Selected Criticism

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

In his open letter to Emerson, which was attached to the 1856 edition of Leaves of Grass, Whitman confidently anticipated that in a "few years . . . the average annual call for my Poems [will be] ten or twenty thousand copies—more, quite likely" (Comprehensive 731). While such demand was never to be approached during the poet's lifetime, periodic moments such as this of Whitman's ambitious self-projection nevertheless garnered him a popular reputation as an egotist of sorts. His own projects of self-promotion throughout his career—publishing reviews of his own work, writing or controlling the content of his early "biographies"—contributed to this image of Whitman as a proud and self-aggrandizing figure. Yet Whitman's pride, although undeniable, is an unavoidable product and an integral component of his enormous and expansive poetic vision.

In early poems such as "Punishment of Pride" (1841) and "Ambition" (published as "Fame's Vanity" in 1842), Whitman's view of pride is generally as conventional as that of those who would later criticize him for the sensual and arrogant aspects of his verse. By 1855, however, Whitman's vision of both passion and pride had undergone substantial development, a fact he proudly admits in section 21 of "Song of Myself": "I chant the chant of dilation or pride, / We have had ducking and deprecating about enough, / I show that size is only development." This development in Whitman's vision emerged, it seems, out of an epiphany of the psychical immensity of himself and of the physical immensity of his cosmos: "Encircling all, vast-darting up and wide, the American Soul, with equal hemispheres, one Love, one Dilation or Pride" ("Our Old Feuillage").

For Whitman, this "American Soul" necessitated a level of pride equal to the enormous task of an American poetry: "I know perfectly well my own egotism," he admits, "[k]now my omnivorous lines and must not write any less." Here in section 42 of "Song of Myself," Whitman makes clear that he is cognizant of his boastful and bragging nature. More important, however, is that Whitman sees his braggadocio as necessary to the creation of a truly American poetry, democratic in voice yet infused with personal identity and pride.

Whitman's idea for his poetry signals a break from literary ties to Europe, where, for Whitman, the common individual's value had been neglected and his or her pride obfuscated by themes and characters inappropriate to an American vision of self and world. In "A Backward Glance O'er Travel'd Roads," Whitman writes, "Defiant of ostensible literary and other conventions, I avowedly chant 'the great pride of man in himself,' and permit it to be more or less a motif of nearly all my verse. I think this pride indispensable to an American. I think it not inconsistent with obedience, humility, deference, and self-questioning" (Comprehensive 571). Viewed in this positive light, pride—conceived as an exuberant confidence in the grandeur and goodness of both the individual and the cosmos—is inextricable from, and in fact necessary to, Whitman's poetry.

Although in his poetry Whitman often praises himself as the one true bard of both the individual and the nation, he points out that whatever pride he claims for himself, he claims for all humanity; as such, Whitman's pride is inherent in all, and he urges all to discover it in themselves. "These are really the thoughts of all men in all ages and lands," he writes; "they are not original with me, / If they are not yours as much as mine they are nothing, or next to nothing" ("Song of Myself," section 17). Such was Whitman's hope in an age generally ambivalent or hostile toward his work.

Despite a turgid morality, the latter half of the nineteenth century revealed an America exploding with energy and invention, yet haunted by the specter of war. Leaves of Grass was a song of prideful expansiveness—of the world generally and of America specifically. Whitman's nationalistic pride manifested itself most prominently in the early editions of Leaves of Grass. With the advent of the Civil War and the publication of Drum-Taps and Sequel to Drum-Taps, Whitman retained and built upon his national, as well as personal, pride, although the sobering effects of the conflict can be seen in the postbellum poems.

Despite a lowering of key during and after the war, Whitman continued to sing the pride of animate beings as well as inanimate objects. Pride is seen as a creative force, absolutely necessary for accessing the highest beauty and holiness inherent in the individual as well as in the commonest materials of the universe. An evangelist of sorts, Whitman after the Civil War saw himself clearly as a poetic historian of the conflict as well as a hopeful herald of a new world, calling women and men forth to exalt in themselves, their surroundings, and their united freedom.

During the war, Whitman saw young men facing death daily on the most gruesome of terms. Nevertheless, his unflinching gaze into the mystery of death did not falter as he himself approached death. In the final poem before the various annexes of the 1891–1892 Leaves of Grass, Whitman's voice is clear: "I announce uncompromising liberty and equality, / I announce the justification of candor and the justification of pride. . . . I announce an end that shall lightly and joyfully meet its translation" ("So Long!"). Whitman's joyful egotism rings forth as brightly from his deathbed as it did before the war.


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

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

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


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