Walt Whitman Whitman, Walt - Essay


(Nineteenth-Century Literary Criticism)

Walt Whitman 1819–1892

American poet, essayist, novelist, short story writer, journalist, and editor.

Although commonly and critically regarded as one of America's premier poets, Whitman remains in some ways a controversial figure. Leaves of Grass, his masterpiece, was revolutionary in both its style and content, praising the divinity of the self, of the common individual. The volume was directed at those Americans who, in Whitman's opinion, had been ignored by their country's literature, a literature which had typically targeted the upper echelons of society. Throughout his life and work, Whitman promoted himself as the poet of American democracy and of the common man. Yet the focus of his poetry on the sanctity and divinity of the self has been criticized as being more egotistical than spiritual, and his exploration and exaltation of sexuality and homosexuality has been both deplored and downplayed. Additionally, critics have analyzed how the Civil War changed Whitman's poetry, and have studied his ambivalent views on the subject of the treatment of Native Americans during his lifetime.

Biographical Information

Born on Long Island and raised and educated on Long Island and in Brooklyn, Whitman was the second of nine children. Leaving school at age eleven, he worked as a law office clerk, and later, as a typesetter's apprentice. After teaching school and starting his own newspaper, he began editing various papers. He also published poems and short stories in periodicals. In 1842, Whitman published a temperance novel entitled Franklin Evans; or, the Inebriate; he later dismissed the work as "damned rot." The first edition of Leaves of Grass was published in 1855 at Whitman's own expense. Nine editions would eventually be published. During the Civil War, Whitman cared for wounded soldiers in Washington, D.C., beginning in 1862 and later worked as a copyist in the army paymaster's office from 1863 to 1864. After the war, he worked for a short time for the Department of the Interior but was fired when it was discovered that he was the author of the allegedly obscene Leaves of Grass. Rehired as a Justice Department clerk, Whitman remained in this position until he suffered a paralytic

stroke in 1873, which left him partially disabled. He had recently published a philosophical essay, Democratic Vistas (1871) and the fifth edition of Leaves of Grass. While he lived for nearly twenty more years, Whitman produced little new work of significance, focusing instead on revising and rearranging Leaves of Grass.

Major Works

Leaves of Grass, in its final version, contains poems Whitman wrote between 1855 and 1892. The major themes of the work include democracy, sexuality, death, and immortality; universality and the divine nature of the self are also concepts that thread their way through much of his work. The first edition contained twelve poems, which shocked the public with their realistic imagery and candid discussions of sexuality. The volume received little praise from critics, with Ralph Waldo Emerson being the notable exception. In later editions of Leaves of Grass, Whitman created new poems, revised existing ones, added and changed titles, and thematically grouped the poems. In Drum-Taps (1865) and Sequel to Drum-Taps (1865-66), Whitman recorded many of his war experiences and mourned the loss of nation and lives. Drum-Taps was later incorporated into Leaves of Grass.

Critical Reception

While many critics concede that Whitman's concept of the self is of major significance in his work, V. K. Chari maintains that it is the "organizing principle" of Whitman's poetry. In analyzing Whitman's notion of the self, Chari maintains that to Whitman, the self was the true meaning and center of all existence, and that reality was not separate or different from the self. Chari demonstrates both the influence of Ralph Waldo Emerson's writing on Whitman and identifies the similarities between Whitman's views and Hindu philosophy. Additionally, while many critics observe a duality in Whitman's concept of the self (the body versus the spirit, the individual versus the universal), Chari emphasizes the unified, monistic nature of Whitman's self. E. Fred Carlisle concentrates on the relationship in Whitman's poetry between the self and both death and spirit. Carlisle argues that Whitman portrays death in a variety of ways: as a passage into a new life or into oblivion, as an end to suffering, as a threat, and as completion and fulfillment. Throughout Leaves of Grass, Carlisle states, Whitman attempts to comprehend how death serves or links the self and the spirit. Like Chari and Carlisle, David Kuebrich is concerned with Whitman's spirituality and argues that, contrary to the conviction of numerous critics, Whitman intended to begin a "new religion" and promoted his readers' spiritual development by offering them an orderly vision linking religion with contemporary ideas on American culture. Kuebrich outlines the way in which many modern critics address Whitman's spirituality, showing that they dismiss his religious language as "the symbolic manifestation of the distorted desires of the id," and that his spirituality is disregarded as his attempt, later in life, to fashion his earlier work as religious and prophetic. For M. Jimmie Killingsworth, Whitman's notion of the self is one that contains elements of the individual and the universal. Unlike Chari, Killingsworth highlights the duality of Whitman's concept of self, focusing on an apparent tension between singularity and diversity. Similarly, Mitchell Robert Breitwieser identifies in Whitman's poetry two distinct "I's" or "selves," the first "I" being a small, timid, individual, voice and the second "I" being a large, universal, affirming voice.

Just as the nature and significance of Whitman's concept of the self is a battleground for many critics, so is the issue of the centrality and importance of the sexual, and homosexual, themes in his poetry. Kenneth M. Price maintains that sexual themes—such as voyeurism, nonprocreative sexuality, and female sexuality—and the way Whitman treats such topics, influenced writers of narrative fiction. Price analyzes the way in which the approaches to sexual themes in the works of Hamlin Garland, Kate Chopin, and E. M. Forster are indebted to Whitman. Byrne R. S. Fone surveys the manner in which the homoeroticism in Whitman's text has been addressed by early and modern critics. Byrne argues that, in many cases, the homophobia inherent in the discourse of these Whitman scholars has detracted from the quality of textual and biographical analyses. Similarly, Betsy Erkkila notes that there is a critical tradition which has been responsible for "silencing, spiritualizing, heterosexualizing, or marginalizing Whitman's sexual feeling for men." Erkkila states that when critics do recognize the centrality of homosexuality to Whitman's work, often they maintain a distinction between the private Whitman and the public Whitman, as "the poet of democracy." In challenging this distinction, Erkkila contends that Whitman's "sexual love of men" is central to his "democratic vision and experimental poetics" in Leaves of Grass.

Whitman's interest in democracy and American political events and issues is revealed in his poetry and is a major focus of criticism. In particular, critics observe how the Civil War and Whitman's experience in it greatly influenced his poetry. James Dougherty investigates this influence, as demonstrated in Drum-Taps. Dougherty states that "Drum-Taps represents Whitman's bid to be 'absorbed' by America not as a radically democratic visionary but as the inheritor and master of a tradition according to which poems were like pictures." In his analysis of the strong visual images in Drum-Taps, Dougherty argues that while at first glance such "photographic" poems seem to be a new element in Whitman's work and seem to characterize Drum-Taps, in fact, such poems were presaged by Whitman's earlier work and are not the only type of poem in the volume. fürthermore, Dougherty identifies a conflict in the book between different styles and different points of view. This conflict, Dougherty argues, represents a tension not only between Whitman's pre-war faith in "physical and spiritual regeneration" and his post-war loss of that faith; the conflict also points to Whitman's doubts regarding his "original poetic." Another American political issue to fascinate Whitman was the treatment of Native Americans. Noting that Whitman's professional life was "framed" beginning in the late 1830s by the Great Removal of Native Americans to what would become Oklahoma, and fifty years later by the Wounded Knee massacre, Ed Folsom observes in Whitman's poetry and short stories a deeply ambivalent attitude toward Native Americans. Folsom asserts that "Whitman's plan to absorb the Indian via his poetry was … double-edged: his project admitted the inevitable loss of Indian cultures, but it simultaneously argued for the significance of those cultures and for the necessity of preserving them—as a warning, lesson, inspiration—at the heart of our memories, deep in the lines of authentic American poems."

Principal Works

(Nineteenth-Century Literary Criticism)

Franklin Evans; or, the Inebriate (novel) 1842

Leaves of Grass (poetry) 1855, 1856, 1860-61, 1867, 1871, 1876, 1881-82, 1891-92

*Drum-Taps (poetry) 1865

*Sequel to Drum-Taps (poetry) 1865-66

Democratic Vistas (essay) 1871

*Passage to India (poetry) 1871

Specimen Days & Collect (essays and journals) 1882-83

*November Boughs (poetry) 1888

The Wound-Dresser; A Series of Letters Written from Hospitals in Washington during the War of the Rebellion (letters) 1898

An American Primer (essays) 1904

The Half-Breed and Other Stories (short stories) 1927

The Correspondence of Walt Whitman 6 vols, (letters) 1961-77

Prose Works, 1892, 2 vols, (essays) 1963-64

Walt Whitman: Notebooks and Unpublished Prose Manuscripts. 6 vols, (essays and notes) 1984

*These works were incorporated in later editions of Leaves of Grass.

V. K. Chari (essay date 1964)

(Nineteenth-Century Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: "Emergent Ego," in Whitman in the Light of Vedantic Mysticism: An Interpretation, University of Nebraska Press, 1964, pp. 53-93.

[In the following essay, Chari stresses the centrality of the notion of the self in Whitman's poetry, demonstrating the parallels between Whitman's conception of the self as the meaning of existence and the totality of reality, and the view of the self offered by Hindu mysticism.]

… the mystical identity the real I or Me or You
(Complete Writings, Vol. VI, Part I, No. 28)

Any consistent interpretation of Whitman should, in my opinion, be centered...

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Mitchell Robert Breitwieser (essay date 1983)

(Nineteenth-Century Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: "Who Speaks in Whitman's Poems?" in Bucknell Review, Vol. 28, No. 1, 1983, pp. 121-43.

[In the following essay, Breitwieser suggests that Whitman's usage of multiple voices in Leaves of Grass has political parallels. Breitwieser emphasizes the conflict in the poems between the voice of the small, individual "I" and that of the large, magnanimous, universal "I."]

Why even speak of "I," he dreams, which interests me almost not at all?

—Williams, Paterson

The breadth of the problem is great, for the poet is representative. He stands among partial men for the complete man, and...

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David Kuebrich (essay date 1989)

(Nineteenth-Century Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: "Reconsidering Whitman's Intention," in Minor Prophecy: Walt Whitman's New American Religion, Indiana University Press, 1989, pp. 1-11.

[In the following essay, Kuebrich contends that Whitman intended his poetry to be, in a sense, a "new religion," in that he hoped to encourage the spiritual growth of his readers and offer a vision which would fuse religious experience with contemporary views on science, technology, and the emerging American republic.]

"A little group are to signalize here on the prairies by the Wabash, the day that gave us the most divine of men."1 This statement would not be noteworthy as a Christian's declaration of his plans to...

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Kenneth M. Price (essay date 1990)

(Nineteenth-Century Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: "Sexual Equality and Marital Ideology: Whitman and the Novel," in Whitman and Tradition: The Poet in His Century, Yale University Press, 1990, pp. 96-121.

[In the following essay, Price examines how prominent sexual themes in Whitman's poetry—such as non-procreative sexuality and female sexuality—influenced later writers of narrative fiction such as Kate Chopin and Hamlin Garland.]

On March 1, 1882, Leaves of Grass was officially classified as obscene literature. Ironically, just when Whitman had asserted his centrality to American literature in Specimen Days, just when he was poised to achieve a new degree of recognition through publication...

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James Perrin Warren (essay date 1990)

(Nineteenth-Century Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: "The 'Thought of the Ensemble': Whitman's Theory of Language," in Walt Whitman's Language Experiment, Pennsylvania State University Press, 1990, pp. 7-33.

[In the following essay, Warren maintains that, through works such as Leaves of Grass and in several essays, Whitman established a theory of languageone directly connected with literature and linguistic development and specifically focused on the significant role of literature in effecting linguistic change and diversity.]

This subject of language interests meinterests me: I never quite get it out of my mind. I sometimes think the Leaves is only a language...

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Byrne R. S. Fone (essay date 1992)

(Nineteenth-Century Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: "Words Unsaid," in Masculine Landscapes: Walt Whitman and the Homoerotic Text, Southern Illinois University Press, 1992, pp. 10-19.

[In the following essay, Fone offers an overview of how the homoeroticism in Whitman's work has been interpreted by critics over time. Fone maintains that when Whitman criticism has been centered on the subject of homosexuality, the homophobia inherent in much of the criticism has hampered both textual and biographical study.]

It is without name … it is a word unsaid….
—"Song of Myself," 1855

Among the multitude of identities Walt Whitman...

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M. Jimmie Killingsworth (essay date 1992)

(Nineteenth-Century Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: "Tropes of Selfhood: Whitman's 'Expressive Individualism,'" in The Continuing Presence of Walt Whitman: The Life After the Life, edited by Robert K. Martin, University of Iowa Press, 1992, pp. 39-52.

[In the following essay, Killingsworth argues that the concept of expressive individualisma twentieth-century attitude which promotes success as its primary goal and looks to "internal, intuitive measures of achievement" rather than external standardsexemplifies Whitman's beliefs about the nature of selfhood as both individual and universal.]

Power ceases in the instant of repose; it resides in the moment of transition from...

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James Dougherty (essay date 1993)

(Nineteenth-Century Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: "Satan, Wound-Dresser, Witness," in Walt Whitman and the Citizen 's Eye, Louisiana State University Press, 1993, pp. 76-107.

[In the following essay, Dougherty assesses Whitman 's Drum-Taps, maintaining that while the poetry in the volume is similar in some ways to Whitman's pre-Civil War poetry, Drum-Taps also represents a sense of lossnot only a loss of faith in "physical and spiritual regeneration, " but also the poet's loss of faith in his "original poetic."]

"Cavalry Crossing a Ford," from Drum-Taps, offers just such a visual image:

A line in long array where they wind betwixt green...

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Betsy Erkkila (essay date 1994)

(Nineteenth-Century Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: "Whitman and the Homosexual Republic," in Walt Whitman: The Centennial Essays, edited by Ed Folsom, University of Iowa Press, 1994, pp. 153-71.

[In the following essay, Erkkila maintains that critics who focus on the centrality of sexuality, and particularly homosexuality, in Whitman's work typically distinguish between the private and public Whitman, and between the themes of homosexuality and democracy. Erkkila argues against this reading, stressing instead the relationship, rather than the distinction, between homosexuality and democracy in Whitman's poetry.]

In a letter dated March 13, 1946, Malcolm Cowley wrote to Kenneth Burke: "I'm working on Whitman,...

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Ed Folsom (essay date 1994)

(Nineteenth-Century Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: "Whitman and American Indians," in Walt Whitman's Native Representations, Cambridge University Press, 1994, pp. 55-98.

[In the following essay, Folsom contends that, throughout Whitman's life and work, the poet maintained an ambivalent attitude toward Native Americans. Folsom notes that American "aborigines," as Whitman referred to Native Americans, were often described in his poetry with a mixture of disdain and admiration.]

(Have I forgotten any part? any thing in the past?
Come to me whoever and whatever, till I give you recognition.)
Whitman, "With Antecedents"(LG 241)


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Kerry McSweeney (essay date 1998)

(Nineteenth-Century Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: "Whitman: The Feeling of Health," in The Language of the Senses: Sensory-Perceptual Dynamics in Wordsworth, Coleridge, Thoreau, Whitman, and Dickinson, McGill-Queen's University Press, 1998, pp. 117-43.

[In the following essay, McSweeney studies the relationship between physical health and imaginative power in Whitman's poetry, arguing that the differences in energy and tone between the poems of the 1855 and 1856 editions of Leaves of Grass and those poems added for the 1860 edition can at least in part be attributed to a shift in Whitman's emotional and physical health.]

"In health," Thoreau notes in his journal, "all the senses are indulged and each...

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Further Reading

(Nineteenth-Century Literary Criticism)

Allen, Gay Wilson. Walt Whitman as Man, Poet, and Legend. Carbondale: Southern Illinois University Press, 1961, 260 p.

Includes biographical information, discussion and analysis of Whitman's poetry, a survey of the twentieth-century critical assessment of Whitman, and a bibliography.

Aspiz, Harold. Walt Whitman and the Body Beautiful. Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 1980, 290 p.

Studies Whitman's views on the human body within the context of the scientific knowledge and morality of the time.

Clarke, Graham. Walt Whitman: The Poem as Private...

(The entire section is 593 words.)