Other literary forms
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.
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