Commentary

Selected Criticism

Title:
"From Far Dakota's Cañons" (1876)
Author:
Olson, Steven
Print source:
J.R. LeMaster and Donald D. Kummings, eds., Walt Whitman: An Encyclopedia (New York: Garland Publishing, 1998), reproduced by permission.

"From Far Dakota's Cañons" was first published as "A Death Sonnet for Custer" in the New York Tribune, 10 July 1876, two weeks after General George Armstrong Custer's death. Whitman received ten dollars for the poem. It was intercalated in some copies of the Centennial edition of Leaves of Grass (1876) and added in its present position to the cluster "From Noon to Starry Night" in the 1881 edition, when it also took its present title. Aside from the change in title Whitman made no other revisions.

The poem celebrates the death of General Custer at the Battle of the Little Bighorn (Custer's Last Stand), 25 June 1876, as the death of a hero during the Gilded Age, when national, political heroes were in short supply. The empathetic public note sounded by this poem is evinced by its drawing almost immediate praise (on 25 July) from John Hay, who had been Abraham Lincoln's private secretary. The poem's laudatory tone represents the typical view of Custer as a national hero—fighting at the front of his men for the honor of his country, dying a heroic death that gives credibility to the high ideals of his entire life, giving the most one can for his country and its ideals.

In keeping with his celebration of Custer, Whitman's characterization of North American Indians is slightly different in this poem than elsewhere. Whereas in "Song of Myself," for example, he implies an equality between the Indian and white man, in "Dakota's Cañons" he uses stereotypically derogatory words when referring to Indians and their actions: "dusky," "ambuscade," "craft." In this poem Whitman is very much the public poet who does not question national moral attitudes or actions against the Native Americans but who celebrates the standards of progress, westering, and Manifest Destiny.

Bibliography

Erkkila, Betsy. Whitman the Political Poet. New York: Oxford UP, 1989.

Steensma, Robert C. "Whitman and General Custer." Walt Whitman Review 10 (1964): 41–42.

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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