Commentary

Selected Criticism

Title:
Architects and Architecture
Author:
Roche, John F.
Print source:
J.R. LeMaster and Donald D. Kummings, eds., Walt Whitman: An Encyclopedia (New York: Garland Publishing, 1998), reproduced by permission.

Whitman appears to have acquired only limited experience with the building arts while doing house carpentry in the early 1850s. But architecture was to become a favorite trope in his poetry. Moreover, some of America's most innovative architects took particular inspiration from Whitman.

Whitman was undoubtedly familiar with the sculptor Horatio Greenough, a friend of Ralph Waldo Emerson who wrote books and magazine articles on architectural theory. His essay "Form and Function" is a key text in the development of modern architecture. In addition, Henry David Thoreau's discussion of shelter in the "Economy" section of Walden could not have escaped Whitman's notice. Also consonant with Whitman's love of simplicity were the "democratic" cottages widely promoted by Andrew Jackson Downing in the 1840s and 1850s.

In his career as a journalist, Whitman wrote an occasional architectural critique, particularly of churches and public buildings, though buildings appear most often in word sketches of city environs. Similarly, in the prose pieces of Specimen Days, architecture serves to evoke a theme or mood, as in "The White House by Moonlight" or, perhaps the most haunting example, the "Patent Office Hospital." An exception is the essay "Wicked Architecture," published in Life Illustrated in 1856, where Whitman indicts tenement builders.

Although Whitman often remarked that America's true monuments would be its people, his poetic catalogues contain numerous references to buildings and city sights. In his poetry, architecture usually serves as a symbol for the building of the American commonwealth and for the fulfillment of its destiny, as in "Song of the Broad-Axe," "A Song for Occupations," "By Blue Ontario's Shore," or "Song of the Exposition." Sometimes, as in "A Song of the Rolling Earth," he draws an implicit correlation between the architect and the long-awaited "American bard": "Delve! mould! pile the words of the earth! / Work on, age after age, nothing is to be lost, / It may have to wait long, but it will certainly come in use, / When the materials are all prepared and ready, the architects shall appear. / I swear to you the architects shall appear without fail" (section 4).

Architectural or engineering images may also serve to represent spiritual perfection or the unfolding of a cosmic drama, as in the Pythagorean symbolism of "Chanting the Square Deific" or in "Passage to India," where the narrator exclaims, "Lo, soul, seest thou not God's purpose from the first? / The earth to be spann'd, connected by network" (section 2).

Many of Whitman's friends and followers wrote on architecture, often for arts and crafts movement magazines. These include Edward Carpenter, William Sloane Kennedy, John Burroughs, and Elbert Hubbard. Near Philadelphia, architect William L. (Will) Price founded the Rose Valley Association in 1901, a crafts community. Whitman confidant Horace Traubel edited Rose Valley's magazine, The Artsman, subtitled The Art That Is Life, promoting an arts and crafts philosophy with Whitman as a leading prophet. The magazine contained articles on various arts, including architecture.

The turn-of-the-century Chicago School architects were enthusiastic readers of Whitman, whom they found sympathetic to their own attempts to create an indigenous American architecture based on organic functionalist principles. Louis Sullivan wrote Whitman in 1887 to acknowledge his debt to the poet. Traubel reports that Whitman cherished the letter and told him to "keep it near you" (3:26). Sullivan himself wrote Whitman-inspired verse, in addition to prose works like The Autobiography of an Idea, Kindergarten Chats, and Democracy: A Man-Search.

Before coming to Chicago, Sullivan worked for the important Philadelphia architect Frank Furness, who was the son of the Reverend William Henry Furness, a close friend of Emerson and a Unitarian minister who contributed to Traubel's The Conservator. Another son, Professor Horace Howard Furness, Sr., the noted Shakespearean scholar, befriended Whitman, and served as a pallbearer at the poet's funeral.

Sullivan and his one-time employee Frank Lloyd Wright both appear to have been influenced by Whitman scholar Oscar Lovell Triggs, whose Chicago arts and crafts organizations they supported. Wright left Sullivan's employ, coincidentally, the year after Whitman died. Wright would continue throughout a career that spanned six decades to claim Whitman and Sullivan as his two primary models. In a special issue of The Architectural Forum (January 1938), Wright combined drawings and photos of his works with quotes from a number of Whitman poems. Near the end of his life he wrote the following: "Walt Whitman, seer of our Democracy! He uttered primitive truths lying at the base of our new life, the inspirations we needed to go on spiritually with the brave 'sovereignty of the individual'" (59).

Lewis Mumford, perhaps the twentieth century's most influential city historian and urban planning critic, wrote about Whitman, Sullivan, and Wright with equal fervor while promoting his own version of an "organic architecture."

If the "proof of a poet is that his country absorbs him as affectionately as he has absorbed it" (Whitman 26), then Whitman has at very least been absorbed into America's architectural tradition. He continues to be invoked by architects, as in a quotation from "City of Ships" inscribed on the ornamental fence of Cesar Pelli's World Financial Center complex, built in the 1980s in lower Manhattan: "City of tall facades of marble and iron! / Proud and passionate city—mettlesome, mad, extravagant city!"

Bibliography

Adams, Richard P. "Architecture and the Romantic Tradition: Coleridge to Wright." American Quarterly 9 (1957): 46–62.

Egbert, Donald Drew. "The Idea of Organic Expression and American Architecture." Evolutionary Thought in America. Ed. Stow Persons. New Haven: Yale UP, 1950. 336–396.

Greenough, Horatio. "Form and Function." The Roots of Contemporary American Architecture Ed. Lewis Mumford. New York: Reinhold, 1952. 32–56.

Mathiessen, F.O. American Renaissance. London: Oxford UP, 1941.

Metzger, Charles R. Emerson and Greenough: Transcendental Pioneers of an American Esthetic. Berkeley: U of California P, 1954.

Murphy, Kevin. "Walt Whitman and Louis Sullivan: The Aesthetics of Egalitarianism." Walt Whitman Quarterly Review 6 (1988): 1–15.

Paul, Sherman. Louis Sullivan: An Architect in American Thought. Englewood Cliffs, N.J.: Prentice-Hall, 1962.

Roche, John F. "Democratic Space: The Ecstatic Geography of Walt Whitman and Frank Lloyd Wright." Walt Whitman Quarterly Review 6 (1988): 16–32.

Sullivan, Louis. Democracy: A Man-Search. 1850. Detroit: Wayne State UP, 1961.

Twombly, Robert. Frank Lloyd Wright: His Life and Architecture. New York: Wiley, 1979.

Weingarden, Lauren S. "Naturalized Technology: Louis H. Sullivan's Whitmanesque Skyscrapers." Centennial Review 30 (1986): 480–495.

Whitman, Walt. 1855 Preface. Complete Poetry and Collected Prose. Ed. Justin Kaplan. New York: Library of America, 1982. 5–26.

Wortman, Marc. "Battery Park City: Utopian Poetics in the Urban Greenhouse." Yale Review 79 (1990): 501–508.

Wright, Frank Lloyd. A Testament. New York: Horizon, 1957.


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