Commentary

Selected Criticism

Title:
Norton, Charles Eliot (1827–1908)
Author:
Buckingham, Willis J.
Print source:
J.R. LeMaster and Donald D. Kummings, eds., Walt Whitman: An Encyclopedia (New York: Garland Publishing, 1998), reproduced by permission.

The prominence of Charles Eliot Norton among the New England cultural elite at mid-century gives special interest to his early review of Leaves of Grass. Still in his twenties in 1855, when he reviewed the book for Putnam's Monthly Magazine, Norton would have a lengthy, widely influential career at Harvard as a scholar, critic, and teacher. More reverent toward the literary past than Whitman, Norton shared with the new poet a humanist view of the power of art—and the moral example of the artist—to lift a nation out of mediocrity and materialism. Yet it is primarily the language of Leaves, its rough, slangy colloquialism, that most excited—and affronted—Norton. The poems seem to him "gross yet elevated," a "mixture of Yankee transcendentalism and New York rowdyism" ("Walt Whitman's" 15). These opposites perfectly combine, he writes, carrying with them "an original perception of nature, a manly brawn, and an epic directness . . . which belong to no other adept of the transcendental school" ("Walt Whitman's" 15).

Concurrently with his review, Norton expressed the same guarded enthusiasm about Whitman in a letter to his friend James Russell Lowell. He even composed a poem of his own in the manner of Whitman, titling it "A Leaf of Grass." Norton did not make known his authorship of the Putnam's review, nor did he publicly discuss Whitman again, though his attendance at a Whitman lecture and contribution to a fund for the poet (both in 1887) suggest that Norton remained at least distantly friendly. For his part, Whitman is silent on Norton, except for a comment to Horace Traubel in 1888 that Norton seems the sort of traditional moralist and scholar who "is bound to distrust a man like me" (Traubel 353).

Bibliography

Hall, David D. "The Victorian Connection." American Quarterly 27 (1975): 561–574.

Norton, Charles Eliot. A Leaf of Grass from Shady Hill. Ed. Kenneth B. Murdock. Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard UP, 1928.

———. "Walt Whitman's Leaves of Grass." 1855. Rpt. in Walt Whitman: The Contemporary Reviews. Ed. Kenneth M. Price. Cambridge: Cambridge UP, 1996. 14–18.

Norton, Sara, and M.A. DeWolfe Howe, eds. Letters of Charles Eliot Norton. Vol. 1. Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1913.

Rubin, Joan Shelley. The Making of Middle/Brow Culture. Chapel Hill: U of North Carolina P, 1992.

Traubel, Horace. With Walt Whitman in Camden. Vol. 1. Boston: Small, Maynard, 1906.

Vanderbilt, Kermit. Charles Eliot Norton: Apostle of Culture in a Democracy. Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard UP, 1959.


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