Commentary

Selected Criticism

Title:
Chase, Richard Volney (1914–1962)
Author:
Graffin, Walter
Print source:
J.R. LeMaster and Donald D. Kummings, eds., Walt Whitman: An Encyclopedia (New York: Garland Publishing, 1998), reproduced by permission.

A Columbia University professor, Chase wrote books on prominent American literary figures and issues, including Herman Melville: A Critical Study (1949), Emily Dickinson (1951), and The American Novel and Its Tradition (1957). As a Whitman scholar, his two books Walt Whitman Reconsidered (1955) and Walt Whitman (1961) undertook to revise previous interpretations by emphasizing Whitman's modern, paradoxical, and comic qualities, none of which, according to Chase, had received adequate attention. "Song of Myself" is the first modern poem in that it incorporates prose elements and expands subject matter to include the entire spectrum of life. Also, at the heart of Whitman's work are paradox and contradiction, modern attributes, which appear in the poet's vacillation between praising the individual self and extolling the democratic mass, between being a cheerleader for and a critic of American society.

Chase took issue with critics who overemphasized Whitman's philosophical and religious qualities. Instead, in the best poems, such as "Song of Myself," "Crossing Brooklyn Ferry," and "Out of the Cradle Endlessly Rocking," Chase saw Whitman's strength and true subject to be his presentation of the development of an often-divided self against the backdrop of energetic but chaotic cultural and social conditions, which he alternately praised and decried. The many contradictions that result from the topic of a self sometimes at odds with its own and its culture's values produced, in Chase's view, a comic tone in much of Whitman's poetry, a tone as characteristic of his work as the more praised lyrical one. While Chase found it ironic that the poet was unappreciated by the general public for which he wrote, he contended that, because of his many masks and contradictions, Whitman is America's spokesman.

Bibliography

Chase, Richard. Walt Whitman. University of Minnesota Pamphlets on American Writers 9. Minneapolis: U of Minnesota P, 1961.

———. Walt Whitman Reconsidered. New York: William Sloane Associates, 1955.


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