Leaves of Grass Analysis

Historical Background

When Walt Whitman was born on May 31, 1819, the United States was entering a period of great internal political conflict that would culminate 40 years later with the Civil War. During the first half of the Nineteenth Century, the young nation was growing and expanding its territorial holdings as daring easterners and newly arrived immigrants headed west across the Mississippi River to explore and settle the western frontier. In his poetry, Whitman describes these settlers as intrepid Americans who were inspired by a determined pioneering spirit, a need for raw materials, and even competition with other countries who were also actively acquiring new territory. Following the American Revolution, European nations had lost much of their territory in North America; however, the great European powers continued to broaden their colonial empires, focusing their efforts in Asia and Africa. Americans kept pace on their own continent, and by the end of the century, the wild frontier Whitman celebrates in much of his poetry had drastically changed and had almost disappeared. Whitman’s “pioneers” had built settlements, farms, and communities throughout the West, while much of the Native American population was displaced and resettled on government-controlled reservations.

As American writers chronicled the monumental changes in their country, the American Romantic movement began in the 1830s and 1840s. Ralph Waldo Emerson and a group of writers known as the Transcendentalists became highly influential during this time. In 1854, Henry David Thoreau published Walden or Life in the Woods which was based on his experience living at Walden Pond in Concord, Massachusetts. A year later, in 1855, Walt Whitman published a slim volume of poetry titled Leaves of Grass. He dedicated this first edition of what would become his life’s work to his mentor, Emerson. Other important writers of the time included Emily Dickinson and Nathaniel Hawthorne. Although Dickinson published few poems during her lifetime (and remained relatively anonymous until the...

(The entire section is 845 words.)

Leaves of Grass (Critical Survey of Contemporary Fiction)

When Whitman published his first edition, readers were astounded: It had no rhyme or meter, it used the language of contemporary America, and it presented a specific human being speaking of himself in physical as well as spiritual and mental terms. It appalled some readers but refreshed and delighted many others.

The book grew as Whitman grew, through six editions and several annexes that eventually added hundreds of poems to the original twelve. It became, as individual poems such as “Song of Myself” suggest, identified with the poet himself.

Besides depicting an individual man, the collection also depicts a nation, America moving into maturity with the harsh test of the Civil War and the subsequent expansion westward. Whitman writes movingly about the war in the “DRUMTAPS” section, drawing from his experiences in Washington, D.C. as a visitor and nurse to the wounded.

Other poems describe America’s natural grandeur and the energy and drama of its people, from prostitute to politician, from pioneer to slave, from Indian to immigrant. Whitman’s resonant, rambling lines amply embody the vitality of a growing nation and the unconfined natural world he observed so closely.

Yet his world was not all bright and fair. He could be critical of his country’s shortcomings while singing its virtues. He also conveys the pain as well as the joy of love, both emotional and physical, especially in the “CALAMUS” poems, some of the greatest ever written expressing love for another man.

Even death finds a place in his scheme. He embraces it as natural and even beautiful, uniting human flesh with the eternal cycles of nature.

Reading LEAVES OF GRASS is a richly uplifting experience. Often addressing the reader directly, Whitman himself leaps from the page, a living presence.

Bibliography:

Allen, Gay Wilson. A Reader’s Guide to Walt Whitman. New York: Farrar, Straus & Giroux, 1970. A succinct survey intended to be an introductory work for readers and students of Whitman. A good place to start the study of Whitman.

Allen, Gay Wilson. The Solitary Singer: A Critical Biography of Walt Whitman. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1985. First published in 1955, this is still one of the best “life-and-works” sources available on Whitman.

Folsom, Ed, ed. Walt Whitman: The Centennial Essays. Iowa City: University of Iowa Press, 1994. A collection of essays in honor of the centennial of Whitman’s death. Provides a good overview of trends in literary criticism of Leaves of Grass.

Kaplan, Justin. Walt Whitman: A Life. New York: Simon & Schuster, 1980. An elegant, deeply imagined biography that focuses on Whitman and his times.

Miller, James E. Leaves of Grass: America’s Lyric-Epic of Self and Democracy. New York: Twayne, 1992. An excellent introduction to the background, themes, and style of Leaves of Grass; especially helpful on the work’s structure.

Pearce, Roy Harvey, ed. Whitman: A Collection of Critical Essays. Englewood Cliffs, N.J.: Prentice-Hall, 1962. A collection of articles gathered primarily for use by students. Contains interesting material, including William Carlos Williams’ “An Essay on Leaves of Grass.”

Zweig, Paul. Walt Whitman: The Making of a Poet. New York: Basic Books, 1984. Not a chronological biography but a very interesting biographical/critical meditation on Whitman’s development.

Leaves of Grass Places Discussed (Critical Guide to Settings and Places in Literature)

*Paumanok

*Paumanok. Village on Long Island east of New York City where Whitman was born. His early poem “Starting from Paumanok” describes the village as “fish-shaped,” indicating its (and his) nautical origins, an idea that he developed in detail in “Out of the Cradle Endlessly Rocking,” in which he envisions himself a “little boy again,/ Throwing myself on the sand, confronting the waves.” Whitman recalls Paumanok’s fragrance as “lilac-scent,” its coastline as marked by “Fifth-month grass” and “briers,” and its seashore inhabited by “two feather’d guests from Alabama,” signaling its fertility and hospitality. Later in the poem, now speaking from an adult’s perspective, Whitman cites “Paumanok’s gray beach” as the site of his initial and continuing poetic inspiration.

*Brooklyn

*Brooklyn. City, which is now part of New York City, to which Whitman’s family moved when his father began work as a carpenter in 1823. Whitman lived in Brooklyn intermittently through the next three decades. He became editor of a leading local newspaper, The Brooklyn Eagle, in 1846, and formed a habit of walking in the city observing every aspect of urban life. His poem “Crossing Brooklyn Ferry” describes people traveling between Brooklyn and Manhattan, using the “heights of Brooklyn to the south and east” and the traffic in the passage between the Hudson and East Rivers as symbols of city life and energy. He describes the “fires from the foundry chimneys/ burning high and glaringly into the night” as an image of industrial might, and the terrain of Brooklyn—“Brooklyn of ample hills was mine”—as homeground.

*Manhattan

*Manhattan. For Whitman, “million-footed Manhattan” was the central city of the new American nation. In admiration he asked, “Ah, what can ever be more stately and admirable to me than mast-hemm’d Manhattan?” Multiple vignettes of life in the street (“the blab of the pave”) come together to form an indelible portrait, which images such as “blacksmiths with grimed and hairy chests environ the anvil.”

*United States

*United States. In his preface to the first edition of Leaves of Grass, Whitman says that the “United States themselves are essentially the greatest poem.” He saw himself as literally an organic element of the new land. “I bequeath myself to the dirt to grow from the grass I love.” In boldly accepting Ralph Waldo Emerson’s call for an American poet, Whitman frequently proclaimed himself a genuine voice of the nation. “In the name of these States”—a characteristic formulation—expresses his position, and through his poems, there are apostrophes to and evocations of individual states and regions. “We dwell awhile in every city and town,” he asserts in “On Journeys Through the States,” writing many passages like Section 14 from “Starting From Paumanok”:

Land of the pastoral plains, the grass-fields of the world! land of those sweet-air’d interminable plateaus!Land of the herd, the garden, the healthy house of adobie!Lands where the north-west Columbia winds, and where the south-west Columbia winds!Land of the eastern Chesapeake! Land of the Delaware!

Whitman returns throughout his poetry to his evolving conception of the United States by using place-names such as “Okonee, Koosa, Ottawa, Monongahela, Sauk, Natchez, Chattahoochee, Kaqueta, Oronoco,/ Wabash, Miami, Saginaw, Chippewa, Oshkosh, Walla-Walla.” He also uses physical features, sensual imagery, folkloric depictions as poetic persona, and some historic incidents.

Leaves of Grass Bibliography and Further Reading

Allen, Gay Wilson. The Solitary Singer: A Critical Biography of Walt Whitman. New York: Macmillan, 1955.

———. Walt Whitman Handbook. Chicago: Packard Press, 1946.

Asselineau, Roger. The Evolution of Walt Whitman: The Development of a Personality. 2 vols. Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1960–1962.

Berg, Christine G. “‘Giving sound to the bruised places in their hearts’: Gloria Naylor and Walt Whitman.” The Critical Response to Gloria Naylor. Eds. Sharon Felton and Michelle C. Loris. Westport, CT: Greenwood Press, 1997. 98–111.

Blodgett, Harold. The Best of Whitman. New York: Ronald Press, 1953.

Chari, V. K....

(The entire section is 320 words.)

Leaves of Grass Bibliography (Critical Guide to Settings and Places in Literature)

Sources for Further Study

Allen, Gay Wilson. A Reader’s Guide to Walt Whitman. New York: Farrar, Straus & Giroux, 1970. A succinct survey intended to be an introductory work for readers and students of Whitman. A good place to start the study of Whitman.

Allen, Gay Wilson. The Solitary Singer: A Critical Biography of Walt Whitman. 1955. Rev. ed. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1985. Describes Whitman’s childhood roots in deism and Quakerism, explores the increasing complexity of Christian thought throughout his life, and finds a wealth of biblical images in the poetry.

Crawley, Thomas. “The Christ-Symbol in Leaves of Grass.” In The Structure of “Leaves of Grass.” Austin: University of Texas Press, 1970. Identifies allusions to Christ and sees the figure as formative for the oneness of the “I” with God, nature, America, and humanity.

Folsom, Ed, ed. Walt Whitman: The Centennial Essays. Iowa City: University of Iowa Press, 1994. A collection of essays in honor of the centennial of Whitman’s death. Provides a good overview of trends in literary criticism of Leaves of Grass.

Kaplan, Justin. Walt Whitman: A Life. New York: Simon & Schuster, 1980. An elegant, deeply imagined biography that focuses on Whitman and his times.

Levine, Herbert J. “’Song of Myself’ as Whitman’s American Bible.” Modern Language Quarterly 48 (1987): 145-161. Explores Whitman’s vision of the individual’s relation to the democratic whole through the self as a Christ figure incorporating all Americans in loving embrace.

Miller, James E. Leaves of Grass: America’s Lyric-Epic of Self and Democracy. New York: Twayne, 1992. An excellent introduction to the background, themes, and style of Leaves of Grass; especially helpful on the work’s structure.

Pearce, Roy Harvey, ed. Whitman: A Collection of Critical Essays. Englewood Cliffs, N.J.: Prentice-Hall, 1962. A collection of articles gathered primarily for use by students. Contains interesting material, including William Carlos Williams’ “An Essay on Leaves of Grass.”

Schneidau, Herbert. “The Antinomian Strain: The Bible and American Poetry.” In The Bible and American Arts and Letters, edited by Giles Gunn. Philadelphia: Fortress Press, 1983. Addresses Whitman’s allusions to Old Testament prophets and the prophetic role of the “I.”

Traubel, Horace. Walt Whitman in Camden. 6 vols. New York: Rowman and Littlefield, 1961. These recollections from conversations with Whitman in his last years include his views on Christianity in his thought and poetry.

Zweig, Paul. Walt Whitman: The Making of a Poet. New York: Basic Books, 1984. Not a chronological biography but a very interesting biographical/critical meditation on Whitman’s development.