Commentary

Selected Criticism

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

For some readers surveying the totality of Leaves of Grass, the work displays more unity than variety, and a coherence that resolves many questions into a harmonious, invigorating whole. Among these readers, James E. Miller, Jr., has explained persuasively that the work is no less than an epic, an epic designed to suit the special conditions of a new nation in a given moment of its growth. Miller points out that Whitman himself left many clues, both in his prose and poetry, about his intention to fashion a work of epic proportions (see chapter 18 of Miller's Critical Guide). He describes Whitman's epic hero, who is of course none other than Whitman himself, as a man both separate from and part of the crowd, one who is heroic not because superior but because common, whose triumph is that he discovers his own deepest selfhood. Every American is potentially this same kind of hero.

Whitman's democratic epic hero is then engaged in another epic stage, Miller continues, a trial of strength represented by the Civil War. As depicted in the poems of the "Drum-Taps" cluster, the very existence of the nation depends upon the outcome of this war, such a large cause being appropriate to the epic form. In the latter sections of Leaves of Grass (from "Proud Music of the Storm" to the end), the hero's mythic nature is built up, providing him with assurances of his immortality. Finally, the New World epic hero is connected as a comrade with no less than God (in "Passage to India"). In his epic, Miller suggests, Whitman has shown the breadth of his faith in science and democracy, especially strong faiths in the nineteenth century. He has also shown a faith in the kind of religious views held in that century, just as the peoples in epics of other centuries lived by certain faiths. Miller concludes by pointing out that no work before or after Leaves of Grass can lay claim to being America's epic. Dwelling in the ideal rather than the real, Leaves reflects her character, her soul, her achievements, her aspirations. In a later essay, Miller stresses the uniqueness of Whitman's epic by defining briefly its form in these aspects: action, character, setting, and theme, and by examining more closely the interior of Leaves of Grass (see chapter 3 of American Quest).

Just as other puzzles surrounding Whitman's work may remain after the closest scrutiny, so the reader may have doubts about its form as epic, while at the same time accommodating Miller's interpretation. Roy Harvey Pearce's proposal, on the other hand, that "Song of Myself" alone should be considered an epic, or rather "the equivalent of an epic" (83), is unconvincing if only in light of the totality of Leaves of Grass.

One doubt arises simply from the way the work is used. Few would sit down and read it cover to cover; the work is ordinarily read in pieces, without damage to the whole. That is the normal way any book of lyric poetry is read. While among the collection are certain great longer poems, there are dozens of highly effective shorter ones that engage the sensitive reader perhaps even more powerfully than some of the more grandiose and public ones because of their very compact and intimate artistry. Can a poet be both lyric and epic? In Whitman's case, it would seem so.

Also, seeing Whitman as the hero of his own work is troublesome, not because he isn't properly at the center for his aims and methods but because to be a hero is always to be special in character and deeds, whereas he is at pains to be thought representative rather than special. Everyone is being invited to join him in a heroic journey to the interior of the self; but the vision of a nation in which everyone becomes heroic simply by accepting his selfhood, his humanity, is stretching the idea of the heroic close to absurdity.

And how is the reader to accommodate the several important places throughout Leaves of Grass where Whitman confesses his own blacker side, such evils as sloth, selfishness, greed, concupiscence, envy? Such admirable spots bespeak not heroism but brave recognition of common human frailty. And how are such evils within expiated and controlled? Are all citizens expected to have the same benign, reconciling mechanism with which Whitman's temperament was blessed? As to exterior evils, the only weakness in America's culture he railed against consistently for many years was an issue of social class, namely, narrow respectability and gentility, perhaps a doubtful adversary for an epic hero.

Nor does the internal structure of the work argue for an epic designation, at least not loudly. It is not a book constructed on the dynamic of a journey in search of something desirable yet to be grasped. In the earliest great poem, "Song of Myself," overrated by some as the only indispensable part of Leaves of Grass, the search is over before it begins. Here the speaker, at least, has found his faith, the love of comrades, of everyone and everything. He will celebrate them, and every atom of the congenial universe. When he wrote "Song of Myself," Whitman was not an innocent young man. At thirty-seven, as he confidently tells us, he had already experienced what it was to be a carpenter, teacher, printer, writer, and several kinds of editors, as well as an active son and brother. His own battles for identity and direction and faith had largely been won. He would seem to have been better suited to be a guide for others, like Vergil in the Divine Comedy, than to set himself up as a hero in search of something, as an epic would call for; and in many sections of "Song of Myself," especially in the last few, he does in fact behave rhetorically like a teacher and guide.

A brief summary of the structural contents of Leaves of Grass may or may not cast further doubt on its coherence as an epic. Sections that do show internal consistency, and which proceed in a rough chronology more or less paralleling Whitman's stages of life, are: "Inscriptions," "Children of Adam," "Calamus," "Sea-Drift," "Drum-Taps," "Memories of President Lincoln," "Whispers of Heavenly Death," and "Songs of Parting." Those that are without focus, miscellaneous, are: "By the Roadside," "Autumn Rivulets," "From Noon to Starry Night," "Sands at Seventy," and "Good-Bye my Fancy." Other important miscellaneous long poems, coming after the "Calamus" section, in a grouping not given any title by Whitman, take up over eighty pages of the Comprehensive Reader's Edition. Here again the reader is faced with a peculiarity; there is strong evidence for coherence and order of subject matter expected of an epic and only somewhat less strong evidence for little coherence.

In his last years, Whitman discussed with Horace Traubel the possible issuing of Leaves of Grass in units of small volumes, as he said, "'Song of Myself' in one, and so on" claiming he "shall never be set at rest" till such separate volumes appeared (With Walt Whitman 6:66–67). He also said to Traubel earlier that Leaves of Grass is unsatisfactory in pieces, that it "can only find its reflection in ensemble...it belongs to bulk, mass, unity: must be seen with reference to its eligibility to express world-meanings rather than literary prettinesses" (With Walt Whitman 2:115). Does he contradict himself? Very well. He does.

Whatever arguments may be made against the work's being an epic, Leaves of Grass is undeniably of such proportions. It is large. It contains multitudes. While the term epic might well be jettisoned in favor of another more flexible one, such as architectonic, with its distinguished tradition it remains suitable for honoring Whitman's truly magnificent accomplishment.

Bibliography

Hansen, Chadwick C. "Walt Whitman's 'Song of Myself'—Democratic Epic." The American Renaissance: The History and Literature of an Era. Ed. Marin Abbott and George Hendrick. Die Neueren Sprachen 9. Frankfurt, Germany: Diesterweg, 1961. 77–88.

Köhring, Klaus H. "The American Epic." Southern Humanities Review 5 (1971): 265–280.

McWilliams, John P., Jr. The American Epic: Transforming a Genre, 1770–1860. Cambridge: Cambridge UP, 1990.

Miller, James E., Jr. The American Quest for a Supreme Fiction: Whitman's Legacy in the Personal Epic. Chicago: U of Chicago P, 1979.

____. A Critical Guide to "Leaves of Grass." Chicago: U of Chicago P, 1957.

____. "Leaves of Grass": America's Lyric-Epic of Self and Democracy. New York: Twayne, 1992.

Nuhn, Ferner. "Leaves of Grass Viewed as an Epic." Arizona Quarterly 7 (1951): 324–338.

Pearce, Roy Harvey. The Continuity of American Poetry. Princeton: Princeton UP, 1961.

Traubel, Horace. With Walt Whitman in Camden. Vol. 2. New York: Appleton, 1908; Vol. 6. Ed. Gertrude Traubel and William White. Carbondale: Southern Illinois UP, 1982.

Walker, Jeffrey. Bardic Ethos and the American Epic Poem. Baton Rouge: Louisiana State UP, 1989.

Whitman, Walt. Leaves of Grass: Comprehensive Reader's Edition. Ed. Harold W. Blodgett and Sculley Bradley. New York: New York UP, 1965.


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