Commentary

Selected Criticism

Title:
"America's Mightiest Inheritance" (1856)
Author:
Kummings, Donald D.
Print source:
J.R. LeMaster and Donald D. Kummings, eds., Walt Whitman: An Encyclopedia (New York: Garland Publishing, 1998), reproduced by permission.

Written near the beginning of Whitman's career, this article on the English language first appeared in the 12 April 1856 issue of Life Illustrated, a weekly magazine published by Fowler and Wells. For reasons unknown, Whitman chose not to include "America's Mightiest Inheritance" in the collections of prose he later assembled. His decision not to preserve it in book form perhaps explains why it did not end up in the New York University Press edition of The Collected Writings of Walt Whitman (1961–1984). Nevertheless, the article remains accessible, having been reprinted in 1936 in New York Dissected, a selection of Whitman's periodical publications.

"Inheritance" is a pastiche. It consists of a set of notes that appear to have been hastily arranged in what is, at best, a rough order. Even if disjointed, however, the essay is provocative. Its thesis is that the English language is the greatest of all the things that have been bequeathed to America by the past. Exhibiting something approaching linguistic chauvinism, Whitman claims that "the English language is by far the noblest now spoken—probably ever spoken—upon this earth. It is the speech for orators and poets, the speech for the household, for business, for liberty, and for common sense. It is a language for great individuals as well as great nations" (55).

In addition to such grandiose claims, Whitman devotes several pages to a history of English, emphasizing the many "tongues" that have contributed to that history. He argues that language is the most enduring of human creations and warns against elegant, artificial, and showy uses of language. He praises lexicographers such as Joseph Worcester but maintains that a "perfect" English dictionary has yet to be compiled. He offers advice on pronunciation, and finally, he appends a list of foreign words, mostly French, that are "much needed in English" (61).

Though uneven in quality, "Inheritance" remains one of Whitman's key statements on the subject of language. It represents early evidence of his lifelong preoccupation with the subject. Whitman's other important writings on language include a notebook entitled Words, passages scattered throughout the poetry of Leaves of Grass and the prose of the prefaces and of Democratic Vistas, contributions to William Swinton's Rambles Among Words (1859; rev. ed. 1872), an essay called "Slang in America" (1885), and An American Primer (1904), a series of notes edited and published by Horace Traubel.

Bibliography

Folsom, Ed. Walt Whitman's Native Representations. Cambridge: Cambridge UP, 1994.

Hollis, C. Carroll. Language and Style in "Leaves of Grass." Baton Rouge: Louisiana State UP, 1983.

Warren, James Perrin. Walt Whitman's Language Experiment. University Park: Pennsylvania State UP, 1990.

Whitman, Walt. "America's Mightiest Inheritance." New York Dissected. Ed. Emory Holloway and Ralph Adimari. New York: Rufus Rockwell Wilson, 1936. 55–65.


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