Commentary

Selected Criticism

Title:
Arts and Crafts Movement
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.

Although Whitman was not part of any arts and crafts organization and had little to say on the subject proper, a number of his friends and supporters in England and America were leaders of that movement and saw their poet as embodying its vision of a society based on pride in workmanship rather than on greed. In the years between his death and World War I, Whitman came to be seen as the American Morris by many, especially by leaders of influential arts and crafts societies in Philadelphia and Chicago.

In England, where the movement started under the aegis of John Ruskin and William Morris, a few significant activists had links to Whitman. Chief among these was Edward Carpenter, frequent correspondent and visitor to Camden, as well as an ally of Morris in crafts and socialist organizations. Morris himself was publicly cordial, but remained cool to Whitman's verse.

In 1901 Whitman confidant Horace Traubel, along with the architect Will Price, helped to found the Rose Valley association of craftsmen near Philadelphia. Traubel edited the crafts periodical The Artsman; a regular feature, "Rose Valley Scriptures," presented quotations by Whitman, Morris, Carpenter, and others. Whitmanites also took leading roles in the Morris Society branch in Philadelphia, in Charles Godfrey Leland's Industrial Art School, and in Pennsylvania Academy art circles around Whitman's friend Thomas Eakins.

The Chicago Society of Arts and Crafts was founded in 1897 at Hull House. Key to the Chicago crafts movement was University of Chicago instructor Oscar Lovell Triggs. A Whitman scholar and editor, he also authored A History of the Arts and Crafts Movement (1902). Triggs founded the Industrial Art League in 1899, the Morris Society of Chicago in 1903, and the Whitman Fellowship, Western Branch, in 1904. He also started the free-thought magazine To-Morrow, with the aid of Parker Sercombe, who replaced Triggs as editor shortly after the magazine's appearance in 1905. Sercombe was also the founder of the curiously title Walt Whitman–Herbert Spencer Center. Young Carl Sandburg lived at the center while an assistant editor at the magazine in 1906, in between lecture tours on Whitman or socialism. Architects Louis Sullivan and Frank Lloyd Wright, both avid Whitman admirers, were also active in Chicago crafts societies.

Whitman was less admired in Boston, home of the conservative Boston Society of Arts and Crafts, founded in 1897, and its journal Handicraft. BSAC founder Charles Eliot Norton had written an early and reasonably favorable review of the 1855 Leaves of Grass, the same year Norton met John Ruskin, yet Norton steered the society in an Anglophilic direction contrary to Whitman's. Only one Whitman confederate was active in the BSAC, Boston art critic Sylvester Baxter, who helped organize and publicize the 1897 exhibition that initiated that society and wrote occasional pieces for its journal. Whitman publisher Thomas B. Mosher was based in Maine but was active in Boston arts circles.

Elbert Hubbard, leader of the Roycroft colony at East Aurora, New York, frequently invoked Whitman. Whitman proselytizer Sadakichi Hartmann ghost-wrote for Hubbard in the latter's magazine, The Philistine. Ralph Radcliffe-Whitehead, founder of the Byrdcliffe crafts colony near Woodstock, New York, called Whitman's poetry "the one supreme expression of American life in art" (59). Radical crafts advocates like Leonard Abbott and J. William Lloyd also spoke highly of Whitman.

The arts and crafts movement subsided after 1917, though its effects on crafts education and design have persisted. The movement's synthesis of romantic nature aesthetics with utopian politics continued to inform countercultural poets like Kenneth Rexroth, Gary Snyder, Robert Duncan, and Allen Ginsberg.

Bibliography

Boris, Eileen. Art and Labor: Ruskin, Morris, and the Craftsman Ideal in America. Philadelphia: Temple UP, 1986.

Clark, Robert Judson, ed. The Arts and Crafts Movement in America 1876–1916. 1972. Princeton: Princeton UP, 1992.

Kahler, Bruce Robert. "Art and Life: the Arts and Crafts Movement in Chicago, 1897–1910." Diss. Purdue U, 1986.

Kaplan, Wendy. "The Art That Is Life": The Arts & Crafts Movement in America 1875–1920. Boston: Little, Brown, 1987.

Lears, T.J. Jackson. No Place of Grace: Antimodernism and the Transformation of American Culture 1880–1920. New York: Pantheon, 1981.

Radcliffe-Whitehead, Ralph. "A Plea For Manual Work." Handicraft April 1903: 58–73.

Roche, John F. "The Culture of Pre-Modernism: Whitman, Morris & the American Arts and Crafts Movement." ATQ 9.2 (1995): 103–118.


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