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Herder, Johann Gottfried von (1744–1803)

Johann Gottfried Herder's name is conspicuously absent from Whitman's records. The sole significant reference appears in the conclusion of "A Backward Glance O'er Travel'd Roads" (1888): "what Herder taught to the young Goethe, that really great poetry is always (like the Homeric or Biblical canticles) the result of a national spirit, and not the privilege of a polish'd and select few" (Whitman 672). The widely held assumption that Whitman was closely familiar with Herder's writings is highly questionable.

Nevertheless, Herder was very much present in Whitman's culture. His scholarly, philosophical, and theological writings were widely available in translation, and American students studying at Göttingen brought Herderian thought into American scholarship. The foremost American exponent of Herder's conceptions of nation and national culture was George Bancroft, who applied them to the American search for identity and nationhood. Thus, Whitman may well have become acquainted with Herder by tapping mainstream American sources.

Whitman's reference accurately reflects Herder's double origin in the enlightenment and in a proto-romantic nationalism. Whereas Herder's writings are frequently critiqued as providing the philosophical basis for (German) nationalism, Whitman emphasizes the democratic quality of Herder's "national spirit," and his own attempts to write "songs" that appeal to the masses and are based on popular tradition can be considered in that tradition.


Bluestein, Gene. "The Advantages of Barbarism: Herder and Whitman's Nationalism." Journal of the History of Ideas 24.1 (1963): 115–126.

Mueller-Vollmer, Kurt. "Herder and the Formation of an American National Consciousness during the Early Republic." Herder Today: Contributions from the International Herder Conference. Nov. 5–8, 1987, Stanford, California. Ed. Mueller-Vollmer. New York: Gruyter, 1990. 415–430.

Pochmann, Henry A. German Culture in America: Philosophical and Literary Influences, 1600–1900. 1957. Madison: U of Wisconsin P, 1961.

Whitman, Walt. Complete Poetry and Collected Prose. Ed. Justin Kaplan. New York: Library of America, 1982.

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