Commentary

Selected Criticism

Title:
Literature
Author:
Barnett, Robert W.
Print source:
J.R. LeMaster and Donald D. Kummings, eds., Walt Whitman: An Encyclopedia (New York: Garland Publishing, 1998), reproduced by permission.

Walt Whitman's conception of literature grew, in part, from his larger theory of American democracy. He insisted that we would become a great democratic nation only if America developed its own national literature. In the 1876 Preface to the Centennial edition of Leaves of Grass he wrote that "the true growth-characteristics of the democracy of the New World are henceforth to radiate in superior literary, artistic and religious expressions" (Whitman 465). And in Democratic Vistas he wrote that "what finally and only is to make of our western world a nationality superior to any hitherto known, and outtopping the past, must be vigorous, yet unsuspected Literatures, perfect personalities and sociologies, original, transcendental, and expressing . . . democracy and the modern" (364). No person, in Whitman's opinion, was better suited for this challenge than the well-trained poet of America.

In fact his definition of the poet in the 1855 Preface is a foreshadowing of what would become one of the most convincing aspects of Whitman's democratic theory, the need for a national literature. In the Preface he wrote that the poet "is a seer—he is individual—he is complete in himself—the others are as good as he, only he sees it, and they do not. He is not one of the chorus—he does not stop for any regulation—he is the president of regulation. What the eyesight does to the rest, he does to the rest" (438). It is quite probable, in fact, that he was defining himself, since the rhetoric of his definition sounds suspiciously like the rhetoric found in "Song of Myself," where he proclaimed himself to be the great "seer."

Establishing himself, then, as the spiritual leader of America, Whitman took on a messianic voice in his pledge to fight for equality and freedom for the people. He was the great savior, come to grant salvation to the American common man: "The priest departs, the divine literatus comes" (365). And as the great poetic prophet, Whitman preached the importance of establishing a sound, national literature. In Vistas he announces that "Above all previous lands, a great original literature is surely to become the justification and reliance, (in some respects the sole reliance,) of American democracy" (366). He believed that literature was the great penetrator, able to shape the individual as well as the masses. Moreover, Whitman saw literature in America as powerful enough to cause changes and growth in a society destined to lead the world.

Whitman also acknowledged the historical shortcomings of literature and pointed to the effects of such failures on nineteenth-century America. He contended that "Literature, strictly consider'd, has never recognized the People, and, whatever may be said, does not to-day. Speaking generally, the tendencies of literature, as hitherto pursued, have been to make mostly critical and querulous men. It seems as if, so far, there were some natural repugnance between a literary and professional life, and the rude rank spirit of the democracies" (376). It was Whitman's goal to create a literature for America that would recognize the people, a literature that would add strength to his democratic theory.

The one redeeming factor about the prospects for a national literature is that Whitman saw in it a growth process that paralleled the growth of the individual, society, and language, three components that, combined with a literature for America, would all but ensure the future stability and advancement of our country. Whitman believed that "first-class literature does not shine by any luminosity of its own; nor do its poems. They grow of circumstances, and are evolutionary" (717). And in "American National Literature," he pleaded with the reader to see the simplicity of his argument: "[F]irst, that the highest developments of the New World and Democracy, and probably the best society of the civilized world all over, are to be only reached and spinally nourish'd (in my notion) by a new evolutionary sense and treatment; and, secondly, that the evolution-principle, which is the greatest law through nature, and of course in these States, has now reach'd us markedly for and in our literature" (667). Literature, because it grows from the same "evolution-principle" as those whose lives it affects, became the great tool which the poet would use to help shape and perfect America's future. It is the poet, after all, who "does not moralize or make applications of morals—he knows the soul" (443). As the great spiritual eye, it was also the poet, according to Whitman, who understood that "the real poems of the present, ever solidifying and expanding into the future, must vocalize the vastness and splendor and reality with which scientism has invested man and the universe . . . and must henceforth launch humanity into new orbits, consonant with that vastness, splendor, and reality . . . like new systems of orbs, balanced upon themselves, revolving in limitless space, more subtle than the stars" (472). The poet, seeing both past and future with his spiritual eye, became, for Whitman, the spokesperson who would "vocalize the vastness and splendor of reality" of nineteenth-century America.

Bibliography

Reynolds, David S. "Whitman's America: A Revaluation of the Cultural Backgrounds of Leaves of Grass." The Mickle Street Review 9.2 (1988): 5–17.

Scholnick, Robert J. "Of War Times and Poetry and Democracy: A Final Visit With Whitman." Walt Whitman Review 28 (1982): 32–34.

Whitman, Walt. Prose Works 1892. Ed. Floyd Stovall. Vol. 2. New York: New York UP, 1964.


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