Commentary

Selected Criticism

Title:
American Adam
Author:
Dietrich, Deborah
Print source:
J.R. LeMaster and Donald D. Kummings, eds., Walt Whitman: An Encyclopedia (New York: Garland Publishing, 1998), reproduced by permission.

Leaves of Grass dramatizes Whitman's attempt to reestablish the Adamic man of the Western world. The Leaves of Grass persona projects a world of order and meaning into a sheer vacuum. Companionless, he finds himself in an Adamic condition, in a "vacant, vast surrounding" ("A Noiseless Patient Spider"), and his only recourse is to create a world of splendor and variety for himself.

In the opening lines of "Starting from Paumanok," Whitman provides a description of the genesis of the poetic self. Whitman has his poetic self start from Paumanok; the Native American place name emphasizes America's beginnings and symbolically associates America's and the poet's origins with the creation of the world itself. He concludes section 1 with a metaphor of the solitary singer: "Solitary, singing in the West, I strike up for a New World." In the first two sections of the poem, Whitman places the poetic self in the central procession, developing both his mythic and personal portrait. In section 17 Whitman's Adamic man of the Western world announces a "new race, dominating previous ones and grander far."

In The American Adam, R.W.B. Lewis discusses Whitman's persona as an extreme example of the Adamic type: an individual undefiled by inheritance, an innocent. Opening lines like "Out of the cradle endlessly rocking" and "Unfolded out of the folds of the woman, the man comes unfolded" emphasize his newness. Whitman's natural unfallen man is truly awake, like "Adam early in the morning, / Walking forth from the bower refresh'd with sleep" ("As Adam Early in the Morning"). "[H]ankering, gross, mystical, nude," this new Adam makes holy whatever he touches ("Song of Myself," section 20).

Whitman' Adamic hero is a creator and a namer. He gives birth to the human race out of his love affair with himself. "If I worship one thing more than another," he proclaims, "it shall be the spread of my own body" ("Song of Myself," section 24). Whitman realizes that love originates in self-love, that narcissism is an important stage of the growth process. This love is for the whole being: the inseparable body and soul. Like the "noiseless, patient spider [who] launch'd forth filament, filament, filament, out of itself," the New Adam spins his own conditions. He projects his own reality onto the emptiness. In so doing, he creates an image of America in all its diversity, promise, and confusion. Lewis has suggested that Adam integrates the idea of Eve into the concept of himself and the result of his self-love is the conception of the human race. Moreover, playing both Adam and Eve, Whitman's persona gives birth to himself as a poet as well.

The things that Whitman's Adam names come into being because the name is the soul of the concrete reality it represents. In section 16 of "Starting from Paumanok," Whitman focuses on the organic connection between the names of places and their spirits: "Okonee, Koosa, Ottawa, Monongahela, Sauk, Natchez, Chattahoochee, Kaqueta, Oronoco, / Wabash, Miami, Saginaw, Chippewa, Oshkosh, Walla-Walla / Leaving such to the States they melt, they depart, charging the water and the land with names." The words enable the Adamic hero to become one with all the things he names, and through them he is able to connect mystically to the universe. With words, he creates an imagined world and, with his words, he connects to it. The Adamic hero incorporates everything, and this expansive self Whitman called "cosmos."

Whitman's connection of the self to the universe is paradoxical: man is unitary, integral to himself, and, at the same time, he is equal to everything else. "I celebrate myself and sing myself, / and what I assume you shall assume / For every atom belonging to me as good belongs to you" ("Song of Myself, section 1). He celebrates himself as an enlightened Everyman—the representative man who will attempt to call forth the heroism in his readers.

The powers of genesis are his because he is the poet. In "Song of the Broad-Axe," Whitman's persona first comes before us as a blacksmith, manufacturer of the symbolic ax which creates an American panorama, artifacts shaped from the American forests. This is similar to the poet who with his pen shapes his poems out of the fiber of the United States. The ax and the pen are tools for harmoniously unifying America's schisms. In "Song of the Redwood-Tree," the sequoia becomes a symbol of the material wealth, willing to be felled for the "superber race" of Americans. In contrast to the emphasis on man's creativity and control over nature in "Song of the Broad-Axe," Song of the Redwood-Tree" focuses on the moral influence of the environment on man.

Consisting of sixteen poems, "Children of Adam" is set in the Garden of Eden. Although beautiful and peaceful, Whitman's Eden is not the Garden of Genesis. Instead, it is an earthly Eden of Delight, the site of bodily joy and sexual fulfillment. When Whitman declares in "Starting from Paumanok" "a world primal again" (section 17), he connects it with newness, expansion, and turbulence. Similarly, Whitman's Adam is strong, vigorous, and sexual, with limbs quivering with the fire "that ever plays through them" ("To the Garden of the World"). Celebrating the physical act of procreation, Whitman proclaims sex to be as fundamental in the physical world as love in the spiritual world. Adam is not debased, he does not carry the burden of original sin, and his body is as sacred as his soul. In Whitman's Eden, all gender differences disappear, and Eve's body and soul are equally perfect.

Critics Thomas Crawley and Harold Bloom assert that Whitman's persona is more like the second Adam than the first. Whitman's New Adam is "well-begotten and raised by a perfect mother" ("Starting from Paumanok," section 1). He reaches out Christlike and offers aid and encouragement to his fellow man. Dispensing biscuits and milk, he offers the bread of life. He identifies with all experience: "All sorrow, labor, suffering, I, tallying it, absorb in myself" ("Chanting the Square Deific," section 2). He walks the hills of Judea with God by his side. He knows that he is deathless and that nothing is final. Crawley argues that the Christ symbol is the most important symbol in Leaves of Grass and that the "climactic" passage of "Song of Myself" occurs when Whitman's persona identifies himself and all humans with the crucified Christ. The "friendly and flowing savage" is absorbed into the Christ figure, the symbol of the divinity that lies dormant in civilized man.

In "Passage to India," Whitman proclaims the poet to be the true son of God. Unlike Christ, the poet does not advocate sacrifice. Embracing atheist and skeptics, he accepts all. For Whitman, the material is as important and as divine as the spiritual. "And nothing, not God, is greater to one than one's self is" ("Song of Myself," section 48).

Bibliography

Bloom, Harold. "Whitman's Image of Voice: To the Tally of my Soul." Walt Whitman. Modern Critical Views. Ed. Harold Bloom. New York: Chelsea House, 1985. 127–147.

Crawley, Thomas Edward. The Structure of "Leaves of Grass." Austin: U of Texas P, 1970.

Hoffman, Daniel. "'Hankering, Gross, Mystical, Nude': Whitman's 'Self' and the American Tradition." Walt Whitman of Mickle Street. Ed. Geoffrey M. Sill. Knoxville: U of Tennessee P, 1994. 1–17.

Lewis, R.W.B. The American Adam. Chicago: U of Chicago P, 1955.

Miller, James E., Jr. "America's Epic." Whitman: A Collection of Critical Essays. Twentieth Century Views. Ed. Roy Harvey Pearce. Englewood Cliffs, N.J.: Prentice-Hall, 1962. 60–65.

Pearce, Roy Harvey. The Continuity of American Poetry. Princeton: Princeton UP, 1961.


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