Commentary

Selected Criticism

Title:
Stedman, Edmund Clarence (1833–1908)
Author:
Yannella, Donald
Print source:
J.R. LeMaster and Donald D. Kummings, eds., Walt Whitman: An Encyclopedia (New York: Garland Publishing, 1998), reproduced by permission.

The November 1880 Whitman essay Edmund Clarence Stedman wrote dramatically enhanced the poet's stature among intellectuals as well as the more general audience Scribner's appealed to. Whitman later expressed his appreciation, and they remained friendly over the years. The piece was later included in Poets of America (1885), probably Stedman's finest work. The series of critical essays sought canon reform, and the less recognized Edgar Allan Poe as well as Whitman received extraordinary care. The Whitman piece remains the best in the volume, and he also received more space than any other poet in the ten-volume Library of American Literature.

Stedman began as one of the more genteel Pfaffian Bohemians, helped them materially, and admired and promoted the 1876 Centennial edition of Leaves. He was an esteemed and powerful literary and cultural critic, as well as a poet, but earned his living as a stockbroker in a volatile, unregulated market. A serious intellectual, he struggled as did others in his period with the challenges rapidly maturing scientific thought created for traditional views and institutions. Noting in the essay that Whitman had been rejected or "canonized, not criticized," Stedman wrote "judicially" about the work rather than the man—a cardinal principle embraced by the critical group he was part of—in order to provide a fair introduction and assessment which was in keeping with his non-deterministic Tainean views. The weakest part of his treatment is the judgment that Whitman was insufficiently modest when treating sex, but this is far outweighed by his understanding of the prosody; he pointedly demonstrated that the seemingly innovative poetics was conventional, with roots in English Bible translations and William Blake's experiments, among others. Whitman, a poet of nature, was employing an Emersonian romantic organicism in which function dictated form. Stedman was a committed nationalist in the Emersonian tradition, though not as radical as the midcentury's Young America group, and strongly opposed to Anglophilism. There is irony in the essay's being published first in Scribner's, since the editor, J.G. Holland, was vehemently opposed to Whitman and his work—as well as to that of Poe and Henry David Thoreau; but Stedman gave him the choice of publishing all or none of the essays which eventually composed Poets of America.

Stedman took exception to the fact that the common people Whitman celebrated, at the expense of the conventional, intelligent, and educated middle class, did not and probably would not read him in the future. He was not far off the mark, however, when suggesting that Whitman stood the best chance among his contemporaries of being read by future generations.

Bibliography

Scholnick, Robert J. Edmund Clarence Stedman. Boston: Twayne, 1977.

Stedman, Edmund Clarence. Poets of America. Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1895.

———, ed. An American Anthology, 1787–1900. 2 vols. Cambridge, Mass.: Riverside, 1900.

———, ed. A Library of American Literature: From the Earliest Settlement to the Present Time. 10 vols. New York: Webster, 1889.


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