Commentary

Selected Criticism

Title:
Columbus, Christopher (ca. 1451–1506)
Author:
Stuckey-French, Ned C.
Print source:
J.R. LeMaster and Donald D. Kummings, eds., Walt Whitman: An Encyclopedia (New York: Garland Publishing, 1998), reproduced by permission.

Christopher Columbus was the Genoese explorer traditionally thought of as the first European to land in the Americas. Walt Whitman used the figure of Columbus several times in his poetry, referring to him in "Passage to India" (1871) as "[h]istory's type of courage, action, faith" (section 6).

In "Passage to India," Whitman argued that Columbus's dream of finding a route to the Indies had finally been realized with the completion of the Suez Canal, the transatlantic telegraph, and the transcontinental railroad.

When he wrote "Prayer of Columbus" (1874), Whitman was recovering from his first stroke and mourning the recent deaths of his mother and sister-in-law. In the poem, he identifies with the sick and elderly Columbus who has run ashore in Jamaica on his fourth and last voyage (1502–1504). "Prayer" is a dramatic monologue in which a Job-like Columbus implores God to accept him on his own terms.

"A Thought of Columbus" (1892), the last poem Whitman wrote, was published posthumously. In it, Whitman presents Columbus looking west from Europe with the first voyage yet to come and the New World "only a silent thought."

Like most nineteenth-century Americans, Whitman idealized Columbus. Much of this mythologizing came from his reading of Washington Irving's The Life and Voyages of Christopher Columbus (1828).

Bibliography

Allen, Gay Wilson. The Solitary Singer: A Critical Biography of Walt Whitman. 1955. Rev. ed. 1967. Chicago: U of Chicago P, 1985.

Irving, Washington. The Life and Voyages of Christopher Columbus. 1828. Ed. John Harmon McElroy. Boston: Twayne, 1981.

Morison, Samuel Eliot. Admiral of the Ocean Sea: A Life of Christopher Columbus. Boston: Little, Brown, 1942.

Shurr, William H. "The Salvation of America: Walt Whitman's Apocalypticism and Washington Irving's Columbus." Walt Whitman of Mickle Street: A Centennial Collection. Ed. Geoffrey M. Sill. Knoxville: U of Tennessee P, 1994. 142–150.

Whitman, Walt. Leaves of Grass: A Textual Variorum of the Printed Poems. Ed. Sculley Bradley, Harold W. Blodgett, Arthur Golden, and William White. 3 vols. New York: New York UP, 1980.


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