Commentary

Selected Criticism

Title:
Critics, Whitman's
Author:
Hindus, Milton
Print source:
J.R. LeMaster and Donald D. Kummings, eds., Walt Whitman: An Encyclopedia (New York: Garland Publishing, 1998), reproduced by permission.

According to Samuel Johnson, no one has ever been written up or down except by himself. The observation could stand as a summation of the history of Walt Whitman criticism. From the moment he chose to disclose his existence in 1855, he seems to have invited the attention of two kinds of readers, who, like himself, were also writers: those bent upon confirming and building up his extravagant estimate of his own importance and those no less stubbornly insisting on rejecting it and tearing down his image. It would be hard to find another writer about whom extremes of opinion have varied and fluctuated more widely. Occasionally, this fluctuation has been present in individual readers, going from strongly negative to positive in Henry James, and in the opposite direction, from enthusiasm to cutting sarcasm, in the case of the poet A.C. Swinburne. Antipathy has reached inspired heights in such writers as Peter Bayne and Knut Hamsun, and this makes their spluttering, abusive reaction almost an even match for the unrestrained hero worship of William Douglas O'Connor and William Sloane Kennedy. But after the wild enthusiasts and the brutal critics have done their best and worst, we are still left with the texts of Whitman himself—with Leaves of Grass, Specimen Days, and Democratic Vistas—and it is these that must finally determine what we ourselves think. Only one other writer may be helpful in adding to these texts, and that is Horace Traubel, whose patient transcriptions of Whitman's talk with his friends during the last four years of his life dwarf the labors of Boswell.

Johnson's impatience with cant should act as a warning against trendiness in criticism. Both are shields to ward off the labor and pain of thinking for ourselves and bringing to the originality of Whitman our own originality. The academy at best, Whitman once told Traubel, has its eyes set in the back of its head. It is naturally retrospective, not prospective. Whitman himself, at different times, was both—in youth more prospective than retrospective; in age, the opposite. Like many another young prospector, he failed to become rich; and, like others who survive long enough to merit a retrospective look, he benefited from the compassion and charity of his audience. His real career, it might even be said, did not begin until the moment of his death in 1892. It did not occur to anyone to preserve his last domicile until almost thirty years later, in the wake of World War I. From being the most modest of structures on Mickle Street in Camden, New Jersey, in the 1890s, it has survived and expanded to become the most notable landmark on what is known as Mickle Boulevard.

A bridge connecting Camden to Philadelphia, though a controversial suggestion to begin with, has finally been named in honor of him, and the tomb he designed for himself and his family in Harleigh Cemetery has become the focal point of reverent pilgrimages for tourists. Meanwhile, his reputation has undergone changes in deference to the varying political, social, and aesthetic fashions of different times. In the twenties, he was taken as the type of everything that was new, modern, and revolutionary in the arts; in the thirties, he was captured by the left, who gave to his greeting of Comrade their own particular meaning. After World War II, he gave encouragement to dreamers of an American Century and nationalists of various kinds. In the rebellious sixties, he was seen as the venerated ancestor of the beats and those who bravely struck out for the Open Road. In the seventies and eighties, he became the poster figure for gay liberation and those who celebrated their exit from confining closets of conformity. He has never lacked serious biographers and critics who tailored his image to accord with the changing tastes of various decades. Yet all the time there was the warning sign he had set up for the benefit of future biographers, cautioning them against the easy assumption that they were able to encompass him and understand him better than he had ever been able to understand himself.

Fortunately, the prying and prurience that have been in fashion for a long time are showing signs of exhaustion. By giving way to boredom, they are preparing the way for a restoration of a healthier and more balanced approach to the intentions of the writer. This is the case in such a book as David Kuebrich's Minor Prophecy, which is inclined to take at face value the aspirations of Whitman to compose the "psalm" of the Republic. Without stressing unduly the religious context in which his work must be seen, such an approach is consonant with the aims of a man who confesses his pleasure in the construction of new houses of worship in his borough of Brooklyn and his curiosity about what was enacted there which took him even into a synagogue where he might hear Hebrew chanting in its traditional form (which he troubled to mention not only in his journalism but in his more serious "Salut au Monde!").

A bracing change for the better is also to be found in such a volume as David Reynolds's Walt Whitman's America: A Cultural Biography, which no lover of Whitman's poetry can resist reading thoroughly or learning from, no matter how much of Whitman or about him he or she has read before.

An emerging impulse exists to return to the supposedly outworn image of Whitman in his later years as the Sage of Camden. This is the Whitman who did his best to slow down the eagerness of his young socialist friend Horace Traubel. There are few things in Whitman's published work better than the words Traubel recorded one day: "We must be resigned, but not too much so; we must be calm, but not too calm; we must not give in, yet we must give in some. That is, we must grade our rebellion and conformity both" (qtd. in Hindus, "Centenary" 14). In David Reynolds's biography, we see Whitman as a man who worked continually to live up to his own carefully balanced advice, in politics and in art, as well as in the teaching he transmitted to his friends and disciples. Reynolds does not hesitate to give a fuller account of the consequences of Whitman's sexual orientation than any biographer has given before, but he does not emphasize it unduly or allow it to skew and unbalance the portrait as a whole. What emerges clearly is a Whitman who was no godless atheist (as some of his ill-informed admirers mistakenly surmised), but one who could sincerely sing the praises of his adored father figure, Abraham Lincoln, and who had the liveliest intuitions of the immortality to which both he and his model were destined and which he proposed generously to share with common humanity as a whole.

Bibliography

Allen, Gay Wilson. The New Walt Whitman Handbook. 1975. New York: New York UP, 1986.

Aspiz, Harold. Walt Whitman and the Body Beautiful. Urbana: U of Illinois P, 1980.

Asselineau, Roger. "Walt Whitman." Eight American Authors: A Review of Research and Criticism. Ed. James Woodress. Rev. ed. New York: Norton, 1971. 225–272.

Giantvalley, Scott. Walt Whitman, 1838–1939: A Reference Guide. Boston: Hall, 1981.

Hindus, Milton. "The Centenary of Leaves of Grass." "Leaves of Grass" One Hundred Years After. Ed. Hindus. Stanford: Stanford UP, 1955. 3–21.

____, ed. Walt Whitman: The Critical Heritage. London: Routledge and Kegan Paul, 1971.

Killingsworth, M. Jimmie. The Growth of "Leaves of Grass": The Organic Tradition in Whitman Studies. Columbia, S.C.: Camden House, 1993.

Kuebrich, David. Minor Prophecy: Walt Whitman's New American Religion. Bloomington: Indiana UP, 1989.

Kummings, Donald D. Walt Whitman, 1940–1975: A Reference Guide. Boston: Hall, 1982.

Miller, Edwin Haviland, ed. A Century of Whitman Criticism. Bloomington: Indiana UP, 1969.

Murphy, Francis, ed. Walt Whitman: A Critical Anthology. Harmondsworth: Penguin, 1969.

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

Woodress, James, ed. Critical Essays on Walt Whitman. Boston: Hall, 1983.


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