Selected Criticism

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

Walt Whitman's growing interest from the late 1840s to the mid-1850s in the newly-emerging science of phrenology, and the details of his business association with the phrenological cabinet of Fowler and Wells during this period, have been thoroughly documented. Early in 1846 he had clipped and heavily underlined an article from the American Review entitled "Phrenology: A Socratic Dialogue." Later in that same year Whitman reviewed J.G. Spurzheim's Phrenology, or the Doctrine of Mental Phenomena (1834), the first of the several favorable reviews on books devoted to phrenology that he was to write for the Brooklyn Daily Eagle. His growing interest in phrenology and his confidence that this was a legitimate field of study are evident in the brief notices he wrote of newly published phrenological works for the Eagle. Their subject matter ranged widely—from an exposition of the general principles of phrenology (J.G. Spurzheim's Phrenology, or the Doctrine of the Mental Phenomena) to a study of the relation of the body to the mind (George Moore, The Use of the Body in Relation to the Mind), to marriage (Lorenzo Niles Fowler, Marriage: Its History and Ceremonies); others that he noticed treated health and education from a similar phrenological perspective. In the meantime, notebooks from these formative years show Whitman familiarizing himself with the technical jargon of phrenology, copying out excerpts from phrenological works (most notably, George Combe's Lectures on Phrenology) and clipping articles to save, including three from the American Phrenological Journal. He also took a more direct step to acquaint himself with phrenology when on 16 July 1849 he presented himself at the phrenological cabinet of Fowler and Wells at 131 Nassau Street for a head reading. The impetus that brought him there can only be guessed at: acting on his interest in heredity and genealogy, he may have wanted to meet Orson Fowler who, in Hereditary Descent, mentioned a long-lived ancestor, John Whitman; or he may have been drawn to these men whose interests, judging from the notes and clippings Whitman was steadily accumulating on matters related to physique, health, water cure, and temperance, so nearly accorded with his own. Or, as an aspiring poet, he may simply have come to believe, as scientific fact, that the ideal poet needed an ideal phrenology and he wanted confirmation of his own ambitions. Lorenzo Niles Fowler's reading of Whitman was so astonishing that Whitman could only conclude that nature emphatically chose him for the profession of poet, more so than Oliver Wendell Holmes, William Cullen Bryant, Nathaniel Parker Willis, or Fitz-Greene Halleck, all of whose phrenological endowments were conspicuously less developed. That it would have impressed nineteenth-century devotees of phrenology may account for the fact that he published its results five times during his lifetime.

During the ensuing years leading up to the first edition of Leaves of Grass, Whitman's ties with the firm of Fowler and Wells grew close, seemingly inspired by personal friendship and maintained by mutual admiration and intellectual sympathies. Around 1850 and 1851, in addition to other activities, Whitman became a bookseller whose stock included some Fowler and Wells imprints; and four years later, in November 1855, Whitman was listed as a "voluntary correspondent" when he published an article in a Fowler and Wells newspaper, Life Illustrated; this position changed to staff writer in April 1856 and he contributed a series titled "New York Dissected."

Most importantly, Fowler and Wells published, advertised, and sold the 1855 edition of Leaves of Grass and published the second edition. Whitman's close association with the firm paid dividends: it extended to Whitman an enviable opportunity, beginning with the 28 July 1855 issue, to promote his poetry by publishing self-reviews and puffs of Leaves of Grass in Life Illustrated. As its publisher and distributor, Fowler and Wells actively promoted Whitman's volume: it listed Whitman's volume for sale at the Phrenological Depot in an ad that ran in the New York Tribune from 6 July 1855 and sporadically thereafter through February 1856; published Whitman's joint review of Tennyson's Maud and Leaves of Grass, titled "An English and American Poet," in the October 1855 issue of the American Phrenological Journal; and sent out review copies, among them, presumably, the one that led Emerson to write the famous congratulatory letter Whitman was to use unabashedly in furthering his career, and others to the firm's representatives in England, a move that brought him to the attention of the British public.

The Depot's involvement in the 1856 edition was more muted, however; though Fowler and Wells published this edition, it withheld its imprint from the inside cover, perhaps because it had enough controversy in its championing of a host of unpopular reforms—among them, sex—without being too prominently associated with an edition that included the likes of "A Woman Waits for Me" and "Spontaneous Me." Nevertheless, the 16 August 1856 issue of Life Illustrated carried an announcement of its anticipated publication of the second edition, followed this with an advertisement on 11 September and included a leaf at the end of the published volume that listed agents in several cities in this country and abroad where the volume could be purchased. The volume sold poorly and relations between the poet and the phrenologists rapidly cooled. By July 1857 Whitman declared that "Fowler & Wells are bad persons for me.—They retard my book . . ." (Correspondence 1:44), a turn of events probably encouraged by Samuel R. Wells, the firm's chief publishing officer. Ironically, their like-minded views about liberalizing sexual attitudes had driven the two parties apart.

Though his physical ties with the phrenologists were severed, Whitman's intellectual and spiritual ties to them were to remain intact through his lifetime. As late as 1888 he said of phrenology to Horace Traubel: "I guess most of my friends distrust it—but then you see I am very old fashioned—I probably have not got by the phrenology stage yet" (Traubel 385). He could say so with good reason, because he built a career by fulfilling the promise of his phrenological analysis and by drawing inspiration and subject matter from this pseudoscience's doctrines.

From the details of Lorenzo Fowler's "Phrenological Notes on W. Whitman," Whitman constructed the concept of the cosmically chosen poet-prophet in his poetry, self-reviews, and prose essays from which he never varied in his lifetime. The features attributed to the ideal poet in the 1855 Preface (and found by Fowler to be highly developed in Whitman) can be readily converted into phrenological jargon—"fondness for women and children" (amativeness and philoprogenitiveness), "a perfect sense of the oneness of nature" (sublimity)—while "large hope . . . alimentiveness and destructiveness" are themselves phrenological propensities. Told that he was "undoubtedly descended from the soundest and hardiest stock" (Hungerford 363), Whitman created both for himself and the poet-prophet an impeccable family lineage. In "Song of Myself" the poet asserts: "Before I was born out of my mother generations guided me, / My embryo has never been torpid, nothing could overlay it" (section 44). Described by Fowler as having a "grand physical constitution" himself (qtd. in Hungerford 363), Whitman in the Preface assigned "the soundest organic health" to the poet-prophet. In short, the greatest poet "is complete in himself," much the same conclusion Fowler drew from his examination of Whitman.

The allure of phrenology was as compelling to Whitman as it was to a host of prominent and respectable nineteenth-century figures. From its theory that the mind is a composite of thirty-seven independent faculties and powers, each one governed by a corresponding organ located in an identifiable region of the brain, phrenology offered an orderly exposition of the organization of mankind's mind and body and the laws of nature; it also asserted the innate goodness of man and the indefinite improvability of human institutions. As a consequence, it figured prominently in the major social issues of this period: education, health reform, human sexuality, eugenics, religion, political speculation, and philosophy. Contemporaneous, even daringly liberal, yet intelligible, practical, and seemingly scientifically based, phrenology's appeal was considerable, particularly so for an aspiring poet with a limited formal education.

Some of Whitman's individual poems reflect the presence of explicitly phrenological doctrine. For instance, the structure and content of "There was a Child Went Forth" depict the systematic and progressive exercising by the poem's young persona of different groups of phrenological faculties as he grows to triumphant maturity. His growth is enhanced by the poem's superior mother from whom he inherits his first-rate physical and mental organization. "Faces" is also structured according to and informed by phrenological (and physiognomical) doctrine; the final section, with its image of the deific grandmother who looks upon her gifted progeny, conveys Whitman's own optimistic vision about the creation's goodness and the latent perfection inherent in all people. This eugenic material emerges as the keynote in "Unfolded Out of the Folds." Using "unfold" as a synonym for evolution or upward spiraling, Whitman fuses the emergence of the physically and spiritually superior child, whose emotional, physical, and intellectual attributes are inherited from superior parents, with the emergence of the Great Republic and, beyond that, with successive unfoldings of the soul to eternity.

The issues implicitly and explicitly raised in the above poems—the role of women, education, eugenics, sexuality, health, social reform, progress, millennialism—are less systematically presented throughout Whitman's canon, but are nevertheless there. It should be added, however, that the phrenologists were eclectic, much as were the other pseudo-scientists, and were prone to draw on and adapt to their own purposes a rich potpourri of nineteenth-century ideas, hopes, philosophical theories, and assumptions related to the ancient dream of renovating mankind and its institutions. Thus the attempt to assign phrenological influence to specific passages is often problematical. However, the presence of phrenological content goes far in accounting for Whitman's poetic origins and may well have been at least as important in bringing him to "a boil" as was Emerson.


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

Aspiz, Harold. "Educating the Kosmos: 'There Was a Child Went Forth.'" American Quarterly 18 (1966): 655–666.

____. "A Reading of Whitman's 'Faces.'" Walt Whitman Review 19 (1973): 37–48.

____. "Unfolding the Folds." Walt Whitman Review 12 (1966): 81–87.

Davies, John D. Phrenology: Fad and Science: A 19th-Century Crusade. New Haven: Yale UP, 1955.

Hungerford, Edward. "Walt Whitman and His Chart of Bumps." American Literature 2 (1931): 350–384.

Kaplan, Justin. Walt Whitman: A Life. New York: Simon and Schuster, 1980.

Stern, Madeleine B. Heads & Headlines: The Phrenological Fowlers. Norman: U of Oklahoma P, 1971.

Traubel, Horace. With Walt Whitman in Camden. Vol. 1. New York: Appleton, 1906.

Wallace, James K. "Whitman and Life Illustrated: A Forgotten 1855 Review of Leaves." Walt Whitman Review 17 (1971): 135–138.

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

Wrobel, Arthur. "A Poet's Self-Esteem: Whitman Alters His 'Bumps.'" Walt Whitman Review 17 (1971): 129–135.

____. "Whitman and the Phrenologists: The Divine Body and the Sensuous Soul." PMLA 89 (1974): 17–23.


Published Works | In Whitman's Hand | Life & Letters | Commentary | Resources | Pictures & Sound

Support the Archive | About the Archive

Distributed under a Creative Commons License. Matt Cohen, Ed Folsom, & Kenneth M. Price, editors.