Commentary

Selected Criticism

Title:
Preface to As a Strong Bird on Pinions Free (1872)
Author:
Mancuso, Luke
Print source:
J.R. LeMaster and Donald D. Kummings, eds., Walt Whitman: An Encyclopedia (New York: Garland Publishing, 1998), reproduced by permission.

In 1872 Whitman issued a pamphlet publication from Washington, D.C., called As a Strong Bird on Pinions Free and Other Poems. It introduced seven new poems and the significant prose Preface announcing his desire to produce a book of "democratic nationality" to serve as a companion volume to Leaves of Grass. This 1872 Preface, though published as a prefix to As a Strong Bird on Pinions Free (later "Thou Mother with Thy Equal Brood"), belonged to the textual archaeology of the growth of Leaves, insofar as the poet set out an apology for the relevancy of Leaves in lucid terms while pressing ahead with his plans for the companion volume. Whitman's project had already begun to fragment after the war, beginning with Drum-Taps (1865), Sequel to Drum-Taps (1866), Songs Before Parting (1867), and Passage to India (1871). All these supplementary texts still bore the imprint "Leaves of Grass" on their title pages, but their rhetorical energies were leading Whitman to believe that he had already commenced in the production of a second volume of work to accompany his major work, Leaves of Grass.

Undiminished in his desire to represent the events of "our Nineteenth Century" (Whitman 740), Whitman's 1872 Preface argues that his historical desire to be embedded in his time would represent America not simply in materialistic terms, but also as the "composite nation" (741) which welcomed with tolerance all immigrants to be assimilated as Americans. As in the 1871 Democratic Vistas, the Preface articulates a desire for native literary organizations which would bind together the material advantages of the nation, in pursuit of "the great Ideal Nationality" (741) of succeeding generations. Such a democratic nationality would result from the separation of religion from its conventional institutional structures, and the realignment of religion to the masses and to literature. The Civil War had already begun to be erased from the popular imagination, and Whitman applauds the postwar amnesia as a salve for the earlier sectional and racial hatreds that had led to a fracturing of the Union in 1861. While there is more than a little compensation in Whitman's pronouncements that the "strange, sad war" (743) was quickly losing its hold on the nation's memory, the poet's rhetoric suggests an even more important representational function: the desire for the departure from the divisive social balkanization between section and section, between races, or between federal authorities and unruly state and municipal authorities. In other words, Whitman was bidding a nostalgic farewell to the unbridled heterogeneity of America as a confederacy of states. The poet was thus enabled to welcome the renovated compact of United States which Americans could increasingly turn to in their self-understanding.

Having distanced the Reconstruction nation from the divided past, Whitman's dominant accent in his political agenda in the 1872 Preface continues to be the future of democracy. The aspiration for a more socially cohesive solidarity among citizens underscores the popular displeasure with the contemporary squabbles between races, in the white resistance to black equality, and between the federal government and recalcitrant Southern states over black civil rights. In effect, Whitman had made the move from the plural "United States" to the pluralized citizens within a singular nation. Likewise, in his discussion of his work, this federalizing ambition had crystallized into a willingness to look on Leaves of Grass ("the song of a great composite Democratic Individual" [743]) as the first installment in a project which would include a companion volume focused on "electric Democratic Nationality" (744). Though critics have uniformly assumed that such a supplement was not completed, due to the onset of ill health and a decline of creative powers, Whitman did deliver the companion volume Two Rivulets (1876) to supplement the Centennial edition of Leaves of Grass in the same year. In the 1872 Preface Whitman registers uncertainty over whether such a book of democratic nationality would be completed, and his publication of Two Rivulets four years later has met with almost complete critical indifference from then until now. Whatever its merits, Two Rivulets becomes a summa of the majority of Whitman's major Reconstruction texts: Democratic Vistas (1871), As a Strong Bird on Pinions Free (1872), Memoranda During the War (1875–1876), and Passage to India (1871). Arguably, Whitman's prospectus in the 1872 Preface came closest to fulfillment in Two Rivulets, with its rhetorical insistence on centralizing the energies of the nation.

Always placing social affection above mere political machinations, in the 1872 Preface Whitman returned to his earlier texts with an undiminished confidence that his creative energies had not been misplaced, though he seems to have sensed his own physical deterioration. The notion of American nationality, as the culmination of Western history, reverberates throughout the Preface, though Whitman's evolutionary model of progress will not concede that America has incarnated its destiny in 1872. Thus, the 1872 Preface elaborates many of the preoccupations of Whitman's earlier work (democracy, individualism, literary religion, the Civil War, social solidarity), while the rhetoric also points to Whitman's desire for a fuller embodiment of democratic nationality down the open road of the future.

Bibliography

Allen, Gay Wilson. The New Walt Whitman Handbook. 1975. New York: New York UP, 1986.

Erkkila, Betsy. Whitman the Political Poet. New York: Oxford UP, 1989.

Mancuso, Luke. "'The Strange Sad War Revolving': Reconstituting Walt Whitman's Reconstruction Texts in the Legislative Workshop, 1865–1876." Diss. U of Iowa, 1994.

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


Comments?

Published Works | In Whitman's Hand | Life & Letters | Commentary | Resources | Pictures & Sound

Support the Archive | About the Archive

Distributed under a Creative Commons License. Ed Folsom & Kenneth M. Price, editors.