Selected Criticism

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

When Walt Whitman boasted in 1884 that he was "the greatest poetical representative of German philosophy" (Workshop 236, n138), he explicitly situated his "language experiment" within the phase of Western culture known as romanticism. A reaction to Enlightenment rationalism and classicism, romanticism was an egalitarian and utopian movement in philosophy, literature, politics, and the arts which valued subjective expression, formal experimentation, and unmediated connection with nature and the divine. While European romanticism extended from the French Revolutionary period in the 1780s to the beginning of the British Victorian period in the 1840s, American romanticism began in the 1820s and ended with the Civil War in 1865. At the height of the American romantic period, during a phase of literary emergence known as the American Renaissance, Whitman published the first edition of Leaves of Grass (1855), twelve poems whose "barbaric yawp" revitalized and revolutionized romanticism.

The principal catalysts for European romanticism were the rise of the middle class and capitalism, the democratic and revolutionary movements, and the Protestant Reformation. Romanticism was also profoundly influenced by two Enlightenment figures: Jean Jacques Rousseau, who championed the innate goodness of human nature before its corruption by civilization, and Immanuel Kant, who held that objective reality may be known only as it is mediated by the structures of human consciousness. Kant's transcendental idealism inspired the German idealists Johann Fichte, Friedrich Schelling, and Georg Wilhelm Friedrich Hegel, who conceived the objective world as a phenomenal expression of absolute spirit. Writers such as Johann Wolfgang von Goethe and Friedrich Schlegel in Germany, and Victor Hugo and George Sand in France, worked out the literary implications of romantic philosophy. In Britain, Thomas Carlyle and Samuel Taylor Coleridge were the chief analysts of the creative imagination, while Coleridge, William Blake, William Wordsworth, Lord Byron, Percy Bysshe Shelley, and John Keats were its poetic exemplars.

In the United States, romanticism developed somewhat later in response to this larger European movement, particularly British romanticism. After the American Revolution, romantic tendencies were nurtured by a realized political democracy, Protestant culture, frontier expansion and agrarian life, individualism and optimism as dominant values, and the unavoidable fact of the North American wilderness. Early romantic literature included the gothic romances of Charles Brockden Brown, the frontier romances of James Fenimore Cooper, and the elegiac nature poetry of William Cullen Bryant. Edgar Allan Poe would later fully realize the gothic strain of romanticism, while Nathaniel Hawthorne would perfect the American romance.

The chief architects of romantic ideology in the United States, however, were the transcendentalists. Beginning as a reform movement within the Unitarian church, American transcendentalism expressed itself primarily through the literary writings of such authors as Ralph Waldo Emerson, Margaret Fuller, Amos Bronson Alcott, and Henry David Thoreau. Emerson's "Divinity School Address" (1838) repudiates his church's emphasis on religious forms in favor of direct inspiration in and contact with God. In this respect, transcendentalism epitomizes the religious expression of romanticism. Emerson's Nature (1836), a manifesto of American romanticism, conceives nature as the embodiment and "symbol" of spirit.

Of all the influences on the early editions of Whitman's Leaves of Grass, Emerson's was undoubtedly the most important. As editor (1846–1848) at the Brooklyn Daily Eagle, Whitman attended Emerson's lectures in New York and reviewed other key romantics, such as Carlyle, another major influence, Coleridge, Goethe, Fuller, Herman Melville, Schlegel, and Sand. In his editorial columns, Whitman quoted from European and American romantics alike, including Bryant, Byron, Hawthorne, Hugo, and Poe. After the first two editions of Leaves, Whitman began exploring the German metaphysicians, especially Gottfried Leibniz, Kant, Fichte, Schelling, and Hegel. Whitman was also influenced by organic language theory, particularly as developed by Wilhelm von Humboldt. Whitman's synthesis of the historical and spiritual theories of language prevalent in the nineteenth century is evident in An American Primer (1904), "America's Mightiest Inheritance" (1856), "Slang in America" (1885), and his ghostwriting for William Swinton's Rambles Among Words (1859).

With the publication of F.O. Matthiessen's landmark study American Renaissance: Art and Expression in the Age of Emerson and Whitman (1941), critics began to identify Whitman as a central figure in the mid-nineteenth-century efflorescence of literature which Matthiessen described as the "American Renaissance." For Matthiessen, the defining "classics" that emerged during this time constituted the core of a new national literature devoted to the "possibilities of democracy" (ix): Emerson's Representative Men (1850), The Scarlet Letter (1850), Melville's Moby-Dick (1851), Thoreau's Walden (1854), and Leaves of Grass (1855). In The Romantic Foundations of the American Renaissance (1987), however, Leon Chai argues that the period represents instead the final, decadent phase of European romanticism. Chai omits Whitman, asserting that he was influenced by romanticism only indirectly through Emerson. Yet the poet who proclaimed "I am the poet of the body, / And I am the poet of the soul" ("Song of Myself," section 21, 1855 Leaves) undermines Chai's argument that the shift from European to American romanticism involved increasing subjectivization and deepening opposition between materialism and spiritualism. Jerome Loving argues that Whitman advanced transcendentalism by contradicting the assumption that the body and senses were merely emblems of the soul. Unlike other nineteenth-century poets, Whitman insisted on the equality of body and spirit.

Whitman's Leaves of Grass was a revolutionary departure in American as well as European romanticism. Like Emerson's "The American Scholar" (1847), Whitman's Preface to the 1855 edition was a declaration of America's literary independence from Europe, yet it may also be read in the tradition of Wordsworth's Preface to the Lyrical Ballads (1800). Whitman wanted to become the national poet for a new country, a romantic commonplace. He astonished his contemporaries with his equations of democracy and divinity, sexuality and spirituality, but these were also versions of the romantic desire to fuse opposites. Nevertheless, Whitman revised his romantic inheritance. He synthesized romantic universalism and nationalism when he declared in the 1855 Preface, "America is the race of races" (Complete 6–7). His poet was a seer, prophet, and priestly giver of imperatives, yet assumed a democratic equality with the reader: "every man shall be his own priest" (25). And Whitman ardently articulated the union of subject and object in calling his poet the "lover" of the universe—"burning" for "contact and amorous joy" (12).

In "Song of Myself," the central poem of Leaves of Grass, Whitman's poetic innovations range from the variable length and rhythms of his lines, to his reconstruction of the romantic lyric "I" and his explosion of the meditative lyric. As Paul Zweig suggests, Whitman's poems dissolved the conventional narrative form of the romantic poem and ventured into pure feeling and sensation. Whitman's poetry was autobiographical, but it also unlocked the lyric of self-reflection and welcomed the multiple selves of American democracy: "Through me many long dumb voices" (section 24). In his catalogues Whitman creates a formal equivalent for the democratic ideals of romanticism. He revolutionizes the union of subject and object by reconstructing the relationship between poet and reader: "what I assume you shall assume" (section 1). To accomplish this transformation, Whitman radically alters the romantic "I." Donald Pease argues that Whitman's "I" is intimately bound up with his "you," a poetic "intersubject" reducible to neither self nor other (158). But Whitman also dramatizes the epiphanic union of self and soul, most memorably as two lovers in the grass.

Although Whitman's poems were motivated by the desire to regenerate the people with democratic ideals, in the 1860s he became more doubtful about America's future and his desired role as its bard. The Civil War brought more realism to Whitman's poetry, yet his tragic treatment of a new nation at war with itself falls within the ethos of romanticism. Although his earlier poetry is characterized by celebration, his later poems are no less romantic for being elegiac. Drum-Taps (1865) may lack the innovative risk of Whitman's earlier work, but it stands among celebrated literary responses to the Civil War, and "When Lilacs Last in the Dooryard Bloom'd" (1865), Whitman's last great poem, may be read in the company of the eminent romantic elegies.

Whitman was steeped in the romanticism of his age, both European and American, but his poetry does not represent a mannered response to romantic aesthetics and philosophy. Rather, Whitman reinvented the romantic quest for selfhood by embracing collective as well as personal consciousness; he freed the creative imagination to voice experiences untouched by previous poets; he opened poetic form to the rhythms of the mundane and the sublime; he rewrote the romantic lyric with the urgent vernacular of America's working class; and he recovered prelapsarian innocence in the flux of modern life. In Leaves of Grass, Whitman revolutionized and thus revitalized the essential modes of romanticism.


Abrams, M.H. Natural Supernaturalism: Tradition and Revolution in Romantic Literature. New York: Norton, 1971.

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

Chai, Leon. The Romantic Foundations of the American Renaissance. Ithaca, N.Y.: Cornell UP, 1987.

Loving, Jerome. "Walt Whitman." Columbia Literary History of the United States. Ed. Emory Elliott, et al. New York: Columbia UP, 1988. 448–462.

Matthiessen, F.O. American Renaissance. London: Oxford UP, 1941.

Pease, Donald. "Walt Whitman's Revisionary Democracy." The Columbia History of American Poetry. Ed. Jay Parini and Brett C. Millier. New York: Columbia UP, 1993. 148–171.

Warren, James Perrin. "Organic Language Theory in the American Renaissance." Papers in the History of Linguistics, Princeton, August 1984. Ed. Hans Aarsleff, Louis Kelly, and Hans Niedereche. Amsterdam Studies in the Theory and History of Linguistic Science. Vol. 38. Amsterdam: Benjamins, 1987. 531–522.

Whitman, Walt. "America's Mightiest Inheritance." Life Illustrated (1856). Rpt. New York Dissected. Ed. Emory Holloway and Ralph Adimari. New York: Rufus Rockwell Wilson, 1936. 55–65.

____. Complete Poetry and Collected Prose. Ed. Justin Kaplan. New York: Library of America, 1982.

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

____. The Uncollected Poetry and Prose of Walt Whitman. 1921. Ed. Emory Holloway. 2 vols. Gloucester, Mass.: Peter Smith, 1972.

____. Walt Whitman's Workshop: A Collection of Unpublished Manuscripts. Ed. Clifton J. Furness. Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard UP, 1928.

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


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