Selected Criticism

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

Properly speaking, for geographical and social reasons, Walt Whitman was not a transcendentalist, since transcendentalism was a New England phenomenon affecting American scholars and clergymen's relatives. Yet he can be considered the poet of transcendentalism whose coming Emerson had prophesied, but which he failed to be himself, because his poetry was more intellectual than inspired and was, besides, hampered by the straitjacket of traditional prosody. Emerson remained on the threshold of the Promised Land, but his works were the fountain-spring of Whitman's poetry, if we are to believe what Whitman himself said on several occasions, notably to J.T. Trowbridge in 1860: "I was simmering, simmering, simmering; Emerson brought me to a boil" (qtd. in Trowbridge 166). Trowbridge adds: "He freely admitted he could never have written his poems if he had not first 'come to himself,' and that Emerson helped him to 'find himself'" (166). No wonder Whitman addressed Emerson as "Master" in the open letter he appended to the 1856 edition of Leaves of Grass. Later, however, he tried to minimize and even deny Emerson's influence, particularly through the medium of John Burroughs's Notes on Walt Whitman as Poet and Person: "[U]p to the time he published the quarto edition [of 1855] . . . [he] had never read the Essays or Poems of Mr. Emerson at all. This is positively true" (16–17). He was even more categorical in 1887 in a letter to W.S. Kennedy: "It is of no importance whether I had read Emerson before starting L of G or not. The fact happens to be positively that I had not" (Correspondence 4:69).

Actually, whether Emerson was the direct source of Whitman's ideas or not, the fact remains that there are striking similarities between the main themes of Leaves of Grass and the basic tenets of New England transcendentalism. First of all, both Emerson and Whitman had the revelation of the existence of God in the course of a mystical experience. "Standing on the bare ground," Emerson felt "the currents of the Universal Being circulate through me" and "became part or parcel of God" (Emerson 10). Similarly, Whitman on "a transparent summer morning" discovered "the peace and knowledge that pass all the argument of the earth" and knew that the "spirit of God is the brother of my own" ("Song of Myself," section 5). He never used the word "oversoul," as did Emerson, but his "general soul" ("Chanting the Square Deific," section 4) also circulates through everything that exists and consequently makes all creatures equally divine, men in particular. For Whitman as for Emerson, the true miracles were not those which are reported in the Bible, but the humblest existences around us, the "limitless . . . leaves stiff or drooping in the fields, / And brown ants . . . And mossy scabs of the worm fence, heap'd stones, elder, mullein and poke-weed" ("Song of Myself," section 5). Whitman knew "of nothing else but miracles . . . To me every hour of the light and dark is a miracle, / Every cubic inch of space is a miracle" ("Miracles"). The catalogues he so frequently inserted in his poems were catalogues of miracles. In his eyes, all things were both physical and spiritual presences. "The general soul" was the sum total of innumerable individual souls. According to him, material things have a secret meaning which transcends them. They are symbols; they carry messages. "I hear and behold God in every object. . . . I find letters from God dropt in the street and every one is sign'd by God's name" ("Song of Myself," section 48). Grass is "the handkerchief of the Lord . . . Bearing the owner's name someway in the corners, that we may see and remark, and say Whose?" ("Song of Myself," section 6). "Surely there is something more in each of the trees, some living soul. . . . O spirituality of things!" ("Song at Sunset"). In the same way, for Emerson, "the world is a temple whose walls are covered with emblems, pictures and commandments of the Deity" (454).

Transcendentalism, as Emerson pointed out, was a form of idealism: "[T]he Idealism of the present day acquired the name of Transcendental from the use of that term by Immanuel Kant, of Königsberg . . ." (198). There were times when Whitman, too, tended towards idealism: "May-be the things I perceive, the animals, plants, men, hills, shining and flowing waters, . . . may-be these are (as doubtless they are) only apparitions, and the real something has yet to be known" ("Of the Terrible Doubt of Appearances"). Transcendentalism is a form of monism, but Whitman's implicit metaphysics is based on the dualism matter-spirit.

For the transcendentalists as for Whitman, the poet is a seer; he sees the "vast similitude" which "interlocks all" ("On the Beach at Night Alone"). In the dislocated physical world made up of apparently separate objects in which we live, he knows how to reattach them to the great Whole. He has a sense of the infinity and unity of space and time. He is constantly aware of the existence of the soul, "the permanent identity, the thought, the something . . . that fully satisfies . . . That something is the All, and the idea of the All, with the accompanying idea of eternity" (Prose Works 2:420). Poets are thus constantly in touch with the divine something which speaks through them. "The poets," Whitman wrote in the margin of an article on poetry, "are the divine mediums—through them come spirits and materials to all the people, men and women" (qtd. in Asselineau 95). They are inspired and their songs spring from "irresistible impulses" (["So Far, and So Far, and on Toward the End"]). True poems are the result of an inner urge and their growth is organic. For Emerson a poem, "like the spirit of a plant or an animal . . . has an architecture of its own and adorns nature with a new thing" (450); for Thoreau similarly, "As naturally as the oak bears an acorn, and the vine a gourd, man bears a poem" (74); and for Whitman, "The rhyme and uniformity of perfect poems show the free growth of metrical laws, and bud from them as unerringly and loosely as lilacs and roses on a bush" (Prose Works 2:440).

There is thus a constant parallelism between Leaves of Grass and Emerson's thought, but actually, for all his admiration and possible indebtedness to Emerson, Whitman did not in all respects follow the example of his so-called Master. He parted company with him and boldly struck out for himself, preferring the open road leading to the future rather than the beaten tracks of the genteel tradition.

The greatest originality of Leaves of Grass and Whitman's most important departure from transcendentalism was the place he gave to the body. In his poems the word "body" is surrounded by the same halo of mystery and infinity as the word "soul" in the works of other poets. He never uses the word "soul" without immediately reminding us of the existence of the body: "I am the poet of the Body and I am the poet of the Soul" ("Song of Myself," section 21). "I believe materialism is true and spiritualism is true, I reject no part" ("With Antecedents," section 2). He went even farther; he exalted sex, which was not even mentioned or alluded to by the New England transcendentalists, heirs of the Pilgrim Fathers' puritanism. "I believe in the flesh and the appetites," Whitman proudly proclaims, and he describes himself as "[t]urbulent, fleshy, sensual, eating, drinking and breeding" ("Song of Myself," section 24). He was no "transparent eyeball" like Emerson (Emerson 10). He had a solid body covered with feelers all over; he was "the caresser of life" ("Song of Myself," section 13). Emerson and Thoreau would not willingly have subscribed to such a statement as "[c]opulation is no more rank to me than death is" ("Song of Myself," section 24). Such sensuality was alien to the transcendentalists.

Another difference was that Whitman, although he sometimes referred to himself as "solitary," believed in man "en-masse" and had faith in democracy: "mine a word of the modern, the word En-Masse," he declares in "Song of Myself" (section 23), and adds, "I speak the pass-word primeval, I give the sign of democracy" (section 24). Emerson, on the other hand, affirms, "Society is good when it does not violate me, but best when it is likest to solitude" (195). He felt that the "solitary and fastidious manners" of the transcendentalists "not only withdraw them from the conversation, but from the labors of the world . . . They do not even like to vote" (202–203). There was a considerable difference between living in rural Concord or Cambridge and living in cosmopolitan and turbulent New York. It was difficult for a New Yorker to ignore politics.

Despite a number of differences, Whitman was fundamentally in communion with the transcendentalists. He was like them the priest of a new religion without priests, although he was in a way excommunicated by Emerson, who did not include him in his Parnassus. A further resemblance between Emerson and Whitman is that neither the pure transcendentalists nor Whitman were set in their attitudes. They were equally open-minded and contemptuous of rational consistency. "Do I contradict myself? / Very well then I contradict myself," said Whitman" ("Song of Myself," section 51), echoing Emerson's "Suppose you should contradict yourself, what then?" (265).


Allen, Gay Wilson. The New Walt Whitman Handbook. 1975. New York: New York UP, 1986.

Asselineau, Roger. The Evolution of Walt Whitman: The Creation of a Book. Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard UP, 1962.

Burroughs, John. Notes on Walt Whitman as Poet and Person. 1867. New York: Haskell House, 1971.

Carpenter, Frederick Ives. Emerson Handbook. New York: Hendricks House, 1953.

Emerson, Ralph Waldo. Essays and Lectures. Ed. Joel Porte. New York: Library of America, 1983.

Fredman, Stephen. The Grounding of American Poetry: Charles Olson and the Emersonian Tradition. Cambridge: Cambridge UP, 1993.

Gura, Philip F., and Joel Myerson, eds. Critical Essays on American Transcendentalism. Boston: Hall, 1982.

Loving, Jerome. "Walt Whitman." The Transcendentalists: A Review of Research and Criticism. Ed. Joel Myerson. New York: MLA, 1984. 375–383.

Matthiessen, F.O. American Renaissance. London: Oxford UP, 1941.

Thoreau, Henry David. A Week on the Concord and Merrimack Rivers; Walden, or, Life in the Woods; The Maine Woods; Cape Cod. Ed. Robert F. Sayre. New York: Library of America, 1985.

Trowbridge, John Townsend. "Reminiscences of Walt Whitman." Atlantic Monthly 89 (1902): 163–175.

Whitman, Walt. The Correspondence. Ed. Edwin Haviland Miller. 6 vols. New York: New York UP, 1961–1977.

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


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