Commentary

Selected Criticism

Title:
Michelet, Jules (1798–1874)
Author:
Erkkila, Betsy
Print source:
J.R. LeMaster and Donald D. Kummings, eds., Walt Whitman: An Encyclopedia (New York: Garland Publishing, 1998), reproduced by permission.

Jules Michelet was a French romantic historian who, in his most celebrated multivolume work, Histoire de France (1833–1867), approached the past from the perspective of the present as part of an ongoing struggle of the people for liberty against tyranny, oppression, and fate. As editor of the Brooklyn Daily Eagle, 1846–1848, Whitman reviewed the work of several French romantic writers and historians, including a translation of Michelet's History of France. Whitman may also have read an 1846 translation of Michelet's The People (1846). Michelet's messianic and prose-poetic vision of the nationalist historian as the "voice of the people" appears to have had some impact on Whitman's own attempt to invent an American poet and a democratic poetry that embodies the simultaneously national and international aspirations of the people through time. While the many parallels between Michelet's historian of the people and Whitman's democratic poet may be the result of their shared intellectual heritage in the enlightenment and revolutionary periods in France and America, in at least one instance Whitman lifted an entire passage from an 1869 translation of Michelet's The Bird (1856) and rearranged it as verse in his 1876 poem "To the Man-of-War-Bird." Against what he considered to be the more conservative pro-monarchist politics of the British romantics, Whitman identified with and drew upon the works of several French enlightenment and romantic writers, including (along with Michelet) Voltaire, Constantin Volney, Jean-Jacques Rousseau, George Sand, and Victor Hugo. Perhaps more important than the work of identifying Michelet or some other French writer as the source of this or that passage in Whitman, however, is the need to rethink the tendency of past critics to emphasize the national and specifically American origins of Whitman's work. What the literary and cultural exchanges between Whitman, Michelet, and other French writers suggest, finally, is the need for a more transnational and ultimately global approach both to Whitman and to the study of American literature and culture more generally.

Bibliography

Allen, Gay Wilson. The New Walt Whitman Handbook. 1975. New York: New York UP, 1986.

Barthes, Roland, ed. Michelet. 1975. Trans. Richard Howard. New York: Hill and Wang, 1987.

Erkkila, Betsy. Walt Whitman Among the French: Poet and Myth. Princeton: Princeton UP, 1980.

Haac, Oscar A. Jules Michelet. Boston: Twayne, 1982.

Kippur, Stephen A. Jules Michelet: A Study of Mind and Sensibility. Albany: State U of New York P, 1981.

Mitzman, Arthur. Michelet: Rebirth and Romanticism in Nineteenth-Century France. New Haven: Yale UP, 1990.


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