Selected Criticism

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

Whitman once complained to Horace Traubel, companion and note-taker of his final years, that people "speak of the Leaves as wanting in religion. But this was not, Whitman emphasized, his "view of the book—and I ought to know." Leaves of Grass was "the most religious book among books: crammed full of faith" (Traubel 372). This retrospective assessment was not a whimsical recollection, for Whitman made such assertions throughout his career. Some early readers and critics were in ardent agreement, considering Whitman the prophet of a new religion that would inform the future culture of the United States and eventually the world. Subsequent academic criticism, while rightfully freeing itself from such intemperate claims, has, nevertheless, frequently lost sight of the prophetic and mystical dimensions of Whitman's intention and achievement. This essay will indicate important religious influences that fed into Whitman's conception of his poetic project, outline the structure and principal beliefs of his world view, and suggest some guidelines for interpreting Leaves as a religious text.

A version of evangelical Protestantism permeated the social life and intellectual discourse of the culture in which Whitman matured. In contrast to Catholicism, or even Episcopal and Lutheran forms of Protestantism, which emphasize ritual and the authority of the church hierarchy, the dominant Christian culture of this period was Bible-centered. Sermons and religious tracts, while less influential than in the colonial period, were still important forms of popular literature; and school books, imaginative writings, political orations, and journalism routinely espoused Christian beliefs and values. Not surprisingly, such a culture nurtured writers who instinctively resorted to the use of biblical materials. Even though Whitman wanted to use his poetry to lay the foundation for a post-Christian cultural order, he nevertheless sometimes found it useful to draw upon biblical symbols, and as Gay Wilson Allen has demonstrated, Whitman's style was greatly influenced by the syntactic forms and sonorous rhythms of the King James Bible. More important, from his understanding of the Bible's central role in Christian culture, Whitman aspired to formulate a new order of poetry that would serve the same functions the Bible had in an earlier age.

Antebellum American society was also notable in that it had no state-sponsored church and was officially committed to religious freedom, thus providing fertile ground for a large number of denominations and sects. This lack of governmental support and competitive context, in combination with a rapidly increasing and westward-migrating population constantly in need of new churches, meant that the various religious bodies were not only dependent upon their own resources but also had a clear need for a committed and active laity. At the same time, Christianity in the United States had theological resources that could be drawn upon to meet these needs. For example, many of the nation's religious groups, including the large Congregational and Presbyterian denominations, held to a Reformed theology that called for spiritually active Christians who would make a personal commitment to Christ. These same denominations had also cultivated a tradition of viewing the United States as a new Israel with the special mission of creating a truly Christian society. This confluence of the institutional needs, opportunities, and theological traditions of the churches led to the formation of a dynamic Christianity which sought to develop organizations and practices (for example, Bible and tract societies, revivals, and temperance and abolitionist movements) for disseminating the biblical message, recruiting new members, and creating a Christian nation. It was, in short, a Christianity that attempted to inculcate its members with a high degree of moral earnestness and social engagement. This cultural milieu helped to nurture a literature, ranging from the prophetic writings of Emerson and Whitman to the domestic fiction of Harriet Beecher Stowe, that sought to effect the spiritual renovation of both individual readers and the larger society.

The material and religious context of the times also nurtured several distinctive forms of religious enthusiasm. One of these was a combination of progressive millennialism and religious nationalism which defined the United States as the primary agent for effecting God's will in history. Endowed with a unique combination of blessings—Protestant Christianity, political democracy, vast geographical expanse, burgeoning population, and material abundance—God's new Israel was ordained to advance toward a millennial state in which the spirit of Christ would rule the hearts of the people and govern their social institutions. A second type of enthusiasm, known as "perfectionism," maintained that individual Christians could attain to a state of complete sanctification, and radical perfectionists even asserted themselves to be free from Christian precepts and civil law. A third, "illuminism," held that it was possible to attain to more profound understandings of previous revelation or to arrive at fresh revelation. Given the existence of these theological emphases, it is appropriate to view Whitman's call for a future religious democracy, a citizenry of spiritual athletes who would "think lightly of the laws" ("Song of the Broad-Axe," section 5), and a new order of religious poetry as post-Christian versions of themes that pervaded the prevailing Protestantism.

In addition to a general exposure to the surrounding Christian culture, Whitman also had direct contact with the churches of his day. The Whitman family were not church members, but Whitman went to Sunday school for periods of his childhood, and he also attended and reported on the services of various churches while working as a newspaperman in the 1840s. Yet Whitman never joined a church, and there is no evidence that he ever subscribed to a Christian world view. This indifference can be attributed to other influences upon Whitman's religious development, for in his youth and early adulthood he was also exposed to various marginal religious discourses which were critical of Christianity and exalted the religious imagination as the source of fresh revelation.

From his father Whitman inherited an interest in the deism of Count Volney, Thomas Paine, and Frances Wright, and throughout his adulthood his writings consistently give expression to several deistic themes: a denial of Christ's divinity, a distrust of clergy and organized religion, a concern to reconcile science and faith, and an openness to non-Christian religions. The deistic concern to extract a common-denominator faith from the various religions of the world also encouraged some nineteenth-century United States religious figures (chiefly first- and second-generation transcendentalists such as Ralph Waldo Emerson, Theodore Parker, James Freeman Clarke and Samuel Johnson) to entertain the possibility that the comparative study of religion might contribute to the creation of a new syncretic or universal religion. This approach to world religions is evident in Whitman's notes on religion, which frequently present earlier and existing religions as rudimentary expressions of a more perfect future faith. It is also clearly reflected in passages in the Leaves, such as sections 41 and 43 of "Song of Myself," in which he speaks of drawing upon the "rough deific sketches" of previous religions and asserts that his vision encloses "worship ancient and modern and all between ancient and modern."

Whitman's childhood also furnished him with an understanding of the human soul as a faculty of religious prophecy. Whitman's paternal grandfather and his parents were admirers of the Long Island Quaker prophet, Elias Hicks, who in 1829 became the leader of a faction of dissenting ("Hicksite") Quakers. Hicks extended the Quaker doctrine of the soul's inner light beyond the bounds of Christian orthodoxy by proclaiming, much as Emerson would in "The Divinity School Address," that the religious imagination of the individual believer was the source of religious revelation and thus of higher authority than the Bible. Hicks's abiding significance for Whitman is indicated by the fact that in his old age Whitman composed a brief biographical sketch that praises him for pointing to "the fountain of all naked theology, all religion, all worship . . . namely in yourself" (Prose Works 2:627).

However, in the years prior to the 1855 edition of the Leaves, when Whitman was conceiving of his epic project, it was the image of the poet as prophet projected by the writings of Thomas Carlyle and Emerson that gave crucial shape to his poetic identity. Whitman was familiar with Carlyle's impassioned call for an inspired poet-prophet, and he read various of Emerson's essays such as "Nature," "The Divinity School Address," and "The Poet," which Americanized Carlyle, transforming the nation's post-revolutionary demand for a national literature into a call for fresh revelation and defining the poet as a religious prophet. As Whitman aspired to forge a new myth for the modern world, Emerson's poetics provided him with helpful guidance and, more important, needed psychological support for his ambitious sense of vocation.

Taken out of its historical setting, Whitman's effort to found a new religion can easily seem naive if not pathological, and criticism has often found it convenient to ignore the poetry's prophetic claims. However, properly situated within the theological traditions, intense enthusiasm, and critical ferment of antebellum religious culture, Whitman's grand aspirations appear to be an astonishing but nevertheless understandable response to the intellectual and spiritual imperatives of his age. Whitman strove to muster the requisite intellectual integrity and imaginative power to forge a new religious vision, and his poetry is best understood as an attempt to outline the beginnings of a post-Christian myth that would give religious depth and ideological coherence to the democratic and scientific culture developing in the United States.

Although Whitman himself never achieved a fully elaborated religious vision (nor perhaps ever thought of this as a possible or desirable objective) nor a completely realized formal design for his ever growing book of poems, yet prior to 1855 he did formulate a basic world view, sufficiently general to accommodate new historical events (for example, the Civil War) and additional themes and changes in emphasis, which provided a coherent intellectual structure for the first and all subsequent editions of his poetry. Leaves is informed by a theistic cosmology that is, in gross outline, a fusion of transcendentalism, mid-nineteenth-century evolutionary science and the millennial religious nationalism of the period. Like the transcendentalists, Whitman believed that the external world was immanent with spirit and that this immanent spirituality provided the basis for a system of correspondences between natural and historical facts and the human soul. In addition, drawing upon contemporary ideas of progress and the emerging evolutionary sciences, he imagined the evolution of nature and the course of history to be the manifestation of divine immanence ascending toward reunion with its transcendent source.

Consistent with his process theism, Whitman conceived of history as the human race's ongoing struggle for freedom and development (for example, see "To Thee Old Cause" and "To a Certain Cantatrice"), and he envisioned the United States as playing the lead role in the climactic scene of this long historical drama. Whitman felt that America's political institutions and general prosperity had created a situation in which, for the first time in history, the masses were freed from political and material oppression. Now what was needed was a new order of poetry which would deliver them from all forms of psychological repression. If this were achieved, the U.S. citizenry would become fully developed women and men living in what Whitman termed a "religious democracy." Then the United States would have realized its divinely ordained mission and history would have attained to its grand culmination.

Accordingly, many of the most important themes in Leaves are designed to emancipate the human subject and promote his or her development. After announcing himself as a saving prophet in "Song of Myself," Whitman immediately leads the reader through two sequences: "Children of Adam," designed to sanctify the body and liberate heterosexual passion; and "Calamus," designed to liberate men from emotional repression, call forth new levels of male intimacy, and unite the soul with God. In addition, to free the working class masses from a sense of shame and social inferiority, Whitman stresses the absolute value of the human soul as the basis for affirming a democratic equality and the inherent dignity and unlimited potential of all human beings. Most important of all, to deliver his readers from the fear that life has no ultimate meaning, he presents a vision of a loving God who not only provides for evolutionary and historical progress but also personal immortality and the soul's ongoing development in the afterlife.

To understand Whitman's religious vision, it is necessary to keep certain interpretive norms in mind. One is that Leaves should be read, as Whitman always insisted, not as an anthology of individual poems but as a unity. To do so reveals not only a coherent world view but also a special religious vocabulary. In articulating his post-Christian vision, Whitman uses some traditionally religious (but not specifically Christian) terms such as "God" or "soul." But in addition he develops his own religious lexicon by subtly investing many terms, for example, "real," "secret," "love," "aroma," "pride," "pine," "electric" and "want," with a level of religious meaning. Whitman also consistently exploits the symbolic potential of certain natural facts that have been privileged in numerous religious systems, such as the stars, the waters and the earth; and he creates some new religious symbols, for instance, the grass, the calamus plant, and the lilacs. In reading Leaves, it is crucial to grasp the religious significance of these terms and symbols, and this requires attending to their recurring usage throughout the entire text.

The reader must also properly conceptualize the religious dimension of Whitman's poetry. Religion is not one theme in Leaves to be considered alongside others such as democracy, sexuality, or nature, but rather the matrix and marrow of other aspects of Whitman's thought. The central and inclusive role of religion is clearly indicated in the long prefatory poem, "Starting from Paumanok" (1860): "For you [the reader] to share with me two greatnesses, and a third one rising inclusive and more resplendent, / The greatness of Love and Democracy, and the greatness of Religion" (section 10). For Whitman, love, democracy and other important themes such as sexuality, nature, science, etc.—all are infused with religious meaning.

Whitman's readers must also exercise a certain sympathy for religious language and experience. Whitman asks a great deal of his readers not only because his mystical meanings are ultimately ineffable but also because he intentionally uses a suggestive method which leaves much unsaid. Whitman called for athletic readers, that is, spiritual athletes, who would subordinate worldly concerns to spiritual development and read Leaves as a spiritual guide, preferably alone in the midst of nature. Such readers will, Whitman suggests, arrive at an existential realization of the spiritual secrets of his poetry.

Academic scholarship has largely overlooked the unity of Whitman's world view and text. When it does consider Whitman's spirituality, it usually betrays a misconception of religion as a theme that can be detached from the larger vision; and sometimes, especially in recent decades, dismisses the religion of Leaves as an addendum "inflicted" (to quote one critic) upon the later editions by a chastened older poet wishing to dilute the radical sexuality of the earlier poetry. Although the explication of hidden ideology is a hallmark of current literary studies, Whitman criticism is not without its unexamined secular assumptions. Accordingly, it sometimes shows little interest in attending to the spiritual meanings of this "most religious book among books" (Traubel 372).


Ahlstrom, Sydney. A Religious History of the American People. New Haven: Yale UP, 1972.

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

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

Finke, Roger, and Rodney Stark. The Churching of America, 1776–1790. New Brunswick, N.J.: Rutgers UP, 1992.

Handy, Robert T. A Christian America: Protestant Hopes and Historical Realities. Rev. ed. New York: Oxford UP, 1984.

Hutchinson, George B. The Ecstatic Whitman: Literary Shamanism & the Crisis of the Union. Columbus: Ohio State UP, 1986.

Jackson, Carl T. The Oriental Religions and American Thought: Nineteenth-Century Explorations. Westport, Conn.: Greenwood, 1981.

Kuebrich, David. Minor Prophecy: Walt Whitman's New American Religion. Bloomington: Indiana UP, 1989.

Rubin, Joseph Jay. The Historic Whitman. University Park: Pennsylvania State UP, 1973.

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

Whitman, Walt. Notebooks and Unpublished Prose Manuscripts. Ed. Edward F. Grier. Vol. 6. New York: New York UP, 1984.

____. Prose Works 1892. Ed. Floyd Stovall. 2 vols. New York: New York UP, 1963–1964.


Published Works | In Whitman's Hand | Life & Letters | Commentary | Resources | Pictures & Sound

Support the Archive | About the Archive

Distributed under a Creative Commons License. Matt Cohen, Ed Folsom, & Kenneth M. Price, editors.