Commentary

Selected Criticism

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

While consistently natural and unaffected in his personal relationships with family and friends, Whitman nevertheless projected, with deliberate artifice, several distinct public personae during the years he was, as newspaperman or as poet, subject to public scrutiny. In his awareness of the power of photography and journalism to create desired identities, Whitman was significantly ahead of his time. His efforts at self-promotion, however, had little effect in achieving their purpose of gaining a large audience for himself and his poems.

Whitman's projection of public "image," however, was not entirely artifice, for always it had much to do with his conception of a self appropriate to his desires. To a certain extent, particularly in his later years, he became what he imagined himself to be, and the evidence is in the poetry as well as in his public pronouncements. Whitman seems to have had a remarkable ability to will himself into being.

As a young reporter and editor in the 1840s, Whitman appeared as a stylish and worldly man about town, a sophisticated denizen of the great cities of Brooklyn and Manhattan; then, as the poetry began to take form in the early 1850s, he adopted in certain poems and other writings the identity of a common man, a carpenter, Christlike and mystical, one whose intuitive awareness embraced the entire universe and its mysterious ways. While not completely abandoning this pose, with the publication of the radically aggressive and challenging first edition of Leaves of Grass in 1855, Whitman became the figure of the frontispiece: a man of the people still, dressed in worker's clothing, but insolently and arrogantly poised with one hand on his hip, the other in a pocket, eyes staring directly at the reader, unflinching, unapologetic, and strongly assertive, as if daring his audience to respond. Emphasizing his physical nature—as in his later years he would emphasize his spirituality—Whitman proclaimed himself to be, as he insists in section 24 of Song of Myself, "one of the roughs, a kosmos, / Disorderly fleshy and sensual . . . eating drinking and breeding" (1855 Leaves). From this unlikely source, however, there emerged the prophetic speaker of much of the poem, the bardic poet who, knowing all time and all space, chanted his vision in tones of absolute certainty.

In 1860, with the publication of the third edition of Leaves of Grass, an altogether different figure appears in the frontispiece: a well-groomed character, moody and melancholy, with a short, neatly trimmed beard, wearing a large loosely knotted scarf and, under his jacket, a shirt with flowing Byronic collar. This identity, which does not reappear after 1860, seems to reflect the romantic and personal nature of some of the poems added for this edition, the "Calamus" group in particular. It also underlines the warning of the 1860 poem "Whoever You are Holding Me Now in Hand": "I am not what you supposed, but far different."

The 1860s brought about profound changes for Whitman as for the nation. He moved to Washington and performed extensive labors in the hospitals there, as companion and confidant to many injured and dying soldiers, Southern as well as Northern. Aging prematurely, he now became the Good Gray Poet of William O'Connor's polemical pamphlet published in January of 1866. This figure, congenial to Whitman's self-conception of the time, was almost the exact antithesis of the radically offensive, subversive figure of the 1850s. "The good gray poet" appeared to be a man misunderstood, and therefore unfairly abused by those who found his poetry offensive; but in truth, the portrayal contends, he was a great and good citizen, a noble servant both compassionate and selfless, and a poet who has kept the faith and is worthy of respect, even of veneration. Such, for example, is the figure portrayed in the 1865 poem "The Wound-Dresser" or the 1874 "Prayer of Columbus."

In his later years, particularly after the paralytic stroke of 1873 which left him a semi-invalid, Whitman moved naturally into the role of the sociable Sage of Camden, a wise elder revered by a growing circle of friends and admirers, visited by travelers from afar, and honored by the select few, including Alfred, Lord Tennyson, the poet laureate of England, with whom he maintained a correspondence. Withdrawn from the struggles of earlier years, Whitman could now rest content, at ease with himself and confident of the ultimate rightness of his ways.

Bibliography

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

Chase, Richard. Walt Whitman Reconsidered. New York: William Sloane Associates, 1955.

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

Miller, James E., Jr. Walt Whitman. Updated ed. Boston: Twayne, 1990.

O'Connor, William. The Good Gray Poet: A Vindication. New York: Bunce and Huntington, 1866.

Price, Kenneth M. Whitman and Tradition: The Poet in His Century. New Haven: Yale UP, 1990.

Whitman, Walt. Leaves of Grass: Comprehensive Reader's Edition. Ed. Harold W. Blodgett and Sculley Bradley. New York: New York UP, 1965.

Zweig, Paul. Walt Whitman: The Making of the Poet. New York: Basic Books, 1984.


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