Commentary

Selected Criticism

Title:
Oratory
Author:
Mason, John B.
Print source:
J.R. LeMaster and Donald D. Kummings, eds., Walt Whitman: An Encyclopedia (New York: Garland Publishing, 1998), reproduced by permission.

Few institutions of nineteenth-century American culture influenced Whitman as much as oratory. Throughout his life, and especially during the time he was planning and drafting the first edition of Leaves of Grass, Whitman was fascinated by public speaking, an art form from which he would adapt devices for his poems.

Whitman's interest in oratory began early. At the age of sixteen he was a member of various debating societies, and he had begun by that age his lifelong habit of shouting declamatory speeches as he walked along the seashore. During his years as a journalist, Whitman reviewed collections of speeches and speech textbooks and reported on a number of sermons and lectures. At the same time, he was writing lectures on a variety of topics. Whitman's notebooks contain numerous references to oratory, and although contemporary scholars have discovered that most of the notes were copied by Whitman from publications dated after the first edition of Leaves of Grass, the entries nevertheless bear testimony to his interest in oratory.

In the late twentieth century it is difficult to appreciate the extent of the popularity of oratory during Whitman's lifetime. The closest analogy might be the cinema; successful public speakers were revered much as are today's movie stars. In the Golden Age of American Oratory, the three decades before the Civil War, a successful speaker could be both popular and rich. People crowded into lecture halls to hear orations on politics, travel, social customs, manners, and health. Whitman might have seen a model in William Andrus Alcott, Bronson Alcott's cousin and the author of nearly a hundred volumes on physiology, hygiene, and practical education. For many writers of the day, like William Alcott and Ralph Waldo Emerson, writing led to a primary career in speaking. No wonder that Whitman imagined himself at the lectern and, in the 1840s, planned to undertake a series of lectures on diet, exercise, and health, probably to be addressed to audiences of young men. Why Whitman decided against a career in public speaking is not entirely clear, but it is possible that he lacked the right voice for it.

Barnet Baskerville, a historian of public speaking, and David Reynolds, a historian of popular culture, have shown that nineteenth-century public speaking fell into two main camps: the "grand" style with rolling lines, repetitions, and flourishes, and the "personal" style, with a conversational, more intimate approach. To the first group would belong speakers such as Edward Everett, Henry Ward Beecher, Daniel Webster, and Emerson. In the second group would be Edward T. Channing and the Quaker preacher Elias Hicks, whom Whitman heard as a child and continued to praise even in Whitman's advanced age. He valued most Hicks's ability to personalize his addresses, bringing the speech to bear upon the individual listener. This ability to speak simultaneously with authority and power and yet relate intimately to the audience became a model for the poet-reader relationship in Whitman's poems.

From public speaking Whitman drew both a model for the poet-reader relationship and many rhetorical devices. C. Carroll Hollis's study of Whitman's rhetorical devices includes exclamations, rhetorical questions, parallelism, and direct addresses to the reader. In poems such as "A Song of Joys," Whitman praises oratory: "O the orator's joys! / To inflate the chest, to roll the thunder of the voice." At times, Whitman's poems seem almost to be speeches, with the poet-speaker addressing both a multitude and each individual hearer. Toward the end of "Song of Myself," the speaker asks, "Listener up there! what have you to confide to me?" (section 51). The identity of this "listener" is unclear, but it appears to be akin to the person sitting in the balcony of the lecture hall, captivated by a powerful, highly personalized address.

Bibliography

Azarnoff, Roy S. "Walt Whitman's Concept of the Oratorical Ideal." Quarterly Journal of Speech 47 (1961): 169–172.

Baskerville, Barnet. "Principal Themes of Nineteenth-Century Critics of Oratory." Speech Monographs 19 (1952): 11–26.

Finkel, William L. "Walt Whitman's Manuscript Notes on Oratory." American Literature 22 (1950): 29–53.

Hollis, C. Carroll. Language and Style in "Leaves of Grass." Baton Rouge: Louisiana State UP, 1983.

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


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