Commentary

Selected Criticism

Title:
Influences on Whitman, Principal
Author:
Worley, Sam
Print source:
J.R. LeMaster and Donald D. Kummings, eds., Walt Whitman: An Encyclopedia (New York: Garland Publishing, 1998), reproduced by permission.

"I contain multitudes," announces the speaker in Whitman's "Song of Myself" (section 51), and any attempt to provide even a basic catalogue of the principle influences upon the poet only confirms his famous boast. The great number of those influences and their wide range—literature, music, painting, photography, science, religion, politics, philosophy, to name only a few—obliges one before surveying each influence individually to speculate on just why the scope of influences is so much greater for Whitman than for most poets. At least part of the answer lies in Whitman's quest to express the totality of existence, to encompass poetically the entire sum of human experience past and present, to write, as he proposed, a new Bible which, like its predecessor and model, would cover mankind's origins and destiny, would express literally and metaphorically the purpose and meaning of life, and would in the process offer a unifying vision of being. Consequently, while Whitman would draw inspiration from many places, the most profound influences on him were those which offered precisely this sort of totalizing vision: religion and philosophy.

The first significant religious influence on Whitman was the deism he acquired at home as a boy. Whitman's father had long been a follower of Thomas Paine, whose Age of Reason young Walt read, and Frances Wright, whom Walt heard lecture. The effect of his early exposure to deism or freethinking would usefully ensure that his emotional and intellectual development would not be narrowly circumscribed by any single creed, while at the same time deism's relatively cosmopolitan and generous willingness to allow for a degree of value in a variety of religious practices almost certainly encouraged the development of the broad and sympathetic embrace of diverse faiths which would be characteristic of Whitman's maturity. Moreover, it is likely that deism's sense of a benign creator and a providential, rational design underlying the universe helped to set early on the course of Whitman's holistic and optimistic perspective on the world.

Besides deism, Quakerism, specifically the controversial offshoot of orthodox Quakerism led by Elias Hicks, exerted considerable influence on the Whitman household. Hicks, who had been an acquaintance of both Whitman's grandfather and father, espoused a particularly liberal version of Quakerism, intensely anti-institutional and placing a greatly increased emphasis on the authority of the Inner Light. Additionally, Hicks's strong sense of divinity present in all aspects of nature bears an interesting resemblance to Whitman's own later sense of spirit at work in the natural world.

A large part of the power Hicks exerted over the imagination of the boy Whitman resulted from the rhetorical style of his sermons. Hicks's rhythmic biblical style bears enough of a resemblance to Whitman's poetic style to suggest at least a degree of influence also. Indeed, Whitman came to maturity during a particularly rich period of American religious oratory. In the wake of the Second Great Awakening, Protestant pulpit style, particularly that of evangelicals, became freer and more varied and played upon a much broader emotional range. In the construction of his own style, Whitman paid considerable attention to the oratory of influential ministers like Henry Ward Beecher. Aside from Beecher, perhaps the most famous preacher to influence Whitman was Edward Thompson Taylor of Seamen's Bethel Chapel, whose vivid style, rich with the language and imagery of the sea, also caught the attention of Ralph Waldo Emerson and Herman Melville. Taylor's use of the common, practical details of sea life to illustrate spiritual truths suggests Whitman's own use of everyday life to express his own spiritual vision.

A further and perhaps more crucial influence on Whitman's desire to reveal the spiritual significance of the everyday world was the theology of Emanuel Swedenborg. The great seventeenth-century Swedish scientist and mystic developed an elaborate cosmology, the most influential aspect of which consisted of his assigning specific moral and spiritual meanings to the various phenomena and entities of the natural world. This doctrine of correspondence, as it was called, insists that the microcosm reflects the macrocosm and that both are subject to interpretation as symbols. Swedenborg's version of the common mystical equation of communion with the divine as a type of sexual bond encouraged or gave support to Whitman's own conception of God as a "loving bed-fellow" or the "Great Camerado."

To these diverse Christian influences must also be added the various occult practices that became immensely popular in America during Whitman's lifetime. After the famous Hydesville rappings of 1848, different varieties of séances such as spirit-rapping flourished and spread throughout the century. Mesmerism, a popular form of hypnotism that began in late eighteenth-century Europe, enjoyed a new popularity in 1830s America, where it took on an additional dimension of spiritual healing. Mesmerists maintained that all things were animated by an electric fluid or, as it was sometimes called, an animal magnetism. Whitman's own vatic pose often resembles that of the trance-mediums of his day.

Finally, although Whitman was less directly influenced by European religious thought than almost any other major figure of American romanticism, mention should be made of the increasingly important role Georg Wilhelm Friedrich Hegel came to occupy in Whitman's thinking after the Civil War. The chief intellectual contribution made by Hegel's philosophy was the deferred, almost religious expectation of an eventual reconciliation of diverse aspects of experience. This deferral allowed Whitman to reconcile his conception of national unity underlying the multiple and increasingly conflicting elements of national life as the century progressed. Through the Hegelian model of development Whitman could retain the hopeful democratic vision of his prewar writings simply by placing his confident celebratory perspective into a utopian future. In fact, Hegel had served Emerson in much the same way as his vision of contemporary society's possibilities increasingly darkened during the 1850s.

Although Whitman's interest in Hegel does not appear to have a direct relationship with Emerson's, in many other respects, Emerson, as is well known, exerted a significant degree of influence on Whitman. Whitman had been exposed to Emerson's thinking as early as 1842, when Emerson lectured in New York, and it appears that Whitman heard at least his lecture on poetry. Whitman continued to show an interest in Emerson's thinking up to and after Emerson's famous and rather brave letter complimenting Whitman on the first edition of Leaves (1855). But perhaps as a result of Emerson's increasing reservations about Whitman's verse, Whitman began in his later years to downplay both his early knowledge of Emerson's thought and the degree of his influence. A few modern commentators have given support to this later view of Whitman's, greatly circumscribing Emerson's influence in favor of the far better known ideas of popular new religions and spiritual movements. Yet no reader can deny the powerful resemblance Whitman's conception of the poet as spokesman and shaman for the nation and its people bears to the prophetic and representative role of the bard as described in Emerson's essay "The Poet."

However, understanding just why such a conception of the poet's role should have held such appeal requires turning to the social and political context of Whitman's writing. Whitman's persona took form in response not just to the American political scene of his early maturity, but also retrospectively to the memory of the revolutionary generation and prospectively to likely results of increasing sectional conflict.

Whitman grew up hearing stories about his own family's involvement in the Revolutionary War. Of all the various confrontations with British forces in and about New York, the battle of Brooklyn was particularly meaningful for Whitman, who had even lost a granduncle in the battle. This heroic defeat for Washington's army came to be emblematic for Whitman of patriotic sacrifice and heroic resistance to injustice. Indeed many of his poetic references to the battle anticipate the images of blood sacrifice and cleansing death found in his Civil War writings. The Revolutionary War stood for the national unity he saw threatened in antebellum America; the great leaders of that era, the founding fathers, came to represent the ideal of a selfless and principled leadership. One of the heroes of the revolutionary generation, Thomas Paine, had been a particular hero of Whitman's father, who handed on his admiration for the freethinker and radical to his son Walt. Paine's combination of patriotic fervor, opposition to religious superstition, and firm belief in radical democracy crucially shaped Whitman's own understanding of America.

Whitman's upbringing initiated him into the world and values of working-class democratic life. This allegiance was confirmed by the long line of Democratic papers he wrote for in the early part of his life. The actual goals and values of the Democratic party during this period are complex, shifting, and often contradictory. Happily, however, the actual program of the party is less important in understanding Whitman than the image the party cultivated for itself in the national mind. The Democratic party represented itself as the party of the common man; it claimed to stand up for the rights and interests of working people against entrenched power and accumulated wealth. It was strongly nationalist, friendly to foreign democratic revolutions, and pro-expansion (the term "manifest destiny" had been popularized by a Democratic journal.) As a journalist for a Democratic paper, Whitman's conception of himself as a writer became closely associated in his mind with his role as the representative and bard of all Americans, without regard to social status. But it was the actions of this same Democratic party which ultimately disillusioned Whitman with party politics entirely and led him to a deeper sense of the poet's role as the only true representative of the nation.

As part of its intense nationalism, the Democratic party was unwilling to countenance antislavery sentiment and the threat it posed to national unity. Whitman's moral opposition to the institution of slavery increasingly drove him away from the Democratic party. From the Fugitive Slave Law of 1850, through the election of 1852, to the extension of slavery in the Kansas-Nebraska Act of 1854, Whitman moved farther and farther away from the Democrats and ultimately from party politics in general. The outcome of this disillusionment was that Whitman the political journalist gradually shifted his allegiance from the people's representatives in Washington to the moral authority of the people themselves. The failure of the nation's political representatives to provide adequate moral leadership prompted Whitman to become a sort of representative himself and to provide the kind of moral direction he sees as missing in national life.

Besides reinforcing his democratic leanings, Whitman's work as a journalist ensured that he would be exposed to the popular press of his day. Prior to his newspaper work he had shown enthusiasm for the novels of Sir Walter Scott and James Fenimore Cooper, but by the time he began to write his early fiction he was clearly far more influenced by the sentimental and sensationalistic fiction of his day. What is most interesting about his use of these popular genres, however, is his attempt to draw simultaneously on both the violent and romantic aspects of sensationalism and on the moral, pious, and didactic elements of sentimental writing. Although as Whitman matured as a writer he would leave the more extreme aspects of sensationalism behind, various episodes and images from both sensationalism and sentimentalism persist throughout Leaves. Arguably, the influence of these popular modes greatly adds to the astonishing range of subject and tone in Whitman's best work.

Of equal importance in shaping Whitman's emotionally charged style and images are the fine arts, particularly painting, early photography, theater, and music.

American painting in Whitman's formative years was almost exclusively realist with a certain amount of romantic idealization. Nature paintings, those of the luminists for example, used a beautiful but exaggerated light to restore to the viewer a sense of wonder before the natural world. Genre paintings similarly romanticized everyday life in order to bring out a certain democratic poetry of the commonplace. Both types of painting were comfortingly realistic and uncritical; they were designed for a popular mass audience, which quickly took them to heart. This desire for a popular art both realistic and transcendent was congenial to Whitman's own developing conception of art. Whitman also quickly developed an interest in the new art of photography and particularly admired its ability to offer an honest, unvarnished representation of life. He saw in both popular painting and photography an opportunity to refine and uplift the perception of the public, an aspiration he held for his own poetry.

An even more forceful image of the effect of art on its public was to be found in the playhouses of his day, where lively audiences engaged in a host of exchanges with the performers and each other. Whitman's favorite actors were those like Junius Brutus Booth, the father of John Wilkes and Edwin Booth, whose extravagant, vehement style drove naturally vociferous audiences to even greater extremes of response. All of Whitman's exposure to theater, both audiences and actors, from sensational melodrama to Shakespeare, intensified his own theatricality, both in the dramatic aspects of Leaves and perhaps more tellingly in the construction of his own rather theatrical persona as "America's bard."

The comprehensiveness of the theatrical experience—its use of words, images, movement, extreme emotional states—was at the heart of Whitman's other great theater-going experience, grand opera. The great bel canto stylists like Giula Grisi and Marietta Alboni were dramatic incarnations of the poet, spellbinding audiences with their voices, transfixing the present moment with sublimity. Prior to his infatuation with opera, Whitman had shown interest in American popular music: various singing families like the Hutchinsons, minstrel singers and songwriters, especially Stephen Foster. Whitman's ability to incorporate such diverse musical influences in his poetry once again bespeaks the wide range of his vision and his urgent desire to offer an image of the whole of his culture.

Ironically, poetic influences on Whitman are perhaps less important than any of the aforementioned subjects. Even in terms of literary style, prose writers, polemicists, and preachers had a greater impact on him than any poets. Scott's Border Minstrelsy was an early favorite of Whitman's, as was McDonald Clarke, the so-called Mad Poet of Broadway, whose defiance of social convention and curious, often maudlin, verse shaped Whitman's early sense of the possibilities of poetry. Part of the reason Whitman's poetry was so little influenced by that of other poets is to be found in its unusual style. Those who influenced him most directly were primarily prose-poets like the eighteenth-century Scots poet James Macpherson, whose pseudo-ancient poems, published under the name of "Ossian," Whitman found to be powerful but also a bit windy. The most popular American prose poetry before Whitman was written by Martin Farquhar Tupper. In addition to the remarkable similarity of his style to Whitman's, Tupper also anticipated Whitman's exaltation of the events and details of everyday life and nature.

The rather paradoxical conclusion one draws from an overview of the principle influences on Whitman is that in large part it is precisely because of the vast number of these influences that Whitman is so startlingly original. Whitman's attempt to represent the fullness of life, the totality of experience, not only benefited from but actually required the incorporation of many disparate voices into his work.

Bibliography

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

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

Asselineau, Roger. The Evolution of Walt Whitman. 2 vols. Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard UP, 1960–1962.

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

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

Zweig, Paul. Walt Whitman: The Making of the Poet. New York: Basic Books, 1984.


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