Selected Criticism

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

Walt Whitman approached individualism from a distinctively post-Revolutionary American viewpoint. In notes published in Walt Whitman's Workshop, he compared himself to Washington, who "made free the body of America" (35). Through his own poetry, Whitman says in an 1855 review of his own work published in Rivulets of Prose, "The interior American republic shall also be declared free and independent" (1). He hoped to foster the psychic redefinition required under a new social contract through his poetry of self-affirmation.

Like Ralph Waldo Emerson, Whitman decried the continuing power of British cultural models over nineteenth-century American literature, aesthetic standards, and social assumptions and practices. Alarmed at the continuing influence of "feudalism, caste, the ecclesiastic traditions," as described in Democratic Vistas (Prose Works 2:364), he feared the power of inherited cultural influences to undermine the basic assumption of a democracy—that citizens can and must be self-governing, i.e., self-regulating. A functioning democracy must "train communities through all their grades, beginning with individuals and ending there again, to rule themselves," he says in Vistas (380).

Whitman believed that cultural models must be revised to promote self-regulation. A "democratic literature," he says in Vistas, must "bring forth, cultivate, brace, and strengthen" the "perennial regulation, control, and oversight, by self-suppliance" of "individuals and society" (421). Whitman early concluded that the best way to "cultivate" self-regulation is through self-realization, and he determined to supply a prototype of the fully-realized self-regulating democratic citizen in his own poetry: "I am satisfied with Leaves of Grass . . . as expressing what was intended, namely, to express . . . One's-Self & also . . . to map out . . . for American use, a gigantic embryo or skeleton of Personality, fit for the West, for native models," he wrote to William D. O'Connor in 1865 (Correspondence 1:247).

Whitman used himself and his observations of his own culture to construct the map, these being the materials that he knew best and representing the lowest common denominator available to everyone. In the 1855 Preface to Leaves, he explores in prose his concerns that a cultural model based on aristocratic exclusions would undermine the inclusiveness required in a democracy. In his poetry, especially "Song of Myself," he seeks to repair the ravages of exclusionary models on the cultural psyche. In Vistas Whitman discusses "democracy's rule" that all citizens must "be placed, in each and in the whole, on one broad, primary, universal common platform" (380).

Like Emerson and others of the period, Whitman believed that this common platform is provided by nature. The "lesson of Nature," he says in Vistas, is the "quality of BEING, in the object's self, according to its own central idea and purpose, and of growing therefrom and thereto—not criticism by other standards" (394). Like Emerson, Whitman believed that it is not only possible but also safe to construct new cultural models from nature because modern scientific discoveries show nature to be essentially self-regulating. In the 1872 Preface to As a Strong Bird on Pinions Free, he calls for "an imaginative New World, the correspondent and counterpart to the current Scientific and Political New Worlds" (Prose Works 2:461). "These States," he says in Vistas, need "forms of lasting power and practicality . . . rivaling the operations of the physical kosmos" to undergird "the democratic republican principle, and the theory of development and perfection by voluntary standards" (362). In the 1855 Preface, Whitman praises the outer embodiment of an inner coherence in the perfect and satisfying natural forms of lilacs and oranges, and he recommends these as models for a democratic aesthetics.

Because democracy requires a cultural model that will entice rather than coerce, a democratic aesthetic is particularly necessary: "a great original literature is surely to become the justification and reliance . . . of American democracy," Whitman says in Vistas (366). An aesthetic construct is itself a model of self-regulation because it derives meaning from sensory data through an internally coherent system. In the 1855 Preface, Whitman calls the democratic poet "the equable man" (Comprehensive 712) and "the president of regulation" (714) and adds that in a successful democracy "[t]heir Presidents shall not be their common referee so much as their poets shall" (712). The aesthetic paradigm of self-regulation is the most accessible as well as the most seductive one available to a democratic culture since it is ultimately pleasurable and encourages development, as Whitman says in Vistas, by "voluntary standards" (362) and "not repression alone, and not authority alone" (379). Since language is at the center of human consciousness, the struggle with language in the creation of poetry is the closest approximation to the struggle with experience in the creation of a self; Whitman therefore determined that the reader must be a partner in the creation of "Song of Myself." Reading must not be "a half-sleep" but a "gymnast's struggle"; "the reader is to do something for himself," he says in Vistas (424–425).

In "Song of Myself," Whitman quickly draws the reader into the drama of self-creation: "every atom belonging to me as good belongs to you" (section 1). This interior adventure is driven by an erotic attraction between pairs of opposites: body and soul, earth and sun, reader and bard, self and community. The "atoms" shared by reader and bard provide a metaphysical basis for a democratic communal identity. All are equally capable of self-realization: "there is in the possession of . . . each single individual, something so transcendent, so incapable of gradations, (like life,) that . . . it places all beings on a common level," he says in Vistas (380). This capacity for selfhood is necessarily located first in the body or the physical world, and the affirmation of the body becomes the basis for all subsequent unfoldings in "Song of Myself."

The earliest known fragments of the poetry that became Leaves refer to a slave auction such as Whitman must have witnessed in New Orleans in 1848. Later incorporated in sections 7 and 8 of "I Sing the Body Electric," these fragmentary celebrations of the sanctity of the body show Whitman's concern in pre-Civil War America to heal the ancient rift between body and soul—extending at least as far back as Plato—that allowed bodies to be sold at auction, to be humiliated by ridiculous fashions and ascetic religious practices, and to be suppressed as vehicles of rampant sexual energy and physical corruption. The necessity of affirming the body in an authentic democratic cultural model also supplied the erotic dynamic of Whitman's epic of self-creation.

Asserting that "there are in things two elements fused though antagonistic," Whitman defined these elements as sexual opposites: "the Soul of the Universe is the Male and genital master and the impregnating and animating spirit—Physical matter is Female and Mother." These elements are also metaphysical opposites: the "bodily element . . . has in itself the quality of corruption and decease; . . . the Soul . . . goes on . . . enduring forever and ever," according to notes in Workshop (49). It is the necessary union of these mythic opposites—"Out of the dimness opposite equals advance, always substance and increase, always sex" (section 3)—that produces the evolving consciousness in "Song of Myself" as well as the developmental crises of that evolution.

In addition, the interaction of these primal forces induces self-regulation because their "antagonistic" pull on each other keeps either from self-destructive excess. In the process of self-creation, the body individualizes the self and provides a center through which experiences are processed: "the unseen is proved by the seen, / Till that becomes unseen and receives proof in its turn" ("Song of Myself," section 3). The soul leads the self inevitably outward to encompass wider and wider realms of experience: "And I know that the hand of God is the promise of my own, / And I know that the spirit of God is the brother of my own" (section 5).

These mythic progenitors of the re-created self are dimensions of another pair of generative forces in this work—the earth and the sun: "Stop this day and night with me and you shall possess the origin of all poems, / You shall possess the good of the earth and sun" (section 2). The evolution of the self in the poem is marked by a changing relationship to earth and sun. The self moves from "the song of me rising from bed and meeting the sun" in section 2 to an oedipal rivalry in sections 24 and 25 after the powers of the self have been more fully explored: "Dazzling and tremendous how quick the sun-rise would kill me, / If I could not now and always send sun-rise out of me." After a final cataclysmic transition in section 28, the self moves decisively from private consciousness to culture hero and announces in section 40: "Flaunt of the sunshine I need not your bask—lie over! / . . . Earth! you seem to look for something at my hands, / Say, old top-knot, what do you want?"

The self's relationship to the symbolic "leaves of grass" progresses similarly from "guesses" as to the meaning of the grass in section 6 to perceptions of the universality of the individual experience in section 17: "This is the grass that grows wherever the land is and the water is, / This is the common air that bathes the globe." After the decisive transition in section 28, the expanded meaning of the self and the grass develops into a credo in section 31: "I believe a leaf of grass is no less than the journey-work of the stars." At this point, the cosmic significance of the fully-realized self becomes the basis for a democratic community. In Vistas Whitman says that his poetry is not about "that half only, individualism, which isolates" but also about "another half, which is adhesiveness or love, that fuses, ties and aggregates, making the races comrades, and fraternizing all" (381).

The individual consciousness created through the union of body and soul, an experience available to everyone, produces a prototypical personality that is spiritually prepared for union with other similar personalities. The universality of the soul provides a basis for the union, and the "corruption and decease" of the body make the union desirable and necessary. Recognizing that the individual eventually perishes though the community lives on, the isolated private self in the transitional section 11 of "Song of Myself"—the "handsome" woman created by the sensory experiences of the body—longs for existential redefinition through regenerative participation in the comradeship of the twenty-eight young men afloat in the rivers of time. Whitman explored more fully the creation of the individual personality through the union of mythic opposites in "Children of Adam" and the creation of the democratic community through the union of similar human selves in "Calamus." Whitman summarized the relationship of these forces in the short poem introducing Leaves, "One's-Self I Sing."

The most common criticism of the individualism in Whitman's poetry is that it is narcissistic, egotistical, anarchic, and even pathological in origin. However, Whitman insisted in his prose, from the earliest days of his creative life to his last, that his poetry was about democratic reconstruction—as he puts it in Vistas, "the grand experiment of development . . . the forming of a full-grown man or woman" (380). He was convinced that "To ballast the State is also secured, and in our times is to be secured, in no other way" (380).


Anderson, Quentin. The Imperial Self: An Essay in American Literary and Cultural History. New York: Knopf, 1971.

Erkkila, Betsy. Whitman the Political Poet. New York: Oxford UP, 1989.

Larson, Kerry C. Whitman's Drama of Consensus. Chicago: U of Chicago P, 1988.

Thomas, M. Wynn. The Lunar Light of Whitman's Poetry. Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard UP, 1987.

Whitman, Walt. The Correspondence. Ed. Edwin Haviland Miller. 6 vols. New York: New York UP, 1961–1977.

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

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

____. Rivulets of Prose: Critical Essays by Walt Whitman. Ed. Carolyn Wells and Alfred F. Goldsmith. New York: Greenberg, 1928.

____. Walt Whitman's Workshop: A Collection of Unpublished Manuscripts. Ed. Clifton Joseph Furness. Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard UP, 1928.


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