Selected Criticism

Psychological Approaches
Black, Stephen A.
Print source:
J.R. LeMaster and Donald D. Kummings, eds., Walt Whitman: An Encyclopedia (New York: Garland Publishing, 1998), reproduced by permission.

Given that Whitman made the self his principal poetic topic, it was inevitable that he attracted psychological attention from the first Leaves of Grass on. He insisted that the poems were inseparable from himself, he confided that he created himself by writing poems, and he even dictated the identities of his readers. Nearly all studies of the poetry have been biographical, nearly all biographies have studied the poems to learn of their author, and most questions asked by interpreters and biographers have been psychological questions. Even among the early disciples, speculations about the poet's magnetism and prophetic quality had psychological overtones.

Of books by disciples, the most psychologically interesting is Edward Carpenter's Days with Walt Whitman, the first book to try to understand a mind extremely subtle, complex, and secretive. Carpenter was the first to say that beneath the affirmations of health and self-satisfaction lay something he thought tragic, something unfulfilled in the poet's sexual life. The first scholarly biographer, Emory Holloway, was fascinated by the variety of sexual poems in Leaves of Grass and catalogued their types. By the questions he suggested, and by making documentary material widely available, Holloway opened the door to the full-scale psychological research that followed.

The first critic to make an explicitly psychoanalytic exploration, Jean Catel wrote in 1929 of the poet's growth in a book that shows the influence of the analytic pioneer Wilhelm Stekel. Attentive to problems in the Whitman family, Catel erroneously posited an adolescent Whitman estranged from his family and judged that the young Whitman revealed himself in journalistic writing as a maladjusted failure. Catel believed that during the 1848 New Orleans trip, Whitman discovered a sexual peculiarity, namely that he was by nature autoerotic, and Catel reasoned that this quality lay behind his maladjustment. Writing poetry became Whitman's chief mode of sexual expression; the sexual force of the poems accounts for the transformation of the failing journalist into the great poet. Catel's general point about the poet's autoerotic sexuality was modified by Stephen Black (1975) and followed by Justin Kaplan (1980) and Paul Zweig (1984). Catel believed that writing poetry had therapeutic value for Whitman.

In 1933 the Danish theater critic Frederik Schyberg wrote a somewhat broader Freudian study which argued with Catel's claim that Whitman was autoerotic, positing instead an extremely delayed psychosexual development. Schyberg concluded that Whitman remained identified with his mother throughout his life, and often played a maternal role in poems and in life. Schyberg, like Holloway, studied all the editions of Leaves of Grass, and went much further than Holloway in using changes in the poems to construe the poet's personal development. It is Schyberg who first suggested a psychological crisis occurring before new poems of the third (1860) Leaves of Grass were written. The crisis is reflected in "Out of the Cradle," and "As I Ebb'd with the Ocean of Life," and in the sexual poems of "Calamus," which Schyberg considered unmistakably homoerotic. Schyberg asserted that if Whitman were fully aware of the homoeroticism in the poems he would not have published them. (Whitman seemed surprised and taken aback when an admirer, J.A. Symonds, inquired whether the Calamus poems referred to "the love of man for man" and rejected the inference as "damnable" [Traubel 75–76].) Schyberg regarded the successive revisions and editions as attempts to suppress such unwitting revelations from early editions and to create a picture of a life more unified and idealized than the life actually led.

Psychological thinking amongst literati fell under academic ban during the reign of the New Criticism, and, perhaps by no coincidence, Whitman also went into eclipse. In the 1960s psychological criticism resumed, and a new sense of Whitman began to emerge. Edwin Miller showed why the New Critics had been rendered mute by Leaves of Grass. The poems have meanings that are elusive because they are emotional rather than intellectual. Also, he asserted, the poems have unity undiscovered by the New Critics because it is a psychic unity. Without ignoring conflicts in Whitman's life and psyche, Miller emphasizes the poet's joy, a joy that, like Nietzsche's, takes poet and reader beyond good and evil, beyond tragedy. Opposing a trend that still prevails, Miller asserts the primacy of earliest printed texts of the poems because they stand closest to the originating psychic impulses.

Like Miller, Stephen Black finds the earliest printed texts most interesting psychologically and (usually) most satisfactory aesthetically. Black studies Whitman's creative processes from the standpoint of psychoanalytic ego psychology. Emphasizing that nearly all Whitman's major poems were composed between early 1855 and the end of 1859, he argues that after 1860 Whitman seems unable or unwilling to return to the psychic sources of his poetry. The sources can only be reached by regressions in which Whitman escapes various inhibitions, including conventions of thought and language; therefore, the regressions simultaneously give the poetry its power and originality. Where Miller assumes that Whitman's homoeroticism was conscious and overt from an early age, Black argues that Whitman repressed knowledge of physical homosexual wishes until some crisis occurred in 1857–1859. Possibly the crisis was the very act of writing the "Calamus" poems. Afterwards, the poet was increasingly furtive, never becoming comfortable with the love of either men or women and remaining primarily autoerotic.

Biographies and interpretations of the poems, psychological or otherwise, leave unanswered two questions that have intrigued readers from the beginning: how can someone who seems as ordinary as Whitman become a great poet? And, how can one account for the magnetism that captivated numerous people, many of them far from credulous? David Cavitch, building on Miller and Black, offers a single striking answer to both riddles: Whitman surprises himself with the discovery that an ordinary man may represent everyone else. Cavitch convincingly establishes his thesis that Whitman re-created in his poetic voice and structures the relationships that existed between him and his parents, brothers and sisters, and found his true poetic power in "struggling against his poetry," a struggle that reproduced his "loving conflict with his family" (xii).

The approaches of psychological critics have shown their most direct influence in recent biographies of Whitman by Justin Kaplan and Paul Zweig.


Black, Stephen A. Walt Whitman's Journeys into Chaos. Princeton: Princeton UP, 1975.

Carpenter, Edward. Days with Walt Whitman. London: Allen, 1906.

Catel, Jean. Walt Whitman: la naissance du poète. Paris: Les Editions Rieder, 1929.

Cavitch, David. My Soul and I: The Inner Life of Walt Whitman. Boston: Beacon, 1985.

Holloway, Emory. Whitman: An Interpretation in Narrative. New York: Knopf, 1926.

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

Miller, Edwin Haviland. Walt Whitman's Poetry: A Psychological Journey. Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1968.

Schyberg, Frederik. Walt Whitman. Trans. Evie Allison Allen. New York: Columbia UP, 1951.

Traubel, Horace. With Walt Whitman in Camden. Vol. 1. Boston: Small, Maynard, 1906.

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


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