Digital American Literature Anthology
Dr. Michael O'Conner
Millikin University, Decatur, IL

Unit Twelve: Look for me under your boot-soles

Walt Whitman (1819 - 1892)

Walt Whitman can be seen as an extreme instance of the light/positive Romantic in American literature.
By and large, he is one of most positive, celebratory writers in literature that there is.

Whitman is the a completion of Emerson's project: The Poet, as Henry David Thoreau is the iteration of the American Scholar.

Whitman brought sex, class, race, the body into the poem. Prior to him, often a focus on beauty, truth, love and death.

Born in 1819 to a farmer with Quaker background; pacifist leanings.
A cosmopolitan--not rural. Lived in NYC and New Jersey.

He comes from a large and troubled family:
Tubercular brother.
Syphilitic brother
Insane sister.
Feeble-minded Eddie.

Walt Whitman a mystery.
Father and many others considered him lazy.
Yet, his notebooks show meticulous work as poet, hardworking.
Revolutionary poetics.

Whitman as intellectual heir of 18th century.
More materialistic than Emerson or Thoreau.
More rationalistic than Transcendentalists.
Jeffersonian democrat.
Journalistic bent; attention to real life.

Whitman's project is that he tried to identify "the American." He combines both traditional and contemporary notions.
Leaves of Grass first edition, 1855. 9 additions with revisions and additions.

Three ways Whitman gained poetic confidence.
Phrenological (head shape) reading said he was destined for greatness.
Decision to employ free verse.
Idea of America as a great poem. Influenced by Emerson here.

See "Preface" to Leaves of Grass, All of America is the subject. Both the vulgar and the sublime.

Similarities between Whitman and Emerson.
Desire to break from European past.
Interested in poet's innate ability to perceive and communicate reality.
Saw poet as representative of America.
Both celebrated the commonplace.
Sought a poetry of the present, not the past.
Poetry the way to ultimate truth.

Preface to Leaves of Grass: articulation of Whitman's poetics.
Like Emerson with political differences and attention to science and pseudo-science.
With Whitman, the Poet becomes the Poem.

Leaves of Grass:
An Organic poem. It keeps growing, expanding, changing.
Poet to be direct and simple but suggestive. Democratic in that sense.
Confusion in text due to two conflicting notions in America: Individual worth vs. the need for union.
This conflict plays out in the "I" of "Song of Myself": The "I"
The common man.
A citizen.
All Americans are represented--prostitute, felon, President, slave, slave owner.
The Poet himself is the featured "representative" American: A wholesome specimen of a biological entity.
Walt Whitman--age 37, the individual. Difficult to express the self to anyone. Talks to himself at times in poem.
The "I" is also example of the human race. Part of Great Chain of being. Last, best effort of evolutionary cycle, which Whitman thought of as progress.

New Elements in Poetic Writing Utilized by Whitman

1. free verse unique at the time
open, free, democratic type of poetry
all writers revise work constantly
Leaves of Grass, carefully revised, planned
structure, rhythm, constant repetition (sometimes through anaphora, sometimes through structure)
not meter but argument important

Leitmotif: musical rhythms which occur in piece
like Peter the Wolf, leitmotif for each character
flux ebb and flow of poetry

2. self is the subject of poetry
new, audacious subject at the time
fictive personae

3. new subject for poetry
the low, the common, the mean
cities, way people spoke, vernacular, sex
transform common into the spiritual
me not me
Chant 24
flux in nature, thesis/antithesis
all subjects needs, the good and its opposite

Victorian hypocrisy of sexuality: separated male/female authors on shelf
cover tables so couldn't see legs

4. Poems are colloquies
dialogues with the reader
I and You
I am speaking to you.
Whitman's creed

5. Use of catalogue
songs, jobs, etc
Epic device (part of Bible), oral tradition to list
trace roots in a catalogue, list imparted to future

6. Coinage: creating new words
Yap, ninth month, kosmos
new relationship to language

7. Influences from a) opera and operatic conventions, b) the structures and cadences of the King James Bible [anaphora], c) political oratory of that day and time

The Poetic Voice in Whitman is constantly trying to bridge, to ferry, to connect:
the self to others
the past to the present
the present to the future
the individual poetic voice to the poet's readers

Questions and Considerations


Works Cited


Other Resources









Dr.Michael O'Conner, Millikin University