Selected Criticism

Revolutions of 1848
Stein, Jennifer J.
Print source:
J.R. LeMaster and Donald D. Kummings, eds., Walt Whitman: An Encyclopedia (New York: Garland Publishing, 1998), reproduced by permission.

Walt Whitman's tendency for liberal political thought was fostered at an early age by his father's interest in radical thinkers such as Frances Wright and Thomas Paine. Nevertheless, years would pass before Whitman became profoundly liberal in his views and truly committed to man's struggle for freedom. Decisive in the development of his politics was the outbreak of the European revolutions of 1848.

In 1846 and 1847, Whitman edited the Brooklyn Daily Eagle. This position intensified his interest in the politics of the underclass as it challenged authority, and he watched the European situations, predicting uprisings. In 1848, Whitman accepted a position at the New Orleans Crescent, moving to the city at a time of intense interest in Europe. There, working as an editor, he read articles from newspapers abroad and added his comments to "create" foreign news. He was caught up in New Orleans's interest in French politics, and he eagerly followed the imminent French revolt led by poet-statesman Alphonse de Lamartine. On 22–24 February 1848 King Louis Phillipe was overthrown, and Lamartine quickly organized a provisional government. News of the French revolt consumed New Orleans, and Lamartine became Whitman's hero, about whom he wrote several articles that spring. Meanwhile, the revolution in France had sparked a succession of uprisings throughout Europe. The general goal of the conflicts was the overthrow of despotic leadership. Austria, Italy, Prussia, and smaller German states overthrew their leaders, and over fifty smaller revolutions broke out.

Although the revolutions were fairly quickly squelched, Whitman had gained a taste of the revolutionary spirit. His development from newspaper journalist to democracy-proclaiming poet occurred most dramatically in the years between the mid 1840s and mid 1850s, and although some point to Whitman's work against slavery as his motivation for becoming freedom's poetic leader, others point to the revolutions of Europe as his inspiration.

In direct response to the revolutions, Whitman wrote "Resurgemus," a poem printed in the New York Daily Tribune on 21 June 1850. Intended to encourage, support, and glorify the revolutionaries, "Resurgemus" reflected Whitman's optimistic idea that the uprisings, which by 1850 had already failed, would someday regain their strength and be successful. He even included biblical allusions in "Resurgemus" to highlight his belief that the revolutions were a holy event. The nature imagery used throughout "Resurgemus" is an important artistic step for Whitman, since he clearly uses it to link the replenishing power of nature to the rejuvenation of revolution and liberation. This poem was among those chosen for inclusion in the first (1855) Leaves of Grass, and it continued to resurface in various forms throughout his later editions. Although printed without a title in the 1855 Leaves, it was renamed "Poem of The Dead Young Men of Europe, The 72d and 73d Years of These States" in 1856, and in 1860, it was shortened to "Europe, The 72d and 73d Years of These States." With this title, Whitman strengthened a correlation between Europe's freedom and that of the United States, illustrating his belief that the European liberation was an echo of American freedom.


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

Erkkila, Betsy. Whitman the Political Poet. New York: Oxford UP, 1989.

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

Reynolds, Larry J. European Revolutions and the American Literary Renaissance. New Haven: Yale UP, 1988.

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


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