Selected Criticism

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

The analogy of poetry to leaves of grass immediately suggests a certain romantic preference for nature over artifice. For all its natural organicism, however, the very title of Whitman's book punningly invokes its own artifice, the fact that it comes in printed "leaves" or pages, and indeed, Whitman returns to this pun over and over in his poetry, worrying over, or, perhaps, insisting on the technological echo in Leaves of Grass, rather than attempting to deny it.

This traditionally romantic sense of an opposition between natural immediacy and technological artifice continues to inform important, recent works of cultural criticism on Whitman, in which technology figures as the symbol and agent of the alienating and dehumanizing social transformations brought about by the rise of industrial capitalism in the nineteenth century. For M. Wynn Thomas, in The Lunar Light of Whitman's Poetry (1987), Leaves expresses Whitman's ambivalent attempts to come to terms with inescapable technological changes which were eroding the possibilities for individual autonomy, and social community, in the United States. In some ways the romantic continuity is even clearer in Disseminating Whitman (1991), Michael Moon's important study of Whitman's homosexual poetics, even though Moon does not address issues of technology directly. For Moon, the sexual body takes the place of nature as a kind of poetic touchstone prior to all artificial mediation, but Whitman's drive to free this body from the repressive toils of a bourgeois capitalist society is finally frustrated, he contends, by the mediating form of the poetic text. For both Moon and Thomas, then, the book—what might be called the literary technology of Leaves of Grass—is a kind of ineradicable residue of technology, and thus an ultimate barrier to Whitman's radical drive to make intimate contact with his readers.

In contrast to this new work on Whitman, with its radical anti-technological and anticapitalist bias, an older tradition of cultural studies, exemplified by Leo Marx's The Machine in the Garden and Henry Nash Smith's Virgin Land, has described a Whitman whose career displays something more like a romanticism of technology itself. In the 1840s, the New York journalist known as Walter Whitman embraced a westward-looking ideology of American manifest destiny, an ideology which expressed itself, as Marx argued, in symbolic fusions of frontier pastoralism with technological futurism. Walter Whitman found this technological romanticism in the democratic politics of the Free Soil party, which was committed above all to preserving open western lands for an egalitarian economy of entrepreneurial capitalism. The raw nature of the frontier, for theorists of free soil such as Horace Greeley or Henry C. Carey, was literally a kind of proto-industrial entity, a natural factory, or capital fund, waiting for human agents to develop it.

This ideology appears, largely intact, in poems from Leaves such as "Song of the Broad-Axe" (1856), "The Return of the Heroes" (1867), and "Passage to India"(1871). What is startlingly original in Leaves is its transformation of the individualist boosterism of free soil into a complex poetics of the self. Two broad insights, one psychological and one bodily, may be said to underlie this transformation. First, Walt Whitman located in the psychological depths of the self the endlessly progressive, open-ended historical drive of manifest destiny, so that selfhood, for him, came to mean a sense of perpetual incompletion, of always unsatisfied desire. As a consequence of this personal identification with the technological romance of manifest destiny, Walt Whitman's poetic persona can appear alternately as a romantic rebel, bursting through social conventions on his journey to the heart of nature, or as the poetic embodiment of a technologically-driven American imperialism, who "colonizes the Pacific, the archipelagoes," as he writes in "Years of the Modern"(1865), "[w]ith the steamship, the electric telegraph, the newspaper, the wholesale engines of war."

Second, Whitman imagined the human body as a microcosmic field for this fusion of natural and technological drives: the body, like the locomotives or steamships which he described (in his 1856 letter to Emerson) as "resistless splendid poems" (Whitman 737), was a kind of engine for the generation, and vehicle for the transmission, of an inexhaustible, progressive desire. His masterpiece, in this regard, is "Crossing Brooklyn Ferry" (1856), where a ride on the ferry across the East River provokes his epiphany that to be a self, located in a body, is to be an essentially mobile entity, in endless, progressive movement towards the future; the ferry is both a symbol and literally a component of selfhood thus conceived. Thus at poem's end he "plants" within himself the machinery of industrial civilization, assimilating its momentum and power to his own. Factories, ships, ferries, the "dumb, beautiful ministers" (section 9) of human desire, are grafted onto Leaves of Grass.

As Moon and Thomas contend, however, the vector of Whitman's desire aims most characteristically at physical intimacy with other human beings. Here the pun of Leaves takes on a positive meaning which cannot adequately be explained in terms of hostility to artifice or technological mediation: the book—the physical artifact, print, pages, and binding—becomes not an obstacle to intimacy, but the literary vehicle of an intimacy which enables him symbolically to extend his physical presence beyond the limits set by time or space; this accounts for his expressed desires literally and figuratively to touch even those readers who will come to his book years or generations after his death. One may grant that Whitman's drive for intimacy has radical implications, then, as these recent critics have compellingly argued, but one is left with the paradox that this poetic intimacy is grounded, as it were, in the apparatuses and technologies of industrial civilization. "I was chilled with the cold types and cylinder and wet paper between us," he writes in "A Song for Occupations" (1855); "I must pass with the contact of bodies and souls." Here the technologies of a modern publishing industry, for all their "chilling," alienating power, become the visible vehicle for Whitman's poetic incarnation as a kind of bodily poem in the presence of his readers.


Foner, Eric. Free Soil, Free Labor, Free Men. New York: Oxford UP, 1970.

Greeley, Horace. An Overland Journey. London: Knopf, 1963.

Kasson, John. Civilizing the Machine: Technology and Republican Values in America, 1776–1900. New York: Grossman, 1976.

Marx, Leo. The Machine in the Garden. New York: Oxford, 1964.

Matthiessen, F.O. American Renaissance. New York: Oxford UP, 1941.

Moon, Michael. Disseminating Whitman: Revision and Corporeality in "Leaves of Grass." Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard UP, 1991.

Morrison, Rodney J. Henry C. Carey and American Economic Development. Philadelphia: Transactions of the American Philosophical Society, 1986.

Mulcaire, Terry. "Publishing Intimacy in Leaves of Grass." ELH 60 (1993): 471–501.

Smith, Henry Nash. Virgin Land: The American West as Symbol and Myth. Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard UP, 1950.

Thomas, M. Wynn. The Lunar Light of Whitman's Poetry. Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard UP, 1987.

Whitman, Walt. Leaves of Grass: Comprehensive Reader's Edition. Ed. Harold W. Blodgett and Sculley Bradley. New York: New York UP, 1965.


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