Selected Criticism

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

The conclusion that optimism was Walt Whitman's dominant attitude is based on the bravado and affirmations of his early journalism and the first two editions of Leaves of Grass, when he was still buoyed by the legacy of the successful war for independence. The American Revolution seemed to prove that the universe was beneficent and historical conditions were malleable and could be changed for the better. By 1860 discouraging political developments had transformed such optimism into a hope that was sometimes desperate. As an attitude toward the future, hope differs from optimism in its larger measure of faith as opposed to expectations based on sensible evidence.

Whitman scholarship has followed the trend of American historians who are taking a darkening view of economic and political realities in antebellum America. Biographies by Gay Wilson Allen and Richard Chase demonstrated that in his family life and newspaper work, Whitman became all too familiar with disease, poverty, and political disorder, casting doubt on earlier views that his enthusiasms were grounded in firsthand experience of Jacksonian progress. Revisionist studies by Betsy Erkkila, M. Wynn Thomas, and David Reynolds have underscored Whitman's disillusionment over postcolonial economic and political developments in the United States. From this perspective, Whitman's bravado now seems less optimistic than strategic or a whistling in the dark, the poignant gesture Kenneth Burke once said he was certain Whitman knew he was making with his poems.

As a point of dispute in cultural criticism, Whitman's optimism has been critiqued from several perspectives. Literary critics look for evidence of Whitman's awareness of human limitation in tragic vision. Intellectual historians examine whether Whitman's ideas serve his own interests or the interests of the dominant classes in capitalistic society. Historians of religion question whether the language of millennialism in Whitman's poems is progressive or apocalyptic. From all three critical perspectives, optimism has seemed to be Whitman's characteristic attitude, but the evidence is often contradictory.

During the crisis decade leading to the American Civil War, for example, Whitman certainly lost confidence in the political process—parties, the press, even the electorate; pessimism became his dominant attitude. Then, late in his life—despite the harsh social criticism of Democratic Vistas—Whitman was again expressing optimism that the American electorate would eventually fulfill the promise of the American Revolution. Such shifting of attitudes, depending upon time and context, complicates generalizations about Whitman's optimism.

Just as Whitman's journalistic writing displays a full range of attitudes from extreme optimism to despair, so do his lyrics. Overall, however, Leaves of Grass displays a consistent tragic stance toward evil, indulging in neither absolute despair nor ill-founded optimism, concludes Henry Alonzo Myers, author of Tragedy: a View of Life. Myers ranks Whitman with Sophocles and Shakespeare as the preeminent tragic poets of world literature. In contrast, F.O. Matthiessen discerns in Whitman's work an optimism justifying W.B. Yeats's remark that Whitman lacks a vision of evil, and R.W.B. Lewis declares Whitman a prototypical American Adam, oblivious to history and preadolescent in his ignorance of human limitation. Discussions of Whitman's optimism have been influenced by Lewis's study, which shifted the focus of critical dispute from tragic vision and the problem of evil to ideology in Whitman's vision of nature.

Whitman's allusions to the Genesis creation story lead to the critical diagnosis that Whitman is mistakenly optimistic about political reform because his view of nature is Edenic and thus presocial, distracting him from a class analysis of oppositional forces in society. In short, like the republicanism of Thomas Jefferson, Whitman's political thought seems pastoral; as ideology, it serves the interests of dominant capitalistic classes by offering nature as an illusionary escape from struggling against exploitation by the social order. However, Whitman's notes on Jean Jaques Rousseau's "Social Contract" support M. Wynn Thomas's conclusion that Whitman uses nature not as an escape from society, but to argue for a specific kind of society—the democracy the American Revolution had supposedly begun. Whitman's Rousseau notes indicate he was attracted to the French philosopher's explanation that societies are formed to restrain self-interest by upholding moral principles that help to resolve conflicts between individuals peacefully. In nature, physical strength and prowess alone determine which creatures "wrest and acquire" what they want (Notebooks 5:1851), a situation that strikes Whitman as one of enslavement, not freedom. He views society as an escape from nature, not the reverse, his Rousseau notes suggest.

Whitman uses the Adam figure in his poems to model naturalness as an alternative to the artificiality he associates with aristocracy, but using the Adam figure to empower political resistance differs from believing in the Adamic innocence of human nature. In newspaper editorials Whitman expressed a contrary view, remarking that since God ordained evil, reformers could not eliminate it from human affairs and that anyone who has covered a police beat understands that the Calvinist notion of inherent evil rings truer than more positive doctrines.

Such evidence—even considering effusive Whitman pronouncements about human potential—suggests that Whitman's language of eugenic and millennial perfectionism in Leaves of Grass should not be interpreted literally. Like the Book of Revelation in the Bible, the millennialism of Whitman's poems may be allegorical. Instead of making literal predictions, the passages in Whitman's poems about perfectionist transformations in coming ages project the fulfillment of human aspirations into an imaginary future, a reading more consistent with metaphorical language for human history in Leaves of Grass. This language is organic and cyclical, not mechanistic, linear, and progressive. It encompasses not just birth and growth, but also death and decay.

At best Whitman seems to envision human progress as a laborious, eternal—oftentimes regressive—spiraling. This vision of human history is not the simple optimism often attributed to the poet. Whitman drew from the religions, sciences, and pseudosciences of his day for poetic language to portray the defeat of human aspirations as delays and thus project hope along quintillions of ages and into the cosmos.


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

Burke, Kenneth. "I, Eye, Ay—Emerson's Early Essay 'Nature': Thoughts on the Machinery of Transcendence." Transcendentalism and Its Legacy. Ed. Myron Simon and Thornton H. Parsons. Ann Arbor: U of Michigan P, 1966. 3–24.

Chase, Richard. Walt Whitman Reconsidered. New York: William Sloane Associates, 1955.

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

Lewis, R.W.B. The American Adam. Chicago: U of Chicago P, 1955.

Matthiessen, F.O. American Renaissance. London: Oxford UP, 1941.

Meyers, Henry Alonzo. Tragedy: A View of Life. Ithaca, N.Y.: Cornell UP, 1956.

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

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

Whitman, Walt. The Gathering of the Forces. Ed. Cleveland Rodgers and John Black. Vol. 1. New York: Putnam, 1920.

____. "Human Nature Under an Unfavorable Aspect." Brooklyn Daily Times 7 October 1858.

____. Notebooks and Unpublished Prose Manuscripts. Ed. Edward F. Grier. 6 vols. New York: New York UP, 1984.


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