Selected Criticism

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

Walt Whitman hated "Literary Literature" (Notebooks 4:1594) and he wrote condemning literariness. "No one will get at my verses who insists upon viewing them as a literary performance, or attempt at such performance, or as aiming mainly toward art or aestheticism," he emphasized in "A Backward Glance O'er Travel'd Roads," his prose epilogue to Leaves of Grass (Comprehensive 574). "I am not literary, my books are not literature," he proclaimed to Horace Traubel (With Walt Whitman 2:460). Whitman detested not only artificial, polite, decorous parlor verse, but all literature and literary analysis which emphasized performance rather than persuasion.

Whitman was a rhetorician. His purpose was to reach people, to "filter and fibre" their blood, to use his "New Bible" to help create the physically perfected and spiritually dilated individuals of an evolved society, the Religious Democracy. "The whole drift of my books is to form a new race of fuller & athletic yet unknown characters, men & women, for the United States to come. I do not write to amuse or furnish fine poetry, so-called . . ." he wrote in 1869 (Notebooks 4:1508). As a rhetorician, Whitman emphasized message, not form. "I do not value literature as a profession," he told Traubel. "I feel about literature what Grant did about war. He hated war. I hate literature. . . . it is a means to an end, that is all there is to it: I never attribute any other significance to it" (With Walt Whitman 1:58). "I don't value the poetry in what I have written so much as the teaching; the poetry is only a horse for the other to ride," he told an unsympathetic critic (qtd. in Thayer 678). From Whitman's perspective, literariness, literary analysis, the "tendency permitted to Literature . . . to magnify & intensify its own technism" (Notebooks 4:1603) not only provided inappropriate criteria for assessing his work but was also a tool used by literary professionals to distort his message and frustrate his purposes. Focus on literariness undermined persuasiveness. Thus he wrote and spoke harshly of the advocates of art for art's sake and of literary professionals—the "disciples of finesse" and the "protagonists of filigree" (With Walt Whitman 2:529). "Literature," he declared, "is big only in one way—when used as an aid in the growth of the humanities—a furthering of the cause of the masses—a means whereby men may be revealed to each other as brothers" (With Walt Whitman 1:283).

Alas, however, literary professionalism, fortified in the twentieth century by an academic sinecure, fully absorbed Whitman and his works into literary literature. It was a fate which he expected and feared with good reason. To keep Whitman salient while the Pound-Eliot-New Criticism crowd were in control, his apologists set aside his rhetorical purposes as irrelevant, or embarrassing, while shifting focus to his literary performance. Assistant professors earning tenure by conducting partitive studies of "Song of Myself" to prove his "craftsmanship" were not the responses Whitman intended! Louis H. Sullivan's architecture, Clarence S. Darrow's social commitment, and Hamlin Garland's provocative writings were. In an era in which deconstruction of the Bible as literature is common, however, it is not surprising that only "our" Whitman the poet rather than Whitman the persuader of personalism survives.

In the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries many men and women did respond appropriately to the supraliterary rhetorical dimensions of Leaves of Grass. Sullivan, Darrow, Garland, and others similarly influenced had an advantage, however. They read the works that Whitman personally honed page by page to his purposes. Today's readers experience Leaves of Grass in editions that are anthologized, introduced, reorganized, shortened, elongated, footnoted, endnoted, edited, and generally overwhelmed with the paraphernalia of literary literature. Whitman's horse is corralled by literariness. Yet, had Whitman been a less skilled writer, and perhaps a better organizer, and Mary Baker Eddy a better writer and less skilled organizer, the places of the two contemporaries in American culture might easily have been reversed.


Jellicorse, John Lee. "Whitman and Modern Literary Criticism." Whitman in Our Season. Ed. B. Bernard Cohen. Hartford: Transcendental Books, 1971. 4–11.

Thayer, William Roscoe. "Personal Recollections of Walt Whitman." Scribner's Magazine 65 (1919): 674–687. Rpt. in Whitman in His Own Time. Ed. Joel Myerson. Detroit: Omnigraphics, 1991. 283–308.

Traubel, Horace. With Walt Whitman in Camden. Vol. 1. Boston: Small Maynard, 1906; Vol. 2. New York: Appleton, 1908; Vol. 4. Ed. Sculley Bradley. Philadelphia: U of Pennsylvania P, 1953.

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.


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