Selected Criticism

Popular Culture, Whitman and
Reynolds, David S.
Print source:
J.R. LeMaster and Donald D. Kummings, eds., Walt Whitman: An Encyclopedia (New York: Garland Publishing, 1998), reproduced by permission.

Whitman had deep roots in popular culture. He wrote in "A Song for Occupations" (1856), "The popular tastes and employments tak[e] precedence in poems or anywhere" (section 6). In his period of literary apprenticeship, from 1838 to 1850, he was primarily a writer for the mass audience. During this time he wrote twenty poems, twenty-four short stories, a novel, and countless pieces of journalism. His interest in the themes of sensationalism, death, religion, and reform surfaced early in his periodical writings and reappeared, in revised forms, in his major poetry.

Whitman was weaned in the cut-and-thrust world of penny-press urban journalism, and he noted the extreme popularity of what he called "blood and thunder romances with alliterative titles and plots of startling interest" (Uncollected 2:20). As chief editor of the Brooklyn Daily Eagle and later the Brooklyn Daily Times he accommodated to popular taste by printing horrid stories of crime and violence. Before that, he had reported murders for the New York Tattler and wrote police and coroner's stories for the New York Sun.

Several of his early poems and stories were sensational in a straightforward way, like the plot- and action-driven yellow-covered novels of the day. In his magazine tale "Richard Parker's Widow" (1845), for instance, a maddened woman disinters her husband's coffin, opens it, and embraces and kisses the rotting corpse.

A certain amount of sensationalism runs through Leaves of Grass, suggesting that on some level Whitman was trying to appeal to the predominantly working class readers who consumed such literature. One thinks particularly of the bloody adventure narratives at the heart of "Song of Myself," describing the massacre of the 412 young men and then the bloody sea battle, or of the graphic images scattered throughout his poems, such as the amputated leg that falls horribly into the pail or the mashed fireman or the suicide sprawled on the bloody bedroom floor. Still, Whitman makes every effort in his major poetry to juxtapose sensational images with life-affirming ones, as though tragic occurrences are a natural part of an ongoing cycle of life and death.

His revised treatment of sensationalism was linked to a revised treatment of death. Whitman started out largely as a writer of gloom and skepticism, in the vein of popular poets like William Cullen Bryant and Lydia H. Sigourney. In one early poem, "The Love That Is Hereafter" (1840), he writes that since on earth there is "[n]ought but wo," the heart must "look above, / Or die in dull despair" (Early 9). In "Each Has His Grief" (1840) he points out that "All, all know care" and that since death ends human agony, none should fear "the coffin, the pall's dark gloom" (Early 16–17). This kind of lachrymose writing filled popular periodicals.

Over time Whitman's almost nihilistic fear of death was largely alleviated by his exposure to two popular developments of the late 1840s: chemical science and spiritualism. Chemical scientists such as Justus Liebig introduced an explanation for the recombination of atoms in an eternal cycle of decay and regeneration. Whereas in his early poetry Whitman had expressed terror that everything physical must decay, in Leaves of Grass decay creates new life through a ceaseless exchange of atoms. A part of his poetic mission was the coinage of fresh metaphors to communicate this democratic exchange of physical substances, such as the grass as dark hair growing from the roofs of pink mouths or the image of the corpse as good manure.

Whitman also felt the direct influence of spiritualism, which surfaced in 1848 and spread with amazing rapidity, gaining millions of adherents. Spiritualism was nineteenth-century America's most influential movement challenging the idea of the finality of death. By 1857 Whitman could note in the Daily Times that there were some three to five million spiritualists in America and that the movement was "blending itself in many ways with society, in theology, in the art of healing, in literature, and in the moral and mental character of the people of the United States" (Brooklyn Daily Times, 26 June 1857). One of the things it blended with was his poetry. His constant affirmations of immortality through his poetry were linked to spiritualism, as when he wrote, "I know I am deathless . . . I laugh at what you call dissolution" ("Song of Myself," section 20). Although Whitman was never a card-carrying spiritualist, he did befriend spiritualists, attended séances at least twice, and actually wrote a poem about immortality he said was inspired by a talk with a spiritualist. On some level, he wished to be identified with this popular movement. In a self-review of the 1855 edition he wrote of himself as poet: "He is the true spiritualist. He recognizes no annihilation, or death or loss of identity" ("Walt" 19).

Just as science and spiritualism helped him overcome his earlier fears of death, so certain religious developments of the 1850s expanded and intensified his philosophical vision. The expressions of religion and morality in Whitman's early magazine writings were largely conventional. Visionary tales like "The Angel of Tears" (1842) and "The Love of Eris: A Spirit Record" (1844) and moral stories like "A Legend of Life and Love" (1842) and "The Shadow and the Light of a Young Man's Soul" (1848) were staidly pious works that accorded with the benign liberal Protestantism permeating much popular fiction and poetry of the time. The rise of Harmonialism and Swedenborgianism between 1848 and 1854 brought to the fore new kinds of mysticism and spiritual eroticism that Whitman would experiment with in Leaves of Grass. His outlook in some ways corresponded with that of the era's leading Harmonialist, Andrew Jackson Davis. Several things Davis popularized—mesmeric healing, trance writing, and mental time-space travel through what Davis called "traveling clairvoyance"—were manifested in Whitman's poetry. Small wonder that the 1855 edition of Leaves of Grass received a long, positive review in the Harmonial magazine The Christian Spiritualist.

Closely allied to Harmonialism was Swedenborgianism, another popular movement that affected Whitman as he made the transition from periodical writer to poet. Swedenborgianism, which became widely diffused through American culture after 1848, was a religious movement that showed how the erotic and the mystical could be combined. In the 1850s Whitman became close to several people active in Swedenborgian circles, discussing some of them, such as Thomas Lake Harris and James John Garth Wilkinson, in his notebooks. In a Brooklyn Daily Times article of 1858 he reviewed the Swedenborgian movement in America and said Swedenborg would have "the deepest and broadest mark upon the religions of future ages here, of any man that ever walked the earth" (Uncollected 2:18).

There was an eroticism, even a kind of homoeroticism, intrinsic to Swedenborgian worship. Swedenborg had called God the Divine Man, or Homo Maximus, with the so-called highest heaven extending from the Divine Man's head down to the neck, the middle heaven from the breast to the loins, the lowest from the feet to the soles and the shoulder to the fingers. Whitman echoed this body-specific view when he addressed God in a poem as follows: "thou, the Ideal Man . . . Complete in body and dilate in spirit, / Be thou my God" ("Gods") or when in the 1855 version of "Song of Myself" he called God "a loving bedfellow [who] sleeps at my side all night and close on the peep of the day" (section 3). Whitman used the Swedenborgian words "influx" and "efflux" in Leaves of Grass several times. More important, he fused intense religiosity with body-specific mysticism, as in the famous section 5 of "Song of Myself," where his persona is pictured lying with his soul on the transparent summer morning.

In his apprentice writings Whitman endorsed many popular reforms. Early on, his reform was very much anti: anti-drinking, anti-capital punishment, anti-tobacco, and so forth. His temperance novel Franklin Evans (1842), which he emphasized was "written for the mass," sold some twenty thousand copies with its diverting episodes illustrating the nefarious operations of the so-called Liquor Fiend (Early 127). To some degree, this "anti" voice is heard even in his mature poetry, as when he denounced in his poems the "putridity of gluttons or rum-drinkers" or the "privacy of the onanist," ("Song of Prudence") or when he wrote, "No diseas'd person, no rum drinker, or venereal taint is permitted here" ("Song of the Open Road," section 10).

More characteristically, though, his poetry made affirmative statements that reveal the influence of positive health reforms of the day, particularly those popularized by the publishing firm of Fowler and Wells, distributor of the first edition of Leaves of Grass and publisher of the second. In particular, the Fowlers's popular versions of phrenology and physiology contributed to his outlook. The Fowlers called for frank, open treatment of the body and sexuality. They also advised keeping the brain and other bodily functions in equilibrium. Theirs was a holistic outlook that emphasized maintaining balance in every aspect of physical and mental being. Anything that threatened this balance could cause insanity or disease. The healer-persona of Whitman's poetry was directly linked to the Fowlers's notion of health. Whitman wrote that the poet was the one in perfect equilibrium, the one to whom the diseased or troubled could look for help.

Indeed, Whitman wrote Leaves of Grass largely because he thought the nation itself lacked equilibrium and needed immediate help. The political crisis of the 1850s, in which the Whig party collapsed and the Democratic party gave itself over to proslavery forces, made him now view social rulers as corrupt beyond hope. His anti-authoritarian position was expressed in four political protest poems of 1850: "Resurgemus," "Blood-Money," "Dough-Face Song," and "The House of Friends." Establishing a whole new tone that anticipated the bracingly rebellious moments in Leaves of Grass, these poems adopted the kind of gothicized, subversive rhetoric that had been popularized by best-selling working class writers like George Lippard.

Whitman now thought redemption could be found only in average people. Among his models for the brashly independent but fundamentally sound American, he turned to the Bowery b'hoy, a figure of urban street culture who had been mythologized in popular plays and novels. Whitman's poetic persona as "one of the roughs" reflected the defiance and hearty good nature of this popular figure.

The imminent unraveling of the United States after the passage in May 1854 of the Kansas-Nebraska Act drove him to create a unifying poetic document that brought together the diverse, sometimes contradictory cultural images under one literary roof. He offered his poetry as a gesture of healing and togetherness to a nation on the brink of war.


Reynolds, David S. Beneath the American Renaissance: The Subversive Imagination in the Age of Emerson and Melville. New York: Knopf, 1988.

____. "From Periodical Writer to Poet: Whitman's Journey Through Popular Culture." Periodical Literature in Nineteenth-Century America. Ed. Kenneth M. Price and Susan Belasco Smith. Charlottesville: UP of Virginia, 1995. 35–50.

____. Walt Whitman's America: A Cultural Biography. New York: Knopf, 1995.

Whitman, Walt. The Early Poems and the Fiction. Ed. Thomas L. Brasher. New York: New York UP, 1963.

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

____. Leaves of Grass: A Textual Variorum of the Printed Poems. Ed. Sculley Bradley, Harold W. Blodgett, Arthur Golden, and William White. 3 vols. New York: New York UP, 1980.

____. The Uncollected Poetry and Prose of Walt Whitman. 1921. Ed. Emory Holloway. 2 vols. Gloucester, Mass.: Peter Smith, 1972.

____. "Walt Whitman and His Poems." In Re Walt Whitman. Ed. Horace L. Traubel, Richard Maurice Bucke, and Thomas B. Harned. Philadelphia: McKay, 1893. 13–21.

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


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