Commentary

Selected Criticism

Title:
Washington, George (1732–1799)
Author:
Pannapacker, William A.
Print source:
J.R. LeMaster and Donald D. Kummings, eds., Walt Whitman: An Encyclopedia (New York: Garland Publishing, 1998), reproduced by permission.

A Virginia planter, surveyor, and an officer in the French and Indian War (1753–1759), Washington's first major political office was in the Virginia House of Burgesses (1758–1774). Washington also served as a delegate to the first and second Continental Congresses (1774, 1775). He is best known as commander of the Continental Army in the American Revolution (1775–1783) and first president of the United States (1789–1797).

By the time of Walt Whitman's birth, Washington was the mythical Father of his Country, nearly deified in popular iconography and in Mason Weems's best-selling Life of Washington (1809). Washington was part of Whitman's family history; the poet's early youth was spent in the West Hills, where his granduncle had served under Washington at the battle of Brooklyn (1776), an event retold by Whitman in "The Centenarian's Story" and "The Sleepers." One of Whitman's brothers was named "George Washington," and Whitman treasured a memory of Washington's beloved general, the Marquis de Lafayette, kissing him as a child on 4 July 1825. In Whitman's short story, "The Last of the Sacred Army," published in the Democratic Review (March 1842), an adoring crowd beseeches an aged soldier of Washington's army, "Speak to us of him, and of his time'" (Early 98–99). In an Eagle column of 4 December 1846 Whitman recounts Washington's farewell to his officers, a scene which also reappears in "The Sleepers": "The chief encircles their necks with his arm and kisses them on the cheek" (section 5). In later years, Whitman is said to have compared himself to Washington: as Washington freed America from English political domination, so Whitman would free America from European ideals.

Bibliography

Binns, Henry Bryan. A Life of Walt Whitman. London: Methuen, 1905.

Freeman, Douglass Southall. George Washington: A Biography. Completed by J.A. Carroll and M.W. Ashworth. 7 vols. New York: Scribner's, 1948–1957.

Reynolds, David S. Walt Whitman's America: A Cultural Biography. New York: Knopf, 1995.

Weems, Mason L. The Life of Washington. 1809. Ed. Marcus Cunliffe. Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard UP, 1962.

Whitman, Walt. The Early Poems and the Fiction. Ed. Thomas L. Brasher. New York: New York UP, 1963.

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


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