Commentary

Selected Criticism

Title:
"O Magnet-South" (1860)
Author:
Huffstetler, Edward W.
Print source:
J.R. LeMaster and Donald D. Kummings, eds., Walt Whitman: An Encyclopedia (New York: Garland Publishing, 1998), reproduced by permission.

This poem, the fifth in the "From Noon to Starry Night" cluster of the final edition of Leaves of Grass, was first printed in the 1860 edition under the title "Longings for Home." It was also published in the 15 July 1860 issue of The Southern Literary Messenger under the same title. In the 1860 edition, the poem was placed after "Crossing Brooklyn Ferry," between the "Calamus" cluster and the "Messenger Leaves" cluster. The poem itself, as well as its position, remained unchanged through the 1867, 1871, and 1876 editions. With the publishing of the 1881 edition, the poem received its present title and position and underwent two revisions: in line 19 the word "Tennessee" was replaced by the word "Kentucky," and the previous line 20, which read "An Arkansas prairie—a sleeping lake, or still bayou," was deleted.

The dominant theme of the poem is the irresistible, even mystical, allure the American South has for those who live there, as well as the infamous Southern love of place. The poem is passionate, but the wording is somewhat grandiose, and the emotions expressed almost factitious. Some Whitman biographers have used the poem to support the questionable claims of a New Orleans romance, referring to an alleged affair during Whitman's brief stay in that city, citing its sensual language and ambiguity as evidence. Even where such claims are not made, the consensus is that the poem was inspired by Whitman's journey to the South during the spring of 1848. Many of the images that appear in the poem would have been scenes that Whitman would have encountered during his brief travels south.

Perhaps the best commentary on the poem comes from Whitman himself in the form of his final placement of the poem. The "From Noon to Starry Night" cluster of Leaves of Grass contains twenty-two poems, collected from various sections spanning seven editions, which seem on the surface to have no unifying principle, either in terms of source or theme. And yet, all of the poems possess a certain lyricism and a reflective or retrospective quality.

Bibliography

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

____. Walt Whitman Handbook. 1946. New York: Hendricks House, 1962.

Kaplan, Justin. Walt Whitman: A Life. New York: Simon and Schuster, 1980.

Perlman, Jim, Ed Folsom, and Dan Campion, eds. Walt Whitman: the Measure of His Song. Minneapolis: Holy Cow!, 1981.

Schyberg, Frederick. Walt Whitman. Trans. Evie Allison Allen. New York: Columbia UP, 1951.


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