Selected Criticism

Mulcaire, Terry
Print source:
J.R. LeMaster and Donald D. Kummings, eds., Walt Whitman: An Encyclopedia (New York: Garland Publishing, 1998), reproduced by permission.

"Do I contradict myself?" Whitman asks at the end of "Song of Myself" (1855). "Very well then...I am large, I contain multitudes" (section 51). This impulsive, democratic embrace of contradiction, Whitman would claim years later, expressed at a deep level a rigorous and explicitly Hegelian dialectical logic which would become more explicit, and more important, in Whitman's later, post-Civil War work. "Only Hegel is fit for America—is large enough and free enough," he would write in an unpublished lecture on German philosophy (Notebooks 6:2011). In Whitman's adaptation of Hegel, the clash of contradictions—between individualism and democracy, life and death, civil war and union, nature and the machine—would become a source of energy for the emergence of a higher, spiritualized synthesis that was the historical destiny of American democracy. Of course, Hegel so described sounds much more like the expansive and free-wheeling Walt Whitman than the political conservative he actually was. Whitman clearly put Hegel to his own uses, embracing his philosophy in a schematic sense, but applying it idiosyncratically to the United States.

Whitman's most important sources in learning about Hegel were secondary works, especially Frederick Hedge's Prose Writers of Germany (1847) and Joseph Gostwick's German Literature (1849). By reading in such sources, Whitman had become familiar with Hegelian concepts by the time he began to produce Leaves of Grass. In some of his later work the Hegelian fingerprints are clearly visible; "Chanting the Square Deific" (1865), for example, is almost programmatic in its unfolding of a dialectic capped by the emergence of "spirit." "Passage to India" (1871) represents the movement of history itself as the unfolding of a progressive dialectical scheme, an idea which Whitman attributes properly to Hegel in a piece from Specimen Days entitled "Carlyle from American Points of View" (1882), in which he rejects Thomas Carlyle's pessimism about modern civilization and praises Hegel's "American" historical optimism.

Hegelian ideas represented for Whitman a way to invigorate Emersonian transcendentalism, removing the lingering phenomenological barrier it left between the individual philosophical subject, conceived by Ralph Waldo Emerson as disembodied mind or spirit, and the external realms of the physical body, of nature, and of society. At the same time, however, in just this opening up of the self to the body, and thus to a sensuous interplay with others and with nature, Whitman moves farthest from the valorization of universal reason over particular sensuous experience that characterizes the tradition of philosophical idealism which produced Hegel. For Hegel, as for Emerson, it was a founding assumption that the world, known truly, was most like a mind. Whitman's variation on this philosophical tradition was that the world, known dialectically not simply by reason, but also by physical, sensuous experience, was most like a human body; and the poems which come out of this sensuous epiphany—"Song of Myself" (1855), for example, or "Out of the Cradle Endlessly Rocking" (1860)—are those which readers over the years have agreed are Whitman's best. For whatever reason, then (perhaps out of a bid for intellectual respectability), it seems that Whitman protests Hegel's greatness, and influence, a little too much.

Indeed, as critics of Whitman ranging from F.O. Matthiessen to M. Wynn Thomas have pointed out, in his turn to sensuousness Whitman's thinking is much closer to the dialectical materialism of Karl Marx, who overturned Hegelian idealism by arguing that the full range of sensuous experience in the world determined rational consciousness and not the other way around. The evidence of Whitman's direct acquaintance with Marxist thought is slender, but the affinities between Whitman and Marx remain numerous and provocative: Whitman was sympathetic to the socialist movements of 1848, harshly critical of the rich and powerful, and an ardent advocate of labor. According to a perhaps apocryphal story recounted by Walter Grünzweig in Constructing the German Walt Whitman, Marx favored Whitman's poetry (particularly "Pioneers! O Pioneers!"), and Whitman was widely popular and officially accepted (however odd the latter may seem) in the German Democratic Republic (159–160).

If Whitman's links to Marxist dialectics mark the extent of his political and economic radicalism, however, they also highlight its limits. For Marx, dialectical materialism pointed to the abolition of both wealth and poverty in a socialist utopia, where the sufferings caused by the exploitation and alienation of the working classes would be overcome once and for all. But for Whitman, an exploited industrial proletariat was a European problem, not a problem with capitalism per se. For him, the end of a sensuous dialectic between self and world, as he would insist in poem after poem, is death; only in death does the self overcome alienation once and for all and merge with the world. Although this is a poetic image rather than a philosophical proposition, it implies in philosophical terms Whitman's sense that alienation, and more generally the problems of the human condition, were not finally obstacles to be overcome, but potential sources of beauty to be incorporated into an aesthetic view of the world, in which suffering, sorrow, and pain will always be essential moments in an endless and ultimately positive dialectical progress.

In practical terms, this means that Whitman accepted the basic premises of a liberal political economy, not simply despite their failings and contradictions but in a sense because of them. Thus in Democratic Vistas (1871) Whitman suggests that the internal contradictions afflicting American democracy will themselves become, by a process of dialectical transformation, a form of cultural "nutriment," feeding its further growth (Complete 470). Whitman's treatment of private property may serve to clarify this claim. On the one hand, he expresses what might be called the negative moment of a dialectical perspective on a property-based society, when he attacks the base materialism of modern industrial society, its widespread greed and selfishness, and its corresponding lack of concern with a shared culture, with the higher matters of literature, art, and spirituality. On the other hand, he insists that democracy requires "owners of houses and acres, and with cash in the bank—and with some cravings for literature, too" (471). The dialectical turn comes here when the acquisitive drive turns seamlessly into "cravings for literature"; selfish materialism is not eliminated but rather transformed into the very thing that redeems it. Democratic literature, in other words, is the form of private property that transforms the problems of liberal society into advantages, that transforms a hostility to higher culture into the desire to produce and acquire that culture. Proprietary acquisitiveness is not simply what threatens to drive Americans apart, he suggests; it is also what promises to hold them together.

However sound or unsound this logic may be in political terms, it is arguably central to Whitman's poetics, which are more deeply grounded, finally, in the sensuous embrace of dialectical tension and contradiction than in a vision of dialectical synthesis. Such would seem to be the point of his choice in Democratic Vistas of the Civil War as a symbol of America's power to balance contradictions. Such, too, may be the point of his call there for "great poems of death" to crown the literary culture of the United States (Complete 497) and of his encouragement to true believers in the historically appointed triumph of democracy: "Thus national rage, fury, discussion, etc., better than content," he urges (473), and "Vive, the attack—the perennial assault" (472).


Breitweiser, Mitchell. "Who Speaks in Whitman's Poems?" Bucknell Review 28.1 (1983): 121–143.

Grünzweig, Walter. Constructing the German Walt Whitman. Iowa City: U of Iowa P, 1995.

Hegel, Georg Wilhelm Friedrich. Phenomenology of Spirit. Oxford: Clarendon, 1977.

Kojève, Alexandre. Introduction to the Reading of Hegel: Lectures on the Phenomenology of Spirit. Ed. Alan Bloom. Ithaca, N.Y.: Cornell UP, 1969.

Marx, Karl. Economic and Philosophic Manuscripts of 1844. Moscow: Foreign Languages Publishing House, 1959.

Marx, Karl, and Friedrich Engels. The German Ideology. 1938. New York: International Publishers, 1972.

Maslan, Mark. "Whitman and His Doubles: Division and Union in Leaves of Grass and Its Critics." American Literary History 6 (1994): 119–139.

Matthiessen, F.O. American Renaissance. New York: Oxford UP, 1941.

Stovall, Floyd. The Foreground of "Leaves of Grass." Charlottesville: UP of Virginia, 1974.

Thomas, M. Wynn. The Lunar Light of Whitman's Poetry. Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard UP, 1987.

Whitman, Walt. Complete Poetry and Selected Prose. Ed. James E. Miller, Jr. Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1959.

____. Notebooks and Unpublished Prose Manuscripts. Ed. Edward F. Grier. Vol. 6. New York: New York UP, 1984.


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