Selected Criticism

West, The American
Albin, C.D.
Print source:
J.R. LeMaster and Donald D. Kummings, eds., Walt Whitman: An Encyclopedia (New York: Garland Publishing, 1998), reproduced by permission.

For Walt Whitman, the American West represented a point of intersection between the concrete reality of the present and his own idealized dream of the nation's future. Although he never lived for an extensive period of time in the West and rarely traveled there, he did reserve the latter months of 1879 for what he referred to as "quite a western journey" (Specimen Days 850). He traveled from Philadelphia as far west as Colorado, finding himself impressed on an almost daily basis by the region's visual beauty and by the physical and spiritual endurance of its inhabitants. Not surprisingly, this trip helped to confirm one of his deepest intuitive beliefs: that the West was the place where his vision of the ideal American democracy would find its ultimate and definitive fruition.

Although Whitman was born in the East and lived most of his life in cities such as New York or Washington, D.C., he was still willing to say, in an interview published on 13 September 1879 by the St. Louis Daily Globe-Democrat, that he was "in sympathy and preference Western—better fitted for the Mississippi Valley." His sympathies lay with the West because, as he had previously written, it seemed probable that the very "spine-character of the States" would be located there (Democratic Vistas 952). He believed the region to be populated by sturdy, determined, unpretentious people, the kind of people who would become the collective progenitors of his golden American future. He wished to name himself among such people.

Significantly, the two men Whitman considered most representative of this Western ideal were Abraham Lincoln and Ulysses S. Grant. These were "vast-spread, average men," but they possessed "foregrounds of character altogether practical and real," accompanied by the "finest backgrounds of the ideal" (Specimen Days 854). Whitman knew historians would forever link these men with that great conflagration of the American past, the Civil War, yet he believed their efforts to preserve the Union sprang not merely from a commitment to a unified nation, but also from a commitment to an as yet unrealized American future. He believed their status as native westerners, as men accustomed to a constantly changing and retreating frontier, had helped to fortify them in their struggle to achieve an intangible and elusive ideal. Thus, his faith in a grand national future was bolstered by his assumption that the fellow citizens of Lincoln and Grant—citizens of the plains, prairies, and swelling Western cities—would possess the same instinctive dedication to the future as did his two representative men.

Whitman's own faith in the West as the great stage of the American future may be seen in Democratic Vistas, where many of his remarks about the region are pointedly placed in the context of the future. "In a few years," he declares, "the dominion-heart of America will be far inland, toward the West" (951). The same paragraph contains his speculation that the nation's capital may one day be moved far west and restructured according to newer and superior principles, the implication being that the physical movement westward will signify a moral and spiritual movement forward for the nation. Such a speculation contrasts sharply with those caustic passages in Democratic Vistas where Whitman rails against the materialism of the East and argues that, even though this materialism has created great cities, it has also created a superficial society that is spiritually dry, empty, and desolate. Exasperated by what he perceived as the shallow spirit of the American present, and equally troubled by an American past permanently seared by the horrors of the Civil War, he invested his hopes in the American future: "To-day, ahead, though dimly yet, we see, in vistas, a copious, sane, gigantic offspring" (Democratic Vistas 929).

Whitman's 1879 trip across the Great Plains to the Rockies helped confirm his belief that such an offspring would come from the gigantic American West. For him the region meant far more than mighty rivers, fertile soil, and apparently limitless natural resources. As he crossed the prairies he saw a length and breadth of land to which his Eastern eye was unaccustomed, and he came to feel the presence of a "vast Something, stretching out on its own unbounded scale, . . . combining the real and the ideal, and beautiful as dreams" (Specimen Days 853). He was sure that here, on this vast canvas, the great American epic of flesh and spirit would unfold, revealing the country's "distinctive ideas and distinctive realities" (854).

Much of this distinctiveness had to do with the particular kind of beauty Whitman encountered in the West, a beauty to which he believed he had been intuitively alluding in his own poetry. Looking out upon the jagged, looming majesty of a mountain peak, or the raw, river-forged scoop of a gorge, or even the opaque flow of a stream gone brown with clay and sediment, he could say to himself, "I have found the law of my own poems" (Specimen Days 855). This was a law—whether it be applied to nature, beauty, or art—that placed no predetermined restrictions upon form. As a result, when Whitman looked at the raw, elemental landscape of the West, he saw a landscape that seemed to confirm his own poetic instincts. Moreover, this landscape seemed somehow prophetic to him, as if its enormous scale and remarkable variety of forms held out a sure promise that the people who dwelt here would also achieve great scale and diversity. He knew the distinctive face of the West had been forged by tangible elements like sun, wind, rain, fire, and ice, but he believed a less tangible force, something akin to national destiny, was at work as well. This force would ensure that westerners of the future embodied both the real and ideal qualities of their land. In doing so, they would shape democracy into new, grand, and unanticipated forms.

At the end of 1879 Walt Whitman ended his western journey and returned to the East, having traveled, according to his own estimation, more than ten thousand miles. His mind was still bathed in memories of the immense landscape he had traversed, but the journey seemed to have wearied him as well. He wished to retire for a while to the small woods and creek where he felt most at home. Yet there was no question in his mind as to the worth of his journey. In one of his final entries on the West in Specimen Days, he asserts that no one can "know the real geographic, democratic, indissoluble American Union in the present, or suspect it in the future" without viewing the prairies, the states of the Midwest, or the Mississippi River (871). The fact that he had journeyed even farther west than these destinations may hint at his desire to think of himself as a truly Western man, as someone whose eyes instinctively turned toward the far horizon in search of an eternal and ideal tomorrow.


Eitner, Walter H. Walt Whitman's Western Jaunt. Lawrence: Regents Press of Kansas, 1981.

Fussell, Edwin. "Walt Whitman's Leaves of Grass." Frontier: American Literature and the American West. By Fussell. Princeton: Princeton UP, 1965. 397–441.

Hubach, Robert R. "Walt Whitman and the West." Diss. Indiana U, 1943.

Smith, Henry Nash. "Walt Whitman and Manifest Destiny." Virgin Land: The American West as Symbol and Myth. By Smith. Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard UP, 1950. 47–51.

Whitman, Walt. Democratic Vistas. Complete Poetry and Collected Prose. Ed. Justin Kaplan. New York: Library of America, 1982. 929–994.

____. Specimen Days. Complete Poetry and Collected Prose. Ed. Justin Kaplan. New York: Library of America, 1982. 689–926.


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