Selected Criticism

Liebig, Justus (1803–1873)
Matteson, John T.
Print source:
J.R. LeMaster and Donald D. Kummings, eds., Walt Whitman: An Encyclopedia (New York: Garland Publishing, 1998), reproduced by permission.

A Prussian scientist and a pioneer of laboratory education, Justus Liebig was an influential theorist in the field of organic chemistry. When the American edition of Liebig's Chemistry in its Application to Agriculture and Physiology appeared in 1847, it made a strong impression on Whitman, who gave it a glowing review in the 28 June 1847 Brooklyn Daily Eagle. Liebig was especially interested in the cyclical patterns of nature and the ways in which dead matter is converted into new life. When an organism decomposes, Liebig argued, its atoms recombine into different compounds, leading "to the production of a compound which did not before exist in [the body]" (227). In this process, whatever diseases the body had were destroyed. Liebig saw this process as a type of natural resurrection. David S. Reynolds has recently observed echoes of Liebig's theory in Whitman's metaphors for regeneration in "Song of Myself." Reynolds cites the following passage as an example: "Tenderly will I use you curling grass, / It may be you transpire from the breasts of young men, . . . The smallest sprout shows there is really no death" (section 6). Liebig's influence can also be traced in the shorter poem "This Compost." Reynolds also suggests that Liebig's broad definition of "leaves" as comprising the "green parts of all plants" may have had bearing on Whitman's decision to call his collection Leaves of Grass (241).


Liebig, Justus. Organic Chemistry in Its Application to Agriculture and Physiology. London: Taylor and Walton, 1840.

Reynolds, David S. Walt Whitman's America: A Cultural Biography. New York: Knopf, 1995.


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