Commentary

Selected Criticism

Title:
"To the States, To Identify the 16th, 17th, or 18th Presidentiad" (1860)
Author:
Smeller, Carl
Print source:
J.R. LeMaster and Donald D. Kummings, eds., Walt Whitman: An Encyclopedia (New York: Garland Publishing, 1998), reproduced by permission.

This eight-line poem was originally published under its present title as the eighth poem in the "Messenger Leaves" cluster in the 1860 Leaves of Grass. In its earliest manuscript, however, it bore the title "A Past Presidentiad, and one to come also." Its text remained unchanged in all succeeding editions, except for minor alterations in punctuation and capitalization. Whitman placed it in the "By the Roadside" cluster in 1881.

Betsy Erkkila calls "Messenger Leaves" "a kind of political jeremiad," with "To the States" being one of the main examples of Whitman's excoriation of contemporary national politicians (183). The 16th, 17th and 18th presidentiads of the poem's subtitle identify the presidencies of Millard Fillmore (1850–1853), Franklin Pierce (1853–1857), and James Buchanan (1857–1861), respectively. Whitman takes all three to task, along with the Congressmen and the "great Judges," for their political opportunism and corruption. The poem objects as well to the political atmosphere stemming from the Compromise of 1850, which accommodated slavery in the territories at the expense of free soil.

"To the States" envisions the solution to national corruption as a natural process—the political awakening of the democratic masses figured as a gathering storm. Whitman draws a similar opposition between organic popular politics and official corruption in another of the "Messenger Leaves," "To a President" (1860). The storm imagery in "To the States" foreshadows the Civil War as well as Whitman's attempts to rationalize it as part of an inevitable, natural cycle. The poem's role as a harbinger of war was reinforced by its final placement as the last poem in the "By the Roadside" cluster, immediately preceding "Drum-Taps."

Though the poem's tones of anger and sarcasm are unusual in Whitman's writing of the later 1850s, they are not unprecedented. Besides the other "Messenger Leaves," this poem's political invective recalls one of the earliest Leaves of Grass poems, "A Boston Ballad (1854)" (1855), which satirizes the trial of Anthony Burns, a fugitive slave, as the return of British tyranny. The characterization of politicians in "To the States" as "scum floating atop of the waters," "bats and night-dogs," also echoes the language of Whitman's 1856 lecture-essay "The Eighteenth Presidency!" The poem's parenthetical concluding lines offer a milder version of the essay's call for young, white workingmen to rise up and cleanse the Republic of its political corruption.

Bibliography

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

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

____. Whitman's Manuscripts: "Leaves of Grass" (1860). Ed. Fredson Bowers. Chicago: U of Chicago P, 1955.


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