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The First American Poet


Walt Whitman—Justice at last—A Great Poet Completes a Great Work.

The announcement was made some time ago that Walt Whitman was in Boston personally superintending the publication of his poems under the title of "Leaves of Grass," the name used in issuing his first thin volume, which threw all the conventional critics into spasms of laughter and disgust. But twenty years have wrought a mighty change. Whitman has steadily grown in favor in Europe and hence his own countrymen have taken him up and have gradually come to see that a great and original poet has been among them.

James R. Osgood & Co., of Boston, have just issued a volume of 382 pages containing Whitman's complete works. It is now discovered that from the beginning the poet had a purpose to which he has steadily adhered; that for thirty years he has been laboring on a great work with one aim, and that what seemed fragmentary were the parts of a great whole, the segments of a mighty circle, which the purblind public could not see or comprehend at one view.

The Pioneer Press a few days ago noticed these poems in a column article, doing justice to the poems and the poet. From England and America we expect to hear a reversal of the judgment of the flippant and shallow critics of twenty years ago and henceforth Walt Whitman will take a permanent place in history as the father and founder of a distinctively American literature.

We rejoice at this, for we were among those who first hailed Whitman as a poetic star of great magnitude rising over the horizon. In the year 1860, we published a literary paper called "The Fireside," in which we devoted a page to Whitman, quoting from the Westminster Review an adverse criticism and taking issue with the shallow reviewer.1 The British review thus spoke of the poems:

In form these poems, if poems they can be called, are composed of irregular rhythmical lines, after the manner of Tupper, and in fact they may be described by the following equation: as Tupper is to English Humdrum, so is Walt Whitman to American Rowdy.

That a drunken Helot should display himself without shame in the market place, speaks sad reproach to the public that does not scourge him back to his cellar.

To this the Cincinnati Commercial added:

This is deserved, and yet there are dirty dogs and dunces who praise Whitman's indecency, and call him a "masculine poet" because he is an obscure ass.

In reply to this we said twenty-one years ago, page 106 of the "Fireside":

Nevertheless, Walt Whitman is a poet. We expected better things of the Westminster Review. The above is of that shallow kind of criticism which flounders about on the surface and cannot reach down and feel the drift and great undercurrent of a work. Whitman is as much a word-painter as Bryant and a great deal more original, simple and masculine. No writer has ever given such a complete and natural picture of the external life of America. The man who is too much shocked by its "indecency" to find any beauty in "Leaves of Grass," must have a very tasty taste. Whitman is a poet, but a poet rather in the rough.

We envy Mr. Conway, of the "Dial," his remark, viz: "Walt Whitman has set the pulses of America to music."2 There is more justness and appreciation, and comprehensive criticism in that short sentence than in all the conservative critics have said about Whitman.

We well remember how the "thothiety" editors and the smart youths whose conception of poetry extended only to "Marco Bozzaris" and "Hohenlinden" jeered at these poems!3 How they referred to the poet himself as a product of the "Brooklyn Flats" and as the "red-shirted omnibus driver" of the metropolis. Yet Walt Whitman has made a profound impression on his time. And while he will probably not be generally read any more than Chaucer is. Yet the time will come when Whitman will be looked upon as the father of an American literature, that is of a literature distinctively and in all respects American, without any kingly, or monarchical or European influences in it.—He has laid the foundations, started the idea, of a genuine Democratic, New World, thoroughly American literature, and after him will come some great poet who will be the Shakspeare to this Chaucer. Moreover he is a genuine American man, the most original and truest Democrat of his time. The man is greater than his poems. His works, as the expression of a thoroughly original, democratic, human being, are invaluable, and on this foundation some mighty genius hereafter will build a literature and the gates of hell and time shall not prevail against it. Longfellow, Bryant, Whittier, Lowell and the rest will be remembered in the Cyclopedias as poets who did creditable work in English literature, but Whitman and his class will loom over the future as the founders and makers of an American literature.


1. Westminster Review 74 n.s. 18 (October 1860), 590. [back]

2. Moncure Conway, Dial (August 1860), 517-19. [back]

3. "Marco Bozzaris," poem about the fighter for Greek independence by the American poet Fitz-Greene Halleck; "Hohenlinden," a poem about a battle in the Napoleonic wars by Thomas Campbell, a Scottish poet. [back]

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