Selected Criticism

Baker, Danielle L. and Donald C. Irving
Print source:
J.R. LeMaster and Donald D. Kummings, eds., Walt Whitman: An Encyclopedia (New York: Garland Publishing, 1998), reproduced by permission.

Aspiring to produce the first distinctly American poetry, Whitman modeled Leaves of Grass on explicitly democratic principles and in doing so made the common man thematically central, seeking to give to the majority the prominence allotted them by the provisions of egalitarianism. David Reynolds and Justin Kaplan treat Whitman's conception of the common man as an outgrowth of his journalistic career through which he achieved intimate familiarity with urban-dwelling, working class figures—common men who made up the masses in industrializing centers such as New York. In his notebooks, Whitman identified this assortment of figures as the "divine aggregate" from which there should be "none excluded—not the ignorant, not the roughs or laboring persons"(Notebooks 6: 2092). "The Roughs," a class of gang members in Manhattan's poorer districts also known as "rowdies," "loafers," and "toughs," are mentioned five times in his poetry and have attracted attention from Whitman scholars due to the poet's bold announcement of himself in the first three editions of Leaves of Grass as "Walt Whitman, an American, one of the roughs, a kosmos" ("Song of Myself"). Whitman substantiated his characterization of himself as a rough with the frontispiece to the 1855 edition. Here Whitman—with bearded face and a muscular physique, casual workman's trousers, open collar, cocked hat, and arm akimbo in a strikingly nonchalant, even arrogant pose—deliberately mirrors the coarse appearance of the working class rough, who in every way was a product of industrial environment. Whitman saw great potential in "the rough of the streets who may underneath his coarse skin possess the saving graces" (Traubel 177) and embraced this character as his first poetic persona so that the common man, whom he envisioned as his audience, might find a reflection of himself in Leaves of Grass.

Reactions to Whitman's self-identification have varied. While some of Whitman's contemporaries appreciated his proletarian pose, they tended to resist his choice of the rough as his focus. One can understand why Whitman's contemporaries, who would have been familiar with accounts of a low-class, often violent gang of loafers notorious for instigating political riots, might have attempted to defend his reputation against the poet's own self-identification. Ed Folsom relies on John Kasson's account of nineteenth-century social standards to demonstrate how Whitman's unconventional persona would have posed a direct affront to the sensibilities of a contemporary reviewer such as William Sloane Kennedy, who opposed Whitman's use of the frontispiece. Kasson cites unpolished features and casual, unrestrained demeanor as external evidence, according to the methods of popular physiognomy, of the rough's supposedly unrefined internal character. Whitman's audience, which consisted largely of the educated elite, would likely have felt alienated and offended by his image, which suggested to them a rude and ignorant character. Likewise, Reynolds discusses Charles Eliot Norton, another contemporary of Whitman, who hoped that by emphasizing the poet's transcendental qualities he might compensate for Whitman's use of slang terms such as "rough," a practice that Norton condemns as unsophisticated but one which Whitman valued for its immediacy. Scott Giantvalley discusses the reaction of Thomas Wentworth Higginson, who hoped that Whitman might replace "rough" with a less charged term, such as "boweriness," to depict the masculinity of his persona.

Twentieth-century scholars have continued to speculate about how much a rough the author of Leaves of Grass actually was. While Frederik Schyberg depicts a rowdy, loaferish young Whitman, Reynolds, Whitman's most recent biographer, believes Whitman's true personality revealed few of these traits and suggests other figures, such as Mike Walsh, a working class editor and defender of the common man, who may have influenced the persona. As the historical accurateness of Whitman's persona has come into question, scholars have come to view his poetic character not as a literal rough but primarily as a character type which serves a specific poetic purpose in Leaves of Grass. For Griffith Dudding and Ernest Lee Tuveson, the coupling of the terms "rough" and "kosmos" creates a dual-sided persona for Whitman. Dudding asserts that Whitman's characterization of himself as a rough, which grounds him in his reality, counterbalances his description of himself as a "kosmos," which allows him to encompass the larger, metaphysical truths of existence. Tuveson views the rough as the destructive elements of Whitman's cosmic nature. Similarly, James Dougherty describes Whitman's persona as part rough and part Shakespeare and Dante.

Other critics have looked toward Whitman's self-identification in terms of its potential effect on the common man. Reynolds's interpretation, based on his argument that the poet was somewhat disturbed by the violent tendencies of the roughs, claims that Whitman places the term between "American" and "kosmos" in order to elevate the rough to the level of ideas such as patriotism and mysticism. Larzer Ziff, on the other hand, argues that Whitman's purpose is not to elevate the rough, but rather to show the rough his potential, providing for him a sense of identity that would allow the common man to appreciate the strengths of his daily existence. Van Wyck Brooks, who drew a connection between Whitman's rough and Emerson's Berserkers, emphasized the potential for social reform Whitman saw in the common man. Similarly, Folsom's most recent interpretation sees Whitman's persona as one that bridges the gap between worker and poet, thereby promoting the nineteenth-century rise of the common man.

In 1867 Leaves of Grass appeared with Whitman's self-identification as a rough and the accompanying photograph removed. Reynolds discusses Whitman's actions around the same time, when he sent a letter to William D. O'Connor in which he offers some suggestions for a review, which Whitman requested that O'Connor write, stating that "personally the author of Leaves of Grass is in no sense or sort whatever the 'rough,' the 'eccentric,' 'vagabond' or queer person, that the commentators … persist in making him" (Correspondence 1:348). In time, Whitman's persona was recast, largely through O'Connor's effort, into its second incarnation, the Good Gray Poet. Schyberg suggests that specifically the removal of the frontispiece and, in general, the rejection of the persona was a reaction to criticism from his reviewers, who were among the educated elite and representative of Whitman's audience. Reynolds and Ziff believe that Whitman was alarmed by political corruption in the Democratic party with which the rough, frequently performing in the service of political bosses, certainly would have been involved. In general, scholars recognize this as a period of disillusionment for Whitman, whose poetry failed to find his audience in the common man. Perhaps, it is finally in these terms that we can best make sense of the poet's eventual rejection of his first poetic persona, that of the "rough."


Brooks, Van Wyck. The Times of Melville and Whitman. New York: Dutton, 1947.

Dougherty, James. Walt Whitman and the Citizen's Eye. Baton Rouge: Louisiana State UP, 1993.

Dudding, Griffith. "The Function of Whitman's Imagery in 'Song Of Myself,' 1855." Walt Whitman Review 13 (1967): 3–11.

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

Giantvalley, Scott. "'Strict, Straight Notions of Literary Propriety': Thomas Wentworth Higginson's Gradual Unbending to Walt Whitman." Walt Whitman Quarterly Review 4.4 (1987): 17–27.

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

Kasson, John F. Rudeness & Civility, Manners in Nineteenth-Century Urban America. New York: Hill and Wang, 1990.

Miller, Edwin Haviland. Walt Whitman's "Song of Myself": A Mosaic of Interpretations. Iowa City: U of Iowa P, 1989.

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

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

Traubel, Horace. With Walt Whitman in Camden. Vol. 2. New York: Appleton, 1908.

Tuveson, Ernest Lee. The Avatars of Thrice Great Hermes: An Approach to Romanticism. Lewisburg: Bucknell UP, 1982.

Whitman, Walt. The Correspondence. Ed. Edwin Haviland Miller. 6 vols. New York: New York UP, 1961–1977.

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

Ziff, Larzer. Literary Democracy. New York: Viking, 1981.


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