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Catel, Jean (1891–1950)

Jean Catel was the first French academic critic who undertook a thorough study of Leaves of Grass. He did his research at Harvard and the Library of Congress after World War Ⅰ and obtained a doctor's degree at the Sorbonne. His two dissertations were published. The major one was entitled Walt Whitman: La naissance du poète (1929). The minor one was on Rythme et langage dans la Ire édition des "Leaves of Grass" (1930). Catel was a poet and an artist by temperament, and, unlike Léon Bazalgette, was more interested in Whitman's aesthetics than in his politics. In La naissance du poète he rejects all previous interpretations of Whitman's personality. He does not, like Richard Maurice Bucke, need a mystical experience to explain the birth of the poet nor, like Henry Binns, a romantic love affair in New Orleans. By means of a searching analysis of the rough drafts and text of the 1855 Leaves, Catel reached the conclusion that Whitman originally was a maladjusted and introverted young man who found compensation for his failings and failures in poetry. His poems surged out of his unconscious, liberating his homosexual eroticism and everything American society obliged him to repress. They were the expression of his autoeroticism and enabled him to build up his "identity," his soul, free of external constraints. Catel argues that Whitman identified himself with what his imagination called up and, thanks to Emerson's transcendentalism, succeeded in spiritualizing the physical world. The result was a form of poetry which anticipated symbolism.

In Rythme et langage Catel insists on the oral character, the "vocal style," of Leaves of Grass and shows how much it owes to the spoken language and to oratory and its rhythms, primacy being given to rhythm over meaning. Catel also did pioneer work by publishing The Eighteenth Presidency! (1928) for the first time. He had the luck of finding a set of the proofs in a Boston bookshop. He had it translated by Sylvia Beach and Adrienne Monnier and the translation was published in Le Navire d'Argent (1 March 1926).


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

Pucciani, Oreste F. The Literary Reputation of Walt Whitman in France. 1943. New York: Garland, 1987.

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