Commentary

Selected Criticism

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

Whitman's prose and poetry are infused with a democratic spirit. Indeed, virtually all of Whitman's prose works stress both the importance of creating a democratic state and the need for establishing a corresponding literary tradition to articulate the essence of a democratic people; Leaves of Grass (1855), of course, inaugurates just such a tradition. Yet prominent in even Whitman's most democratic works are repeated references to what Whitman terms "feudalism." While such references might at first appear incongruous, they in fact serve as a sophisticated rhetorical strategy. In short, Whitman employs references to feudalism as a touchstone against which to define democracy, the United States, and American literature.

Whitman used the term "feudalism" loosely and in a variety of contexts: historical, political, and literary. Whitman first of all saw feudalism as being "rooted in the long past" (Whitman 668). He repeatedly associated feudalism with the medieval world and with the Old World, which for Whitman translated as Asia and Europe (specifically the British Isles). Whitman, therefore, found feudalism to be at odds with the democratic ideal, in part, at least, because it "celebrate[d] man and his intellections and relativenesses as they have been," while he envisioned democracies such as that of the United States as breaking with the past to "sing [its people] all as they are and are to be" (668). For Whitman, in other words, democracy resided in the modern and would come to fruition in the future.

In addition to viewing feudalism in a historical milieu, Whitman also saw feudalism in a political context, namely as a system in which the disenfranchised masses labored for the benefit of an elite few, the aristocracy. While Whitman conceded that the feudal political system had had a glorious history, he again found it in conflict with the democratic ideal because it encouraged a caste system rather than the egalitarian one he desired for the United States. Therefore, despite feudalism's remarkable history, Whitman believed that feudalism had ultimately shown itself to be an inferior political system, and that because of "the law over all, and law of laws," that is, "the law of successions," it must necessarily give way to the superior political system, democracy (Whitman 381). Indeed, Whitman argued that such a political shift was an evolutionary given and asserted that the question was not "whether to hold on, attempting to lean back and monarchize, or to look forward and democratize," but instead "how, and in what degree and part, most prudently to democratize" (383).

In short, Whitman believed that the feudal system, as well as the culture and literature it so thoroughly permeated, had become enervated, that it had at last played itself out. When Whitman referred to feudal culture and its literature, his words became tinged with a sense of nostalgia and loss: "The odor of English social life in its highest range—a melancholy, affectionate, very manly, but dainty breed—pervading the pages like an invisible scent; the idleness, the traditions, the mannerisms, the stately ennui; the yearning of love, like a spinal marrow, inside of all; the costumes, brocade and satin; the old houses and furniture—solid oak, no mere veneering—the moldy secrets everywhere; the verdure, the ivy on the walls, the moat, the English landscape outside, the buzzing fly in the sun inside the window pane" (477). While Whitman clearly found the feudal culture and its literature in many ways beautiful, he ultimately considered it too overly refined and delicate to adequately express the vigor and roughness of the United States.

Early in his career Whitman repeatedly and adamantly criticized feudalism, asserting that it had nothing to offer the United States. Later, however, he tempered his criticism, acknowledging (at times grudgingly) that feudal literary tradition could at least offer American poets a foundation on which to build their own tradition. As Whitman explained, "The New World receives with joy the poems of the antique, with European feudalism's rich fund of epics, plays, ballads—seeks not in the least to deaden or displace those voices from our ear and area—holds them indeed as indispensable studies, influences, records, comparisons" (720). Whitman eventually went so far as to call on feudal poets, especially Shakespeare, to serve as muses for American poets. While he recognized that the feudal poets were "grown not for America, but rather for her foes, the feudal and the old," he at the same time realized that they could "breathe [their] breath of life into our New World's nostrils—not to enslave us, as now, but, for our needs, to breed a spirit like [their] own—perhaps, (dare we to say it?) to dominate, even destroy, what [they themselves] have left!" (407).

It was such an inspired race of poets that Whitman so desperately desired for the United States. He considered American poets, for the most part, to be imitative of their feudal predecessors. He observed, for instance, that they had continued to offer poetry depicting "a parcel of dandies and ennuyees, dapper little gentlemen from abroad, who flood us with their thin sentiment of parlors, parasols, piano-songs, tinkling rhymes, the five-hundredth importation—or whimpering and crying about something, chasing one aborted conceit after another, and forever occupied in dyspeptic amours with dyspeptic women" (408). As Whitman at one point complained, "America has yet morally and artistically originated nothing" (395). For Whitman, such lack of originality was problematic, for as he noted, "the topmost proof of a race is its own born poetry" (474).

Consequently, Whitman called for native-born poets who could sing America, "fusing contributions, races, far localities, &c., together," and, in the process, give America its own distinctly democratic mythos (368). As Whitman concluded, "We see that almost everything that has been written, sung, or stated, of old, with reference to humanity under the feudal and oriental institutes, religions, and for other lands, needs to be re-written, re-sung, re-stated, in terms consistent with the institution of these States, and to come in range and obedient uniformity with them" (425). With Leaves of Grass, of course, he did just that.

Bibliography

Furness, Clifton Joseph. "Walt Whitman's Estimate of Shakespeare." Harvard Studies and Notes in Philology and Literature 14 (1932): 1–33.

Marx, Leo, ed. The Americanness of Walt Whitman. Boston: Heath, 1960.

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

Price, Kenneth M. Whitman and Tradition: The Poet in His Century. New Haven: Yale UP, 1990.

Scholnick, Robert J. "Toward a 'Wider Democratizing of Institutions': Whitman's Democratic Vistas." American Transcendental Quarterly 52 (1981): 287–302.

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

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


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