The best Walt Whitman books

4 authors have picked their favorite books about Walt Whitman and why they recommend each book.

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Book cover of Walt Whitman's Leaves of Grass

This fifth pick isn’t fiction. But like the best fiction, poetry can pierce through to the very essence. Although shaggy poet Whitman was the furthest thing from a soldier imaginable, he was deeply involved in the war effort nonetheless. After the Battle of Fredericksburg, Whitman traveled to Virginia to find his wounded brother. He then chose to remain in Washington, DC, nursing wounded soldiers. Whitman’s war-time experiences gave rise to some of the finest poems in Leaves of Grass such as “The Wound-Dresser,” “Come Up from the Fields Father,” and “A Sight in Camp in the Daybreak Gray and Dim.”

Walt Whitman's Leaves of Grass

By Walt Whitman,

Why should I read it?

2 authors picked Walt Whitman's Leaves of Grass as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

This Library of America edition is the biggest and best edition of Walt Whitman's writings ever published. It includes all of his poetry and what he considered his complete prose. It is also the only collection that includes, in exactly the form in which it appeared in 1855, the first edition of Leaves of Grass. This was the book, a commercial failure, which prompted Emerson’s famous message to Whitman: “I greet you at the beginning of a great career.” These twelve poems, including what were later to be entitled “Song of Myself” and “I Sing the Body Electric,” and a…

Who am I?

My specialty is American history, meticulously researched, but delivered in a narrative style that’s akin to fiction. My latest book, A Fierce Glory, is about Antietam, a battle that occupied a single day in 1862, yet remains one of history’s most consequential events. Of course, there are countless military histories of Antietam–or any Civil War battle, for that matter–focusing on troop movements and tactics. I wanted to get at the emotional heart of this epic showdown: the confusion, terror, sadness, along with some startling and selfless acts of heroism. To do so, I drew inspiration from some of my favorite fictional works.


I wrote...

A Fierce Glory: Antietam--The Desperate Battle That Saved Lincoln and Doomed Slavery

By Justin Martin,

Book cover of A Fierce Glory: Antietam--The Desperate Battle That Saved Lincoln and Doomed Slavery

What is my book about?

This is a character-rich, modern-style account of an 1862 Civil War battle that was more important than Gettysburg and—with a death toll of 3,650 soldiers—remains the bloodiest single day in U.S. history. Had the South won, we’d likely be living in two separate nations today. Because it was a Northern victory instead, though by the slimmest of margins, Lincoln chose to issue the Emancipation Proclamation, imbuing the war effort with a new and noble purpose–freeing the slaves. Lincoln is woven deeply into this tale, far more than in a standard military history of the battle. The rich cast also includes generals George McClellan and Robert E. Lee, medical pioneers Clara Barton and Jonathan Letterman, and Alexander Gardner, the groundbreaking photographer.

The Wander Society

By Keri Smith,

Book cover of The Wander Society

Several years ago when Keri Smith, bestselling author of Wreck This Journal, discovered cryptic handwritten notations in a worn copy of Walt Whitman's Leaves of Grass, her interest was piqued. Little did she know at the time that those simple markings would become the basis of a years-long, life-changing exploration into a mysterious group known only as The Wander Society, as well as the subject of this book.

Within these pages, you'll find the results of Smith's research: A guide to the Wander Society, a secretive group that holds up the act of wandering, or unplanned exploring, as a way of life. You'll learn about the group's mysterious origins, meet fellow wanderers through time, discover how wandering feeds the creative mind, and learn how to best practice the art of wandering, should you choose to accept the mission. Reading this book is an experience. You won't…

The Wander Society

By Keri Smith,

Why should I read it?

1 author picked The Wander Society as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

From the internationally bestselling creator of Wreck This Journal...

wan*der
verb \ wan-dar\
to walk/explore/amble in an unplanned or aimless way with a complete openness to the unknown

Several years ago when Keri Smith, bestselling author of Wreck This Journal, discovered cryptic handwritten notations in a worn copy of Walt Whitman's Leaves of Grass, her interest was piqued. Little did she know at the time that those simple markings would become the basis of a years-long, life-changing exploration into a mysterious group known only as The Wander Society, as well as the subject of this book.

Within these pages, you'll…

Who am I?

Christina Crook is a pioneer and leading voice in the field of digital well-being. She is the award-winning author of The Joy of Missing Out: Finding Balance in a Wired World, the harbinger of the global #JOMO movement, and Good Burdens: How to Live Joyfully in a Digital Age. Christina regularly shares her insights about technology and our daily lives in international media including The New York Times, Psychology Today, and Harper's Bazaar which called her "The Marie Kondo of Digital.”


I wrote...

Good Burdens: How to Live Joyfully in the Digital Age

By Christina Crook,

Book cover of Good Burdens: How to Live Joyfully in the Digital Age

What is my book about?

What if there was a simple shift in thinking that could eliminate digital stress, reconnect us to the real world and give greater meaning to our lives? Christina Crook, the award-winning author of The Joy of Missing Out, reveals there is, and it’s in reach of all of us. In her new book, Good Burdens: How to Live Joyfully in the Digital Age offers concrete solutions for flourishing in the digital age.

Crook advocates for a realignment of our energies, online and off, towards effortful pursuits - cultivating relationships, community, and creative projects that bring lasting joy. But Good Burdens is more than actionable advice—it’s also a lively intellectual tour of this simple yet powerful idea, introducing readers to social media gurus, offline rebels, academics, and everyday heroes who have embraced the joy of missing out on the right things to make space for good burdens.

Leaves of Grass

By Walt Whitman,

Book cover of Leaves of Grass

I can’t say I have a love for poetry, but Walt Whitman sure stirs the soul! "Song of the Open Road," one of the poems in the Leaves of Grass collection, is my favorite. His opening lines, “Afoot and lighthearted, I take to the open road. Healthy, free, the world before me” makes me want to lace up my shoes! But also, as many wanderers who are conflicted by the call of the open road and place to call home, the last lines of the poem capture that bittersweet tug: “Will you give me yourself? will you come travel with me? Shall we stick by each other as long as we live?” Whitman captures the restlessness and longing of our American spirit.

Leaves of Grass

By Walt Whitman,

Why should I read it?

1 author picked Leaves of Grass as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

Features several of Whitman's most famous poems including 'I Hear America Singing', 'I Sing the Body Electric' and 'One's-self I sing'.

Who am I?

I grew up a fan of an evening news segment called “On the Road with Charles Kuralt.” Kuralt spotlighted upbeat, affirmative, sometimes nostalgic stories of people and places he discovered as he traveled across the American landscape. The charming stories he told were only part of the appeal; the freedom and adventure of being on the open road ignited a spark that continues to smolder. Some of my fondest memories from childhood are our annual family road trips, and I still jump at the chance to drive across the country.


I wrote...

The Open Road

By M.M. Holaday,

Book cover of The Open Road

What is my book about?

Set in the American West in the second half of the 19th century, Win, a wandering free-spirit, persuades his best friend to head west with him to see the frontier before it disappears. They meet Meg, the female embodiment of Win’s own inner conflict between place and restlessness. As the friends seek adventure and find love on the American frontier, there is irony in these adventurous souls looking for a place to call home.

Black Spring

By Henry Miller,

Book cover of Black Spring

As a young man I had a prolonged bout of mental illness. What saved me was my struggle to become a writer. This was my secret identity. I had to find other writers to inspire me, whose books offered hope, and could help me channel the restless energy that I felt within that had not yet found a purpose. I found such a writer in Henry Miller.

Miller is out of fashion now, even though George Orwell called him "the only imaginative prose-writer of the slightest value who has appeared among the English-speaking races for some years past". Like DH Lawrence, he tangled with the censors repeatedly – to his credit.

He was as uncompromising about his art as Lawrence. Unlike him, he had no hang-ups about moralism and guilt. Far from it. Reading him was like sipping nectar. It was a tonic for the mind. His exuberant language was…

Black Spring

By Henry Miller,

Why should I read it?

1 author picked Black Spring as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.


Who am I?

I love books that boggle my mind. Take me away from mundane reality. That’s the kind of book I like to write.


I wrote...

Hybrids

By David Thorpe,

Book cover of Hybrids

What is my book about?

Are you… A slave to your computer? Welded to your mobile phone? Joined at the hip to your iPod? Maybe one day you will be…Hybrids is a YA novel also enjoyed by adults. Britain is under quarantine. A virus is spreading that mainly affects teenagers. It causes them to merge with frequently-used technology like mobile phones and computers to become… Hybrids.

Hybrids is a terrifyingly realistic and contemporary novel … an absolute must read.” Verity Newman, Waterstone’s, “A stunningly clever novel” – The Times, “Powerful and compelling” – Red House Books

The Spider's Thread

By Keith J. Holyoak,

Book cover of The Spider's Thread: Metaphor in Mind, Brain, and Poetry

In the 1980s and 1990s, Keith Holyoak and I collaborated on a series of articles and books about analogy, which is the underpinning of complex metaphors. His new book is a delightfully insightful discussion of metaphors in poetry, drawing not only on his deep knowledge of cognitive psychology but also on his experience as a highly published poet. Through analysis of great poems by Walt Whitman, Emily Dickinson, and many others, he illuminates how metaphors contribute to beautiful poems and to creativity in general.  

The Spider's Thread

By Keith J. Holyoak,

Why should I read it?

1 author picked The Spider's Thread as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.


Who am I?

I became interested in metaphor and analogy as a graduate student in philosophy of science in the 1970s. Important scientific ideas such as natural selection and the wave theories of sound and light were built from metaphors and made to work by analogical thinking. In the 1980s, I started building computational models of analogy. So when I got interested in balance because of a case of vertigo in 2016, I naturally noticed the abundance of balance metaphors operating in science and everyday life. Once the pandemic hit, I was struck by the prevalence of the powerful metaphor of making public health decisions while balancing lives and livelihoods. 


I wrote...

Balance: How It Works and What It Means

By Paul Thagard,

Book cover of Balance: How It Works and What It Means

What is my book about?

Ordinary activities like walking or riding a bike require the brain to keep the body in balance. Language abounds with expressions and figures of speech that invoke balance. The concept crops up from politics—checks and balances, the balance of power, balanced budgets—to science, in which ideas of equilibrium are crucial.

Paul Thagard describes the neural mechanisms that keep bodies balanced and explains why their failures can result in nausea, falls, or vertigo. He analyzes balance metaphors across science, medicine, economics, the arts, and philosophy, showing why some aid understanding but others are misleading or harmful. In both literal and metaphorical senses, balance is what enables people to solve the puzzles of life by turning sensory signals or incongruous comparisons into a coherent whole.

We Contain Multitudes

By Sarah Henstra,

Book cover of We Contain Multitudes

Here’s another book that I love because it’s a story about love, the love of two boys who are unlikely companions: one is a former football player, taciturn and withdrawn; the other is openly gay, a short, slender, fine-boned boy who idolizes the poet Walt Whitman, whose words become a leitmotif of this remarkable novel. Told in the form of. letters that the two boys exchange, it follows their emerging friendship as it gradually turns into a love that’s as poetic as Whitman’s well-chosen words. The relationship of the boys – who are characters to die for – is riveting and their story, unforgettable. Another terrific addition to gay literature for teens.   

We Contain Multitudes

By Sarah Henstra,

Why should I read it?

1 author picked We Contain Multitudes as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

Jonathan Hopkirk and Adam 'Kurl' Kurlansky are partnered in English class, writing letters to one another in a weekly pen pal assignment. With each letter, the two begin to develop a friendship that grows into love. But with homophobia, bullying, and familial abuse, Jonathan and Kurl must struggle to overcome their conflicts and hold onto their relationship, and each other.We Contain Multitudes is the sort of novel that has readers falling in love with their characters, becoming so invested in their stories and conflicts that it's impossible to put the book down. The literary languages and references throughout (particularly to…

Who am I?

I’ve been a full-time writer since 1994 and have so far published twenty-seven books, three of them with gay themes: My Father’s Scar, a gay coming-of-age novel and two about LGBTQ+ issues: Top 250 LGTBQ Books for Teens and The Heart Has Its Reasons, a history of queer literature. I’ve been interested in this literature since I was a gay teen myself, because there were no YA books with queer characters then. I missed seeing my face in the pages of a good book and so I promised myself that when I became an adult. I would make sure there was an ample assortment for today’s queer kids. And, guess what? I’ve kept my promise!


I wrote...

Young Adult Literature: From Romance to Realism

By Michael Cart,

Book cover of Young Adult Literature: From Romance to Realism

What is my book about?

Young Adult Literature: From Romance to Realism is a definitive history of the genre from its earliest stirrings in the nineteenth century (Little Women, anyone?) to today and the likes of the amazingly popular John Green. The book offers an insider’s look at what has become one of the fastest-growing, most dynamic areas of American publishing. In addition to the expertise the author brings to the book, there are also numerous interviews with leading figures in the field, such as authors like Jackie Woodson and editor/authors like David Levithan. Written by a literary journalist, the book is highly readable and accessible to general readers as well as students of the literature.  

The Maze of Bones

By Rick Riordan,

Book cover of The Maze of Bones

I love how The Maze of Bones, the first in a set of series written by acclaimed and award-winning children’s authors, transports readers across the globe to explore historical connections that still resonate today. The book takes readers along with sister and brother Amy and Dan Cahill as they compete against talented and treacherous members of their own family to try to solve a series of thirty-nine clues that will make the finders “the most powerful, influential human beings on the planet.”

I admire how The Maze of Bones explores the complex connections among family and across time and weaves in real-life historical figures such as Benjamin Franklin and lesser-known facts such as that Franklin used the pseudonym Richard Saunders to publish Poor Richard’s Almanac. The Maze of Bones takes readers from Boston to Philadelphia’s Franklin Institute and Independence Hall and to the catacombs of Paris and it…

The Maze of Bones

By Rick Riordan,

Why should I read it?

1 author picked The Maze of Bones as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

What would happen if you discovered that your family was one of the most powerful in human history? What if you were told that the source of the family's power was hidden around the world in the form of 39 clues? What if you were given a choice - take a million dollars and walk away ...or get the first clue and begin the search? At the reading of their grandmother's will, Dan and Amy are given this choice - and they take the clue. Immediately, they are caught in a dangerous race against their own family members. The hunt…

Who am I?

To me, curiosity is an essential ingredient for a well-lived life. I love to ask questions and spent years collecting odd, weird, and intriguing facts and studying outdoor survival, art history, historical puzzles, and poetry to write Smack Dab in the Middle of Maybe. Curiosity also led me to found Outdoorosity.org as a free resource for information and inspiration about nature and to research ways that time in nature increases focus and creativity. One of my favorite parts of being an author is visiting with students and exploring things that they are curious about. Curiosity keeps life interesting for us all.


I wrote...

Smack Dab in the Middle of Maybe

By Jo Watson Hackl,

Book cover of Smack Dab in the Middle of Maybe

What is my book about?

“Eleven days, thirteen clues, and one kid who won’t give up.” Smack Dab in the Middle of Maybe takes readers on an adventure with 12-year-old Cricket as she tries to survive on her own in an overgrown ghost town and solve a clue trail left by an eccentric artist with a logic all his own, all to find the secret Bird Room that might be the key to getting her mama back.

Smack Dab won the Southern Book Prize and is a Publisher’s Weekly bestseller and an Amazon “Teacher’s Pick.” NYT bestselling author Carrie Ryan calls it “totally unputdownable.” In a starred review, Kirkus describes it as “[l]yrical and endearing” Plus, Smack Dab features a poetry-loving dog and who can resist that?

A Worse Place Than Hell

By John Matteson,

Book cover of A Worse Place Than Hell: How the Civil War Battle of Fredericksburg Changed a Nation

John Matteson is a deft prose stylist who once more delivers in this engrossing narrative of the Civil War as seen through the eyes of five key protagonists—including the poet Walt Whitman and a young Louisa May Alcott. The characters wind up on the murderous battlefields and teeming hospital wards of Fredericksburg, Virginia. The title is admittedly deceptive; readers expecting an operational or tactical history of Ambrose Burnside’s rout on the Rappahannock won’t find it here. On the other hand, those interested in a searing meditation on all that the war did to individual human bodies and minds—and the collective American soul—will savor this haunting, smart, and elegant book.  

A Worse Place Than Hell

By John Matteson,

Why should I read it?

1 author picked A Worse Place Than Hell as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

December 1862 drove the United States towards a breaking point. The Battle of Fredericksburg shattered Union forces and Northern confidence. As Abraham Lincoln's government threatened to fracture, this critical moment also tested five extraordinary individuals whose lives reflect the soul of a nation. The changes they underwent led to profound repercussions in the country's law, literature, politics and popular mythology. Taken together, their stories offer a striking restatement of what it means to be American. Guided by patriotism, driven by desire, all five moved towards singular destinies. A young Harvard intellectual steeped in courageous ideals, Oliver Wendell Holmes Jr confronted…


Who am I?

I’ve been fascinated by the Civil War my entire life. As a boy, I met a man in my Ohio hometown who spent his own youth visiting with the last, wrinkled survivors of the Union armies. His memories at once made the Civil War real and immediate for me. I soon devoured every book and walked every battlefield I could find. After earning an undergraduate degree in Civil War Studies at Gettysburg College, I completed my Ph.D. at Yale. I have authored six books on the conflict—one of which was a runner-up for the Pulitzer in History—and teach courses on the Civil War at Sam Houston State University.   


I wrote...

A Thousand May Fall: An Immigrant Regiment's Civil War

By Brian Matthew Jordan,

Book cover of A Thousand May Fall: An Immigrant Regiment's Civil War

What is my book about?

From the pen of a Pulitzer Prize finalist, A Thousand May Fall is an intimate chronicle of the Civil War—narrated from the fighting ranks of an ethnically German regiment in the United States army. Throughout its two years and ten months of service, the 107th Ohio endured not only the horrible extremes of war, but the ugly scourge of nativism. Its men knew the ache of defeat and the taste of victory. Suffering horrific losses at Chancellorsville and Gettysburg, they tracked between hope and heartbreak, cynicism and conviction. After the war, they tended to the burdensome errands of memory. Based on prodigious research into neglected sources, this revelatory history restores the common man and immigrant striver to the center of Civil War history. 

Belligerent Muse

By Stephen Cushman,

Book cover of Belligerent Muse: Five Northern Writers and How They Shaped Our Understanding of the Civil War

If Marszalek’s book is thin on any aspect of Sherman it is on his writing — the eloquent, powerful weapon he brandished during the war and the efficient, versatile tool with which he constructed his legacy in his Memoirs.

As a young man, the letters he wrote to his foster sister and future wife Ellen contained carefully constructed sentences with descriptive flourishes; as an adult, he borrowed liberally from his love of Shakespeare and the theater to craft his persona in his Memoirs.

Cushman, an award-winning poet and historian, places Sherman’s writing in the context of four other Northern writers (Abraham Lincoln, Walt Whitman, Ambrose Bierce, and Joshua Chamberlain) who were inspired by the “belligerent muse” — war. You will treasure this book, which is unlike any other book about history or literature you’ve ever read.

Belligerent Muse

By Stephen Cushman,

Why should I read it?

1 author picked Belligerent Muse as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

War destroys, but it also inspires, stimulates, and creates. It is, in this way, a muse, and a powerful one at that. The American Civil War was a particularly prolific muse--unleashing with its violent realities a torrent of language, from soldiers' intimate letters and diaries to everyday newspaper accounts, great speeches, and enduring literary works. In Belligerent Muse, Stephen Cushman considers the Civil War writings of five of the most significant and best known narrators of the conflict: Abraham Lincoln, Walt Whitman, William Tecumseh Sherman, Ambrose Bierce, and Joshua Lawrence Chamberlain. Considering their writings both as literary expressions and as…

Who am I?

I was fated to write about war. Born on Guam to a Navy hospital corpsman and his intrepid wife, I spent four years on tank-littered beaches of Saipan and sailed to Japan on a U.S. Navy LST at the age of seven. When I graduated from college with a major in journalism, a Navy man, the late great Texas Congressman Charlie Wilson hired me as his press secretary, and we talked military history even as he made it in Afghanistan. Thirty-three years later, I went back to school for an MA in History. As I write, my great grandfather’s bugle from the Spanish-American War and the flag that covered my father’s coffin at his Arlington Cemetery funeral sit atop my shelves of military history books.


I wrote...

Lincoln's Generals' Wives: Four Women Who Influenced the Civil War--For Better and for Worse

By Candice Shy Hooper,

Book cover of Lincoln's Generals' Wives: Four Women Who Influenced the Civil War--For Better and for Worse

What is my book about?

The story of the Civil War is not complete without examining the extraordinary lives of Jessie Frémont, Nelly McClellan, Ellen Sherman, and Julia Grant, wives of Abraham Lincoln’s top generals.

Once shots were fired on Fort Sumter, these four women were launched out of their private lives into a wholly different universe, where their relationships with their husbands and their personal opinions of the President of the United States had national and historical consequences. Using letters, memoirs, and other primary sources—and, for the first time, mapping their wartime travels—I explore the very different ways in which these remarkable women responded to the unique challenges of being Lincoln’s generals’ wives. Published in 2016, my book won three national awards.

Demonology

By Ralph Waldo Emerson,

Book cover of Demonology

Though it focuses on dreams and the occult, the ulterior subject of Emerson’s Demonology is the arcane inversions, doublings, and “unconscious” of transcendentalism. Between many of Emerson’s pronouncements falls this shadow of Demonology, which provides key tenets of his philosophy. Demonology is the cumulative residue of an attempt to explain away that which resists Emerson’s theory that nature is consistent, explicable, rational, and benign. Encapsulating the uncanny, and the inexplicable forces of dreams, animals, and pseudosciences, Demonology consolidates all that is “outside” and negated for Emerson—everything that is, in his terminology, “not me.” Demonology locates the cracks in Emerson’s consciousness, as well as the hobgoblins in his notion of Reason. Emerson’s conception of nature here is notably modern, and often sounds Lacanian—the demonological exception or irrational, that which cannot be fully understood or described, is the necessary anomaly or remainder on which the universality of nature depends.

Demonology

By Ralph Waldo Emerson,

Why should I read it?

1 author picked Demonology as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.


Who am I?

I received my Ph.D. and J.D. at Berkeley, and my next book Your Call is Very Important to Us: Advertising and the Corporate Theft of Personhood, is forthcoming from Rowman & Littlefield. My research into literary and legal history made me fascinated with how people project hopes and fears onto the social construct of nature. How does one explain the contradictory ways white men imagined they could transcend painful isolation by merging into a nature coded as non-white and female? These fantasies play out in popular culture, e.g. in Avatar, in which men seek the unobtanium they lack: a nature that was always lost/a retroactively-constructed fantasy, and a cover for what it seemed to oppose—finally the corporation.


I wrote...

Not Altogether Human: Pantheism and the Dark Nature of the American Renaissance

By Richard Hardack,

Book cover of Not Altogether Human: Pantheism and the Dark Nature of the American Renaissance

What is my book about?

A surprising number of nineteenth-century American thinkers were pantheists: they believed that God inheres in all things, and that men could achieve a sense of belonging they lacked in society by seeking oneness with nature. However, writers such as Emerson, Hawthorne, and Melville conceived of nature as everything "Other"―other than their white male Protestant culture. This male conception of nature became racialized, and the divine became associated with African American and Native American identities, as well as with femininity—the Other or “not-me” of these writers, and a repository of all they lacked. My aim was to reinterpret familiar texts through a lens, that of pantheism, that is unfamiliar to most readers, but helps provide context for how strange but still relevant these writers are.

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