Commentary

Selected Criticism

Title:
Catalogues
Author:
Mason, John B.
Print source:
J.R. LeMaster and Donald D. Kummings, eds., Walt Whitman: An Encyclopedia (New York: Garland Publishing, 1998), reproduced by permission.

Whitman's catalogues, his long lists, have been the most notorious stylistic feature of his poetry. Especially in the first half of the twentieth century, when poetic compression and precision were highly valued by literary critics, Whitman's catalogues earned him considerable condemnation, having been likened to the telephone directory and the Sears Roebuck catalogue. In addition, they have fueled most of the parodies that have been made of his poems. More recently, many of Whitman's readers have explained the catalogues as an integral part of both his stylistics and his poetic theory.

Whitman's source of inspiration for the catalogues may have been Homer, but more likely the Old Testament of the Bible. They appear in abundance in the first edition of Leaves of Grass and frequently thereafter until 1860; then they diminish and eventually disappear. The diminishing of a device through which Whitman expresses his faith in the expansiveness and all-inclusiveness of American democracy is evidence of the psychological devastation he suffered at the onset of the Civil War.

With the catalogue technique, Whitman seeks to encompass the nation and even the universe. It is difficult to think of any category of qualities, objects, persons, or occupations that is not catalogued by Whitman somewhere. As he projects the persona of the bard, whom he sometimes calls the "Sayer," he simultaneously extends himself out into the universe and enfolds all into himself. In "Song of Myself," he refers to this role as "the caresser of life," one who moves "To niches aside and junior bending, not a person or object missing, / Absorbing all to myself and for this song" (section 13).

The use of the catalogues is also a logical extension of Whitman's transcendental understanding of the nature of language. For the transcendentalist, all items within the universe are connected through chains of correspondences. Nothing exists in isolation, and words themselves contain and evoke relationships. Although he would eventually join those who condemned Whitman's catalogues, Emerson recommended the reading of the dictionary because of the evocative power of individual words. A few years before his death, Whitman echoed Emerson when he said to Horace Traubel, "They call the catalogues names, but suppose they do? It is names: but what could be more poetic than names?" (Traubel 324). Whitman's notebooks further illustrate the poet's fascination with words.

When Whitman is at his best, the catalogues are stylistically much more controlled and unified than they seem upon first encounter. Despite their appearance as spontaneous outpourings, they are often connected by both logic and grammar. Perhaps reflecting a popular early form of psychology termed "Associationalism," the catalogues relate one thing to another through a chain of associated thought. Sometimes, as Stanley K. Coffman has shown of "Crossing Brooklyn Ferry," the catalogues are organized grammatically so that words, phrases, and clauses of the same type are repeated and then expanded into complete grammatical constructions. Very often, as in the long catalogues of "Song of Myself," Whitman uses the poetic device of anaphora, in which a single word is repeated at the beginning of successive lines or clauses.

Sometimes Whitman's readers are embarrassed to admit that they skim the catalogues, but skimming seems almost unavoidable because of their length, repetition, and parallelism. Critics argue about whether Whitman's poems are essentially oral or visual in quality. Certainly the sweeping, broad lines of the first edition (Whitman had to revert to a smaller format in order to get the second edition published) emphasize the visual aspect of the poetry. One's eyes sweep across the page, just as the poet sweeps across the universe, pulling all unto himself and his vision. Whitman anticipated the motion picture camera, presenting items which, like the frames of celluloid film, are individual but also part of a moving picture. Whitman was not uniformly successful in controlling the catalogue technique, however. Some of his weaker attempts, such as those in "Song of the Broad-Axe," resemble the parodies that they inspired. Yet at his best, Whitman uses the catalogues to give an expansive, exhilarating quality to his poems.

Bibliography

Coffman, Stanley K., Jr. "'Crossing Brooklyn Ferry': A Note on the Catalogue Technique in Whitman's Poetry." Modern Philology 51 (1954): 225–232.

Mason, John B. "Whitman's Catalogues: Rhetorical Means for Two Journeys in 'Song of Myself.'" American Literature 45 (1973): 34–49. Rpt. in On Whitman: The Best from "American Literature." Ed. Edwin Harrison Cady and Louis J. Budd. Durham, N.C.: Duke UP, 1987. 187–202.

Miller, Edwin Haviland. Walt Whitman's "Song of Myself": A Mosaic of Interpretations. Iowa City: U of Iowa P, 1989.

Traubel, Horace. With Walt Whitman in Camden. Ed. Sculley Bradley. Vol. 4. Philadelphia: U of Pennsylvania P, 1953.


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