Commentary

Selected Criticism

Title:
Heine, Heinrich (1797–1856)
Author:
Grünzweig, Walter
Print source:
J.R. LeMaster and Donald D. Kummings, eds., Walt Whitman: An Encyclopedia (New York: Garland Publishing, 1998), reproduced by permission.

Whitman considered Heinrich Heine one of the most significant writers of his time; he was the only German author Whitman discussed in great detail. He was aware of Heine as early as 1856 when he noted Heine's death and Charles Leland's translation of Heine's Reisebilder (1855). As late as 1888, he claimed that his admiration for Heine was "a constantly growing one" (With Walt Whitman 2:560).

Whitman seems to have been more interested in Heine's persona, as it emerges in his writings, than in his revolutionary politics. He identified with Heine's unconventional "improprieties" (With Walt Whitman 2:553) (presumably his liberal attitude toward sexuality) and the absence of bookishness in his works: "always warm, pulsing—his style pure, lofty, sweeping in its wild strength" (2:554).

Whitman's reading of Heine was guided by English-language criticism, especially by Matthew Arnold's essay on Heine (1863), which he mentions repeatedly as "the best thing Arnold ever did" and "the one thing of Arnold's that I unqualifiedly like" (With Walt Whitman 1:106). Arnold's essay stresses Heine's importance as a libertarian poet and designates him as the most important German successor of Goethe, thereby displacing the more politically conservative romantics who are normally considered to be in the mainstream tradition of German literature.

Whitman's emphasis on Heine's irony is his most perceptive critical judgment. He believed the ironical undercutting of the conventions of popular German romanticism to be Heine's Original lyrical property, "a superb fusion of culture and native elemental genius" (With Walt Whitman 2:562). His critique of writers who unsuccessfully attempted to emulate Heine's lyrical mode also seems to explain the lack of Heine-esque traces in Whitman's own work. Russel A. Berman has compared the two authors in their political radicalism (especially in contrast with their more conservative predecessors, Goethe and Emerson) and in their efforts to develop an innovative, democratic literature by fusing diverse elements into a "postauratic public voice" (220). Whereas these analogies are not genetically related, they do point to the revolutionary year of 1848, which is important to both writers' works.

Bibliography

Berman, Russel A. "Poetry for the Republic: Heine and Whitman." Heinrich Heine and the Occident: Multiple Identities, Multiple Receptions. Ed. Peter Uwe Hohendahl and Sander L. Gilman. Lincoln: U of Nebraska P, 1991. 199–223.

Pochmann, Henry A. German Culture in America: Philosophical and Literary Influences, 1600–1900. 1957. Madison: U of Wisconsin P, 1961.

Traubel, Horace. With Walt Whitman in Camden. Vol. 1. Boston: Small, Maynard, 1906; Vol. 2. New York: Appleton, 1908.


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