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Matthiessen, F.O. (1902–1950)

Harvard Professor of English from 1929 to his death in 1950, Francis Otto Matthiessen helped pioneer the scholarly study of American literature through his six book-length critical studies, numerous articles and reviews, and his efforts in establishing the program in American Civilization at Harvard in 1937. His most influential book, American Renaissance (1941), details the shared "devotion to the possibilities of democracy" enunciated in the writings of Ralph Waldo Emerson, Henry David Thoreau, Nathaniel Hawthorne, Herman Melville, and Walt Whitman through a deft interweaving of textual analysis and historical background (ix).

Matthiessen's chapters on Whitman follow his discussion of the "transcendental affirmation" of Emerson and Thoreau and its "counterstatement" by the "tragic writers" Hawthorne and Melville (179). Ever sensitive to Whitman's manipulations of language and poetic form, Matthiessen explores Leaves of Grass as, in Whitman's own words, "only a language experiment" (qtd. in Traubel viii). Matthiessen chronicles Whitman's exuberant culling from the "language of the street," which he considered the most vital of languages, to produce the poet's alternately acclaimed and reviled style. Matthiessen moves agilely from close readings of passages to broad cultural considerations and back again to consider also Whitman's debt to Quakerism, particularly Elias Hicks, as well as his enchantment with sermonic oratory, embodied in his tribute to Father Taylor. Matthiessen adroitly likens Whitman's poetic landscapes to the paintings of W.S. Mount, his realism to that of the artists Jean François Millet and Thomas Eakins. And he traces out the influence of Whitman's free-verse rhythms on Gerard Manley Hopkins's innovative sprung rhythm. Yet Matthiessen emerges ultimately ambivalent about Whitman's artistic accomplishments. Whitman's "inordinate and grotesque failures," he insists, "throw into clearer light his rare successes" (526). Nevertheless, Matthiessen's analysis of Whitman has proved insightful and provocative, and American Renaissance remains today a critical force in Whitman studies.


Cain, William E. F.O. Matthiessen and the Politics of Criticism. Madison: U of Wisconsin P, 1988.

Gunn, Giles B. F.O. Matthiessen: The Critical Achievement. Seattle: U of Washington P, 1975.

Matthiessen, F.O. American Renaissance: Art and Expression in the Age of Emerson and Whitman. New York: Oxford UP, 1941.

Stern, Frederick C. F.O. Matthiessen: Christian Socialist as Critic. Chapel Hill: U of North Carolina P, 1981.

Traubel, Horace. Foreword. An American Primer. By Walt Whitman. 1904. Stevens Point, Wis.: Holy Cow!, 1987. v–ix.

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