Selected Criticism

Africa, Whitman in
Asselineau, Roger
Print source:
J.R. LeMaster and Donald D. Kummings, eds., Walt Whitman: An Encyclopedia (New York: Garland Publishing, 1998), reproduced by permission.

Print Source: J.R. LeMaster and Donald D. Kummings, eds., Walt Whitman: An Encyclopedia (New York: Garland Publishing, 1998), reproduced by permission.

It is extremely difficult to assess and describe the impact of Walt Whitman in Africa. In the countries where Arabic is spoken, there is not even any translation of Leaves of Grass. There exists one only in the Middle East, which seems to be unknown in Africa. In Black Africa, where the original animism is still so strongly alive under the veneer of Islam or Christianity, there should be a public for a poet who believed in "[l]iving beings, identities now doubtless near us in the air that we know not of" ("Starting from Paumanok," section 10), for a poet who exclaimed, "Surely there is something more in each of the trees, some loving soul... O spirituality of things!" ("Song of Sunset"). There seems, however, to have been no echo to Whitman's poetry in any of the innumerable vernacular tongues and dialects. The oral poetry of the "griots" is still very much alive, but it remains profoundly traditional and impervious to outside influences. It is only in the literatures written in the former colonizers' tongues (English or French) that it is impossible to encounter the influence of Whitman in the works of writers who have had access to French translations of Leaves of Grass or to the text itself. Walt Whitman thus appealed above all to highly literate readers.

Such was the case of Léopold Sédar Senghor (b. 1906), the first African to obtain the agrégation in French, Latin, and Greek and teach French and Latin in French lycées; he was later to become the first president of the Republic of Senegal. Despite his sound classical education, Senghor heard Whitman's yawp over the roofs of the world. Leaves of Grass gave him a greater shock and consequently influenced him more deeply than any other poem he had ever read. Romantic poetry, he said, "was always channelled between the mighty banks of Christianity... [w]hereas with Whitman it is truly primeval man and natura naturans which get expressed to the rhythm of days and nights, of ebb and flow, a rhythm which, for all its freedom, is strongly stressed" (Senghor 33). Although he treated almost exclusively African themes in his own poetry—Chants d'Ombre (Songs of Darkness), Hosties noires (Black Hosts), Éthiopiques, Nocturnes, etc.—Senghor was encouraged by Whitman's example to reject the constraints of French prosody and express himself in free verse—a medium which also enabled him to preserve the cadences of the oral poetry chanted by the griots in the native tongues he spoke himself, Sérère and Peul. Senghor, however, was an exception. It is symptomatic that Leaves of Grass is not taught in the University of Dakar because, as the professor in charge of American Literature there points out, "the very elusive unity of design of Leaves of Grass... would evade the students' reflections"; it is preferable to teach "full-length novels of quality" (qtd. in Pollet 27).

In South Africa the same phenomenon occurred as in Senegal. A distinguished intellectual, a philosopher this time rather than a poet—Jan Christian Smuts (1870–1950)—came under the spell of Leaves of Grass and wrote an important bio-critical essay on Whitman. Smuts was of Boer descent and even fought on the side of the Boers during the Boer War, but he wrote in English and eventually championed the reconciliation of the Boer and British settlers and became prime minister of the Union of South Africa. In his youth, he was firmly rooted in Christianity (Lutheran), classical studies, and German philosophy. During the Boer War, he carried two books in his saddlebags; a Greek New Testament and Kant's Critique of Pure Reason, but during his law studies in London he underwent a kind of conversion; he read "everything there was on Whitman in the British Museum." "Whitman did a great service to me," Smuts said, "in making me appreciate the natural Man and freeing me from much [sic] theological or conventional preconceptions due to my very early pious upbringing. It was a sort of liberation... Sin ceased to dominate my view of life..." (qtd. in Hancock 48). He felt there was a pre-established harmony between him and Whitman, since they both had Dutch blood and shared the same convictions regarding the world and democracy. Carried away by his enthusiasm, he wrote in the early 1890s Walt Whitman: A Study in the Evolution of Personality, which helped him to crystallize the ideas he developed later in two philosophical treatises: Inquiry into the Whole (1911) and Holism and Evolution (1926). ("Holism" comes from the Greek word which means "whole.") Like Whitman, he believed that the world is a whole made up of dynamic wholes which are more than the sums of their component parts and tend to absorb more parts, for they obey a creative or emergent evolution inconsistent with bare mechanism. Thus, in his eyes, matter is alive, and the highest whole is Personality, which is characterized b the greatest freedom and creative power, as Whitman's personality showed, passing from a "period of Naturalism" to one of "Emotionalism" and one of "Applied Spiritualism," finally to reach a "Period of Pure or Religious Spiritualism," a harmonious self-realization tending toward the eventual realization of Truth, Beauty, and Goodness in the world. This dynamic optimism plunged its roots into Leaves of Grass: "The Lord advances and ever advances, / Always the shadows in front, / Always the outstretched Hand / Helping up the laggards" (Smut's paraphrase of section 4 of "Faces," Smuts 18). Unfortunately, Smuts found no English publisher for his essay on Whitman, and it remained unpublished in his lifetime. It appeared only in 1973 in Detroit and thus had no impact in Africa.

Though Whitman saluted the "divine-souled African... superbly destin'd, on equal terms with me" ("Salut au Monde!," section 11), the climate has not been favorable to the growth of Leaves of Grass on African soil. However, Leaves of Grass has contributed to the growth of a great poet, Léopold Sédar Senghor, and to the foundation of the Union of South Africa and the league of nations, which were both energetically championed by Jan Christian Smuts.


Allen, Gay Wilson. The New Walt Whitman Handbook. 1975. New York: New York UP, 1986.

Asselineau, Roger, and William White, eds. Walt Whitman in Europe Today. Detroit: Wayne State UP, 1972.

Hancock, W.K. Smuts: The Sanguine Years, 1870–1919. Cambridge: Cambridge UP, 1962.

Pollet, Maurice. "Whitman in Dakar." The Bicentennial Walt Whitman: Essays from "The Long-Islander." Ed. William White. Detroit: Wayne State UP, 1976. 27.

Senhor, Léopold Sédar. "The Shock of Leaves of Grass." Walt Whitman in Europe Today. Ed. Roger Asselineau and William White. Detroit: Wayne State UP, 1972. 33.

Smuts, Jan Christian. Walt Whitman: A Study in the Evolution of Personality. Ed. Alan L. McLeod. Detroit: Wayne State UP, 1973.

Whitman, Walt. Chants de la Terre qui Tourne. Ed. and trans. Roger Asselineau. Paris: Nouveaux Horizons (Éditinos Seghers), 1966.

Zell, Hans M., Carol Bundy, and Virginia Coulon, eds. New Reader's Guide to African Literature. 2nd ed. New York: Africana Publishing, 1983.


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