Commentary

Selected Criticism

Title:
Realism
Author:
Dean, Thomas K.
Print source:
J.R. LeMaster and Donald D. Kummings, eds., Walt Whitman: An Encyclopedia (New York: Garland Publishing, 1998), reproduced by permission.

Although entrenched in the "American Renaissance," Whitman wrote through the period of American realism. Although his poetic project is squarely romantic, and although realism is associated more with fiction than poetry, facets of Whitman's artistic, social, and political philosophies bear striking affinities with realism. Warner Berthoff even suggests that Whitman inspired the realists' theories of realistic representation, their ideals of a democratic literature, and their enthusiasm for the language of the common person.

Whitman's technique of cataloging particulars is similar to the realists' attempts to capture the empirical detail of "real" existence. Interest in dense surface detail is not surprising in latter nineteenth-century America with the rise of technology, especially photography, which provided an unprecedented ability to reproduce the world with mechanical accuracy. Whitman was fascinated with photography, but both he and the realists were interested in subjective beauty and significance, not just linguistic photographs. Among the realists, Henry James's theory of organicism in The Art of Fiction (1888) best expresses the ways in which depths of truth emerge out of surface detail.

Creating democracy is arguably the core of both Whitman's and the realists' work and the end of their technique. As Paul Zweig notes, for both Whitman and later realists like Frank Norris and Theodore Dreiser (and William Dean Howells, too), the United States contained democratic possibilities unfilled. A decline in kindliness toward one's fellows led to moral failures of the likes of Howells's Silas Lapham; Whitman would call this necessary fellow-feeling "adhesiveness," especially in the "Calamus" poems (1860). As the century progressed, when beliefs in determinism grew, the realists and later the naturalists became more pessimistic about a benevolent America, yet all held to belief in a kind universe, as exemplified in the power of the wheat in Norris's The Octopus (1901).

Perhaps the most important literary technique contributing to an American democratic art is the common person's plain language. Whitman is well-noted for celebrating the "divine average," even through later works like Democratic Vistas (1871), written at the height of realism. An American indigenous voice, originating in the speech of the democratic individual, devoid of excessive ornamentation and eschewing a romanticized past, assisted readers in confronting reality according to the likes of Whitman and the realists. This theory of the representation of the common person in literature, expressed in works like Howells's Criticism and Fiction (1891) and Hamlin Garland's Crumbling Idols (1894), was put into practice in the use of vernacular. Whitman and Twain especially share the immediacy of a first-person native voice, as well as the political point of view underlying the vernacular style advocating egalitarianism.

It is surprising, though, how little Whitman and the realists encountered and commented upon each other (with the exception of Garland). Howells encountered Whitman only three brief times, not even mentioning these meetings in writing until 1895 in an article on literary New York, which mostly puzzled over the paradox of Whitman's gentle nature and his "uncouth" work. Henry James's review of Drum-Taps (1865) is notorious for its revulsion toward Whitman's poetry, dubbing it obvious, shallow, and self-aggrandizing. Yet in 1898, James finds Whitman's posthumously published letters to Peter Doyle in Calamus "positively delightful" (260). Most critics have puzzled over this conversion, but Eric Savoy has recently read it as a conflict between affiliation and detachment: James's flight from and self-affirmation of his own homosexuality, manifested in rejection of homosexual writers early in his career and acceptance at the turn of the century. Perhaps Whitman's most direct influence on a major writer of the realistic period is in issues of sexuality rather than literary technique or political philosophy.

Bibliography

Berthoff, Warner. The Ferment of Realism: American Literature, 1884–1919. New York: Free Press, 1965.

Folsom, Ed. Walt Whitman's Native Representations. Cambridge: Cambridge UP, 1994.

Hindus, Milton, ed. Walt Whitman: The Critical Heritage. London: Routledge and Kegan Paul, 1971.

Howells, William Dean. "First Impressions of Literary New York." Walt Whitman: The Critical Heritage. Ed. Milton Hindus. London: Routledge and Kegan Paul, 1971. 246–247.

James, Henry. "Henry James on Walt Whitman. 1865." Walt Whitman: The Critical Heritage. Ed. Milton Hindus. New York: Barnes and Noble, 1971. 110–114.

____. "Henry James on Walt Whitman. 1898." Walt Whitman: The Critical Heritage. Ed. Milton Hindus. New York: Barnes and Noble, 1971. 259–260.

Marx, Leo. The Pilot and the Passenger. New York: Oxford UP, 1988.

Savoy, Eric. "Reading Gay America: Walt Whitman, Henry James, and the Politics of Reception." The Continuing Presence of Walt Whitman. Ed. Robert K. Martin. Iowa City: U of Iowa P, 1992. 3–15.

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


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