Commentary

Selected Criticism

Title:
"To a Historian" (1860)
Author:
Harris, Maverick Marvin
Print source:
J.R. LeMaster and Donald D. Kummings, eds., Walt Whitman: An Encyclopedia (New York: Garland Publishing, 1998), reproduced by permission.

When this poem first appeared in the third (1860) edition of Leaves of Grass, it was number 10 of sixteen new poems that were combined with six old ones to form a cluster titled "Chants Democratic." These poems, intended to sing of nationalistic purposes first mentioned in the Preface to the 1855 edition, actually trace Whitman's attempt to describe the fundamental basis of an ethical democracy. In the third edition, "To a Historian" consisted of fifteen lines, but it was trimmed to the present seven lines when the fourth (1867) edition broke up the "Chants Democratic" cluster and placed the poem in a new cluster called "Inscriptions," where it has remained ever since.

The poem prophesies the ideal man that the American of the future will be. Whitman holds his vision to be superior to that of the historian, for whereas the historian "celebrates bygones," he "project[s] the history of the future." The historian has limited vision, seeing only the "outward," the exhibited surface of the world's peoples, the life that has been rather than the life that can be. His approach is to consider humanity only in terms of politics in which the individual is ignored as he considers people as "aggregates." In contrast, Whitman treats of the inner individual, seeking the "pulse of life" which defines him but which he seldom overtly displays. Hence, as the "Chanter of Personality," he clearly grasps the essence of America's people, allowing him to project what the historian cannot envision: "the history of the future."

By calling himself the "habitan of the Alleghanies" (his spelling), the oldest mountains in the United States, Whitman associates himself with the ancient foundation and fundamentals of his beloved America. His use of such foreign words as habitan, however, has been criticized by some critics, who consider them a blemish and an ugly trick.

Appearing during the period of bitter conflict and eventual war between the states, North and South, the poem reminds readers that the true destiny of a nation lies not in the observable facts of its history but in the hidden character of its people.

Bibliography

Miller, Edwin Haviland. A Century of Whitman Criticism. Bloomington: Indiana UP, 1969.

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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