Commentary

Selected Criticism

Title:
Great Plains and Prairies, The
Author:
Schneider, Steven P.
Print source:
J.R. LeMaster and Donald D. Kummings, eds., Walt Whitman: An Encyclopedia (New York: Garland Publishing, 1998), reproduced by permission.

Encompassing vast areas of Missouri, Illinois, Iowa, Kansas, and Nebraska, the great plains and prairies comprise an area of the United States that fascinated Walt Whitman. Although he traveled through parts of this region relatively late in his career, on a trip to Denver in 1879, Whitman incorporated the plains and prairies into much of his earlier poetry and prose. In Democratic Vistas (1871) he speculated that the nation's future capital could be "refounded" in its heartland.

Whitman records his firsthand observation of the great plains and prairies in Specimen Days (1882). There he writes that the vast stretches of buffalo grass and wild sage in the country's midlands are "North America's characteristic landscape," exceeding the beauty of Niagara Falls, Yosemite, and the upper Yellowstone (94). The "pure breath, primitiveness, boundless prodigality and amplitude" (95) of the prairies inspired several poems that appeared in Leaves of Grass, including "The Prairie States," "The Prairie-Grass Dividing," "Night on the Prairies," and "A Prairie Sunset."

Whitman not only absorbed the geographic landscape of the prairies into his work, but he also extolled the virtues of its inhabitants—pioneers, farmers, and presidents Abraham Lincoln and Ulysses S. Grant, both of whom came from great plains states. Whitman admired the freshness, spirit, and strong work ethic of the peoples in this region.

The great plains and prairies thus provided Whitman with an open and sunlit landscape—"with the far circle-line of the horizon all times of day" (Specimen Days 94). In his expansive vision of inland America he discovered an analog for his own expansive consciousness and for his idealized conception of Americans living free of constraint.

Bibliography

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

Eitner, Walter H. Walt Whitman's Western Jaunt. Lawrence: Regents Press of Kansas, 1981.

Trachtenberg, Alan, ed. Democratic Vistas: 1860–1880. New York: George Braziller, 1970.

Whitman, Walt. Specimen Days. Boston: D.R. Godine, 1971.


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