Selected Criticism

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

Whitman's poetry affirms travel. His "perpetual journey" is life itself; the evolution of man and the procession of the universe are journeys. In "Song of the Open Road," for example, Whitman asserts his belief in a cosmic evolution, never reaching a culminating perfection, but always ascending: "To know the universe itself as a road, as many roads, as roads for traveling souls . . . Forever alive, forever forward . . . I know not where they go, / But I know that they go toward the best—toward something great" (section 13). The "open" road is unlimited and unrestricted, and the procession toward perfection is ceaseless because there is no death, only change.

Whitman's hardy, tan-faced journeyer in casual clothes and sturdy shoes is undisturbed by civilization. Divinely free and joyously content, he shouts his barbaric yawp to the world. Although he identifies with others and seeks comrades along the way, he travels essentially alone and he insists that each person journey alone as well. Whitman's ideal image of the democratic man was Abraham Lincoln. He applauded Lincoln for going down his own lonely road, refusing guides, ignoring warnings, and worrying only about keeping appointments with himself. Whitman encourages his fellow man to break from the crowd, to discover his own path, and to journey forth independently. "Not I, not any one else can travel it for you, / You must travel it for yourself ("Song of Myself," section 46). According to Paul Zweig, "Song of Myself" is most "probably the finest enactment in all literature of the adventure of self-making, akin to such great quest poems as The Epic of Gilgamesh and The Divine Comedy" (18). Whitman's protagonist travels forth into the material world: "There was a child went forth every day, / And the first object he look'd upon, that object he became, / And that object became part of him for the day or a certain part of the day, / Or for many years or stretching cycles of years ("There Was a Child Went Forth"). His persona becomes the reality of his perception. His life-journey is a continual process of becoming.

For Whitman, the road is the most important feature of the outer world because it represents endless becoming of reality, expansive hope, and restlessness. As the background for comradeship, the road provides the possibility for travelers to share their participation in the journey of ongoing life. Whitman's protagonist offers his fellow man "no chair, nor church nor philosophy" ("Song of Myself," section 46). With his arm about his comrade's waist, he leads his comrade to a knoll, to the water's edge, or to the marshlands where the calamus plants grow. There his followers are able to perceive the fragmented particulars in relation to the whole. And they discover that love is the great cosmic unifier, connecting polarities, arousing joy.

Because the journey is imaginative, Whitman's protagonist can identify with the lives of others. He enters vicariously the life of the athlete, mechanic, trapper, slave, halfbreed, and prostitute. He wanders into past and future time periods. "Space and Time! now I see it is true, what I guess'd at . . . My ties and ballasts leave me . . ." ("Song of Myself," section 33). Whitman uses the extended catalogue to convey the majesty, the expansiveness of the land, and the diversity of its people. The cumulative effect of the lists is a sensory bombardment of sights and sounds of American city and country life, emphasizing both the harmonious unity in variety and the singularity of the particular. For example, in his cosmic flight in "Song of Myself," Whitman's protagonist enlarges into a divine being by becoming one with the succession of men and women he encounters, with the evolution of the stars, and with the origin of life. He no longer is the individual man but feels a sense of oneness with all. Nothing is so tiny or so immense that it is unable to be incorporated into his expanding self.

Whitman's expansive journey included the revolutionizing of American poetry. He used rhymeless and expansive lines, repetitions, parallelism, varied rhythm and stress, and regional dialects in his attempt to express his highly flexible and all-inclusive philosophy. He wanted to be easily read, a poet of the common people. His earliest writings especially contain words particular to the United States, words such as "quahaug," "prairie-dog," "chickadee," "congressman," and "quadroon." He was particularly attracted to the idiom of the frontier. "I like limber, lasting, fierce words," he wrote in An American Primer (21). But it wasn't the words themselves that excited him. It was their ability to condense actual experience. In "Slang in America," Whitman defines slang as the "lawless germinal element, below all words and sentences, and behind all poetry" (572). As David Reynolds shows in Beneath the American Renaissance, Whitman used this anti-authoritarian rhetoric to appeal to the common people as well as to revolt against America's ruling class. For Whitman, poetry had the power to unify the fragmented nation by using language that gave vent to the full diversity of the United States and at the same time incorporating words that would dissolve boundaries and realize the country's potential.

Although the general thrust of the "perpetual journey" is ascension, the forward movement is frequently interrupted. Whitman's expanding traveler will at times momentarily retract. He will descend into darkness, become fragmented or dissipated, later to progress again, rejuvenated. Whitman emphasizes this forward/retreat movement of his traveler with the shrinking and lengthening of his lines and the alternation of rising and falling rhythms. Whitman's poems refer to the poetic self's perception which unites him to the thing he sees. Whitman tries to include his reader in an odyssey similar to the expanding journey his poetic ego takes. When Whitman writes, "It is you talking just as much as myself, I act as the tongue of you" ("Song of Myself," section 47), he attempts to remove the distinction between the poet, the reader, and the poem. His development of the theme of "camerados" furthers the poet's attempted union with the reader. In "So Long!" he emphasizes this identification: "Camerado, this is no book, / Who touches this touches a man."

Whitman attempts to break the barriers between poet and reader, allowing the reader to merge vicariously with the poet and share in his expanding perception. Through the primal energy of the words, he encourages the reader to take part in his imaginative journey of self-making.


Allen, Gay Wilson. "Walt Whitman's Long Journey Motif." Journal of English and Germanic Philology 38 (1939): 76–95.

Asselineau, Roger. "Walt Whitman: From Paumanok to More Than America." Studies in American Literature in Honor of Robert Dunn Faner, 1906–1967. Ed. Robert Partlow. Supplement to Papers on Language and Literature 5 (1969): 18–39.

Lewis, R.W.B. "Always Going Out and Coming In." Walt Whitman. Ed. Harold Bloom. New York: Chelsea House Publishers, 1985. 99–125.

Reynolds, David S. Beneath the American Renaissance. New York: Knopf, 1988.

Trachtenberg, Alan. "Whitman's Visionary Politics." Walt Whitman of Mickle Street: A Centennial Collection. Ed. Geoffrey M. Sill. Knoxville: U of Tennessee P, 1994. 94–108.

Whitman, Walt. An American Primer. Ed. Horace Traubel. 1904. Stevens Point: Holy Cow!, 1987.

____. "Slang in America." Prose Works 1892. Ed. Floyd Stovall. Vol. 2. New York: New York UP, 1964. 572–577.

Zweig, Paul. Walt Whitman: The Making of the Poet. New York: Basic Books, 1984.


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