Commentary

Selected Criticism

Title:
Griswold, Rufus W. (1815–1857)
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.

When asked her view of Whitman, Emily Dickinson famously replied that she had been told "he was disgraceful" (qtd. in Kaplan 26). The term is too pale to describe Rufus W. Griswold's anonymous estimate of the 1855 Leaves for the Criterion, a highly respectable—though short-lived—New York opinion weekly (1855–1856). Griswold had achieved fame as a literary anthologist (beginning with his 1842 compilation, The Poets and Poetry of America) and as Edgar Allan Poe's literary executor and biographer.

Griswold's training as an orthodox Baptist minister may explain why he begins his review by using Leaves to warn against New England liberal intellectuals. Its poems exemplify for him the despicable result to which Emersonian transcendentalism eventually leads. Claiming that even a single extract from the new book would spread contagion, Griswold goes on to indicate that his concern is not only with the poems' "reeking" ideas and the "obscenity" of their expression (27). More worrisome, more simply unacceptable, is their unrestrained eroticism, their "beastly sensuality that is fast rotting the healthy core of all the social virtues" (27). Griswold makes this allusion to prostitution fully explicit: the author, he writes, should be "placed in the same category" as a woman who "skulks along in the shadows of byways," the "slave of poverty, ignorance, and passion" (27).

Bibliography

Bayless, Joy. Rufus Wilmot Griswold: Poe's Literary Executor. Nashville: Vanderbilt UP, 1943.

Griswold, Rufus W. Rev. of Leaves of Grass, 1855 Edition. Walt Whitman: The Contemporary Reviews. Ed. Kenneth M. Price. Cambridge: Cambridge UP, 1996. 26–27.

Kaplan, Justin. Walt Whitman: A Life. New York: Simon and Schuster, 1980.


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