Selected Criticism

Scholarship, Trends in Whitman
Killingsworth, M. Jimmie
Print source:
J.R. LeMaster and Donald D. Kummings, eds., Walt Whitman: An Encyclopedia (New York: Garland Publishing, 1998), reproduced by permission.

Because Whitman was a poet who claimed a strong identity between his life and his work, as well as his life and his times, it is not easy to separate the scholarship he has inspired into neat categories and types—biographical, bibliographical, historical, formal, and linguistic. All these approaches appear as trends that rise to prominence at various moments of history, but always interpenetrate and overlap with one another. The richness of this scholarly tradition has been matched by the astounding proliferation of studies. By the time of the poet's death in 1892, Whitman scholarship was already in full swing, with friends like John Burroughs and literary executors like Richard Maurice Bucke and Horace Traubel leading the way. By the time of the centennial of the first edition of Leaves of Grass in 1955, the bibliography of works about Whitman was growing at the average rate of one hundred items per year, in the estimate of Donald Kummings.

Though from the time of Bucke and Burroughs a mingling of scholarly approaches has been the norm, the great tradition of Whitman scholarship has been biographical; scholars appear to have accepted the word of the poet who named his most famous poem "Song of Myself." The first biographical works appeared in the years just after the Civil War. Whitman's circle of literary admirers rushed to his defense when he was dismissed from a government clerkship allegedly for writing an immoral book. The first defender was William Douglas O'Connor, whose famous 1866 pamphlet The Good Gray Poet argued that Whitman was not only blameless in the face of the attacks upon himself and his book, but in fact superior both in character and artistic accomplishment to most poets of the day. The picture of Whitman as a man of extraordinary moral and artistic development, the genius of the American people—in the sense of both his personal ability and his representative power—is yet more fully developed in Burroughs's Notes on Walt Whitman as Poet and Person (1867). Notes stresses the republican theme, the view of Whitman as a kind of medium for the spirit of American life. Whitman preferred this interpretation to the view of himself as a special case of poetic genius and fostered it by actually contributing prose accounts of his life as a representative American character to the biographies of both Bucke and Burroughs. In the later work, Whitman: A Study, published in 1896 after the death of the master, Burroughs all but abandoned the republican theme and emphasized the poet's uniqueness and exalted status among men of genius. In the view of his other contemporaneous biographer, Richard Maurice Bucke, the poet's greatness was the result of an experience of special insight, a dawning of "cosmic consciousness" literally recorded in "Song of Myself," section 5, and elsewhere in the poems. In his 1883 Walt Whitman, Bucke suggested that this mystical experience explains Whitman's transcendence of his character as a minor writer of fiction, poems, and journalism before Leaves of Grass and his ascendance to the role of poet-prophet of democracy suddenly in 1855. In the chapter on Whitman in his 1903 Cosmic Consciousness, now a classic work of popular mysticism, Bucke universalizes Whitman's significance and puts his experience on a par with that of Jesus and Buddha. Though this view was discredited by the scholarship of high modernism in the first half of the twentieth century, when scientific skepticism, philosophical materialism, and existentialism ruled the day, the prophetic cast and mystical character of Leaves of Grass has again been treated seriously in more recent anthropologically oriented studies such as Lewis Hyde's The Gift: Imagination and the Erotic Life of Property (1979) and George Hutchinson's The Ecstatic Whitman: Literary Shamanism & the Crisis of the Union (1986), both of which relate Whitman's mysticism to his vision of democratic politics, as well as in the thematic study Minor Prophecy: Walt Whitman's New American Religion (1989) by David Kuebrich.

Biographical work after the turn of the century reflected the professionalization of literary scholarship by striving for objectivity and impartiality, treating Whitman as a literary subject rather than as an extraordinary man. Even Horace Traubel's multivolume and worshipful With Walt Whitman in Camden advanced this trend by carefully, indeed minutely, documenting the sayings and activities of Whitman in his last years. Henry Bryan Binns's A Life of Walt Whitman (1905), which has the distinction of being the first modern literary biography, is remembered mainly for perpetrating the questionable story that Whitman fell in love with a mysterious woman during his brief stay in New Orleans and even fathered children by her. The next year saw the publication of Bliss Perry's Walt Whitman, a book distinguished by greater scholarly caution and a deeper interest in the poems and the circumstances of their composition. Perry rejects the idea of sudden inspiration as a way of accounting for the emergence of Leaves of Grass in 1855, arguing for a slower, steadier development of the poet's artistic ability. This claim formed the basis of an important trend in Whitman scholarship. The study of Whitman's reading and early works of prose and poetry as antecedents of his greatest poems became the key concern of books such as Floyd Stovall's The Foreground of "Leaves of Grass" (1974) and a number of collections and critical evaluations of the poet's journalistic writings by such scholars as Thomas Brasher, Joseph Jay Rubin, and Emory Holloway. Holloway's own detailed study of Whitman's published and unpublished writings outside of Leaves of Grass undergirded his 1926 biography Whitman: An Interpretation in Narrative. While giving a full and influential account of Whitman's literary apprenticeship and the changes observable in the different editions of Leaves of Grass, notably the decline of the radical power of the early Leaves in the later editions, Holloway stubbornly refused to consider the strong evidence of homoeroticism that he himself uncovered in Whitman's personal experience and works and stayed with the heterosexual myths inherited from Binns.

After Holloway, Whitman biography developed in two directions—toward an increasing concern with Whitman's relation to his social and historical context, on the one hand, and toward an intensifying interest in the texts of his most important writings, on the other. These two biographical types—"life and times" studies and "critical biography"—prepared the way for the further development of historical criticism and textually oriented criticism, including formalist, structuralist, and poststructuralist studies.

In the historical vein, the way was prepared by Vernon Parrington's Main Currents of American Thought (1927) and Newton Arvin's Whitman (1938), both of which analyze Whitman's poems in light of contemporaneous politics and social movements, and by Henry Seidel Canby's 1943 biography Walt Whitman: An American. Unlike the historical materialists Parrington and Arvin, Canby accepted the importance earlier biographies assigned to the development of the inner life of the poet but insisted on placing this inner development in a dialectical relationship with Whitman's sensitivity to changes in his social and political milieu. With this double emphasis, he anticipated the feminist contention that the personal is political (and vice versa). Unfortunately, Canby's influence was diminished because his work was separated from scholarship pursuing the same social and historical spirit by the intervention of the era of New Criticism, when formalist approaches prevailed and historical context was reduced to "background." When historical criticism did reemerge in the 1970s, however, it was destined to become the dominant trend of Whitman scholarship. Thematic studies have followed Parrington, Arvin, and Canby in emphasizing, for example, the significance of physical life and sexuality in the texts and contexts of Whitman's poems. Such is the case with Robert K. Martin's The Homosexual Tradition in American Poetry (1979), Harold Aspiz's Walt Whitman and the Body Beautiful (1980), Charley Shively's Calamus Lovers: Whitman's Working Class Camerados (1987), M. Jimmie Killingsworth's Whitman's Poetry of the Body: Sexuality, Politics, and the Text (1989), Michael Moon's Disseminating Whitman: Revision and Corporeality in "Leaves of Grass" (1991), and Byrne Fone's Masculine Landscapes: Walt Whitman and the Homoerotic Text (1992). New studies of Whitman's political vision have also appeared, including M. Wynn Thomas's The Lunar Light of Whitman's Poetry (1987), Betsy Erkkila's Whitman the Political Poet (1989), and Martin Klammer's study of Whitman's attitudes toward slavery, Whitman, Slavery, and the Emergence of "Leaves of Grass"(1995). Other cultural studies include James Dougherty's book on the image of the city in Leaves of Grass, Walt Whitman and the Citizen's Eye (1993), and Ed Folsom's consideration of four surprisingly intertwined themes—baseball, American Indians, photography, and lexicography—in Walt Whitman's Native Representations (1994). The life and times tradition inaugurated by Canby came full circle with the 1995 publication of David S. Reynolds's Walt Whitman's America: A Cultural Biography.

Though Whitman was certainly no darling of the New Critics in the years of their dominance, textually oriented criticism of his work did not lag during the 1950s, 1960s, and 1970s, and work in this area continues vigorously today. Somewhat ironically, biographies also led the way in this work, beginning with Roger Asselineau's The Evolution of Walt Whitman, the French version of which appeared in 1954, followed by an English translation in 1960. Asselineau devoted a volume to the development of Whitman the man and another volume to the evolution of Leaves of Grass as a book, thus defining the twin focus that would concern a number of critical biographers from Gay Wilson Allen (The Solitary Singer, 1955) to Justin Kaplan (Walt Whitman: A Life, 1980), Jerome Loving (Emerson, Whitman, and the American Muse, 1982), and Paul Zweig (Walt Whitman: The Making of a Poet, 1984) and including the psychoanalytical work of Edwin Haviland Miller (Walt Whitman's Poetry: A Psychological Journey, 1968) and Stephen A. Black (Whitman's Journeys into Chaos: A Psychoanalytical Study of the Poetic Process, 1975). These scholars differ from earlier biographers in their critical spirit. They are critical in two senses: they leave off the hero worship of the earlier writers and treat the poet with attitudes ranging from respectful distance (as in Allen, Kaplan, Loving, and Zweig) to clinical skepticism (as in Miller and Black), and they are more likely than the earlier writers to give critical readings and extended interpretations of the poems. Of them all, Allen's Solitary Singer, a biography written in the heyday of New Criticism, has had the most sustained influence on Whitman studies. Allen set the standard for later biography, but he also initiated a tradition of close reading of Whitman's texts, a distinction he shared with Richard Chase, whose ground-breaking work of rhetorical criticism, Walt Whitman Reconsidered (1955), was published in the same year as Allen's biography. An interest in close reading also informed the work of James E. Miller, Jr. (A Critical Guide to "Leaves of Grass," 1957) and Howard J. Waskow (Whitman: Explorations in Form, 1966). This tradition has evolved in recent years to accommodate new theories of language and textuality. Works in this vein include C. Carroll Hollis's Language and Style in "Leaves of Grass" (1983), James Perrin Warren's Walt Whitman's Language Experiment (1990), Mark Bauerlein's Whitman and the American Idiom (1991), Tenney Nathanson's Whitman's Presence: Body, Voice, and Writing in "Leaves of Grass" (1992), and a book that mingles semiotics with political and historical study, Kerry Larson's Whitman's Drama of Consensus (1988).

In addition to these strong threads and concentrated periods of Whitman scholarship, there have been scattered studies of reception and influence—notably the work of Esther Shephard, Harold Blodgett, Gay Wilson Allen, V.K. Chari, Harold Bloom, Betsy Erkkila, Kenneth Price, and Ed Folsom—that over the years have accumulated into an impressive account of Whitman's position as a major author in world literature. In textual and bibliographical scholarship, the same cumulative effect has been achieved, thanks to such scholars as William White, Arthur Golden, Scott Giantvalley, Donald Kummings, Joel Myerson, and the various editors of the New York edition of Whitman's works. Much remains to be done, however, before bibliographical work and reception study can be said to match the strongest tradition of Whitman scholarship in biography and historical criticism.


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

____. Walt Whitman Handbook. 1946. New York: Hendricks House, 1962.

Giantvalley, Scott. Walt Whitman, 1838–1939: A Reference Guide. Boston: Hall, 1981.

Hindus, Milton, ed. Walt Whitman: The Critical Heritage. New York: Barnes and Noble, 1971.

Killingsworth, M. Jimmie. The Growth of "Leaves of Grass": The Organic Tradition in Whitman Studies. Columbia, S.C.: Camden House, 1993.

Kummings, Donald D. Walt Whitman, 1940–1975: A Reference Guide. Boston: Hall, 1982.


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