so on - have found that none of these finally satisfy, or permanently wear - what remains? Nature remains.

And whoever walks a furlong without sympathy walks to his own funeral drest in his shroud." "And your very flesh shall be a great poem.

Be curious, not judgmental." "Behold I do not give lectures or a little charity, When I give I give myself.

Do I contradict myself? Very well, then I contradict myself, I am large, I contain multitudes.

Every moment of light and dark is a miracle.

Have you heard that it was good to gain the day? I also say it is good to fall, battles are lost in the same spirit in which they are won.

Have you learned the lessons only of those who admired you, and were tender with you, and stood aside for you? Have you not learned great lessons from those who braced themselves against you, and disputed passage with you?

Henceforth I ask not good fortune. I myself am good fortune.

I accept reality and dare not question it.

I am as bad as the worst, but, thank God, I am as good as the best.

I believe a leaf of grass is no less than the journey-work of the stars.

I cannot be awake for nothing looks to me as it did before, Or else I am awake for the first time, and all before has been a mean sleep.

I celebrate myself, and sing myself.

I celebrate myself, and what I assume you shall assume, For every atom belonging to me as good belongs to you. I loafe and invite my soul, I lean and loafe at my ease... observing a spear of summer grass.

I dote on myself, there is that lot of me and all so luscious.

I find no sweeter fat than sticks to my own bones.

I have learned that to be with those I like is enough.

I heard what was said of the universe, heard it and heard it of several thousand years; it is middling well as far as it goes - but is that all?

I no doubt deserved my enemies, but I don't believe I deserved my friends.

I say that democracy can never prove itself beyond cavil, until it founds and luxuriantly grows its own forms of art, poems, schools, theology, displacing all that exists, or that has been produced anywhere in the past, under opposite influences.

I say to mankind, Be not curious about God. For I, who am curious about each, am not curious about God - I hear and behold God in every object, yet understand God not in the least.

I see great things in baseball. It's our game - the American game.

If any thing is sacred, the human body is sacred.

If you done it, it ain't bragging.

Judging from the main portions of the history of the world, so far, justice is always in jeopardy.

Let that which stood in front go behind, let that which was behind advance to the front, let bigots, fools, unclean persons, offer new propositions, let the old propositions be postponed.

Nothing can happen more beautiful than death.

Nothing endures but personal qualities.

Now I see the secret of making the best person: it is to grow in the open air and to eat and sleep with the earth.

O lands! O all so dear to me - what you are, I become part of that, whatever it is.

O public road, I say back I am not afraid to leave you, yet I love you, you express me better than I can express myself.

O the joy of the strong-brawn'd fighter, towering in the arena in perfect condition, conscious of power, thirsting to meet his opponent.

Oh while I live, to be the ruler of life, not a slave, to meet life as a powerful conqueror, and nothing exterior to me will ever take command of me.

Other lands have their vitality in a few, a class, but we have it in the bulk of our people.

Press close bare-bosomed night - press close magnetic nourishing night! Night of south winds! night of the large few stars! Still nodding night! mad naked summer night.

Produce great men, the rest follows." "Re-examine all that you have been told... dismiss that which insults your soul.

Seeing, hearing, feeling, are miracles, and each part and tag of me is a miracle.

Speech is the twin of my vision, it is unequal to measure itself, it provokes me forever, it says sarcastically, Walt you contain enough, why don't you let it out then?

The art of art, the glory of expression and the sunshine of the light of letters, is simplicity.

The beautiful uncut hair of graves.

The beauty of independence, departure, actions that rely on themselves.

The damp of the night drives deeper into my soul.

The dirtiest book of all is the expurgated book.

The genius of the United States is not best or most in its executives or legislatures, nor in its ambassadors or authors or colleges, or churches, or parlors, nor even in its newspapers or inventors, but always most in the common people.

The great city is that which has the greatest man or woman: if it be a few ragged huts, it is still the greatest city in the whole world.

The shallow consider liberty a release from all law, from every constraint. The wise man sees in it, on the contrary, the potent Law of Laws.

The United States themselves are essentially the greatest poem.

The whole theory of the universe is directed unerringly to one single individual.

The words of my book nothing, the drift of it everything.

There is no object so soft but it makes a hub for the wheeled universe.

There is no week nor day nor hour when tyranny may not enter upon this country, if the people lose their roughness and spirit of defiance.

There is that indescribable freshness and unconsciousness about an illiterate person that humbles and mocks the power of the noblest expressive genius.

To have great poets, there must be great audiences.

To me, every hour of the day and night is an unspeakably perfect miracle.

To the real artist in humanity, what are called bad manners are often the most picturesque and significant of all.

We convince by our presence.

Whatever satisfies the soul is truth.

When I give, I give myself.

Wisdom is not finally tested in the schools, Wisdom cannot be pass'd from one having it to another not having it. Wisdom is of the soul, is not susceptible of proof, is its own proof.



I had pinned this credo of Walt Whitman to my studio wall many years ago because it represented to me the essential democratic impulse, something I liked to keep in mind while painting. Overwhelmed by anger at the attitude and manner that our government adopted after 9/11, I wanted to honor Whitman's words by painting his portrait. It was an effort to invoke his ghost in order to define to myself what was honest, humane and necessary for the survival of us all. It was an effort to define America's heart in terms of compassion, not aggression. Whitman was the first portrait.

~ Robert Shetterly


Whitman was born in West Hills, Long Island (near Huntington), New York, and moved to Brooklyn four years later. This self-described mate and companion of people, all just as immortal and fathomless as myself (Song of Myself) knew a variety of occupations during his formative years: drifter, printer, teacher, reporter, editor, novelist. The celebrated “melting pot” of New York during the turbulent 1840's provided him an education in diversity and democratic values. When he was 36 he published Leaves of Grass, consisting of 12 long, untitled poems, which he revised and expanded throughout his life. During the Civil War he helped to nurse and comfort the wounded. His elegy for Abraham Lincoln, When Lilacs Last in the Dooryard Bloom'd, is but one of several enduring masterpieces. Whitman died in Camden, New Jersey in 1892.

No subject was off limits to Whitman. He celebrated the body and all its functions as exuberantly as he did the spirit, and his human subjects were not the lofty beings of myth and romance but flesh-and-blood men and women of the humblest kind. He also broke the formal constraints of poetry in his time by writing in unrhymed, unmetrical verse. Ralph Waldo Emerson acknowledged Whitman's new poetic voice as the most wonderful gift…the most extraordinary piece of wit and wisdom that America has yet contributed.



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