Commentary

Selected Criticism

Title:
Mississippi River
Author:
Field, Jack
Print source:
J.R. LeMaster and Donald D. Kummings, eds., Walt Whitman: An Encyclopedia (New York: Garland Publishing, 1998), reproduced by permission.

Whitman spent time during two three-month periods of his life in close proximity to the Mississippi. Much of what he observed found its way into Leaves of Grass and Collected Prose Works. In Specimen Days he calls the river "the most important stream on the globe" (Complete 865).

In 1848, Walt (with his brother Jeff) traveled to New Orleans to work on the Crescent as assistant editor. During their stay, from 25 February until 27 May, Whitman made daily visits to the river to observe the commerce and activity. He delighted in making "acquaintances among the captains, boatmen, or other characters" (Complete 1201) and featured them in sketches he wrote for the Crescent.

It was not until thirty-one years later that Whitman again saw the Mississippi. Having been invited to participate in the Kansas Quarter Centennial, he continued on to Denver and became ill on the return trip. Walt stayed from 27 September 1879 until 4 January 1880 with his brother Jeff, who lived in St. Louis. While there he visited the river as frequently as his health would allow, "every night lately" (Complete 871) as he records at the end of October.

The influence of this last trip is evident in several new short poems featuring the Mississippi in the 1881 edition of Leaves. Whitman calls it "the fresh free giver the mother" in the revised version of "Thoughts" from "Songs of Parting."

Bibliography

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

Whitman, Walt. Complete Poetry and Collected Prose. Ed. Justin Kaplan. New York: Library of America, 1982.

____. The Uncollected Poetry and Prose of Walt Whitman. 1921. Ed. Emory Holloway. 2 vols. New York: Peter Smith, 1932.


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