Commentary

Selected Criticism

Title:
Self-Reviews of the 1855 Leaves, Whitman's Anonymous
Author:
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.

Throughout his career, Whitman used his connections in journalism to defend and promote his literary work. As early as 1842, Whitman anonymously "puffed" his novel Franklin Evans and quoted from his own short story "Death in the Schoolroom (a Fact)." In later years, the poet provided friendly reviewers with the equivalent of news releases, prose passages that could be easily incorporated into articles signed by others. His behind-the-scenes self-promotion peaked in 1855, when he placed anonymous self-reviews of the first edition of Leaves of Grass in no fewer than three periodicals—the United States Review, the American Phrenological Journal, and the Brooklyn Daily Eagle.

Whitman used these reviews not only to advertise but also to enhance the effects of his poems and Preface. The one in the United States Review—which begins with the now famous exclamation "An American bard at last!" (Price 8)—accomplishes directly what the 1855 Preface could do only by indirection: it tells the reader that the poems of the book are intended to embody the poetic ideals set forth in the Preface. "With light and rapid touch," the self-reviewer says of the poet, "he first indicates in prose the principles of the foundation of a race of poets . . . to spring from the American people. . . . He [then] proceeds himself to exemplify this new school, and set models for their expression and range of subjects" (Price 9). All the self-reviews sketch out a course of historical criticism by which to account for the poetic experimentation of Leaves of Grass. This agenda is especially clear in the piece written for the American Phrenological Journal. Entitled "An English and an American Poet," the article reveals the confidence and aplomb of the 1855 Whitman. Quite willing to grant Alfred, Lord Tennyson the respect due to the English poet laureate, the eager self-reviewer praises Whitman the poet for breaking free of the European tradition. "In the verse of all those undoubtedly great writers, Shakespeare just as much as the rest," he writes, "there is the air which to America is the air of death. The mass of the people, the laborers and all who serve, are slag, refuse" (Price 23). But now, the review continues, "a strange voice" (Price 25) calls forth in the name of common people. Conceding that "critics and lovers and readers of poetry as hitherto written, may well be excused their shudders which will assuredly run through them, to their very blood and bones, when they first read Whitman's poems" (Price 25), the self-reviewer explains that what makes the poet seem strange is the psychological depth and physiological reality he reveals in the life of the ordinary citizen: "every sentence," he says, "and every passage tells of an interior not always seen, and exudes an impalpable something which sticks to him that reads" (Price 25). Likewise, in the Daily Eagle review, Whitman prepares the audience to receive this new breed of poet and his poetry. Leaves of Grass, he writes, "conforms to none of the rules by which poetry has ever been judged" (Price 18). Thus, the theoretical project of the first edition is defended and advanced in these reviews, and the poet's relationship with his readers is varied.

Early on, Whitman's most attentive readers discovered his game. In a review of the 1856 Leaves, William Swinton of the New York Times identified Whitman's hand in the three anonymous reviews. Unabashed, Whitman reprinted Swinton's exposé along with the original self-reviews in Leaves of Grass Imprints, the publicity packet distributed with the 1860 edition. The elderly Whitman discussed his self-promotional campaign openly with Horace Traubel, who as literary executor published the 1855 self-reviews and attributed them directly to Whitman. Nearly every biography since Emory Holloway's 1929 article "Whitman as His Own Press-Agent" has taken up the topic, at least in passing.

Whitman's practice of self-reviewing alternately offended and fascinated students of his biography. It represents a rare case of a poet acting as his own critic and biographer not, as is usual, in the voice of the autobiographer or memoirist, but in the guise of a created persona presuming to represent, and redirect, the tastes and cultural trends of his times.

Bibliography

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

Hollis, C. Carroll. "Whitman and William Swinton." American Literature 30 (1959): 425–449.

Holloway, Emory. "Whitman as His Own Press-Agent." American Mercury 18 (1929): 482–488.

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

Price, Kenneth M., ed. Walt Whitman: The Contemporary Reviews. Cambridge: Cambridge UP, 1996.

Shephard, Esther. "Walt Whitman's Whereabouts in the Winter of 1842–1843." American Literature 29 (1957): 289–296.


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