Commentary

Selected Criticism

Title:
Evolution
Author:
Tanner, James T.F.
Print source:
J.R. LeMaster and Donald D. Kummings, eds., Walt Whitman: An Encyclopedia (New York: Garland Publishing, 1998), reproduced by permission.

Although the theory of evolution—the belief that complex organisms were developed from preexistent simpler forms—is an ancient doctrine, it was only in the nineteenth century that massive scientific data appeared to support the theory systematically.

For students of Walt Whitman's thought, a knowledge of his speculations concerning the theory of evolution helps to clarify the relationship between his mystical idealism and his scientific, materialistic outlook. And scholars interested in Whitman's sources seek to understand the extent to which his evolutionary thought was indebted to Emersonian transcendentalism, German idealism, Oriental religion, and the popular sciences (or pseudosciences) of the period. Scholars continue to debate the question of the poet's most characteristic pronouncements on evolution: were they Lamarckian, Hegelian, Darwinian, mystical, or what?

Whitman was an evolutionist well before the publication of Charles Darwin's Origin of Species (1859). As early as 1847, when he was at work on early drafts of what was to become Leaves of Grass, he clearly indicated his absorption in evolutionary doctrines, and he was thus not at all upset (as was the case with Thomas Carlyle) when Darwin's work appeared. He was well acquainted with Lamarckian concepts of evolution through his particular interest in phrenology, whose adherents and practitioners clearly preached the doctrine of acquired characteristics as a part of their program of individual self-improvement. And Whitman's reading, as always, was voracious—especially in the popular periodicals, which regularly published articles on evolutionary speculation. The prolific writings of Herbert Spencer (1820–1903) made evolutionary thought accessible to a mass audience in nineteenth-century America.

Like many intellectuals of the nineteenth century, Whitman was interested in the concept of "becoming"—the view that all things are in the process of growth, development, modification, and transformation. In Leaves of Grass, this doctrine can easily be seen in the dominant symbol for "perfection," the seed. The "seed perfection" is "latent" in the universe, awaiting the appropriate time to reveal itself in the process of becoming. Whitman even viewed his poetic masterpiece, Leaves of Grass, as in the process of becoming. Furthermore, the spiritual democracy envisioned by Whitman is clearly an evolutionary concept. Gay Wilson Allen and others have seen evolutionary development as the underlying theme of the "long journey" motif that is pervasive in Leaves of Grass, and some also see in Whitman's optimistic view of man's future something akin to Nietzsche's "Superman," an essentially Lamarckian concept.

Whitman believed that the theory of evolution was but one of many ways of looking at the universe, and one not likely to put an end to the mystery of creation. He observed that "In due time the Evolution theory will have to abate its vehemence, cannot be allow'd to dominate every thing else, and will have to take its place as a segment of the circle, the cluster—as but one of many theories, many thoughts, of profoundest value—and re-adjusting and differentiating much, yet leaving the divine secrets just as inexplicable and unreachable as before—may-be more so" (Whitman 524).

Although the concept of evolutionary development informs Leaves of Grass throughout, scholars and critics have pointed to its presence, especially in "Eidólons," "Song of Myself" (especially sections 31 and 44), "By Blue Ontario' s Shore," "Unseen Buds," "The World below the Brine," "I Sing the Body Electric," and "As I Ebb'd with the Ocean of Life."

Bibliography

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

____. Walt Whitman Handbook. 1946. New York: Hendricks House, 1962.

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

Beaver, Joseph. Walt Whitman: Poet of Science. New York: King's Crown, 1951.

Conner, Frederick William. Cosmic Optimism: A Study of the Interpretation of Evolution by American Poets. Gainesville: U of Florida P, 1949.

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

Stavrou, C.N. Whitman and Nietzsche: A Comparative Study of Their Thought. Chapel Hill: U of North Carolina P, 1964.

Whitman, Walt. Prose Works 1892. Ed. Floyd Stovall. Vol. 2. New York: New York UP, 1964.


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