Selected Criticism

Kahn, Sholom J.
Print source:
J.R. LeMaster and Donald D. Kummings, eds., Walt Whitman: An Encyclopedia (New York: Garland Publishing, 1998), reproduced by permission.

W.B. Yeats failed to recognize Whitman's powerful "vision of evil" because he read him superficially. Actually, a fine anthology can be made of Whitman's poetry (and prose) of death, suffering, war, sin, slavery, martyrdom, stoicism, loneliness, "dark" items (in lists), guilt, crime—varieties of evil. Yet a widespread conviction that Whitman somehow shared Emerson's "easy" transcendentalism (which was not so easy) filtered out his sense of evil for many critics. Randall Jarrell's 1953 summary is more just: "Whitman specializes in ways of saying that there is in some sense (a very Hegelian one, generally) no evil—he says a hundred times that evil is not Real; but he also specializes in making lists of the evil of the world, lists of an unarguable reality" (227).

One might begin by classifying the various evils noted by Whitman as physical (sickness, pain, decay), psychological (despair, "dark patches," "contrariety"), and social (isolation, prostitution, poverty, civil war)—and after Abraham Lincoln's martyrdom, hypocrisy, bad blood, hollowness of heart (see Democratic Vistas). But such categories tend towards generality and abstraction. To dig deeper and soar higher, we may think of religions and philosophies: the theological "problem of Evil" is central for monotheism, of course, but less so for pantheists and "cosmic" mystics, so that Whitman (in "Chanting the Square Deific") made Satan part of his conception of God.

But since Whitman was not a systematic philosopher or theologian, we turn to the textures and bone of his poetry, what Roger Asselineau's biography began to spell out as his personal "evolution": first, as young author, and then as creator of Leaves of Grass—the former providing that "long foreground" intuited by Emerson. Every scholar concerned with Whitman's education and milieu links his developing ideas and themes to their historical settings, with their large problems of good and evil: his Calvinistic inheritance; the Unitarian revolt; Methodism and the Great Awakening, as reflected in the "camp meeting" elements in "Song of Myself"; the Long Island Quakerism typified by Elias Hicks; J.L. O'Sullivan's Democratic Review; reform politics; free-soil abolitionism; the Civil War and its aftermath; and so forth.

Whitman was an omnivorous reader of the Bible and other classics, including Dante and John Milton, and his "Edgar Poe's Significance" essay (1882) helps explain his appeal in France to the generation of Baudelaire's "Flowers of Evil" and in England to the Pre-Raphaelites and Swinburne. His early writings (from 1841) reflect not only Poe, but also Nathaniel Hawthorne and Herman Melville. Ralph Waldo Emerson, Emanuel Swedenborg, Henry David Thoreau, and John Greenleaf Whittier were also presences in his poetry of good and evil.

Emerging from this mélange, Whitman's "self" confronted not only "all the sorrows of the world, and...all oppression and shame" ("I Sit and Look Out"), but death as well, as seen in "To Think of Time," "This Compost," "Out of the Cradle Endlessly Rocking," "The Sleepers," "When Lilacs Last in the Dooryard Bloom'd," and many other poems. Poetry of love and male friendship included strong notes of loneliness and loss; the patriotic "Drum-Taps" included "The Wound-Dresser" and "Vigil Strange." In "Starting from Paumanok" (1860) he declared: "Omnes! omnes! let others ignore what they may, / I make the poem of evil also, I commemorate that part also..." (section 7).

Versatile Whitman wrote in prose (fiction, journalism, essays, memoirs) and verse (from early imitations to uniquely original styles and forms), so that we can relate our problematic theme to varieties of genre in both modes. Classic treatments of evil have been in tragedy, comedy, and satire, and some of Whitman's verse experiments were sharply satiric, for example "A Boston Ballad (1854)" and "Respondez!" (1856). But his poetry evades the usual genre classifications. It does seek heroism, but it is finally (despite complications with reference to this point) not "epic." Leaves of Grass has many dramatic moments but never achieves full tragedy or comedy. Though such critics as Richard Chase read "Song of Myself" as a "comic drama of the self," both the drama and the comedy are fitful, verging on melodrama, pathos, and sentimentality. (See the discussion of the passage ending "I am the man, I suffered, I was there" in Sholom Kahn, "Whitman's Sense of Evil.") Also, as Thoreau once commented, at many moments Whitman is "Wonderfully like the Orientals," whose sense of evil is quite different from that of Europeans.

Whitman coped with—or transcended—his strong sense of the evil in his life and in the world by writing Leaves of Grass and serving as "wound-dresser" in the "hell-scenes" of the Civil War, and he achieved a sanity (termed "higher prudence" in the 1855 Preface) which was stoical, as is evidenced by "Me Imperturbe." In this respect, he was part of a strain pervasive in American literature (as evidenced by Duane MacMillan's collection of essays on stoicism in American literature). Robert E. Lee exemplified those many Americans at war who (so to speak) brought Epictetus to battlefields. Thus, going beyond the usual polarities of evil and good, pessimism and optimism, Whitman was never complacent; his vision of the ultimate triumph of good was the outcome of agonistic struggles powerfully expressed in much of his best poetry.


Allen, Gay Wilson. "Walt Whitman and Stoicism." The Stoic Strain in American Literature: Essays in Honour of Marston LaFrance. Ed. Duane J. MacMillan. Toronto: U of Toronto P, 1979. 43–60.

Asselineau, Roger. The Evolution of Walt Whitman. 2 vols. Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard UP, 1960–1962.

Jarrell, Randall. "Some Lines from Whitman." A Century of Whitman Criticism. Ed. Edwin Haviland Miller. Bloomington: Indiana UP, 1969. 216–229.

Kahn, Sholom J. "The American Backgrounds of Whitman's Sense of Evil." Scripta Hierosolymitana 2 (1955): 82–118.

_____. "The Problem of Evil in Literature." The Journal of Aesthetics and Art Criticism 12 (1953): 98–110.

_____. "Whitman's Sense of Evil: Criticisms." Walt Whitman Abroad. Ed. Gay Wilson Allen. Syracuse: Syracuse UP, 1955. 236–254.

MacMillan, Duane J., ed. The Stoic Strain in American Literature: Essays in Honour of Marston LaFrance. Toronto: U of Toronto P, 1979.

Miller, Edwin Haviland, ed. A Century of Whitman Criticism. Bloomington: Indiana UP, 1969.


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