Commentary

Selected Criticism

Title:
"Prairie States, The" (1881)
Author:
Albin, C.D.
Print source:
J.R. LeMaster and Donald D. Kummings, eds., Walt Whitman: An Encyclopedia (New York: Garland Publishing, 1998), reproduced by permission.

Whitman's short poem "The Prairie States" first appeared in the 1881–1882 edition of Leaves of Grass in the "Autumn Rivulets" cluster. One of twenty new poems he added for this edition, "The Prairie States" was inspired by the poet's 1879 trip west, during which he journeyed as far as Colorado. Although the poem is considered one of Whitman's minor works, it nevertheless reveals the celebratory wonder with which he regarded the western landscape and the men and women who erected homes, towns, and cities upon that landscape.

Whitman's tone of celebration is recognizable early in the poem when he lauds the region for its potential as a "newer garden of creation." The allusion to the biblical Garden of Eden is clear, but what follows is not so much a hymn to beauty, innocence, or creative fertility as it is a hymn in praise of population growth. Whitman's western garden will not be a remote and isolated paradise. Instead, it will be a place of human density and diversity, a place capable of drawing millions of people from all corners of the world. These millions will form an interconnected society in which qualities like freedom, law, and thrift shine so brightly they become the crowning virtues of the population.

Whitman's boast about the future of the prairie states is characteristic of his enthusiasm for his steadily expanding nation, but it should not be forgotten that the boast—indeed, the entire poem—turns memorably upon the final four words: "to justify the past." Through this phrase Whitman offers a sober reminder that nothing, not even a "newer garden of creation," springs into existence without an antecedent. The task of future generations will be to "justify," in the many ways the word can be interpreted, that which came before.

Bibliography

Allen, Gay Wilson. The New Walt Whitman Handbook. 1975. New York: New York UP, 1986.

Asselineau, Roger. The Evolution of Walt Whitman: The Creation of a Personality. Trans. Richard P. Adams and Roger Asselineau. Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard UP, 1960.

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

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


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