Commentary

Selected Criticism

Title:
Niagara Falls
Author:
Rachman, Stephen
Print source:
J.R. LeMaster and Donald D. Kummings, eds., Walt Whitman: An Encyclopedia (New York: Garland Publishing, 1998), reproduced by permission.

Walt Whitman twice visited the famous falls on the Niagara River just north of Buffalo, New York, first in June 1848 on his return from New Orleans and again in June 1880. In "Seeing Niagara to Advantage" (from Specimen Days) he describes his second viewing as nothing less than a powerful moment of visual access which, as he writes, "gave me Niagara." Moving across a suspension bridge in a carriage he observed the falls "about a mile off, but very distinct, and no roar—hardly a murmur" (Specimen Days 236). He places this image in his private catalogue of important memories, which include a severe storm off Fire Island, Junius Brutus Booth in Richard III at the old Bowery theater, hearing Marietta Alboni sing, and the Civil War battlefields he had seen in Virginia.

Whitman's self-conscious memorialization of Niagara is wholly consistent with a central aspect of his overall poetic project, that of, as David Reynolds suggests, absorbing and being absorbed by America and thus fashioning a significant literary geography. In a very real sense, the poet's "perfect absorption of Niagara" (Specimen Days 237) in 1880 had been prefigured throughout Leaves of Grass. Niagara, perhaps the most easily recognized sublime artifact of the nineteenth-century American landscape, is typically a mark of Whitman's claims to geographical coverage or mapping America onto his own poetic vista. "Aware of mighty Niagara," he informs the reader in "Starting from Paumanok" (section 1); in "Song of Myself" he is situated "Under Niagara, the cataract falling like a veil over my countenance" (section 33). Frequently Niagara measures the intensity of the nation's mood, as in "long I watch'd Niagara pouring . . . Something for us is pouring now more than Niagara pouring," from "Rise O Days from Your Fathomless Deeps" (section 1), or as in the late poem "Election Day, November, 1884."

Bibliography

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

Berton, Pierre. Niagara: A History of the Falls. Toronto: McClelland and Stewart, 1992.

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

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

____. Specimen Days. Vol. 1 of Prose Works 1892. New York: New York UP, 1963.


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