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.

A notebook entry from the late 1850s suggests the appeal that an array of contemporary, interrelated radical movements—phrenology, mesmerism, spiritualism, and natural therapies—had for Whitman: "the real science is omnient, is nothing less than all sciences, comprehending all the known names, and many unknown" (Notebooks 5:1998). Amidst a world of fragmenting disciplines, each of these pseudosciences laid claim to the compelling nineteenth-century dream that all knowledge was interrelated and unitary and that its doctrines represented a grand synthesis. Purporting to study objective models of natural law, each nevertheless made room for subjective consciousness; each also attempted to forge links between natural law and social theory, between the material and spiritual. Optimistic, visionary, and dynamic, the more radical doctrines of these pseudosciences challenged religious, scientific, medical, sexual, and gender orthodoxies in order to hasten the coming of the City of Regenerated Man.

Many of their publications could be found for sale at the phrenological cabinet of Fowler and Wells in lower Manhattan which Whitman frequented during the 1840s and where in July 1849 L.N. Fowler gave Whitman his now famous cranioscopical examination. Considering its proprietors, Orson Squire Fowler and his brother Lorenzo Niles, made the cabinet into an unofficial clearinghouse for the writings of radical reformers, it is no wonder that they were prepared to risk publishing and distributing the 1855 edition of Leaves of Grass and publishing the 1856 edition. They would have recognized therein, now transformed into poetry, "faint clews" and broader concepts explicitly derived from their own discipline and from the writings of the authors whose books they stocked: Orson Fowler on hereditary descent, parentage, and sexuality; Sylvester Graham on dietary and sexual reform; John Bovee Dods on mesmerism and electrical psychology; Andrew Jackson Davis on spiritualism; Amelia Bloomer on dress reform; Russell Trall and Joel Shew on water cure; and Margaret Fuller on women's rights.

Whitman's exposure to phrenological theory was more systematic and probably more extensive than to the other pseudosciences, and the conclusions he drew from his immersion in phrenology influenced the way he deployed the doctrines of the other pseudosciences in his poetry and prose: that a poet should be richly endowed with the gifts or faculties peculiar to each of the pseudosciences, and that the ensuing poetry should demonstrate these gifts and be grounded in the doctrines of each of the pseudosciences.

In the case of phrenology, Whitman constructed a mythical persona, based in large part on the results of his own phrenological examination, whose splendid physique, superb genealogy, virility, and sound physiology indicated formidable spiritual, moral, and intellectual powers. Poems, in the early editions particularly, reflect Whitman's incorporation of materials central to phrenological thought: the relation of sexuality and hereditary descent to perfection ("Unfolded Out of the Folds"); the generative act to physical and racial amelioration ("A Woman Waits for Me"); and the benevolent and progressive character both of cosmic teleology and human experience and institutions ("Crossing Brooklyn Ferry" and "A Song of the Rolling Earth").

Mesmerism, or animal magnetism, another area of interest to the phrenological Fowlers, premised the existence of a magnetic, electrical ether or fluid called the odic force that linked all phenomena. As a healing therapy, physicians either attempted to effect a cure by manipulating the fluid in a patient's afflicted area using either magnets or, if they possessed vast odic powers, by passing their hands over the body. As a form of stage entertainment, however, mesmerism developed occult overtones: mesmeric operators using their odic powers appeared to control the mind of and even elicit clairvoyant visions from a trance subject. Initially skeptical, Whitman announced his conversion to animal magnetism as early as August 1842 when he asserted that "it reveals at once the existence of a whole new world of truth, grand, fearful, profound, relating to that great mystery, in the shadow of which we live and move" (qtd. in Reynolds 260). Animal magnetism's vocabulary and lore surfaces in much of Leaves of Grass, while magnetic power comprises the constitutive element of the persona.

The persona's electrical "conductors," we learn, "seize every object and lead it harmlessly through me" ("Song of Myself" section 27); charged with an enormous store of vitalizing life force, the persona disseminates curative electricity to his weakened countrymen, as in sections 39, 40, and 41. A resemblance between mesmeric healers and the Christ/healer is evident in such poems as "To You [Whoever you are...]" and "To Him That was Crucified." In the latter, the persona's electrical vitality, in the form of his boundless healing powers of sympathy and friendship as conveyed through his breath and touch, accounts for his purported ability to cheer up and even restore wounded soldiers. And, in "The Sleepers," the healer makes electrical healing pass over diseased sleepers (section 1). The persona's shape-shifting and even sex-changing, in this poem and elsewhere, recall similar changes that operators effected during mesmeric performances on tranced subjects.

The language of the magnetists informs as well Whitman's depiction of sex. The persona's powerful electro-sexuality vivifies all; as the nation's poet and Columbia's lover, he plunges "his seminal muscle" into her, to charge her with vivifying force ("By Blue Ontario's Shore," section 6). In section 21 of "Song of Myself," Whitman takes the magnetic-sexual imagery to another level; here the cosmic persona embraces the "voluptuous" and "prodigal" earth to beget new celestial bodies and animate life. This spermatic trope, so called by Harold Aspiz, has its most sustained development in some of the "Children of Adam" poems and, elsewhere, in "Song of the Answerer," "By Blue Ontario's Shore," and sections 24 and 25 of "Song of Myself." In the latter, nature's sexual "[t]rickling sap" and "soft-tickling genitals" so heighten the persona's awareness of his phallic self that when his own "[s]eas of bright juice suffuse heaven" (section 24), he reaches the climax both of his physiological and poetic/imaginative processes. Such electro-biological lore, including the notion that sperm was the distillation of mind and body, came to Whitman from a potpourri of contemporary sources, including animal magnetism, phreno-magnetism, and phrenology.

Though the various roles played by the Whitman persona—as hypnotist, clairvoyant, visionary seer, and healer—were largely defined by practitioners of animal magnetism, these were also variously present in the newly emerging phenomenon of spiritualism. Surely, spiritualistic séances, where mediums assisted by a "spirit guide" communicated with the spirits of the deceased, did not go unnoticed by a poet whose aim was to demonstrate the interpenetration of the spiritual and material. Whitman reported in the Brooklyn Daily Times in 1857 that the "spiritual movement is 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" (qtd. in Reynolds 263). In the 1855 Preface he included the spiritualist as a lawgiver of the poet. As with mesmerism, Whitman's adaptation of specific spiritualistic systems to his poetry is absent; David Reynolds suggests that Whitman garnered spiritualist ideas from an assortment of sources—the 1844 lectures of Professor George Bush on Emanuel Swedenborg, the idiosyncratic brand propagated by Thomas Lake Harris whose Brooklyn church Whitman most likely attended, and the writings of a leading British Swedenborgian, James John Garth Wilkinson.

Spiritualism lent its authority to Whitman's many optimistic declarations in Leaves of Grass about immortality. As a divine medium, the persona senses in "These I Singing in Spring" that "the spirits of dear friends dead or alive, thicker they come, a great crowd, and I in the middle." In "Mediums" Whitman associates bards with mediums who will "illustrate Democracy and the kosmos"; these same "divine conveyers" will communicate "[c]haracters, events, retrospections, . . . [d]eath, the future," and even what he called "the invisible faith," namely spiritualism. "Apostroph" contains an explicit call to "mediums" to "journey through all The States" and "convey the invisible faith"; and in "These Carols" the persona dedicates his poetic output to "the Invisible World." In "The Mystic Trumpeter," the "ecstatic ghost" of the "dead composer," who hovers unseen in the air and fills the night with "capricious tunes" that recall the past and predict a joyous future, resembles the invisible musicians of séances (sections 1 and 2).

The notion peculiar to Swedenborgianism, which Whitman associated with spiritualism, namely the doctrine of correspondences, constitutes a major component of Whitman's cosmic optimism. In "Starting from Paumanok," Whitman writes, "[H]aving look'd at the objects of the universe, I find there is no one nor any particle of one but has reference to the soul" (section 12), and in "Crossing Brooklyn Ferry" he asserts that "none else is perhaps more spiritual" than the "dumb, beautiful ministers" (section 9). The persona makes similar declarations in "A Song of Joys." Swedenborgian terms are also present in Whitman's poetry: the title of his 1876 poem "Eidólons" is a Swedenborgian term referring to the ultimate spiritual reality that lies behind all material appearances, as are two other companion words: "influx" or "afflatus" (inspiration that comes from the spiritual atmosphere through inhalation) and "efflux" (the wisdom issuing from an inspired subject's exhalation). In "Song of the Open Road" Whitman's persona asserts that the "efflux of the soul is happiness" and curiously links this efflux with the electrical "charge" of the animal magnetists: "Now it [the efflux] flows unto us, we are rightly charged" (section 8).

Whitman's canon also suggests his familiarity with more idiosyncratic outgrowths of Swedenborgianism. The erotic mysticism so powerfully exemplified in section 5 of "Song of Myself," where the contemplation of the personified soul by the poem's "I" leads to the revelation of God, resembles the physical-mystical spirit found in the writings of James John Garth Wilkinson. Elsewhere, Whitman's notebooks tell of his entering into an exultant, visionary trance that closely resembles Andrew Jackson Davis's brand of "traveling clairvoyance," namely Davis's mental travels removed in time and space. In "Song of Myself" the persona's freeing himself of "ties and ballasts" and "skirt[ing] the sierras, my palms cover[ing] continents" (section 33) allows him to communicate with future generations; he does so also in "Crossing Brooklyn Ferry" ("I am with you, you men and women of a generation, or ever so many generations hence" [section 3]). Another area of Whitman's thought also bears Davis's Harmonial stamp, namely the restorative, sexually magnetic powers of nature, appearing in "Song of Myself": "Press close bare-bosom'd night—press close magnetic nourishing night!" (section 21).

Unlike the aforementioned pseudosciences, the lore of pseudomedical practices and various health therapies rarely inspired in Whitman startling imagery and exciting flights of poetic imagination. Rather, they were put to the service of a frankly prescriptive end: he fashioned from his readings in several vitalistic medical theories—Thompsonism, homeopathy, and hydropathy—and from a scattering of other books devoted to health matters, both a persona and images of men and women who, as models of superior physical and moral training, were intended to counteract contemporary fears about the deterioration of America's citizenry. Fowler and Wells carried an extensive stock of books that preached temperance, advocated vegetarianism and hydropathy, and provided instructions about the regulation of diet, swimming, and even ventilation—all measures to ensure mental and physical health. Believing with many of his contemporaries that national regeneration lay in physical culture, Whitman even projected a series of lectures on various aspects of physical culture for young men, lectures that lifted his own lifelong commitment to temperance, bathing, and mild healing therapies to a moral imperative. References to water therapy, being in contact with nature, diet, habits, healthy-mindedness, and positive thinking as health-imparting restoratives are scattered throughout "Song of Myself"; here the persona exudes confidence that his health and cheer can overcome disease, the limitations of death, and impart his own health to his fellows and the nation. In his guise as Adam-hero, Whitman endows the physically and morally superior persona with the potential to found a heroic race; in "Spontaneous Me," "One Hour to Madness and Joy," and "A Woman Waits for Me," the persona acts not only out of humanistic and patriotic fervor, but in response to the Lamarckian urge towards racial improvement. Scenes in Leaves of Grass depicting idealized married life and ecstatic coupling, driven by such eugenic and racial considerations, have their origins in literature of these alternative therapies.

In the final analysis, Whitman's adaptation of these natural therapies is not very different from his adaptation of the other pseudosciences; they all contribute to the prescriptive intent he had for Leaves of Grass—that it could, like all great poetry, transform nations, evolve great societies, inspire the creation of gifted individuals, and point the way to a splendid future.


Aspiz, Harold. "'The Body Electric': Science, Sex, and Metaphor." Walt Whitman Review 24 (1978): 137–142.

____. "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.

____. "Walt Whitman: The Spermatic Imagination." American Literature 56 (1984): 379–395.

____. Walt Whitman and the Body Beautiful. Urbana: U of Illinois P, 1980.

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

Finkel, William L. "Sources of Walt Whitman's Manuscript Notes on Physique." American Literature 22 (1950): 308–331.

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

Reiss, Edmund. "Whitman's Debt to Animal Magnetism." PMLA 78 (1963): 80–88.

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

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

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

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


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