Commentary

Selected Criticism

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

As the self-proclaimed "bard of Democracy," Whitman set out both to portray the national character and to reshape it according to his own convictions. The 1855 Preface proclaims that the "genius of the United States" is expressed "most in the common people" (Whitman 5–6): the working men, artisans, farmers, housewives, and "roughs" who populated the panoramic canvases of the poems. In choosing such figures to represent the "splendid average" of the American, Whitman forged a new poetic practice from the principles of self-determination and equality set forth in the Declaration of Independence; Leaves of Grass was to be its literary equivalent, a radical statement of separation from European models. Moreover, by depicting women, blacks, and native peoples in the poems, Whitman revised the original revolutionary compact to include those whom it had left out. Although disease, death, and injustice lurk in the poet's field of vision, his catalogue of American attributes—the wholehearted embrace of modernity and progress, a rejection of social hierarchies, frankness of manners, Emersonian self-reliance—is essentially optimistic.

While Whitman was not the first to call for an indigenous American literature, he went beyond native subject matter to democratize poetic language itself: borrowing words from everyday speech, addressing the reader boldly and familiarly. More radically, the very structure of Leaves was designed to reflect the national principle of equality. "The United States themselves are essentially the greatest Poem," he writes in the Preface (5), and the book, similarly, is an aggregate of diverse parts, of interconnected responses to the same central theme. The poems together suggest the pluralistic nature of life in the United States, which is "not merely a nation but a teeming nation of nations" (5). As it accumulated more and more "leaves" over the years, the work approached a massive, epic scale appropriate to the rapidly expanding country.

The exuberance of Whitman's early vision reflects a general antebellum faith in America's destined greatness. Whitman was fascinated by advances in natural science and medicine, and particularly by phrenology, the "science of character," with its tantalizing claim to reveal the hidden origins of human behavior. Improving the individual could potentially create a perfect society: "Produce great Persons, the rest follows" ("By Blue Ontario's Shore," section 3). "Song of Myself" relies on the idea that the poet's own character is representative of the nation's: "Walt Whitman, an American, one of the roughs, a kosmos" (1885 Leaves) embodies all aspects of American reality. Whitman often fictionalizes details of his life as he creates this idealized poetic persona. In Specimen Days (1882), for example, he describes his hereditary background as a healthy amalgam of different nationalities, much like the "[g]rand, common stock" of the well-bred, robust race of Americans he praises in Democratic Vistas (946). In doing so, he glosses over the actual history of mental and physical illnesses in the family. This discrepancy underscores the strength of Whitman's belief in a fundamental correspondence between the body an the inner character and in well-directed procreative energy as a means to perfect both.

The healthy surge of this new breed could not, however, overcome the most pressing social and political problem of the day, the racial division between black and white. Whitman was aware that the existence of slavery exposed an underlying paradox in his identification of individual freedom as the most basic component of American character. Although hesitant to endorse abolitionism, he opposed the extension of slavery into the Western territories and, in his journalistic writings, excoriated the weakness of compromise-seeking politicians whom he saw as alienated from the will of the people. The increasingly fractious national debates that culminated in the Civil War threatened to undermine the foundations of a poetic and personal philosophy built around the concept of union, contributing to Whitman's artistic crisis of the late 1850s.

Like most of his contemporaries, Whitman saw the war as a struggle to maintain the Union rather than to abolish slavery. Paradoxically, his firsthand experience with wartime devastation provided him with a renewed sense of mission. The task of national healing, as he proposes in Democratic Vistas (1871), must begin with a spiritual regeneration. He diagnoses the national body as "canker'd, crude, superstitious, and rotten" (937). Having survived the sectional crisis, postwar America is endangered by soulless mercantilism; the gap between rich and poor is growing, along with the social distinctions that Leaves had hoped to erase. His faith in political leaders at an ebb, Whitman insinuates that American poets alone can redeem the nation from the moral corruption and degradation into which it has fallen. Under their guidance, he predicts, humankind will evolve spiritually so as to spread the idea of democracy over the globe. Through this prophetic turn, the later Whitman thus recovers some of his initial optimism.

Readers abroad received Leaves of Grass as a major statement on the American character long before most of Whitman's countrymen were willing to do so. Foreign audiences have tended to be both more lavish in their praise and more vocal in their skepticism. D.H. Lawrence, for instance, vividly describes Whitman's all-embracing Self as a careening automobile heedless of what it crushes, and Cuban revolutionary poet José Martí notes uncomfortably that Whitman's image of an America extending from Canada to the Caribbean casts an imperial net over the hemisphere. Many commentators in the United States prefer to separate Whitman's nationalistic claims from his stylistic innovations and his pioneering treatment of sexuality; however, critics such as Betsy Erkkila and Kerry Larson insist that the same principle motivates both his politics and his poetics. Although Leaves may not provide a final answer to the challenge of pluralism that is built into the American constitution, its textual design, unifying the many into one, offers an implicit response.

Bibliography

Erkkila, Betsy. Whitman the Political Poet. New York: Oxford UP, 1989.

Kaplan, Justin. Walt Whitman: A Life. New York: Bantam, 1982.

Larson, Kerry C. Whitman's Drama of Consensus. Chicago: U of Chicago P, 1988.

Reynolds, David S. Walt Whitman's America: A Cultural Biography. New York: Knopf, 1995.

Whitman, Walt. Complete Poetry and Collected Prose. Ed. Justin Kaplan. New York: Library of America, 1982.


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