Selected Criticism

Hugo, Victor (1802–1885)
Moore, Andy J.
Print source:
J.R. LeMaster and Donald D. Kummings, eds., Walt Whitman: An Encyclopedia (New York: Garland Publishing, 1998), reproduced by permission.

Novelist, dramatist, poet, Victor Hugo was the foremost French man of letters of the nineteenth century, best known for his Nôtre Dame de Paris (1831) and Les Misérables (1862). In the 1840s French romanticists like Hugo were enjoying a tremendous vogue in the literary circles in New York City, and Whitman as a Brooklyn editor and reviewer was aware of this new interest among the literary coterie. Hugo's plays were also enjoying successful performances on the New York stage. Whitman told Horace Traubel that "Hugo's immortal works were the dramas, the plays, the poems: least accessible, yet greatest of all—greater than the novels, stories, orations" (Traubel 522).

Whitman identified with the powerful way in which Hugo communicated with the masses, his attempt to give a literary voice to the real life of the people, the same kind of vital, poetic voice that Whitman was striving for in his own poetry. Hugo's La Légende des siècles (1859, 3rd series, 1883) was a favorite of Whitman, and he studied many different translations of this work. The haughty, sensual "I" of Hugo's poem, his epic catalogue of humanity, and his lyrical identification of man with the cosmos remind readers of that same dynamic energy in Whitman's "Song of Myself."

In the final decade of his life Whitman encouraged the comparisons that were being made between his poetry and that of Hugo. Indeed, what Hugo seemed to be doing for France in the way of new poetic techniques and themes of Liberty, Equality, and Fraternity, Whitman was doing for America.


Erkkila, Betsy. Walt Whitman Among the French: Poet and Myth. Princeton: Princeton UP, 1980.

Greenberg, Wendy. "Hugo and Whitman: Poets of Totality." Walt Whitman Review 24 (1978): 32–36.

Lombard, Charles M. "Whitman and Hugo." Walt Whitman Review 19 (1973): 19–25.

Traubel, Horace. With Walt Whitman in Camden. 1908. Vol. 2. New York: Rowman and Littlefield, 1961.


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