Selected Criticism

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

Slang, containing powerful words, was to be one of the main sources of words in Whitman's poetry. American poetic expression, he advocated, should use all slang terms, including bad as well as good. This slang should encompass all areas of the life of the common American man and woman; it should come from the daily speech of the workingman. In "Slang in America" (1885) and An American Primer (1904), Whitman called for the use of slang; however, he used slang somewhat infrequently.

Sporadically before 1855, regularly between 1856 and 1860, and intermittently thereafter, Whitman searched for slang phrases and idiomatic expressions wherever he could find them. He took notes on slang sayings and provincialisms, and interviewed workmen, recording his findings in private journals so that he could later incorporate them into his poetry. For some of the terms in his collection of slangy idiomatic expressions, he attempted to indicate the meanings along with the pronunciation and intonation for each.

In "Slang in America," Whitman claimed that slang was an important factor in the development of the language. Referring to slang as a "lawless germinal element" (Prose Works 2:572), he believed that slang terms would outlive and surmount their disapprobation to become accepted expressions, exerting a powerful force in the evolution of the language. This national American language would come from the daily speech of the common man or woman. The masses would be most influential in determining the nature of the American language. Because many frequently used words, he contended, were originally slang, slang could be considered to have breathed life into the language. Slang was the beginning of a national language for America, more than most realized.

This new language would be necessary for him as a poet to be able to relate the unique experiences of the new, developing nation. Pushing language to its fullest capacity, he would incorporate any word he found necessary without regard to social conventions. Slang would be part of the raw materials he would use as the poet of the working class. While he relished the slang he heard in ordinary talk and viewed slang as expressing the poetry of human utterances, he realized that many slang terms were short-lived. Some slang had a "naturalness" and "fittingness"; not all of it, though, was equally good because for some slang words and phrases, he could discover no meaning or no appropriate meaning. Slang, nonetheless, was earthy, basic, and real—therefore the true vehicle for poetic expression.

As Whitman proclaimed America and Americans in his poetry, he used slang and colloquialisms; however, he also indiscriminately mixed words from all stages of language, all languages, all levels of language, and all areas (all professions and fields). When discussing Whitman's diction, scholars invariably comment on his use of slang and dialect terms as well as his frequent juxtaposition of slang and learned, formal diction. Some critics argue that his use of slang declined after 1860 and 1865. Most agree that his poetical language became more conventional in later years.

The oral, conversational nature of his poetry as well as his use of Americanisms, place names and other names, and technical terms related to the occupations of the workingman may create the illusion that Whitman liberally used slang, especially in the earlier editions of Leaves of Grass. Persons studying the types of words used in Whitman's poetry should first define the labels they are using: such as slang, colloquialisms, Americanisms, dialect, and idioms.

Whitman as a poet wanted to express the experiences of the common man and woman, borrowing from the language of those in all walks of ordinary life, incorporating slang from the streets and from various professions. Yet his poetry was not accepted by the uneducated and semi-educated, the audience he wrote for. By using terms probably not understood by the general public (obsolete, archaic, and poetic terms; learned words; neologisms; and foreign terms), Whitman made it difficult for them to embrace his poetry as he wished.


Allen, Irving Lewis. The City in Slang: New York Life and Popular Speech. New York: Oxford UP, 1993.

Bauerlein, Mark. Whitman and the American Idiom. Baton Rouge: Louisiana State UP, 1991.

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

Southard, Sherry G. "Whitman and Language: Great Beginnings for Great American Poetry." Mt. Olive Review 4 (1990): 45–54.

____. "Whitman and Language: His 'Democratic' Words." Diss. Purdue U, 1972.

Warren, James Perrin. Walt Whitman's Language Experiment. University Park: Pennsylvania State UP, 1990.

Whitman, Walt. Prose Works 1892. Ed. Floyd Stovall. 2 vols. New York: New York UP, 1963–1964.


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