Commentary

Selected Criticism

Title:
"America [Centre of equal daughters]" (1888)
Author:
Griffin, Larry D.
Print source:
J.R. LeMaster and Donald D. Kummings, eds., Walt Whitman: An Encyclopedia (New York: Garland Publishing, 1998), reproduced by permission.

"America" first appeared in the New York Herald (11 February 1888) and then in the "Sands at Seventy" annex to Leaves of Grass in 1891–1892. Whitman, as he had done in 1872 in "As a Strong Bird on Pinions Free" ("Thou Mother with Thy Equal Brood" [1881]), addresses "America" as "Mother." The poem, like many from the "Sands at Seventy" annex, is one sentence. In that single sentence, Whitman displays several oral tendencies, including the catalogue of the country's components, clear parallel structure, and the homeostasis suggested by "the adamant of Time."

Whitman's "America" equalizes both the sons and daughters for whom the "seated Mother" is the "[c]entre." Whitman thus provides another early statement of the equality of the sexes, extending such equality despite age— "all alike endear'd, grown, ungrown, young or old." The sons and daughters make up an admirable family whose members are characteristically "[s]trong, ample, fair, endurable," and "rich." As with the "Earth," "Freedom," "Law," and "Love"—anything that is constant, that is persistent, and that continues uninterrupted— "America" is "[p]erennial." "Chair'd in the adamant of Time" further emphasizes the constancy of Whitman's "Mother."

Whitman's feminine, matriarchal America provides an opposite alternative to the masculine, patriarchal, capitalist America of the late nineteenth century. Like Liberty, the Statue in New York Harbor, and the figures on the obverses of numerous nineteenth- and twentieth-century American coins, Whitman's "Mother" provides readers with powerful associations, including the unlimited potential for revolutionary change in a feminine country where one enjoys the rights of "life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness."

"America" may be the only poem Whitman ever recorded. Originally recoded in 1890, the cylinder, which contains Whitman reading the first four lines of "America," purportedly was once in the collection of Roscoe Haley (1889–1982). On 5 August 1951, Leon Pearson broadcast Whitman reading "America" on his NBC radio program Yesterday, Today, and Tomorrow. Audio-Text Cassettes in the 1970s included the recording in a cassette tape series for classroom use. The Belfer Audio Lab and Archives at Syracuse University holds a similar recording on an acetate disk. How appropriate that Whitman, in the only recording of his voice, should speak out about such an America.

Bibliography

Folsom, Ed. "The Whitman Recording." Walt Whitman Quarterly Review 9 (1992): 214–216.

Whitman, Walt. "America." 1890. Voices of the Poets: Readings by Great American Poets from Walt Whitman to Robert Frost. America Literary Voices Audiotape. 14026. Center for Cassette Studies, 1974.

____. Leaves of Grass: Comprehensive Reader's Edition. Ed. Harold W. Blodgett and Sculley Bradley. New York: New York UP, 1965.

____. Leaves of Grass: A Textual Variorum of the Printed Poems. Ed. Sculley Bradley, Harold W. Blodgett, Arthur Golden, and William White. Vol. 3. New York: New York UP, 1980.


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