Commentary

Selected Criticism

Title:
Legacy, Whitman's
Author:
Renner, Dennis K.
Print source:
J.R. LeMaster and Donald D. Kummings, eds., Walt Whitman: An Encyclopedia (New York: Garland Publishing, 1998), reproduced by permission.

Walt Whitman once remarked to Horace Traubel that James Fenimore Cooper's Natty Bumppo was "a Leaves of Grass man" (Traubel 62), presumably because Whitman recognized affinities between his own and Cooper's work. Many subsequent authors, like Cooper before them, bear resemblances to Whitman, but the affinities are not necessarily derivative. Most are probably circumstantial in origin—commonplace literary responses to similar situations and themes instead of evidence of literary influence, a cautionary distinction Wellek and Warren mention in their discussion of influence and literary history in Theory of Literature.

Nonetheless, in progressive narratives of literary descent most scholars credit Whitman with several innovations: he opened the full range of rhythmic possibilities beyond traditional metrics and rhyme, expanded the subject of human experience for literature to include sex and explore the unconscious, and liberated the imagination for a realm of symbolic meaning needed for the post-Enlightenment cultural situation in which traditional repositories of meaning in religion have appeared archaic or have been eclipsed by philosophical critique. Whitman displayed his forward-looking adaptations in the aptly chosen hybrid genre of the American long poem, which in its brief lyric passages sometimes advanced the precision of imagery and in its larger structure decentered narrative, introducing sophisticated techniques of spatial form that Joseph Frank later discerned in mature works of literary modernism. Whitman advanced poetics, in this common assessment, despite embarrassing impurities and political sentiments.

The political Whitman, of less interest than the poetical one in the United States, has attracted more international attention. The struggles from monarchical regimes to modern nation-states in Europe and from colonial to postcolonial regimes in the Third World have been accompanied by the same political turmoil Whitman encountered as an aspiring poet in the first new nation. His poetry has seemed revolutionary to writers working from within regimes inhospitable to yearnings for liberty and social justice. In this sense Whitman succeeded in his project to theorize democratic alternatives to the literatures of feudalism.

In American literary history, however, Whitman has been recognized less as a democratic theorist than as a precursor for later poets who refined their own sense of the literary vocation by creating an image of Whitman that would serve their own poetic agenda. More than one hundred literary responses to Whitman have been anthologized from among the many writers who have felt the need to explain their relationship to this original American poet. Generalizing about the nature of Whitman's legacy from such evidence is complicated by the fact that the precedents he established are refracted through several loops of literary descent—internationalist refractions in Ezra Pound and T.S. Eliot, nativist versions in William Carlos Williams and Hart Crane, and refractions from abroad in poetry and criticism by the French symbolists and D.H. Lawrence.

Instead of assessing influence from the labyrinth of parallels, echoes, and other textual resemblances and from arguments among poets as though poets floated in a stream of literary art free from the constraints of social and economic systems, literary historians have begun to refocus on such factors as how poets gain access to audiences and the resources of publishing and how gatekeepers in the institutions of literary culture perform their roles.

This approach leads to efforts to identify Whitman's role in developments that would seem less likely or impossible without his presence, beginning with the convergence of a remarkable combination of subversive elements in his background—his culturally disadvantaged boyhood and early contact with Jeffersonian political theory, his grounding in the competencies necessary for democratic publishing, and his motives for promoting a new literary style. This background and his poetic brilliance empowered Whitman's forty-year campaign to gain at least marginal visibility for a style of indigenous literary art different from mainstream poetry by Henry Wadsworth Longfellow and other Fireside poets.

Whitman's access to the publishing world, made possible by cheaper newspapers and the market for temperance fiction, gave him the power to print and promote his own books, which in turn made him available for appropriation by George Santayana. The Harvard philosophy professor picked an opportune moment—an address in California in which he critiqued Calvinism and its secular philosophical tradition—to declare that Walt Whitman was probably the only poet to escape this "genteel tradition." His poems were "unpalatable for educated Americans" but contained seeds for "the growth of a noble moral imagination" (Santayana 52–53).

Santayana's backhanded endorsement brought Whitman enough respectability for appropriation by younger poets, several of whom—notably Eliot and Stevens—studied with Santayana at Harvard. Many essays about Whitman began appearing in the "little magazines," including Poetry and The Little Review, promoting what became the tradition of American literary modernism. Thus Whitman's innovations—though not his political theory—became associated with the poetic tradition that would dominate the realm of academic literary culture for the next forty years.

Whitman's poetry also seems to have had an impact on the course of American literary history by accelerating the acceptance of complex gender relationships and sexuality in literature. A decisive development occurred when Whitman circumvented the restrictions on sexual content by refusing to accept deletions to avoid a Boston obscenity charge. Instead, he found an alternative Philadelphia publisher, and the message from the flurry of sales provoked by the controversy was not lost on the growing publishing industry. Until then portrayals of sexuality were limited to physical attraction and courtship ending in marriage. Even though taboos were still strong, the market for expanding sexual and gender themes now seemed more promising.

Hamlin Garland's novel Rose of Dutcher's Coolly (1895) and Kate Chopin's The Awakening (1899) were among the first novels to follow Whitman's precedents—portraying human sexuality more openly, democratizing relationships between men and women, and questioning gender roles. Even the British novelist E.M. Forster had Whitman's precedent in mind in portraying gender relationships in A Room with a View (1908), a novel with homosexual themes and a heroine who escapes conventional subordination in marriage by achieving companionship and equality.

These two developments—Whitman's appropriation by modernist poets and his contribution to progress in gender portrayals—are examples from Kenneth Price's effort to reformulate Whitman's legacy. Whitman is also sometimes credited with having established a tradition of writing about common occupations and ordinary people, continued by proletariat poets who thought of themselves as working in Whitman's shadow—Edgar Lee Masters, Vachel Lindsay, and Carl Sandburg. Although they sometimes adopted the form of Whitmanesque free verse and Sandburg expanded coverage of urban life, these poets were working with proven subjects for popular poetry used earlier by the Fireside poets.

The more innovative line of descent—literary modernism—produced significant resemblances, but not the affinities Whitman probably had in mind. Even the closest inheritors of Whitman's poetic stance toward his country and compatriots, Hart Crane and William Carlos Williams, differed from Whitman in significant ways.

Crane's memorable image of the poet in "Chaplinesque"—as someone sheltering human feelings in language like a kitten in a coat pocket—misses the assertiveness of Whitman's poet-figure. This is not the expansive and defiant poet of action dominating Whitman's poems. In Paterson Williams's analogue for the poet—the figure of a dog sniffing local trees and digging in indigenous earth—argues well against the alternative of the Anglo-European literary tradition embraced by Eliot, but a sniffing dog is hardly Whitmanesque.

Crane, wishing to counter the negations of Eliot's poetry, embraced the image of Whitman as a mystic, not as a political poet. Williams, looking for resources to oppose Puritanism, embraced Whitman's image as a poet of immediate experience, and he admired Whitman's metrical innovations, but in his book-length quest for a usable past, In the American Grain, Williams turns to Edgar Allan Poe, not Whitman, as the "anchor" for American literature (226).

Such distinctions are not meant to devalue the achievements of Crane and Williams but to recognize significant features of Whitman's precedent they did not adopt. As modernist poets, both Crane and Williams emphasize the individual imagination, whereas Whitman contextualizes the imagination in a political community—a diverse, evolving aggregate of individuals pursuing the promise of the American Revolution, contested, uncertain, and at times implausible as that promise has always been. That this promise still resonates in American life was demonstrated by its reverberations in the political rhetoric of Martin Luther King, but the extent to which twentieth-century American poets have followed Whitman's poetic use of the Revolutionary heritage has not been studied as thoroughly as his legacy for modernist poets.

Modernist appropriations of Whitman have dominated assessments of his legacy to twentieth-century literary history, but a weak alternative lineage has been traced from the early Emerson through Whitman and into the twentieth century through writers for the Seven Arts Magazine. Alfred Kazin has called Whitman the "chief actor" in this "green" American tradition of cultural organicism, whose inheritors were Isadora Duncan in dance, Louis Sullivan and through him Frank Lloyd Wright in architecture, and Alfred Stieglitz and Robert Henri in photography and painting (342–343). Critics have associated the poets Crane, Williams, Charles Olson, and Gary Snyder with this tradition.

During the 1950s and 1960s, a coterie of poets—the Beats—returned to Whitman's precedent for social criticism, lamenting the lost America he celebrated in his poems and echoing the rage of prophetic passages of pre-Civil War editions of Leaves of Grass. They replaced Whitman's targets of attack, the evils of slave expansion and disunion, with the new evils of corporate greed and American militarism.

Just as Cooper's novels carried images of the United States abroad, Leaves of Grass has been read internationally as a representative democratic text. Within years of Whitman's death, an anthology editor in Great Britain had included Whitman, annotating his poems with glosses about democratic literature from Alexis de Tocqueville, to help distinguish Whitman from conservative English literary works. Authorities in Czarist Russia censored Whitman's poetry as decadent and subversive. Readers abroad have sometimes enacted their understandings of Leaves of Grass in political programs that have risked and on occasion resulted in imprisonment or execution. Many countries have at least one poet who is Whitmanesque, although this legacy may not be a direct literary influence. Rather, the editors of Walt Whitman and the World, a collection of reception studies and tributes to the poet from abroad, view their anthology as a step toward a history of intercultural exchanges.

In his own country, poets from diverse ethnic and racial backgrounds have often sensed in Whitman a democratic inclusiveness and an encouragement for political struggles with which they identify. Authors associated with the Harlem Renaissance, for example, have mentioned Whitman as a precursor for their use of folk elements in literature.

Whitman's literary inheritors look over their shoulders at how this American poet answered fundamental questions: What is the relationship between poetry and political experience? Who is the audience for poetry? What language is appropriate? The American long poem is flexible in accommodating diverse and contentious responses to such questions, but not all of Whitman's answers have had equal access to the realms of discourse in literary criticism. As Sherry Ceniza has shown, by 1860 women who responded from heterosexual perspectives were struggling to explain what Whitman had achieved by trying to neutralize the language of gender definition in his poetry. Clearly, he had been informed by protofeminist critiques of the institution of marriage published in the small journals of New York, but critics who worked to expand the audience for Leaves of Grass from this perspective were largely silenced and, with them, an important Whitman legacy. Recently, critics from gay and lesbian perspectives have used Whitman's poems more freely for the politics of gender identity.

Whitman's answer to questions about the relationship between poetry and politics has often been rejected or silenced, but signs of renewed interest in this legacy have begun to appear. Nationality, like class, may be a stage in identity formation through which human beings in modern societies pass on the way to a more universal identity, as Jay Parini has observed. This seems close to Whitman's internationalist theory of American culture; however, in literary criticism the cosmopolitanism of the intelligentsia and the presumption that nationalisms are expressions of false consciousness or that they risk the perversions that developed in Nazi Germany have tended to silence the legacy of Whitman's thinking about national culture.

Whether in the Balkans, in the fractious republics of the former Soviet Union, or in the increasingly fragmented mosaic of mass-mediated and diverse gender, class, and ethnic "republics" in the United States, peaceful and constructive integration amid diversity has proven difficult to achieve. Imagining social bonds to sustain integration in a rights-based, pluralistic democratic regime was a fundamental goal of Whitman's political poetic. Like Lincoln, Whitman was positioned in the second and perhaps last generation of Americans trying to enact the founding principles of a new American polity, as historian of federalism Samuel Beer has observed. As a "master of the sociological imagination," Whitman displays a useful vision of social integration in America in the composite experience of his poet-figure (Beer 377). The philosopher George Kateb has also reopened a lineage to Whitman's political theory. As "a great philosopher of democracy," Whitman provides reflections on the nature of persons and the forms and motives for democratic acceptance of difference (Kateb 545). One legacy from Whitman as poet-critic is too rarely accepted in the appropriations of his work for the culture wars of academic discourse—his resistance to exclusivity.

Bibliography

Allen, Gay Wilson, and Ed Folsom, eds. Walt Whitman & the World. Iowa City: U of Iowa P, 1995.

Beer, Samuel H. "Liberty and Union: Walt Whitman's Idea of the Nation." Political Theory 12 (1984): 361–386.

Bohan, Ruth L. "'I Sing the Body Electric': Isadora Duncan, Whitman, and the Dance." The Cambridge Companion to Walt Whitman. Ed. Ezra Greenspan. Cambridge: Cambridge UP, 1995. 166–193.

Ceniza, Sherry. "'Being a Woman . . . I Wish to Give My Own View': Some Nineteenth-Century Women's Responses to the 1860 Leaves of Grass." The Cambridge Companion to Walt Whitman. Ed. Ezra Greenspan. Cambridge: Cambridge UP, 1995. 110–134.

Folsom, Ed. "Talking Back to Walt Whitman: An Introduction." Walt Whitman: The Measure of His Song. Ed. Jim Perlman, Ed Folsom, and Dan Campion. Minneapolis: Holy Cow!, 1981. xxi–liii.

Greasley, Philip Alan. "American Vernacular Poetry: Studies in Whitman, Sandburg, Anderson, Masters, and Lindsay." Diss. Michigan State U, 1975.

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Santayana, George. The Genteel Tradition: Nine Essays. Ed. Douglas L. Wilson. Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard UP, 1967.

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Trachtenberg, Alan. "Walt Whitman: Precipitant of the Modern." The Cambridge Companion to Walt Whitman. Ed. Ezra Greenspan. Cambridge: Cambridge UP, 1995. 194–207.

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____. American Visionary Poetry. Baton Rouge: Louisiana State UP, 1982.


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