Skip to main content

American Primer, An (1904)

This is a small book of Walt Whitman's general thoughts and speculations on language, especially American English. Horace Traubel compiled and edited a sheaf of Whitman's hand-written notes to form the book, which he published in 1904 under the title An American Primer. The volume contains a short foreword by Traubel that includes the famous quotation of Whitman calling Leaves of Grass "only a language experiment." An alternative title for the notes, found on one slip of paper, is "The Primer of Words: For American Young Men and Women, For Literati, Orators, Teachers, Musicians, Judges, Presidents, &c."

The text of the Primer is based on 110 manuscript pages that are part of the Feinberg Collection in the Library of Congress. Most of the small sheets of paper on which Whitman wrote these language notes are of various pastel colors, and Traubel identifies them as scraps coming from the paper covers of the unbound copies of the first edition of Leaves. The notes date from the mid- to late-1850s, around the time that Whitman published his article on language, "America's Mightiest Inheritance," in Life Illustrated (1856). However, Traubel says that some of the notes show "later paper and later handwriting." In addition to the thirty-five pages of Whitman's text in the Primer and the five pages of Traubel's foreword, there are three pages of facsimiles of the original manuscript. The Primer has been reprinted by City Lights Books, San Francisco (1970), and by others.

Traubel says that Whitman had considered delivering a lecture based on the notes, but nothing ever came of those plans. Although the notes are in no way a finished product, their having been assembled as a unit has increased their prominence among the many collections of Whitman's manuscript jottings. Biographers, critics, and students of Whitman's poetry have used the contents of the Primer to gain insights into his theory of language and his notions on such topics as pronunciation, spelling, dialects, naming, and the difference between oral and written English.

The Primer contains a series of philosophic pronouncements on the English language in America, along with observations on the history of human language and the relation of that history to American English. Whitman refers to Noah Webster and makes indirect references to other research that he had done as part of his collecting of facts and information about language and its growth.

Whitman says, "Names are magic," and spends several pages offering examples of names, especially American place names that he judges most appropriate. He establishes two basic principles for geographic naming. The first is that all aboriginal names "sound good." Thus, if there is an Indian name for a place, such as "Ohio, Connecticut, Ottawa, Monongahela," let it stand. The second principle is that a name fits if it grows out of some feature, person, or historical occurrence associated with a place. He especially approves of slang terms and analogies that the common people so often make. He disapproves of borrowed, European names for American cities, states, rivers, or mountains, and he rejects Spanish saints' names in the West and Southwest. But he allows for the power of certain historical names, including Socrates, Christ, Alfred the Great, and George Washington.

Whitman speaks favorably of the English of African Americans, which he calls the "nigger dialect," and credits it with enriching the American vocabulary and pointing to the future development of American pronunciation for musical purposes, perhaps giving rise to an American grand opera. He expresses distaste for "Yankee" pronunciation, calling it nasal and flat.

The Primer has several lists of examples, reinforcing Whitman's various points. The longest list is of twenty-seven different types of vocabularies, arranged much like one of the catalogues in "Song of Myself" or other poems in Leaves. A series of commodities listed in the Primer (coal, iron, gold, hemp, wool) appear to be the rough material for section 14 of "Starting from Paumanok." There are, also, such characteristic Whitman predilections as his special spelling for "kosmos" and transcendental proverbs such as "All lies folded in names." The Primer repeats some of the same observations on the aptness of certain newspaper names and nicknames that Whitman made in his article "Slang in America" (1885). He registers his objection to naming months and days of the week for European mythological deities. Acting on such feelings in Leaves, he resorts to the Quaker usage of "First-Day" for Sunday and "Fourth-Month" for April.

As one who had experienced the disapproval of others, Whitman associates censorship with the deficient and unnatural elements of society and asserts that "the use of strong, cutting, beautiful, rude words" would be forever welcome to the common people. He asserts that the "Real Dictionary" of American English, when it is written, will include all words—the bad as well as the good. And the "Real Grammar" will be liberating rather than restrictive.

Whitman saw a firm connection between his stance as the poet who spoke for all and his encompassing interest in expression through language. Words grow from life. New developments, occupations, and scientific breakthroughs call for new words. The new continent and the new society forming on that continent call for fresh and accurate expression. Although it appeared after the poet's death, An American Primer is evidence of his habits of mind early in his poetic career and give us a glimpse of a portion of that "long foreground" that went into the intellectual and motivational formation of Walt Whitman.


Bauerlein, Mark. Whitman and the American Idiom. Baton Rouge: Louisiana State UP, 1991.

Dressman, Michael R. "'Names are Magic': Walt Whitman's Laws of Geographic Nomenclature." Names 26 (1978): 68–79.

Kramer, Michael P. "'A Tongue According': Whitman and the Literature of Language Study." Imagining Language in America: From the Revolution to the Civil War. By Kramer. Princeton: Princeton UP, 1992. 90–115.

Warren, James Perrin. "Dating Whitman's Language Studies." Walt Whitman Quarterly Review 1 (1983) 1–7.

____. Walt Whitman's Language Experiment. University Park: Pennsylvania State UP, 1990.

Whitman, Walt. An American Primer. Ed. Horace Traubel. Boston: Small, Maynard, 1904.

____. "The Primer of Words." Diary in Canada, Notebooks, Index. Vol. 3 of Daybooks and Notebooks. Ed. William White. New York: New York UP, 1978. 728–757.

Back to top