Commentary

Selected Criticism

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

Fascinated by onomastics and very interested in place names, Whitman had strong opinions on which names were appropriate—"appropriateness" being extremely important to him. Best were all indigenous, aboriginal names, followed by names accurately expressing the place being named; borrowed classical and European names were not acceptable. He often used names in his poetry. Names were powerful. As Whitman indicates in An American Primer (1904), "Names are magic.—One word can pour such a flood through the soul" (18).

According to Whitman, a nation leads all other nations if it produces its own names and prefers them to all other names. In fact, a nation that "begs" names from other nations "has no identity, marches not in front but behind" (Primer 34). Americans must reclaim control of the land by renaming all of the places hastily named by Europeans. Some of the mountains in the West, for example, were inappropriately named for European explorers. Restoring the land to the people and to democracy, new names would replace the names born of the aristocracy and tyranny.

Place names must not be given arbitrarily, but must be considered deliberately with concern for aesthetics, the American experience, and the character of the place. Names, above all, should be appropriate. The names of American cities should reflect their physical features and life of their citizens—expressing the essence of the cities.

Some of the best names, he believed, were the ones given by Native Americans, as shown by his praise of their "sonorous beauty" (Gathering 2:137) in the Brooklyn Daily Eagle as early as 1846. In "Slang in America" (1885), he indicates his fascination with the sounds of many Northwestern Indian place names. America would reclaim its true history by absorbing into its language and landscape the powerful original names given by Native American tribes. Whitman particularly objected to replacing Indian place names with borrowed European names; in fact, not using the aboriginal names amounted to lost opportunities.

Whitman preferred the Native American name "Mannahatta" instead of "New York City" (honoring the Duke of York, an English tyrant), "Paumanok" instead of "Long Island," "Tacoma" rather than "Washington," and "Kanawtha" rather than "West Virginia." He frequently used the place names "Mannahatta" (seventeen times) and "Paumanok" (eighteen) and centered some of his poems on names, such as "Mannahatta" (1860, a second poem 1888), "Yonnondio" (1887), and "Starting from Paumanok" (1860).

Native names were particularly suited for poetry that would be truly American. American Indian names and his poetry were "original," "not to be imitated—not to be manufactured . . . nothing . . . so significant—so individual—so of a class—as these names" (Traubel 488). Incorporating Indian place names into his poetry was essential, because his role as a poet involved his revealing, his expressing, the authentic American experience.

Even though Whitman wanted words to be magic, or at least to have an inherent relation with what they named, he came to realize that such a relationship did not exist. Simply listing or evoking the place names for physical entities would not create the same images for each reader and not even necessarily the same images as the ones he himself visualized. Whitman's poetry, however, was distinctly American, not merely transplanted English poetry, partially a result of his inclusion of American place names.

Bibliography

Dressman, Michael R. "Goodrich's Geography and Whitman's Place Names." Walt Whitman Review 26 (1980): 64–67.

____. "'Names Are Magic': Walt Whitman's Laws of Geographic Nomenclature." Names 26 (1978): 68–79.

Folsom, Ed. Walt Whitman's Native Representations. Cambridge: Cambridge UP, 1994.

Hollis, C. Carroll. "Names in Leaves of Grass." Names 5 (1957): 129–156.

Read, Allen Walker. "Walt Whitman's Attraction to Indian Place Names." Literary Onomastics Studies 7 (1980): 189–204.

Southard, Sherry. "Whitman and Language: His 'Democratic' Words." Diss. Purdue U, 1972.

Traubel, Horace. With Walt Whitman in Camden. Ed. Gertrude Traubel. Vol. 5. Carbondale: Southern Illinois UP, 1964.

Warren, James Perrin. Walt Whitman's Language Experiment. University Park: Pennsylvania State UP, 1990.

Whitman, Walt. An American Primer. Ed. Horace Traubel. 1904. Stevens Point, Wis.: Holy Cow!, 1987.

____. The Gathering of the Forces. Ed. Cleveland Rodgers and John Black. 2 vols. New York: Putnam, 1920.


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