Commentary

Selected Criticism

Title:
Scott, Sir Walter (1771–1832)
Author:
Taft, Vickie L.
Print source:
J.R. LeMaster and Donald D. Kummings, eds., Walt Whitman: An Encyclopedia (New York: Garland Publishing, 1998), reproduced by permission.

Sir Walter Scott was one of the most influential and prolific literary figures of the early nineteenth century. Scott achieved fame primarily as a writer of narrative poems, which include The Lay of the Last Minstrel (1805), Marmion (1808), and The Lady of the Lake (1810). After George Gordon, Lord Byron displaced Scott as Britain's most popular poet, Scott turned to novel writing. As a novelist, Scott is best remembered for his Waverley Novels, which include Waverley (1814) and The Heart of Midlothian (1818). Also a talented scholar and editor, Scott compiled traditional Scottish ballads into a three-volume text entitled Minstrelsy of the Scottish Border (1802–1803), and he edited the works of John Dryden and Jonathan Swift.

First introduced to Scott's writing as a child, Whitman describes himself to Horace Traubel in the 1880s as a passionate reader of Scott's work, insisting, for instance, that Scott "does not stale for me" (With Walt Whitman 2:243) and even that Scott's novels are his "chief pleasure nowadays" (2:251). Whitman also tells Traubel that Scott had greatly influenced his own writing, particularly Leaves of Grass, though Whitman's description of the nature of this influence is vague—Scott, he says, as well as James Fenimore Cooper, taught him to "look for the things that take life forward" (1:97).

Though Whitman admired Scott's artistic talents, he censured his Tory political beliefs. In two articles he wrote which appeared in the Brooklyn Daily Eagle in 1846 and 1847, Whitman includes Scott among British Tory authors who glorified the aristocracy in their writings and whose works posed a potential threat to the extension of democracy in America. Whitman repeats his assertion that Scott's antidemocratic sentiment made the political message of his writing unfit for an American audience in his essay "Poetry To-Day—Shakspere—the Future": "Walter Scott and Tennyson, like Shakspere, exhale that principle of caste which we have come on earth to destroy" (Prose Works 2:476). Whitman, however, does not state that Scott's works should be dismissed because of their elitist overtones. In the same essay, Whitman insists that he, as well as every American, owes a "debt of thanks" to Scott for being the "noblest, healthiest, cheeriest romancer that ever lived" (2:477).

Bibliography

Traubel, Horace. With Walt Whitman in Camden. Vol. 1. Boston: Small, Maynard, 1906; Vol. 2. New York: Mitchell Kennerley, 1915.

Whitman, Walt. The Gathering of the Forces. Ed. Cleveland Rodgers and John Black. 2 vols. New York: Putnam, 1920.

———. Prose Works 1892. Ed. Floyd Stovall. 2 vols. New York: New York UP, 1963–1964.


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