Selected Criticism

Hegel, Georg Wilhelm Friedrich (1770–1831)
Bauerlein, Mark
Print source:
J.R. LeMaster and Donald D. Kummings, eds., Walt Whitman: An Encyclopedia (New York: Garland Publishing, 1998), reproduced by permission.

Aside from some brief allusions scattered elsewhere, Whitman's references to Hegel are to be found in two prose pieces: "Carlyle from American Points of View," an entry in Specimen Days & Collect (1882), and "Sunday Evening Lectures," a manuscript fragment written probably around 1870. It is unclear whether Whitman ever read Hegel, even in translation, but textual evidence shows that Whitman borrowed from two texts containing summations of (as well as selections from) Hegel's philosophy—F.H. Hedge's The Prose Writers of Germany (1847) and Joseph Gostwick's German Literature (1854).

However superficial Whitman's understanding of Hegel was, the force of his interpretation of Hegel may be indicated by his statement in the "Lectures" that "Only Hegel is fit for America—is large enough and free enough" (Notebooks 6:2011). Hegel fits America because in Hegelian thinking the "varieties, contradictions and paradoxes of the world and of life . . . become a series of infinite radiations and waves of the one sealike universe of divine action and progress" (6:2011). In Hegel, the "contrarieties of material with spiritual, and of natural and artificial" appear as "radiations of one consistent and eternal purpose" (Prose Works 1:259). Under this Hegelian dialectical synthesis, even democratic contrarieties such as individual self and "en-masse," equality and singularity, are but polar terms in "the endless process of Creative thought" (1:259). America is a process and a progress, and so the only philosophy adequate to it is one that makes contradiction and the terms contradicted an essential part of life. Hegel has an all-inclusive vision, one casting anything excluded and the event of its exclusion as necessary to the development of Spirit, which for Whitman is equivalent to the progress of democracy. Hegel offers Whitman a system whereby "[o]ut of the dimness opposite equals advance," where there is "[a]lways a knit of identity," where Whitman can "find one side a balance and the antipodal side a balance" ("Song of Myself," sections 3, 22). In other words, Hegel's "catholic standard and faith" (Prose Works 1:259) Whitman interprets as a metaphysical analogue of his poetics of unity.


Fulghum, W.B., Jr. "Whitman's Debt to Joseph Gostwick." American Literature 12 (1941): 491–496.

Gostwick, Joseph. German Literature. Philadelphia: Lippincott, Grambo, 1854.

Hedge, Frederick Henry. The Prose Writers of Germany. Philadelphia: Carey and Hart, 1847.

Mary Eleanor, Sister. "Hedge's Prose Writers of Germany as a Source of Whitman's Knowledge of German Philosophy." Modern Language Notes 61 (1946): 381–388.

Whitman, Walt. Leaves of Grass: Comprehensive Reader's Edition. Ed. Harold W. Blodgett and Sculley Bradley. New York: New York UP, 1965.

———. Notebooks and Unpublished Prose Manuscripts. Ed. Edward F. Grier. 6 vols. New York: New York UP, 1984.

———. Prose Works, 1892. Ed. Floyd Stovall. 2 vols. New York: New York UP, 1963–1964.


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