Selected Criticism

Darwin, Charles (1809–1882)
Tanner, James T.F.
Print source:
J.R. LeMaster and Donald D. Kummings, eds., Walt Whitman: An Encyclopedia (New York: Garland Publishing, 1998), reproduced by permission.

Charles Darwin was the author of several books, published during Walt Whitman's lifetime, that were of considerable interest to him. The Origin of Species appeared in 1859, though no American edition of the book was available until after the Civil War. Other books that Whitman was at least aware of were The Movements and Habits of Climbing Plants (1865), The Variation of Animals and Plants under Domestication (1868), The Descent of Man (1871), and Selection in Relation to Sex (1871).

As the originator of the doctrine of evolutionary development through the process of sexual selection, Darwin was of great interest to Whitman. Nevertheless it is clear that Whitman's evolutionary pronouncements do not always agree with those of the distinguished scientist. While some scholars have observed in Whitman's poetry certain examples of sexual selection, the struggle for existence, and an emphasis upon the variety of life forms, others note that Whitman's essential spirituality and idealism do not fully conform to the rigors of Darwinian natural selection. Essentially, Whitman was a believer in the process of "becoming," a doctrine that was held by many intellectuals during the nineteenth century.

Some scholars find evidence of Darwinian concepts in Whitman's literary works, but others (Harold Aspiz, for example) believe that Whitman drew his evolutionary concepts from Jean Baptiste Lamarck (1744–1829).


Allen, Gay Wilson. The Solitary Singer: A Critical Biography of Walt Whitman. 1955. Rev. ed. 1967. Chicago: U of Chicago P, 1985.

———. Walt Whitman Handbook. 1946. New York: Hendricks House, 1962.

Aspiz, Harold. Walt Whitman and the Body Beautiful. Urbana: U of Illinois P, 1980.

Beaver, Joseph. Walt Whitman: Poet of Science. New York: King's Crown, 1951.

Conner, Frederick William. Cosmic Optimism: A Study of the Interpretation of Evolution by American Poets from Emerson to Robinson. Gainesville: U of Florida P, 1949.

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


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