Selected Criticism

Preface to Two Rivulets (1876)
Keuling-Stout, Frances E.
Print source:
J.R. LeMaster and Donald D. Kummings, eds., Walt Whitman: An Encyclopedia (New York: Garland Publishing, 1998), reproduced by permission.

Little has been written about the 1876 Preface. It opens the Author's edition of Two Rivulets. Critics up to now have ignored or given it cursory attention. Generally speaking, the Preface has been understood as Whitman's reflections on the democratic nationality in the main body or upper text and on the purpose of Leaves of Grass in the discursive footnote sequence or lower text. But it is more. It is Whitman's final moral apologia (see lower text) as well as his literary ars poetica (see upper text). But—it is even more. Even beyond this, as a fused text it is an imaginative piece of lyric criticism. Whitman's own characterization, "this rambling Prefatory gossip" (Comprehensive 744), points to the essential nature of this important text.

If the reader considers Whitman's lower text equal—democratically speaking—to the upper text and visualizes the two texts as "two rivulets" themselves, then the 1876 Preface shifts into a new dimension. A new rhetorical strategy exists. It is the rhetorical strategy of "double texts" simultaneously chatting while traveling—as "[c]ompanions, travelers, gossiping as they journey" (Whitman's verse words in the opening poem of the first section of Two Rivulets). After all, for seven of nine and a half pages of the Preface, Whitman has double texts overlapping—much like the first of Two Rivulets that strings poetry above prose on the same page for eighteen pages. By reading the bottom and top parts dialectically rather than thematically, the 1876 Preface becomes a lyrical piece of imaginative literary criticism and not just a prose treatise summarizing Whitman's literary and cultural theories for a New World democracy.

Whitman enacts this rhetorical "gossip" method—a method of "easy, unrestrained talk or writing" (as the OED defines it) with two graphically visual techniques. First, he uses different type sizes and linking printer's "reference marks" to create a dynamic encounter between the upper and lower texts. Second, he allows each text to take turns assuming or demanding more space on the page depending upon the needs or importance of the text-topic. For example, the lower text occupies seventy-five percent of page seven when it requires room to process its moral and psychic traumas. Likewise, when the upper text feels compelled to carve out an ideal American plan for moral democracy, it uses ninety percent of page eight to stake out its claim.

After the double texts negotiate spacing for seven pages, both finally merge into one unit for the last two and a half pages. They bond indistinguishably and form an "interpenetrating, composite, inseparable Unity" (Comprehensive 749). When the lower text meets and joins the upper, when the defiantly confessional meets the prescriptively oratorical, then the moment brings joy and vatic faith. The 1876 Preface is an imaginative piece of moral criticism on Whitman's poetry and politics of living holistically. In union, Whitman's poetic, cultural, and spiritual theories have talked each other into personal and national moral health. Amid nature's antiseptic powers, celebrating both his fifty-sixth birthday and the nation's centennial birthday, he can testify and poetically sing:

I therefore now bequeath Poems and Essays as nutriment . . . to furnish . . . what The States most need of all, and which seems to me yet quite unsupplied in literature, namely, to show them . . . Themselves distinctively, and what They are for. I count with such absolute certainty on the Great Future of The United States. . . . America, too, is a prophecy. What, even of the best and most successful, would be justified by itself alone? . . . All ages, all Nations and States, have been such prophecies. But where any former ones with prophecy so broad, so clear, as our times, our lands—as those of the West?

(Comprehensive 752)

The 1876 Preface is thus the disquisitional meditation of a troubled yet coyly defiant and brave singer (see lower text). In the guise of the metaphysician-poet, he inspires with righteous indignation and guides with kind instruction (see upper text). Then as ideal prophet-bard and moral "sponsor" (curiously, another OED definition for gossip), Whitman interprets the "Eternal Soul of Man" for "future Poetry" (Comprehensive 753).

He bequeaths all of his poetic "escapades," his private and public voices, to his readers and baptizes them (his poems, his essays, his readers, his two volumes Leaves of Grass and Two Rivulets) into the poet's real mission—the pure spirit or ideal form—the poetics of "Eidólons" (his own verse-excerpt placed into the fused text):

The Prophet and the Bard,
Shall yet maintain themselves—in higher circles yet,
Shall mediate to the Modern, to Democracy—interpret yet to them, God and Eidólons.

(Comprehensive 753)


Allen, Gay Wilson. Introduction. Two Rivulets. By Walt Whitman. Norwood, Pa.: Norwood, 1979. iii–vi.

____. The New Walt Whitman Handbook. 1975. New York: New York UP, 1986.

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

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

____. Prose Works 1892. Ed. Floyd Stovall. Vol. 2. New York: New York UP, 1964.

____. Two Rivulets. Camden, N.J.: Author's Edition, 1876.


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