Selected Criticism

Teaching of Whitman's Works
Kummings, Donald D.
Print source:
J.R. LeMaster and Donald D. Kummings, eds., Walt Whitman: An Encyclopedia (New York: Garland Publishing, 1998), reproduced by permission.

The teaching of Walt Whitman begins with a good and appropriate edition of his writings. On the college level, the Norton Critical Edition (1973), edited by Sculley Bradley and Harold W. Blodgett, has been among the most popular, and among the most influential, having introduced Leaves of Grass to several generations of students. The Norton is notable for its authoritative texts, extensive footnotes, and wide-ranging selection of criticism. Because the Norton is now sorely in need of updating, its critical essays and bibliographies in particular, a revised edition is being prepared (by Michael Moon). Another highly regarded college-level edition is Justin Kaplan's Complete Poetry and Collected Prose (1982)—a volume in the distinguished Library of America series. Featuring both the 1855 and 1891–1892 Leaves, as well as ample selections of prose writings, the Library of America edition is the most comprehensive one-volume collection of Whitman ever published.

Other good "teaching editions," each of which is suitable for students at all levels, include Walt Whitman's "Leaves of Grass": The First (1855) Edition (1959), edited by Malcolm Cowley; Walt Whitman: Complete Poetry and Selected Prose (1959), edited by James E. Miller, Jr.; "Leaves of Grass" and Selected Prose (1981), edited by Lawrence Buell; Walt Whitman: The Complete Poems (1975), edited by Francis Murphy; Walt Whitman: "Leaves of Grass" (1990), edited by Jerome Loving; Walt Whitman: "Leaves of Grass" (1955), edited by Gay Wilson Allen; and The Portable Walt Whitman (1973), edited by Mark Van Doren and revised by Malcolm Cowley. Each of these contains reliable texts, an illuminating introduction, and helpful notes, each is available in paperback, and each is more modestly priced than either the Norton or Library of America edition.

Few instructors, if any, assign Leaves of Grass in its entirety, at least as far as the 1891–1892 or Deathbed edition is concerned. The question becomes, then, which Whitman works to teach, and of course the answer depends on the level on which one is teaching and the nature of the course for which one is responsible. Nevertheless, for most experienced teachers any list of Whitman's greatest poems would include "Song of Myself," "Crossing Brooklyn Ferry," "Out of the Cradle Endlessly Rocking," "When Lilacs Last in the Dooryard Bloom'd," and "The Sleepers." Other poems frequently assigned include selections from (or, in advanced courses, all of) the "Children of Adam," "Calamus," and "Drum-Taps" clusters. Still others are "Passage to India," "There was a Child Went Forth," "As I Ebb'd with the Ocean of Life," "A Noiseless Patient Spider," "When I Heard the Learn'd Astronomer," "The Dalliance of the Eagles," "To a Locomotive in Winter," "This Compost," "Starting from Paumanok," "Song of the Open Road," "A Song of the Rolling Earth," "Prayer of Columbus," "Chanting the Square Deific," and "So Long!" Seasoned instructors tend to agree that Whitman's best prose is to be found in the Preface to the 1855 Leaves, "A Backward Glance O'er Travel'd Roads," Democratic Vistas, Specimen Days, and An American Primer. Though meritorious in its own right, Whitman's prose is often useful in contextualizing his poems.

To what secondary sources should an instructor turn for guidance in preparing a class or course on Whitman? This is a difficult question, for the poet's writings have inspired a massive amount of scholarship. Any short-list of "essential books" is necessarily partial and bound to exclude something that no doubt deserves to be included. With the hope that this caveat will be kept firmly in mind, here are some suggestions: (1) biographies: Gay Wilson Allen's Solitary Singer, David S. Reynolds's Walt Whitman's America, Justin Kaplan's Walt Whitman: A Life, and Paul Zweig's Walt Whitman: The Making of the Poet; (2) general introductions: Allen's New Walt Whitman Handbook, James E. Miller's Critical Guide to "Leaves of Grass," and Roger Asselineau's Evolution of Walt Whitman: The Creation of a Book; (3) critical studies: Betsy Erkkila's Whitman the Political Poet, Harold Aspiz's Walt Whitman and the Body Beautiful, Edwin Haviland Miller's Walt Whitman's Poetry: A Psychological Journey, Jerome Loving's Emerson, Whitman, and the American Muse, Kenneth M. Price's Whitman and Tradition, C. Carroll Hollis's Language and Style in "Leaves of Grass," M. Wynn Thomas's Lunar Light of Whitman's Poetry, Ed Folsom's Walt Whitman's Native Representations, M. Jimmie Killingsworth's Whitman's Poetry of the Body, David Kuebrich's Minor Prophecy: Walt Whitman's New American Religion, V.K. Chari's Whitman in the Light of Vedantic Mysticism, and Kerry C. Larson's Whitman's Drama of Consensus; (4) anthologies of criticism: Walt Whitman: The Measure of His Song, edited by Jim Perlman, Ed Folsom, and Dan Campion; Walt Whitman: A Critical Anthology, edited by Francis Murphy; and Walt Whitman and the World, edited by Gay Wilson Allen and Ed Folsom; (5) background studies: F.O. Matthiessen's American Renaissance, Lawrence Buell's Literary Transcendentalism, David S. Reynolds's Beneath the American Renaissance, Robert K. Martin's Homosexual Tradition in American Poetry, and Roy Harvey Pearce's Continuity of American Poetry; (6) bibliographies: Joel Myerson's Walt Whitman: A Descriptive Bibliography, Scott Giantvalley's Walt Whitman, 1838–1939: A Reference Guide, and Donald D. Kummings's Walt Whitman, 1940–1975: A Reference Guide.

Many instructors enhance their teaching of Whitman's writings through use of audiovisual materials, aids such as facsimile editions; photographs; slide programs; illustrations; reproductions of paintings; compact discs, audiocassettes, and records; films, filmstrips, and videocassettes; and original or reprinted nineteenth-century materials (for example, newspapers, works of popular literature, political pamphlets, reform tracts, and physiology and sex manuals). Space limitations here preclude the possibility of providing a thorough survey of resources, but a few recent items can be noted. One of these is a superb facsimile—indeed, the most accurate facsimile to date—of the 1855 Leaves of Grass. It was published in 1992, the centennial of Whitman's death, by the Library of American Poets, 92 Barrow Street, New York, New York 10014, and can be purchased for one hundred dollars. The most complete collection of photographs of Whitman—accompanied by detailed notes—can be found in a special double issue of the Walt Whitman Quarterly Review (Vol. 4, Nos. 2–3, 1986–1987). Now available on audiotape (for ten dollars from the WWQR) is what appears to be an 1889 or 1890 Edison-cylinder recording of Whitman himself reading four lines of his 1888 poem "America." One of the best film treatments of the poet is Walt Whitman (1987), a one-hour video program that is part of a biographical and critical series entitled Voices and Visions: Modern American Poetry. Also excellent is the Canadian film Beautiful Dreamers (1992), directed by John Kent Harrison. Starring Rip Torn as Whitman, the film portrays a dramatic episode in the relationship between the poet and Richard Maurice Bucke.

Pedagogical resources on Whitman have recently increased substantially with the publication of The Teachers & Writers Guide to Walt Whitman (1991), edited by Ron Padgett, and Approaches to Teaching Whitman's "Leaves of Grass" (1990), edited by Donald D. Kummings. The Padgett volume contains nineteen essays, all by poets, about teaching Whitman's work and about using that work to inspire students to write their own poetry and prose. The essays are mainly directed toward elementary and secondary school teachers, and many provide practical exercises and suggestions that can be adapted for classrooms from kindergarten through college. Particularly noteworthy among the essays are Kenneth Koch's "Whitman's Words," Gary Lenhart's "Whitman's Informal History of His Times: Democratic Vistas and Specimen Days," and Bill Zavatsky's "Teaching Whitman in High School." Padgett concludes the book with a nine-page annotated bibliography of "Whitman Resources."

The Kummings volume contains essays written by nineteen college teachers and Whitman scholars. Aimed primarily at those who instruct undergraduates, the essays are grouped under four headings: "Teaching 'Song of Myself,'" "Teaching Other Major Works," "Whitman in the Lower-Division Course," and "Whitman on the Upper Level." Essayists explore a broad range of subjects and issues central to Whitman studies—narrative techniques, elements of language and style, prosodic innovations, biographical concerns, literary relations, cultural backgrounds, philosophical perspectives, and strategies for interpreting individual poems and prose works. The collection as a whole reflects a variety of pedagogical philosophies and methodologies and addresses a variety of teaching situations, from introductory writing classes and required surveys to specialized upper-division courses. The Approaches volume begins with a lengthy chapter, written by the editor, on "Materials"—that is, on preferred editions of Leaves of Grass, required and recommended student readings, essential secondary studies, and valuable teaching aids. "Materials" discusses in some detail most of the books mentioned earlier in this essay.


Armistead, J.M. "Ending with Whitman." Journal of English Teaching Techniques 7 (1974): 14–21.

Blodgett, Harold W. "Teaching 'Song of Myself.'" Emerson Society Quarterly 22 (1961): 2–3.

Bradley, Sculley. "The Teaching of Whitman." College English 23 (1962): 618–622.

Freed, Richard. "Teaching Whitman to College Freshmen." English Record 29.1 (1978): 9–12.

Gerber, John C. "Varied Approaches to 'When Lilacs Last in the Dooryard Bloom'd.'" Reflections on High School English. NDEA Institute Lectures 1965. Ed. Gary Tate. Tulsa: U of Tulsa, 1966. 214–230.

Katz, Sandra L. "A Reconsideration of Walt Whitman: A Teaching Approach." Walt Whitman Review 27 (1981): 70–74.

Kummings, Donald D., ed. Approaches to Teaching Whitman's "Leaves of Grass." New York: MLA, 1990.

Marx, Leo. "Democratic Vistas: Notes for a Discussion." Emerson Society Quarterly 22 (1961): 12–15.

Miller, James E., Jr. "The Mysticism of Whitman: Suggestions for a Seminar Discussion." Emerson Society Quarterly 22 (1961): 15–18.

Padgett, Ron, ed. The Teachers & Writers Guide to Walt Whitman. New York: Teachers & Writers Collaborative, 1991. 197–206.

Romano, Tom. "Of Whitman and Friend." English Journal 73 (1984): 26–27.

Sealts, Merton M., Jr. "Melville and Whitman." Melville Society Extracts 50 (1982): 10–12.


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