Walt Whitman published several important essays and studies during his lifetime. Democratic Vistas (1871), Memoranda During the War (1875-1876), Specimen Days and Collect (1882-1883, autobiographical sketches), and the Complete Prose Works (1892) are the most significant. He also tried his hand at short fiction, collected in The Half-Breed, and Other Stories (1927), and a novel, Franklin Evans (1842). Many of his letters and journals have appeared either in early editions or as parts of the New York University Press edition of The Collected Writings of Walt Whitman (1961-1984; 22 volumes).
Walt Whitman’s stature rests largely on two major contributions to the literature of the United States. First, although detractors are numerous and the poet’s organizing principle is sometimes blurred, Leaves of Grass stands as the most fully realized American epic poem. Written in the midst of natural grandeur and burgeoning materialism, Whitman’s book traces the geographical, social, and spiritual contours of an expanding nation. It embraces the science and commercialism of industrial America while trying to direct these practical energies toward the “higher mind” of literature, culture, and the soul. In his preface to the first edition of Leaves of Grass, Whitman referred to the United States itself as “essentially the greatest poem.” He saw the self-esteem, sympathy, candor, and deathless attachment to freedom of the common people as “unrhymed poetry,” which awaited the “gigantic and generous treatment worthy of it.” Leaves of Grass was to be that treatment.
The poet’s second achievement was in language and poetic technique. Readers take for granted the modern American poet’s emphasis on free verse and ordinary diction, forgetting Whitman’s revolutionary impact. His free-verse form departed from stanzaic patterns and regular lines, taking its power instead from individual, rolling, oratorical lines of cadenced speech. He subordinated traditional poetic techniques, such as alliteration, repetition, inversion, and conventional meter, to this expansive form. He also violated popular rules of poetic diction by extracting a rich vocabulary from foreign languages, science, opera, various trades, and the ordinary language of town and country. Finally, Whitman broke taboos with his extensive use of sexual imagery, incorporated not to titillate or shock, but to portray life in its wholeness. He determined to be the poet of procreation, to celebrate the elemental and primal life force that permeates humans and nature. Thus, “forbidden voices” are unveiled, clarified, and transfigured by the poet’s vision of their place in an organic universe.
Whitman himself said he wrote but “one or two indicative words for the future.” He expected the “main things” from poets, orators, singers, and musicians to come. They would prove and define a national culture, thus justifying his faith in American democracy. These apologetic words, along with the early tendency to read Whitman as “untranslatable,” or barbaric and undisciplined, long delayed his acceptance as one of America’s greatest poets. In fact, if judged by the poet’s own test of greatness, he is a failure, for he said the “proof of a poet is that his country absorbs him as affectionately as he has absorbed it.” Whitman has not been absorbed by the common people to whom he paid tribute in his poetry. However, with recognition from both the academic community and such poets as Hart Crane, William Carlos Williams, Karl Shapiro, and Randall Jarrell, his Leaves of Grass has taken its place among the great masterworks of American literature.
Consider “Out of the Cradle Endlessly Rocking” as a poem about personal destiny.
What features of Song of Myself make it clear that the poem is not merely an exercise in egotism?
What is there about grass that inspired Walt Whitman to use the title Leaves of Grass for his book?
What makes “Crossing Brooklyn Ferry” a timeless poem despite the passing of this particular ferry service?
What qualities make “When Lilacs Last in the Dooryard Bloom’d” superior to Whitman’s other poems on Abraham Lincoln’s death, including the well-known “O Captain, My Captain”?
What are the predominant images of “When Lilacs Last in the Dooryard Bloom’d,” and how does he connect them in the poem?
How free are the rhythms of Whitman’s free verse?
Allen, Gay Wilson. The Solitary Singer: A Critical Biography of Walt Whitman. Rev. ed. New York: New York University Press, 1967. A careful, scholarly biography based on extensive archival sources, including manuscripts and letters, that attempts to treat Whitman’s life in terms of the poet’s work.
Aspiz, Harold. So Long! Walt Whitman’s Poetry of Death. Tuscaloosa: University of Alabama Press, 2004. Examines the theme of death in Whitman’ poetry. Aspiz draws connections between the poet’s developing view of death and the views of certain influential acquaintances.
Asselineau, Roger. The Evolution of Walt Whitman. Expanded ed. Iowa City: University of Iowa Press, 1999. Asselineau writes with authority on a vast range of topics that define both Whitman the man and Whitman the mythical personage.
Brasher, Thomas L. Whitman as Editor of the Brooklyn “Daily Eagle.” Detroit, Mich.: Wayne State University Press, 1970. A thorough account of Whitman’s work as a journalist, connecting his newspaper work to the social and political conditions of New York City and the country at large.
Gold, Arthur, ed. Walt Whitman: A Collection of Criticism. New York: McGraw Hill, 1974. Concentrates on academic criticism, on the poet’s creative process, his literary reputation, his revisions of Leaves of Grass, and his vision of the United States in Democratic Vistas. A detailed chronology and a select, annotated bibliography make this collection a useful volume.
Kaplan, Justin. Walt Whitman: A Life. New York: Simon & Schuster, 1980. An elegant, deeply imagined biography that focuses on both Whitman and his times. Kaplan provides the fullest, most sensitive account of the poet’s career, taking a chronological approach but managing to pinpoint and to highlight the most important phases of his subject’s life.
Miller, James E., Jr. Walt Whitman. Rev. ed. Boston: Twayne, 1990. Miller concentrates on the development and structure of Leaves of Grass, its democratic “poetics,” the major poems within it, “recurring images,” “language and wit,” and the “bardic voice.” The first chapter and chronology provide a factual and analytical discussion of Whitman’s biography, and Miller assesses the new criticism of the poet that has appeared since the original publication of his book in 1962. Includes bibliography.
Pearce, Roy Harvey, ed. Whitman: A Collection of Critical Essays. Englewood Cliffs, N.J.: Prentice-Hall, 1962. A comprehensive collection of criticism, including commentary by Ezra Pound and D. H. Lawrence, three articles on the structure of Leaves of Grass, and additional discussion of the poet’s style and other works. Contains a chronology of important dates, an introductory overview of the critical literature on Whitman, and a bibliography.
Reynolds, David S. Walt Whitman’s America: A Cultural Biography. New York: Knopf, 1995. For a review of this work examining the life and work of Whitman and the turbulent culture from which he sprang, see Magill’s Literary Annual review.
Reynolds, David S., ed. A Historical Guide to Walt Whitman. New York: Oxford University Press, 2000. Combines contemporary cultural studies and historical scholarship to illuminate Whitman’s diverse contexts. The essays explore dimensions of Whitman’s dynamic relationship to working-class politics, race and slavery, sexual mores, the visual arts, and the idea of democracy.
Woodress, James, ed. Critical Essays on Walt Whitman. Boston: G. K. Hall, 1983. Divided into reviews and early reactions, essays and other forms of criticism, with an introduction surveying the history of Whitman criticism. This collection provides a good history of Whitman’s place in American culture and an informative, if highly selective, view of scholarly treatments of his work. Contains an index.
Zweig, Paul. Walt Whitman: The Making of a Poet. New York: Basic Books, 1984. This volume is not a chronological biography but rather a biographical and critical meditation on Whitman’s development as a poet. Zweig explores how the “drab” journalist of the 1840’s transformed himself into a major poet.