Commentary

Selected Criticism

Title:
"Promise to California, A" (1860)
Author:
Albin, C.D.
Print source:
J.R. LeMaster and Donald D. Kummings, eds., Walt Whitman: An Encyclopedia (New York: Garland Publishing, 1998), reproduced by permission.

Whitman's "A Promise to California" originally appeared as number 30 in the "Calamus" cluster of the 1860 edition of Leaves of Grass and did not assume its current title until the 1867 edition. In fact, as Blodgett and Bradley point out, in the Barrett manuscript Whitman makes no reference to California in the opening line. Instead, the promise is issued to the states of Indiana, Nebraska, Kansas, Iowa, and Minnesota.

The "Calamus" section of Leaves of Grass has generated a great deal of discussion because of the nature of its sexual imagery, but "A Promise To California" is less sexually charged than many of the "Calamus" poems. In fact, it has even been described as didactic, primarily because of the tone in which the speaker promises to travel west and teach his fellow citizens about the vigorous camaraderie necessary for American democracy. Despite this tone, the poem contains subtle images of exploration and discovery that refer as much to the speaker's inner self as they do to the nation. For instance, the speaker declares himself willing to remain a bit longer in the familiar East, but he is also drawn inexorably "inland" and to the "Western sea." Such journeys would invite at least a symbolic charting of new territory, and in this way he links his own inner exploration with the continued westward expansion of the nation.

Although "A Promise to California" is a relatively minor poem in the Whitman canon, it does reveal Whitman's belief in an intimate connection between the deep, often unspoken impulses of the individual and the more public and collective impulses of the democracy. As a result, the poem also stands as a reminder of the vital and public role of poetry in the shaping of any nation dedicated to freedom.

Bibliography

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

Waskow, Howard J. Whitman: Explorations in Form. Chicago: U of Chicago P, 1966.

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


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