Selected Criticism

Spain and Spanish America, Whitman in
Zapata-Whelan, Carol M.
Print source:
J.R. LeMaster and Donald D. Kummings, eds., Walt Whitman: An Encyclopedia (New York: Garland Publishing, 1998), reproduced by permission.

Walt Whitman's presence in Spain and Spanish America began when the exiled poet José Martí (Cuba, 1853–1895) witnessed Whitman's 1887 Lincoln address and wrote "El poeta Walt Whitman." Published in Argentina's La Nación and disseminated throughout the Spanish-speaking world, this letter of introduction set the tone for the "Whitman cult" in Hispanic letters. While Martí begins his essay citing a portrait of Whitman as aged prophet-bard, the composite he draws is of the New World "natural man" of relation who is transcendental brother and lover, spawn of "man on a new continent" with a "robust philosophy." Martí hears Whitman's charging verse as "sounds [that] ring like the earth's mighty shell when it is trodden by triumphant armies, barefoot and glorious" (Martí 211). It is Whitman the bearded bard, the all-embracing liberator, who arrives in Spain and Spanish America in Martí's essay.

Like Chilean poet-critic Fernando Alegría in his cornerstone study, Walt Whitman en Hispanoamérica, critics Doris Sommer and Enrico Mario Santi address a history of myth and misreading that has idealized Whitman and used his name and rhetoric at cross purposes. Santi points to the secondhand biographies and twice-removed translations of Whitman that have informed his "cult." In unwitting illustration of this difficult culture transfer, a would-be Whitman of Spanish America, José Santos Chocano (Peru, 1875–1934), announces that "Walt Wihtman [sic]" has the North, but he has the South (Chocano 13).

Critics note the irony of poets like Rubén Darío and Pablo Neruda invoking Whitman to combat a U.S. imperialism the poet himself represented. Yet Roger Asselineau defends Whitman's naive expansionism as an idealistic desire to disseminate democracy. In such a spirit the poet is received; as recently as 1981 the Nicaraguan Ministry of Culture published Poesía libre, an anthology of freedom poems featuring Whitman as voice of the people and model for Nicaraguan poets. As Ed Folsom and Gay Wilson Allen note, Whitman has helped writers around the world "to formulate and to challenge democratic assumptions" (3).

In Spain and Spanish America, Whitman in all his contradiction is invoked as voice, model, emblem, theme; he is translated, imitated, adapted, appropriated, and answered. In the cultures of profound spiritual tradition, of damning division and impassioned relation, of popular exuberance in a verse that expresses nature as often as ideology, Whitman, "the poet of the Body and . . . of the Soul" ("Song of Myself," section 21), sounds, as Gilberto Freyre has said, like a Latin translated into English.

Whitman's initial appearance in Hispanic poetry is in the Spanish American verse of modernismo (an Hispanic ambivalence to modernity informed by cosmopolitan currents). Alegría notes that Whitman's philosophical, religious, and political ideas were not fully understood until the era of post-modernismo (post-1916). Nevertheless, Martí's sophisticated, if idealized, portrait of the poet, which solidly outlines Whitman, harbors the intuitive comprehension Whitman himself sought. This embrace of recognition will characterize the reception of writers, from the modernistas to the post-modernistas to the avant-garde and social poets of Spain and Spanish America.

Relying directly or indirectly on Whitman's autobiographical writings as well as on Léon Bazalgette's Walt Whitman: L'Homme et son oeuvre (1908), early Hispanic biographers extend Whitman's own public relations image, one which approaches the titanic Walt Whitman persona of Leaves of Grass. Jorge Luis Borges would demythify this Whitman, distinguishing the "modest journalist" from "the semi-divine hero of Leaves of Grass" (qtd. in Santi 172). Octavio Paz on the other hand would argue simply: the "mask . . . is his true face" (qtd. in Santi 157).

Alegría calls the Catalan Cebriá Montoliú's Walt Whitman, L'homme i sa tasca (1913) the first systematic biography of the Hispanic world. Other significant critic-biographers are, as Alegría lists, A. Torres Ríoseco (Walt Whitman, 1922), who renewed Hispanic interest in Whitman after World War I; José Gabriel (Walt Whitman, la voz democrática de América, 1944); Luis Franco (Walt Whitman, 1945); and Miguel de Mendoza (Walt Whitman, 1944). Briefer readings include those of Enrique Gómez del Carrillo, who speaks like a benign Santayana, Luis Sánchez, Alberto Zum Felde, José Lezama Lima, and Armando Donoso, who like others after him yokes Whitman to Friedrich Nietzsche. Representing a demythified Whitman, Mauricio Gonzáles de la Garza culls the poet's prose for his Walt Whitman: Racista, imperialista, anti-mexicano (1971). To these writings the Spanish poet León Felipe would respond, "Walt has no biography. . . . His truth and his life are not in his prose. They are in his song" (Felipe 23).

Alvaro Armando Vasseur's 1912 Walt Whitman, poemas, published in several editions as the first Hispanic translation of Whitman, becomes, as Alegría observes, the breviary in which Hispanic writers first read from Leaves of Grass. Santi suggests that Vasseur's work, loosely translated from Italian and not English, both informs and reflects the second- and third-hand Whitman myth in Hispanic letters.

Other significant translations include Torres Ríoseco's Walt Whitman (1922); León Felipe's Walt Whitman: Canto a mí mismo (1941); Concha Zardoya's popular Okras escogidas (1946); Francisco Alexander's Hojas de hierba (1953), which includes Whitman's prefaces and informs Borges's Hojas de hierba (1969); Enrique Lopez Castellón's Canto a mí mismo and El Cálamo, Hijos de Adán (1981); Mauro Armiño's Canto de mí mismo (1984); and Alberto Manzano's Hojas de hierba (1984).

Rubén Darío (Nicaragua, 1867–1916), master of modernismo and "liberator" of Hispanic verse, merits a place comparable to Whitman's in his America's literary history. Conscious of this comparison, Rubén Darío both revered and petulantly dismissed Whitman, defending a New World art of the old and the noble with his famous lines, "the rest is yours, Democrat Walt Whitman." It is possible that Darío, unlike most of his contemporaries, read Whitman in English and soon honored this reading in his undervalued Azul sonnet, "Walt Whitman" (1890). Darío, the poet who wrote the anti-imperialist "A Roosevelt" (1905) in free "versos de Walt Whitman" and who in seeming about-face honored the United States in "Salutación al águila" (1906), revered not the nation of Roosevelt, but the ideal "América de Whitman." Darío subtly employed the "Yankee," his style, his name, to make this critical point. In his prose Darío refers repeatedly to the older poet and quotes from memory from "Salut au Monde!" It is in response to "Salut au Monde!" that Darío "talks back" to Whitman in his Americanist "Desde la Pampa," with the repeated "os saludo" ["I salute you"] returning Whitman's wave to the Argentine Pampas. And it is this Argentina that Darío celebrates with Whitmanic exuberance and enumeration in "Canto a la Argentina" (1916).

Pablo Neruda (Chile, 1904–1973), telluric and epic poet of America and of the people, declares, "I hold [Whitman] to be my greatest creditor" ("We Live" 41). In Neruda's "Oda a Walt Whitman," Whitman's hand, in a "mission of circulatory peace," leads the Chilean to an American identity ("Oda" 122). In Whitmanesque tribute to this identity, Neruda writes "Que despierte el leñador" ("Let the Railsplitter Awaken"). In a less tender poem, "Comienzo por invocar a Walt Whitman," Neruda invokes his mentor against Richard Nixon and U.S. violation. Though Neruda might be seen as the Whitmanesque poet par excellence, Alegría calls the similarities between Whitman and Neruda "illusory," and Santi maintains that Neruda resisted his predecessor's influence until the New World tribute Canto General (1950), the epic song of America with Whitmanic lists, repetition, and aphorism. However, Canto General parts ways with Leaves of Grass as an ideological tract in which "comrade" denotes Communism: Neruda shares Whitman's sensual materialism, but rejects the transcendental beliefs fundamental to the American poet's world view. Still, Neruda's own world view, humbly composed in Odas elementales (1954–1957), met with the popular success Whitman craved.

Jorge Luis Borges (Argentina, 1899–1986), the great metaphysical prankster and would-be gaucho, struggled with Whitman's influence, pronouncing him early on not only a great poet but "the only poet." Though amending this view, Borges's fascination with Whitman the poet of multiple masks continued in his prose and took shape in his poem "Camden, 1892," where he places the Good Gray Poet before a mirror. This characteristic Borgean preoccupation with identity informs essays like "Nota sobre Whitman" (Otras inquisiciones, 1960), "El otro Whitman" (Discusión, 1932) and "La nadaría de la personalidad" (Inquisiciones, 1925). In his philosophical inclusiveness, which invites the reader to share identity with the author, Borges parallels Whitman's own projection of the reader who will form a "general partnership" with the writer.

Octavio Paz (Mexico, 1914– ) has denied any direct Whitman influence. Yet his focus on the tensions between individual, national, and American identity as well as his transcendentalism and sensual investment in the earth suggest an innate kinship. As Santi notes, Whitman becomes a standard bearer for Paz's pan-Americanist ideology. In Paz's essay, "Walt Whitman, poeta de América" (El arco y la lira, 1967), Whitman, like Paz himself, becomes an inventor of America.

Some additional poets Alegría lists as important readers of Whitman are Leopoldo Lugones (Argentina); Whitman translator Alvaro Armando Vasseur and Carlos Sabat Ercasty (Uruguay); Ezequiel Martínez Estrada (Argentina); Ernesto Cardenal and José Coronel Urtecho (Nicaragua); César Vallejo (Peru); Gabriela Mistral, Vicente Huidobro, and Pablo de Rokha (Chile); Jacinto Fombona Pachano (Venezuela); Luis Llorens Torres (Puerto Rico); Melvin René Barahona (Guatemala); and Pedro Mir (Dominican Republic).

According to critic Concha Zardoya, Miguel de Unamuno (Spain, 1864–1936), who translated fragments of "Salut au Monde!," is the first Spanish writer to exhibit Whitman's direct influence. Unamuno translates Whitman's ideas in prose in "Sobre la consecuencia; la sinceridad" (1906). In "El canto adánico" (El espejo de la muerte, 1913) Unamuno honors Whitman's re-creative enumeration—which he adapts in his poem "Canción de la puesta del sol." Whitman's stylistic presence is strong in the innovative poems "El cristo de Velásquez" and "Credo poético" (1920). Unamuno shares with Whitman a passionate stake in immortality, fearless innovation, and mistrust of reason and classification.

Federico García Lorca (Spain, 1898–1936) bears no discernible traces of Whitman. Yet, the Andalusian giving voice to the guitar, the earth, the gypsies articulates his Spain as Whitman himself uttered his America. Lorca wrote "Oda a Walt Whitman" as part of his lyrical collection of angst in America, El poeta en Nueva York (1930). The Spanish poet pays tribute to Whitman's redeeming presence. Surreal with the logic of the body, the poem is a note of gratitude; it intimately addresses a Whitman with beard of butterflies as a fellow sublimated homosexual.

Alegría calls attention to Lorca's fellow poets of the Spanish Civil War who saw in Whitman a brother in arms. Rafael Alberti, neopopulist, declares Whitmanesquely, "I send you a greeting / and I call you comrades" (qtd. in Zardoya 12). Other antifascist poets, Antonio Machado and Gabriel Celaya, find example in Whitmanic tone and enumeration, and Jorge Guillén finds confirmation, if not influence, in Whitman as the poet who relates breathing with poetry.

León Felipe (Camino) (1884–1968), poet of "earth" (barro), owes to Whitman, according to Zardoya, poetic parallels in which biography, poetry, and destiny are equal terms. Felipe "becomes" Whitman in his 1941 translation of "Song of Myself," declaring in his long verse prologue, "And so what if I call myself Walt Whitman? I have justified this . . . old American poet of Democracy, I have extended him and I have contradicted him" (qtd. in Zardoya 10).


Alegría, Fernando. Walt Whitman en Hispanoamérica. Mexico City: Ediciones Studium, 1954.

Allen, Gay Wilson, and Ed Folsom, eds. Walt Whitman & the World. Iowa City: U of Iowa P, 1995.

Chocano, José Santos. Oro de Indias. Vol. 1. Santiago, Chile: Editorial Nascimiento, 1939.

Erkkila, Betsy. Whitman the Political Poet. New York: Oxford UP, 1989.

Felipe, León. Canto a mí mismo de Walt Whitman. Madrid: Visor, 1981.

Jaén, Didier Tisdel. Homage to Walt Whitman. Tuscaloosa: U of Alabama P, 1969.

Martí, Jose. "The Poet Walt Whitman." Trans. Arnold Chapman. Walt Whitman Abroad. Ed. Gay Wilson Allen. Syracuse: Syracuse UP, 1955. 201–213.

Neruda, Pablo. "Oda a Walt Whitman." Walt Whitman & the World. Ed. Gay Wilson Allen and Ed Folsom. Iowa City: U of Iowa P, 1995. 118–126.

____. "We Live in a Whitmanesque Age." Walt Whitman in Europe Today. Ed. Roger Asselineau and William White. Detroit: Wayne State UP, 1972. 41–42.

Nolan, James. Poet-Chief: The Native American Poetics of Walt Whitman and Pablo Neruda. Albuquerque: U of New Mexico P, 1994.

Perlman, Jim, Ed Folsom, and Dan Campion, eds. Walt Whitman: The Measure of His Song. Minneapolis: Holy Cow!, 1981.

Saldívar, José David. The Dialectic of America. Durham, N.C.: Duke UP, 1990.

Santi, Enrico Mario. "The Accidental Tourist: Walt Whitman in Latin America." Do the Americas Have a Common Literature? Ed. Gustavo Perez Firmat. Durham, N.C.: Duke UP, 1991. 156–176.

Sommer, Doris. "The Bard of Both Americas." Approaches to Teaching Whitman's "Leaves of Grass." Ed. Donald D. Kummings. New York: MLA, 1990. 159–167.

____. "Supplying Demand: Walt Whitman as the Liberal Self." Reinventing the Americas: Comparative Studies of Literature of the United States and Spanish America. Ed. Bell Gale Chevigny and Gary Laguardia. Cambridge: Cambridge UP, 1986. 68–91.

Zardoya, Concha. "Walt Whitman in Spain." Walt Whitman in Europe Today. Ed. Roger Asselineau and William White. Detroit: Wayne State UP, 1972. 9–12.


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