Selected Criticism

Santayana, George (1863–1952)
Martin, Robert K.
Print source:
J.R. LeMaster and Donald D. Kummings, eds., Walt Whitman: An Encyclopedia (New York: Garland Publishing, 1998), reproduced by permission.

Philosopher, poet, and critic, George Santayana was a man divided intellectually as well as personally. Born in Europe of Spanish parents, he was brought to America as a young man. His ambivalence about the relationship of America to European culture and tradition was repeatedly expressed in his troubled evaluations of Walt Whitman.

Santayana's divided mind is vividly present in the form as well as the content of "Walt Whitman: A Dialogue" (1890). The two speakers debate Whitman's worth, McStout arguing that what Whitman creates is not poetry at all but barbarism. Van Tender accepts the critique of Whitman's style but maintains that he offers inspiration. Santayana returns to the subject in "The Poetry of Barbarism" (1900). The poetry of barbarism, including Whitman's, offers "passion" not constrained by "clear thought" (89). This is not meant as a totally negative judgment. Whitman's "genius" is "this wealth of perception without intelligence and of imagination without taste" (93) which frees him from the cold decline of the genteel tradition. Santayana grants Whitman a grandeur of diction and inspiration. Whitman's poetic barbarism is not inferior, but corresponds to part of our natures, offering "frankness and beauty" (97). These opposing sides of his personality, as of his national identity, Santayana could only hold in precarious balance.


Aaron, Daniel. "George Santayana and the Genteel Tradition." Critical Essays on George Santayana. Ed. Kenneth M. Price and Robert C. Leitz III. Boston: Hall, 1991. 223–231.

Dawidoff, Robert. The Genteel Tradition and the Sacred Rage: High Culture vs. Democracy in Adams, James, & Santayana. Chapel Hill: U of North Carolina P, 1992.

Santayana, George. "The Poetry of Barbarism." Interpretations of Poetry and Religion. 1900. Rpt. in Selected Critical Writings of George Santayana. Ed. Norman Henfrey. Vol. 1. Cambridge: Cambridge UP, 1968. 84–116.

———. "Walt Whitman: A Dialogue." 1890. George Santayana's America: Essays on Literature and Culture. Ed. James Ballowe. Urbana: U of Illinois P, 1967. 97–107.


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