Commentary

Selected Criticism

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

Comprehensive dictionaries of American English were a new phenomenon in Whitman's lifetime, and he quickly fell in love with them. Whitman was still a schoolboy when Noah Webster issued his American Dictionary of the English Language, and he was a young man when the great "war of the dictionaries" broke out between Webster's successors and Joseph Emerson Worcester, who issued more conservative, British-oriented dictionaries that sought to counter Webster's brasher and more nationalistic wordbooks. Beginning in the 1840s and lasting until the 1870s, Webster and Worcester dictionaries competed against each other for the right to define the scope, direction, and rules of American English. Each edition of each dictionary increased in size, often dramatically. Whitman owned copies of both Webster and Worcester, and for a while he even considered entering the battle himself; he made substantial notes for his own dictionary, perhaps imagining a battle of the W's—Webster, Worcester, and Whitman. He kept lists of words he felt should be included in an American dictionary, he noted odd pronunciations, and he singled out useful foreign words and phrases that he thought the language would do well to absorb. He took careful notes on the long introductory essay in Webster's dictionary, arguing with Webster as he struggled to arrive at his own theory of language, a theory he expressed most fully in his set of notes now known as An American Primer.

In the Primer, he propounded a program for expanding the American lexicon by creating needed new words and by recognizing and celebrating words that had been excluded from the standard lexicon for various discriminatory reasons. He said we needed a "Real Dictionary," by which he meant one that would be fully inclusive, as democratic as his own idealized America, accepting and recognizing "all words that exist in use, the bad words as well as any" (Daybooks 3:734–735). Such a dictionary would be compiled by the "true lexicographer" (Notebooks 5:1704), who would go among all social classes, all races, all occupations, and gather the actual words in use.

Whitman's imagined Real Dictionary would far exceed even Webster's in size and scope, but he was nonetheless exhilarated by the phenomenal growth in each Webster edition, and he kept a careful record of the exponential increase in the number of words in the American language. For him, a dictionary was like the compost heap of language, the place where the culture stored the word-elements out of which all poetry and history would arise; a nation could, in some essential way, only be as large and as open as its dictionaries, which provided the words to express its ideals and laws and stories.

So it is not surprising that dictionaries appear in Whitman's poems, from his inclusion of the "lexicographer" among the experts of "positive science" and "exact demonstration" in "Song of Myself" (section 23), to his expression of frustration about the words that have not yet appeared in our dictionaries, and thus the crucial thoughts that are still literally beyond expression: "There is that in me—I do not know what it is... / It is not in any dictionary, utterance, symbol" ("Song of Myself," section 50). In "A Song of the Rolling Earth," Whitman calls on poets to write "the dictionaries of words that print cannot touch" (section 3)—that is, to reach their voices out to the things and ideas that language has not yet named, that humans have remained ignorant of because language has not yet evolved to the point where it can express them. As with so much else in Whitman, dictionaries were evolutionary organisms, growing quickly, absorbing new arenas of experience, and piling up words that would eventually make a democracy speakable and thus possible.

Whitman continued to use dictionaries assiduously throughout his life; he once made a note to himself to "get in the habit of tracing words to their root-meaning" (Daybooks 3:725), and etymological science—which was just developing during his adult life—was a source of real fascination for him: "Every principal word...in our language," he wrote, "is a condensed octavo volume, or many volumes" (Notebooks 5:1699). As late as 1891, he was still trading a copy of the latest issue of Leaves of Grass for a copy of the newest Merriam Webster's, and he was also following the great flowering of lexicography and etymological science evident in the first volumes of the Oxford English Dictionary, appearing in the decade before Whitman's death. It is useful to remember Whitman's love of dictionaries when reading his poems, for his words often play on the etymologies and definitions of the particular dictionaries he was consulting at the time he wrote each poem.

Bibliography

Cmiel, Kenneth. Democratic Eloquence: The Fight Over Popular Speech in Nineteenth-Century America. New York: William Morrow, 1990.

Dressman, Michael Rowan. "Walt Whitman's Plans for the Perfect Dictionary." Studies in the American Renaissance, 1979. Ed. Joel Myerson. Boston: Twayne, 1979. 457–474.

Folsom, Ed. Walt Whitman's Native Representations. Cambridge: Cambridge UP, 1994.

Whitman, Walt. Daybooks and Notebooks. Ed. William White. 3 vols. New York: New York UP, 1978.

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


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