Commentary

Selected Criticism

Title:
Sentimentality
Author:
Kete, Mary Louise
Print source:
J.R. LeMaster and Donald D. Kummings, eds., Walt Whitman: An Encyclopedia (New York: Garland Publishing, 1998), reproduced by permission.

The relationship between Walt Whitman and sentimentality seems, at first glance, to be quite clear. In the famous section 24 of "Song of Myself," where the speaker is finally identified as "Walt Whitman, a kosmos," he goes on to define himself in negatives. He is "No sentimentalist, no stander above men and women or apart from them." The term "sentimentalist," as used here, serves as a foil to the previous stream of positive adjectives defining this son of Manhattan: "Turbulent, fleshy, sensual, eating, drinking and breeding." If this section makes clear what relationship Whitman claims to sentimentality, it does not explain what is at stake in this claim. Two issues that are of increasing critical interest concern the role played by sentimentality in shaping Whitman's career as a poet and the degree to which sentimentality inflects Whitman's poetic project.

Like Mark Twain, who is celebrated as an opponent of sham sentiment and false genteel virtues, Whitman began his literary career as an author of sentimental verse and prose. In several places in Specimen Days the practice of sentimentality figures importantly in Whitman's mythic stories of his own beginnings. His start in the newspaper business, for example, is due to his facility with sentimental genres: "I commenced when I was but a boy of eleven or twelve writing sentimental bits for the old 'Long Island Patriot'" (Complete 919). He continued through his early thirties writing in the popular and sentimental modes of the day for magazines and newspapers. Although few examples of this work are commonly anthologized, Thomas Brasher's Walt Whitman: The Early Poems and the Fiction (1963) and the Library of America edition of the Complete Poetry and Collected Prose make these readily available to scholars.

This early sentimental work, both verse and fiction, is for the most part conventional in subject matter, diction, and form. It is highly didactic, featuring narrators who, in contrast to the speaker of "Song of Myself," stand apart from and above the characters they judge. And yet, these pieces also show Whitman exhausting given literary forms, and they provide the opportunity to deduce what remains of these conventional forms and subjects in Whitman's later work. Some of the factors that remain important in Whitman's later work include the sentimental topoi of death, broken families, childhood innocence, and transcendent love. Other, more formal factors include his didacticism, his use of apostrophe, and his celebration of socially and politically marginal people.

Again like Mark Twain, Whitman's anxiety about sentimentality marks his continued reliance on it. Although the expression of emotion is often poorly executed in his juvenile and pre-Leaves of Grass works, emotion remains the key element that Whitman, like standard sentimentalists such as Lydia H. Sigourney and Henry Wadsworth Longfellow, uses to bridge the distance between himself and his reader. He echoes the feelings of these writers and many of his readers in what has been called a "culture of sentiment" when he asks, "what is humanity in its faith, love, heroism, poetry, even morals, but emotion?" (Complete 921). In his mature work, Whitman eschewed "verbal melody," which he considered the "idiosyncrasy, almost a sickness" of nineteenth-century poetry, best exemplified by Longfellow's work. Nevertheless, he embraced and even amplified many of the sentimental tropes and topoi of popular sentimental culture. One superficial example of Whitman's amplification of sentimental values is the presentation of the first edition of Leaves of Grass. With its green embossed slip case and its private printing, the physical book itself is indistinguishable from the numerous floral titles of poetry collections by the many women writers of the day. Unlike Sara Willis Parton's ironic use of this kind of title for her humorous editions of Fern Leaves from Fanny's Portfolio, Whitman seems to be earnest in describing his work and its succeeding exfoliations (for example, November Boughs) with the floral titles common to sentimental authors.

Never denying the importance of sentimentality to his own professional life, Whitman nevertheless represented it as something left well behind when he found his "true" voice as a poet. For the most part this view has been accepted uncritically by twentieth-century critics. However, the recent critical reappraisal of nineteenth-century popular literature, and in particular sentimentality, has begun a reexamination of the relationship between sentimentality and Whitman's revolutionary poetics. This can be seen particularly in work devoted to examining the gendered dimension of Whitman's work. As early as 1966 Michael Lasser published an article on "Sex and Sentimentality in Whitman's Poetry" which begins to trace the connection between one of Whitman's most recognized subjects and one of the most reviled of literary modes. Brasher indirectly points out that early sentimental temperance tales such as "The Child and the Profligate" suggest that sentimentality provided both a rationale and a literary form for the celebration of homoerotic relationships. These ideas are taken up and expanded by critics such as M.J. Killingsworth, who argued in 1983 that sentimentality is crucial to Whitman's homoerotic poetics as laid out in the "Calamus" poems. The role of sentimentality in Whitman's ability to produce an American epic is also beginning to be explored. To what degree, it might be asked, is the "grand American expression" which melds with the "English language" to produce the "language of resistance" and the "dialect of common sense" (Complete 25) synonymous with what can also be called sentimentality?

Bibliography

Killingsworth, M. Jimmie "Sentimentality and Homosexuality in Whitman's 'Calamus' Poems." ESQ 29 (1983): 144–153.

Lasser, Michael. "Sex and Sentimentality in Whitman's Poetry." Emerson Society Quarterly 43 (1966): 94–97.

Whitman, Walt. Complete Poetry and Collected Prose. Ed. Justin Kaplan. New York: Library of America, 1982.

____. The Early Poems and the Fiction. Ed. Thomas L. Brasher. New York: New York UP, 1963.


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