Commentary

Selected Criticism

Title:
Reading, Whitman's
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.

"My reading," Whitman remarked to Horace Traubel in 1888, "is wholly without plan: the first thing at hand, that is the thing I take up" (With Walt Whitman 2:492). Such seems to have been the case throughout his life; and while Whitman always declined the role of man of letters, the fact is that from an early age he read widely in many areas: not only in English and American literature, but also in history, science, philosophy, biography (a particular favorite), and translations of various works in foreign languages. Ralph Waldo Emerson was quick to perceive the distance between image and reality when at one of his early meetings with Whitman he is said to have expressed his surprise at finding the poet "a copious book man" (With Walt Whitman 3:401–402).

Emerson's surprise is evidence of Whitman's success in concealing the breadth of his reading. The concealment was a deliberate strategy, as indicated by a notebook entry dating between 1847 and early 1855: "Make no quotations, and no reference to any other writers" (Notebooks 1:159). Whitman, wishing to appear as a new poet in a new land, a bard of nature, maintained this resolve with remarkable consistency throughout his life.

Few writers have been so free of literary debt. Whatever his response to individual authors, Whitman rejected foreign literatures, both past and present, as irrelevant, if not actually hostile, to American democracy. Still, he had his enthusiasms, and first among them was Sir Walter Scott, whom he discovered early in life, perhaps as early as 1829 or 1830 according to an entry in Specimen Days, and who remained with him right to the end, as may be seen in the volumes of Traubel's With Walt Whitman in Camden. In 1888 Whitman commented to Traubel that "If you could reduce the Leaves to their elements you would see Scott unmistakably active at the roots" (1:96), and in the following year he listed Scott among those select few authors constituting what he called his "daily food" (4:67).

Of other British writers, three were particularly important: William Shakespeare, Thomas Carlyle, and Alfred, Lord Tennyson. As a representative of the feudal past, Shakespeare was unsuitable for the American ideal; still, there was no denying the imaginative force of the poetry or the power of the drama, of which Whitman was a devotee, frequently attending performances on the New York stage.

Carlyle was valued as a writer who knew and recorded the violent complexities of his times with passion, energy, and moral commitment: a Hebrew prophet in nineteenth-century England. Still, Whitman notes in Specimen Days, while Carlyle was the most indignant protester against the growing evils and injustices of the age, he was also "a mark'd illustration" of the maladies he condemned (Prose Works 1:261); furthermore, Whitman objected to Carlyle's disdain for common people.

Tennyson, with whom Whitman conducted a sporadic and respectful correspondence for some twenty years, was admired for his artistry: "Tennyson is an artist even when he writes a letter," Whitman commented in 1888 (With Walt Whitman 1:36). The admiration, however, was always qualified by Tennyson's Old World sympathies—"the bard of ennui and of the aristocracy," Whitman called him in an 1855 essay ("An English and an American Poet" 39)—and by Whitman's awareness that Tennyson's poetry challenged his own in the most basic, apparently irreconcilable ways. Stylistically and thematically, the two poets would forever be opposed, yet Whitman could not deny Tennyson's mastery.

Among the Americans, Emerson is surely of the greatest significance, as Whitman's testimony, however qualified, makes clear, from the "dear Friend and Master" letter prefacing the 1856 Leaves of Grass to statements made near the end of his life. Whitman began reading Emerson in the 1840s, although he may not have felt the full power of Emerson's voice until he began to find his own in the early 1850s. The story of Whitman's relationship with Emerson is long and complex; but whatever may be said, Emerson's centrality remains, for it was Emerson, above all, who showed the way and, in his person as in his writings, did much to sustain Whitman throughout his long poetic career.

Other American writers for whom Whitman had high regard, despite his differences from them in style and substance, were William Cullen Bryant, John Greenleaf Whittier, and Henry Wadsworth Longfellow; these three, together with Emerson, were for Whitman the four best American poets. Whitman also had high praise for James Fenimore Cooper, whose novels he had read extensively and was rereading during the last years of his life.

Beyond literature in English, Whitman paid particular tribute to Epictetus, whom he claimed to have discovered at the age of sixteen, and to whom he was still expressing indebtedness more than half a century later. "He sets me free," Whitman proclaimed in 1888, "in a flood of light—of life, of vista" (With Walt Whitman 2:71). The following year Whitman included Epictetus among those writers whom he read repeatedly on a daily basis. Also on that list were Homer and Aeschylus, as well as the Bible. While Whitman complained in Democratic Vistas about the "shreds of Hebrews, Romans, Greeks" that dominated attention (Prose Works 2:411), he possessed at least a broad, general knowledge of classical and biblical literature. His familiarity with both Old and New Testaments is evident throughout his life.

Mention should be made of Frederic H. Hedge's anthology, Prose Writers of Germany, published in 1847, from which Whitman derived much of his knowledge of German literature. "I can hardly tell how many years," he commented in 1890; "it has been inspiration, aid, sunlight" (With Walt Whitman 7:111). Whitman also read variously in translations of French literature, including works by Voltaire and Rousseau; and from 1859, when he first read the Inferno (in the Carlyle translation), Whitman maintained an interest in Dante.

A rarity among major poets in not being a particularly avid reader of poetry, Whitman read indiscriminately in fiction; in Specimen Days he described himself as a "most omnivorous novel-reader" in his youth and afterwards (Prose Works 1:15). His most valued reading included Frances Wright's philosophical novel, A Few Days in Athens, which presented concepts, largely Epicurean, that were later to find their way into Leaves of Grass, and two novels by George Sand, Consuelo and The Countess of Rudolstadt, which Whitman admired for the truth and economy of their styles and representations. Charles Dickens was an early favorite, and Whitman read widely in the novels; his 1842 essay, "Boz and Democracy," defended Dickens as "a democratic writer" in that his works promoted love of humanity despite the differences of social distinctions (Uncollected 1:69). Not least important, Whitman knew the popular fiction of his time; among his own contributions to the genre were his early short stories and his temperance novel, Franklin Evans.

A full account of Whitman's reading would have to include not only the reading he did in following his own interests, but also the many books he reviewed as a journalist. Despite his acquaintance with hundreds of writers, however, only a few came to be of enduring significance. Whitman remained to the end of his life stubbornly true to his own perceptions and resistant to literary influence.

Bibliography

Loving, Jerome. Emerson, Whitman, and the American Muse. Chapel Hill: U of North Carolina P, 1982.

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

Reynolds, David S. Beneath the American Renaissance: The Subversive Imagination in the Age of Emerson and Melville. New York: Knopf, 1988.

Stovall, Floyd. The Foreground of "Leaves of Grass." Charlottesville: UP of Virginia, 1974.

____. "Notes on Whitman's Reading." American Literature 26 (1954): 337–362.

Traubel, Horace. With Walt Whitman in Camden. 9 vols. Vols. 1–3. 1906–1914. New York: Rowman and Littlefield, 1961; Vol. 4. Ed. Sculley Bradley. Carbondale: Southern Illinois UP, 1959; Vol. 5. Ed. Gertrude Traubel. Carbondale: Southern Illinois UP, 1964; Vol. 6. Ed. Gertrude Traubel and William White. Carbondale: Southern Illinois UP, 1982; Vol. 7. Ed. Jeanne Chapman and Robert MacIsaac. Carbondale: Southern Illinois UP, 1992; Vols. 8–9. Ed. Jeanne Chapman and Robert MacIsaac. Oregon House, Calif.: W.L. Bentley, 1996.

Whitman, Walt. "An English and an American Poet." Walt Whitman: A Critical Anthology. Ed. Francis Murphy. Baltimore: Penguin, 1970. 37–42.

____. Notebooks and Unpublished Prose Manuscripts. Ed. Edward F. Grier. 6 vols. New York: New York UP, 1984.

____. Prose Works 1892. Ed. Floyd Stovall. 2 vols. New York: New York UP, 1963–1964.

____. The Uncollected Poetry and Prose of Walt Whitman. 1921. Ed. Emory Holloway. 2 vols. Gloucester, Mass.: Peter Smith, 1972.


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