Selected Criticism

Dressman, Michael R.
Print source:
J.R. LeMaster and Donald D. Kummings, eds., Walt Whitman: An Encyclopedia (New York: Garland Publishing, 1998), reproduced by permission.

First as a teacher, then as a journalist, and ultimately as a poet, Walt Whitman knew that he was in the language business. His early writings display the journalist's sense of intrigue at occasional odd words or unusual names, but during the 1850s he began a more intensive study of language in general and the English language in particular. That study resulted in a few published pieces on language, but Whitman accumulated a collection of material which indicates that philological matters were more than a hobby for him.

The English language is celebrated in the Preface to the first edition of Leaves of Grass (1855). Near the conclusion of the Preface, in which he catalogues what is most important for the poet who would speak for the country, Whitman writes that the English language "befriends the grand American expression" (Comprehensive 727). The language of Leaves drew immediate attention to the book, with some praising its freshness and others put off by its slang, its perceived indecency, or simply its idiosyncrasies, such as Whitman's spelling, e.g., "loafe" or "kosmos."

It was not long after the first edition of Leaves and just before the publication of the second that Whitman's first essay devoted exclusively to language, "America's Mightiest Inheritance" (1856), appeared in Life Illustrated. At the time, he was flush with his new poetic identity, and his language study was closely aligned to his sense of self. In the essay, Whitman recounts the historic roots of English, connecting it to the languages of Europe and Asia, to show that, like civilization itself, language has moved from East to West, culminating in the perfect summation: the English language in America. He singles out for special praise "language-searchers," historical philologists, "a modern corps, to whom history is to be more indebted than any of the rest" ("Inheritance" 57). Some of the information in the essay is based on a school text, A Hand-book of the Engrafted Words of the English Language (1854). The chief point of this text and of Whitman in "Inheritance" is that the English language is "a composite one, differing from all others" ("Inheritance" 56). At the conclusion of the essay, he adds a short section, entitled "Appendant for Working-People, Young Men and Women, and for Boys and Girls," which encourages healthy, full-voiced pronunciation of words and which ends with a list of "A few Foreign Words, mostly French, put down suggestively." The foreign vocabulary and pronunciation suggestions appear drawn from contemporary dictionaries, and the list includes several French terms that find their way into Leaves, such as "ensemble" and "allons."

Whitman saw it as part of his poetic identity that he should continue the process of English language borrowing and incorporating words of other languages, especially French and Spanish, the two other major colonial languages that share the New World with English. See, for example, two of his favorite terms for his readers, "eleve" (French) and "camerado" (Spanish). There is no evidence that Whitman could actually read or speak any language other than English. His brief residence in New Orleans (1848) gave him firsthand contact with spoken French, but he never mastered the language. He did, however, have a strong appreciation for the role of French in the development of English, and his research materials include essays, dating from the late 1840s, on Geoffrey Chaucer and the French elements in that poet's language. The contents of "Inheritance" and the manuscript pages and notebooks that date from the time of its publication indicate that his probing the nature of language is inextricably linked to his stance and outlook as he undertook the Leaves project.

The manuscripts demonstrating Whitman's language study include collections of loose notes, clippings from newspapers and magazines (sometimes annotated), and some notebooks, the largest of which is entitled "Words." It is made up of 176 sheets of paper, among which he stuffed further clippings. Like many of the Whitman language-related manuscripts, it is part of the Feinberg Collection in the United States Library of Congress. In "Words" he recorded his reading notes from dictionary introductions, textbooks, journalism, and even some more scientific sources. He took notes on place names, foreign words, slang expressions, idioms, neologisms, phonetic spelling, grammatical gender, syntax, the history of the English language, and many other linguistic topics.

Whitman left clues in his notes to the sources of his information about language. Among the "language searchers" he had read were Maximilian Schele de Vere, Wilhelm von Humboldt, and Christian C.J. Bunsen, as well as more general sources, such as school textbooks and popular journalism. He took notes on place names from Samuel Griswold Goodrich's Geography (1855) and later used the material in such poems as "O Magnet-South." In his notebooks, Whitman mentions the great American lexicographers, Noah Webster and Joseph Worcester, and some of his notations indicate that he entertained the idea of someday producing a "perfect dictionary" ("Inheritance" 59) of the American language that would be richer and more inclusive than any produced so far.

A large set of notes, dating from this same era, was published by Horace Traubel, one of his literary executors, under the title An American Primer (1904). Whitman apparently considered the idea of imitating his mentor Ralph Waldo Emerson by embarking on a series of lectures, and language seems to have been a topic about which he had something important to say. Whitman expresses strong preferences in the Primer for the proper choice of words to name American places. He strongly favors American Indian names and dislikes transplanted European names.

Other Whitman language notes contain definitions of words, pronunciation and etymological notations, explanations of linguistic terms, snatches of historical and mythological information, literary history, and observations on social issues, including the place of women in the history of culture and examples of customs of various races, professions, and eras. Interspersed among the language notes, also, appear tentative notes for later poems, such as "Song of the Answerer" and "There was a Child Went Forth" (Daybooks 3:775). The notes abound with plans for projects and instances where Whitman seems to be thinking through the possibilities of something he has just read or heard.

The probability that Whitman was the coauthor or ghostwriter of Rambles Among Words, published in 1859 by his friend William Swinton, was first put forth and convincingly argued by C. Carroll Hollis (1959). (Swinton, a journalist, would go on to become a professor at the University of California and the author of many school textbooks.) Hollis's theory is based on evidence that the two men knew one another and discussed language matters, the Whitman-like style in certain sections of Rambles, and correspondences between the contents of the book and many of Whitman's published and unpublished observations on language. That Whitman had a hand in Rambles has been accepted by many and developed further by James Perrin Warren (1984), but the extent or exact nature of the Swinton-Whitman collaboration are still matters of discussion among scholars.

Although most of Whitman's language research seems to have been accomplished before 1860, he continued for most of his life to save and annotate clippings from newspapers on language matters, including early notices of the massive scholarly effort to produce what is now known as the Oxford English Dictionary. The final article he wrote on language, "Slang in America" (1885), is a compilation of notes and thoughts on language, especially the vernacular, the language of the people. Whitman published it after it was clear to him that his research and note taking would result in no other major work. The essay includes discussion of how languages change through time, the nature of American English, and American naming practices of people, places, and institutions. "Slang in America" borrows etymologies from Ralph Waldo Emerson's essay Nature, two of which ("supercilious" and "transgression") also occur in Rambles.

Whitman's language study affected his writing, both poetry and prose, in both important ways and small ways. He asserted a broad and nontraditional poetic vocabulary based on philosophic and philological principles. His characteristic use of an apostrophe in the final syllable of past participles (e.g., "view'd" or "consider'd") was based on his readings in language and pronunciation. His use of the models of platform oratory and grand opera for his poetic utterances is intertwined with his interest in language, and these models contribute to the unique style of his poetic diction, as in his characteristic use of present participles or his direct address to reader and use of the pronouns "I" and "you".

In his foreword to the Primer, Traubel says that Whitman offered the possibility that Leaves was, after all, "only a language experiment" (viii). This statement has captivated readers of Whitman ever since because, for anyone approaching Leaves, it is immediately apparent that in style and inclusiveness of language the poetry is unique. That striking quality of language is just as much the result of the conscious choice of the poet as are his bold approach to unconventional topics and his transcendental appreciation of life and nature. "Words are signs of natural facts," says Emerson in Nature (20), at the beginning of his explanation of the way in which language grows from nature and leads to a full appreciation of the transcendent, because "Nature is the symbol of spirit" (20). Whitman's interest in language is germinal and basic to his poetic practice and inspiration.


Bauerlein, Mark. Whitman and the American Idiom. Baton Rouge: Louisiana State UP, 1991.

Dressman, Michael R. "Walt Whitman's Plans for the Perfect Dictionary." Studies in the American Renaissance 1979. Ed. Joel Myerson. Boston: Twayne, 1979. 457–474.

Emerson, Ralph Waldo. "Nature." Essays & Lectures. Ed. Joel Porte. New York: Library of America, 1983. 7–49.

Folsom, Ed. Walt Whitman's Native Representations. Cambridge: Cambridge UP, 1994.

Hollis, C. Carroll. Language and Style in "Leaves of Grass." Baton Rouge: Louisiana State UP, 1983.

____. "Whitman and Swinton: A Co-operative Friendship." American Literature 30 (1959): 425–449.

Kramer, Michael P. "'A Tongue According': Whitman and the Literature of Language Study." Imagining Language in America: From the Revolution to the Civil War. By Kramer. Princeton: Princeton UP, 1992. 90–115.

Nathanson, Tenney. Whitman's Presence: Body, Voice, and Writing in "Leaves of Grass." New York: New York UP, 1992.

Southard, Sherry G. "Whitman and Language: An Annotated Bibliography." Walt Whitman Quarterly Review 2.2 (1984): 31–49.

Warren, James Perrin. Walt Whitman's Language Experiment. University Park: Pennsylvania State UP, 1990.

____. "Whitman as Ghostwriter: The Case of Rambles Among Words." Walt Whitman Quarterly Review 2.2 (1984): 22–30.

Whitman, Walt. An American Primer. Ed. Horace Traubel. 1904. Stevens Point, Wis.: Holy Cow!, 1987.

____. "America's Mightiest Inheritance." New York Dissected. Ed. Emory Holloway and Ralph Adimari. New York: Rufus Rockwell Wilson, 1936. 55–65.

____. Daybooks and Notebooks. Ed. William White. 3 vols. New York: New York UP, 1978.

____. Leaves of Grass: Comprehensive Reader's Edition. Ed. Harold Blodgett and Sculley Bradley. New York: New York UP, 1965.


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