Skip to main content

Democracy, Self-Reviews and the 1855 Leaves of Grass

ISSUE:  Spring 2005

Have you practiced so long to learn to read?
Have you felt so proud to get at the meaning of poems?
Stop this day and night with me and you shall possess the original of all poems
—Leaves of Grass, 1855

Everyone writes poetry and yet there is not a single poet.
—”An English and An American Poet,”
Leaves of Grass, 1855

In a recent article, Thomas Murphy criticized some theorists of the public sphere for conceiving of the ideal democratic process as dialogues between citizens in face-to-face encounters. He argued that a better ideal (as well as more accurate) version of the democratic public sphere would celebrate the free dissemination of texts and ideas rather than the ability to discuss them in person. In addition to providing a more accurate account of how publics historically came to be, Murphy claims for his model three attributes that bolster the democratic process of decision-making. Citizens can read texts freely, without the interpretive constraint that might be brought to bear in face-to-face encounters. They can read anonymously, without being held accountable for the materials they choose. Finally, the space provided by anonymity and freedom allows readers to make their own individual judgments on the ideas the texts propose. In Murphy’s account texts are wonderfully mediated and impersonal. Unlike a human interlocutor, they don’t talk back or intimidate by having a higher social status, or insist on their own meaning. As a consequence, readers are free. And that freedom might be seen as the basis of democratic individualism.  

Most of this essay will be devoted to the prose surrounding Whitman’s poetry in the 1855 Leaves of Grass. But it is worth pausing for a moment over the volume’s first poetic sentence to see the negotiation between writer and reader at the center as well as the periphery of the work.

I celebrate myself,
And what I assume you shall assume,
For every atom belonging to me as good belongs to you.

This sentence begins with a statement of solipsism that takes no account of the reader, and is followed by a second line that imposes everything onto her. The third line, completing the sentence, reconciles extremes in a generous image of joint ownership and common goods. But the middle part of this famous opening haunts the eventual reconciliation by nakedly revealing what might be, pace Murphy, the real power dynamics of reading. Is Whitman telling us that we must think exactly as he does, or that he’s about to put some kind of burden on us? Is it a command or simply a statement about what invariably happens in the process getting the author’s meaning? The ambiguity of “assume” may allow the reader to choose her meaning, but none of the options feels particularly freeing.

America’s most famous poet of democracy has a habit of being invasive, bossy, commanding and insistent when he addresses his readers, which he often does. There is a fine line between Whitmanian intimacy and harassment: “Whoever you are, now I place my hand upon you, that you be my poem,/ I whisper with my lips close to your ear,” or “I pursue you where none else has pursued you.” This might be seen as Whitman’s idiosyncratic insecurities about his readership, or his inordinate desire for intimacy, but I suspect it’s also a natural anxiety for a poet who wanted to base his authority not in an elite group of readers who determine poetic worth, those “proud to get at the meaning of poems,” but rather in the population at large. That is to say, Whitman’s propensity to address his reader directly in cajoling or coercive terms comes out of his sense that American democracy requires the active participation of all of its citizens, but that same sense leaves him more anxious than most writers to reach that audience and shape their sense of him. He can only be who he claims he is, the poet of democracy, if the American people recognized him as such.

Of course no literary scholar would assume what Murphy assumes: that texts arrive at readers’ doorsteps without the badges of status and authority that mark individuals in face-to-face encounters or that the dissemination itself doesn’t influence readers’ judgments about texts as readily as (in his example) the presence of the teacher influences the ostensibly free discussion of ideas in a classroom. The same story might be judged differently by the reader depending on whether it appeared in Reader’s Digest or The Nation. Texts, after all, are produced by the same societies whose hierarchies structure personal interactions; they too can have a status that unduly influences the reader’s judgment (although whether that’s always undesirable is unclear: think if we had no way of distinguishing news items in the The New York Times from those in The National Inquirer). Literary scholars might even suspect that texts manipulate their reception more decisively and insidiously than personal encounters, where, whatever status a person has might be countered by the basic equality of being similarly embodied. The very mediation that Murphy celebrates as an asset might serve instead to reinforce the text’s authority.

Whitman’s decision to write poetry rather than prose, for example, seems not to have been solely the result of his natural inclination or ability. He wrote essays, articles, and novels as easily (and before) he wrote poetry. But in the nineteenth century, poetry was generally regarded as the highest literary genre and its writer the most powerful. Shakespeare, canonized in the eighteenth century, was regularly dubbed the “national poet” of Britain despite the fact that he achieved his fame mainly by writing plays.  In this essay I’ll be examining the material that Whitman put around his poetry in the 1855 Leaves of Grass in order to prepare readers to understand it on his own terms. Although far from his first publication, that initial volume was Whitman’s arrival on the literary scene, his bid for power and influence, and it arrived in a form most calculated to impress potential readers. The changes he made to subsequent issues of the first edition reveal the poet of democracy hard at work to manipulate his audience’s interpretation of his poetry.

For one thing, even in the first issue that first line of poetry only appears on page 13, since Whitman begins his volume with a ten-page prose essay on America’s ability to produce great poets, the skills and attitudes of those poets, and their relationship to their American readers. This prose context in turn depends on a larger social context that Whitman inherited (despite his many disavowals of bookishness) from the poetry and criticism of high Romantic writers like Wordsworth, Shelley, and Emerson. Kenneth Price and Ezra Greenspan have studied how Whitman constructed his poetic persona in response to periodical reviews of British Romantic poets. Evidence from jottings he made in the margins of newspaper and periodical clippings about Keats, Shelley and Wordsworth, which he kept and reread, show Whitman self-consciously working out his theory of the poet, usually by disagreeing with the reviewed poet’s practice. We should not let Whitman’s frequent vows of radical difference blind us to the extent to which he also drew on the period’s fascination with the poet. He relied on his potential audience reading those same newspaper and periodical reviews, even if they had not read the poetry itself. The British Romantics had celebrated the power of lyric poetry and identified it in the public’s mind with a democratic nationalist agenda. Shelley’s most hyperbolic statement of it—“poets are the unacknowledged legislators of the world”—published in 1840, drew on the work of the first generation of British Romantics who had incorported the radical politics of the French and American Revolutions into their verse. The unprecedented popularity of Byron, his death in the cause of Greek freedom, and the fury of conservative reviewers who saw in the “Lake” and “Cockney” schools signs of the disintegration of high culture, elevated the poet’s standing and identified him with radical democracy.

That Romantic legacy found a native spokesman in Emerson, who joined in the general celebration of the poet’s power, even as his writings exemplify the difficulty of trying to accommodate a European conception to the American sense of national difference. At the beginning of his 1844 essay on “The Poet,” Emerson conceived of him in terms suitable to the nation: “[T]he poet is representative. He stands among the partial men for the complete man, and apprises us not of his wealth, but of the common-wealth.” But in an effort to emphasize just how powerful the poet was, Emerson invariably resorts to an old-world vocabulary that reveals the source of his ideas on the poet:

The poet is not any permissive potentate, but is emperor in his own right… The poet does not wait for the hero or the sage, but, as they act and think primarily, so he writes primarily what will and must be spoken, reckoning the others, though primaries also, yet, in respect to him, secondaries and servants; as sitters or models in the studio of a painter, or as assistants who bring building materials to an architect.

Servants, emperors and potentates are quintessentially European evils that have no place in the nation founded on the equality of men. While Emerson desires a national poet, he thinks in terms of an aristocracy of genius where, “an object of awe and terror,” the poet lords over the mere hero or sage. The explosion of popular journalism in America that occurred in Whitman’s lifetime disseminated the many calls for America to produce her own literature, anchored and secured by the work of national poets. “The world,” wrote Emerson “seems always waiting for its poet”: “I look in vain for the poet whom I describe.” The ground was amply prepared for any young man who, could he but attain the title, would certainly gain the nation’s ear and render her an immense service.

I feel a certain reluctance to suggest in this year of the 150th anniversary of Leaves of Grass that Whitman may have chosen to write poetry primarily because its cultural prestige provided him with the most powerful platform from which to disseminate his ideas. But consider the evidence. One sentence from an anonymous self-review (about which, more below) reappeared in “Broad-Axe Poem” in the 1856 edition of Leaves of Grass, while parts of the Preface made their way into the poems that would eventually be called “By Blue Ontario’s Shore,” “Song of Prudence,” and “Song of the Answerer.” The migration of Whitman’s free verse from poetry to prose, or vise versa indicates the arbitrary nature of genre distinctions. Similarly, anyone who has seen Whitman’s manuscripts knows that at the point of origin, the composition process, distinguishing his prose from his poetry is not always easy and largely depends on the indentation that signals a “line” rather than a “sentence.” Nevertheless, Whitman insisted on his vocation as a poet. The long prose introduction to Leaves addresses only the relationships among “the greatest poets,” America, and American readers—no mention is made of great American essayists or the service the true novelist renders his readers. Furthermore, in his 1856 Leaves of Grass, Whitmanabandoned the organic unity of the 1855 volume for a more conventional format, possibly in response to reviewers’ disdain for his free verse. While in the 1855 edition each of the twelve poems was titled “Leaves of Grass” and there was no table of contents, in the 1856 edition each of the thirty-two poems is aggressively titled “Poem of”: “Poem of Walt Whitman, An American,” “Poem of Women,” “Poem of Salutation,” . . . “Burial Poem.”All are listed in a table of contents that insistently repeats not the name of the volume, but its genre. Whitman’s free verse, what a reviewer of the 1855 edition had called his “excited prose,” may have been designed primarily to signal to his readers that this was important writing, the kind that offers powerful insights, vital and universal truths. 

This unduly cynical perspective on Whitman’s revolutionary versification might be countered by the observation that, unlike his mentor Emerson, Whitman struggled not to capitalize on the poet’s superiority to his readers. While Whitman exploited the ideology surrounding the poet, he simultaneously attempted to create a more equal relationship with his readers. The Whitman-authored writing which grew up around the poetry of Leaves of Grass comes from his desire to re-imagine the poet’s power. The most famous precedent for Whitman’s introduction to Leaves of Grass is Wordsworth’s (more honestly titled) “Advertisement” to the volume he coauthored with Coleridge in 1798, Lyrical Ballads, but a comparison between the two reveals how Whitman attempts to further the democratic potential of poetry. Wordsworth introduced the poems of Lyrical Ballads as “experiments”: “They were written chiefly with a view to ascertain how far the language of conversation in the middle and lower classes of society is adapted to the purposes of poetic pleasure.” Wordsworth’s poetry is radical in taking its diction from the people, but the audience for this poetry was clearly not the same as its subjects. Wordsworth cites the opinion of Sir Joshua Reynolds on the necessity of carefully studying poetry and adds “if poetry be a subject on which much time has not been bestowed, the judgement [of the reader] may be erroneous, and that in many cases it necessarily will be so.” Wordsworth asks for his readers’ careful attention, which presumes an audience with disposable time, and their judgment, which centers poetic authority on artistic merit. The Romantic poets and critics who were famous in the nineteenth century for their democratic politics, were, by and large, writing to upper-class readers, immersed in the same literary culture as the poets. Wordsworth needed to write his famous preface because he was hoping to gain over an audience more familiar and comfortable with an elevated poetic diction. Whitman’s ideal poetry rarely needs to be studied by his readers and never needs to be judged. When Whitman urges his readers to reread his work, it is part of a holistic ritual of clean, outdoor living.  The preface reads, “This is what you shall do: [. . .] go freely with powerful uneducated persons [. . .] read these leaves in the open air every season of every year of your life, re-examine all you have been told at school or church or in any book.” Implicit in Whitman’s command is a difference between his natural “leaves” and the kind of institutional knowledge contained in churches, schools and (other) books.

Whitman dreamed of securing a popular audience and his preface, in contrast to Emerson’s essay, attempts to retain the high status of the poet without demoting his readers. He struggles to reconcile the elite power of poetry with its consumption by the community at large:

[The poet] is a seer . . . . he is individual . . . he is complete in himself . . . . the others are as good as he, only he sees it and they do not.

Without effort and without exposing in the least how it is done the greatest poet brings the spirit of any or all events and passions and scenes and persons some more and some less to bear on your individual character as you hear or read.

Men and women perceive the beauty well enough . . probably as well as [the poet][. . .] They can never be assisted by poets to perceive . . . some may but they never can.

The presence of the greatest poet conquers . . . not parleying or struggling or any prepared attempts

There is that indescribable freshness and unconsciousness about an illiterate person that humbles and mocks the power of the noblest expressive genius. The poet sees for a certainty how one not a great artist may be just as sacred and perfect as the greatest artist.

The messages of great poets to each man and woman are, Come to us on equal terms, Only then can you understand us, We are no better than you, What we enclose you enclose, What we enjoy you may enjoy. Did you suppose there could be only one Supreme? We affirm there can be unnumbered Supremes, and that one does not countervail another any more than one eyesight countervails another . . and that men can be good or grand only of the consciousness of their supremacy within them.

It’s salutary to read the entire preface to Leaves of Grass in order to appreciate how deeply this problematic generated the work of a poet who is too often taken in sound bites. In the passages above, which might have been multiplied ad nauseam, Whitman both suggests but then qualifies the unique position of the “greatest” poets, in the interests of a more democratic relationship with readers. For Whitman, as for the Romantics, the poet is quintessentially a “seer,” but men and women perceive as well as the poet; the poet cannot assist his readers, but he acts on our individual characters; rather than the traditional concept that the poet condescendingly aids humanity by enlightening it, Whitman says that readers will understand the poet only if they claim equality. In an effort to fulfill his democratic project while preserving the insight of the poet, Whitman ratchets up the importance of his readers. The resulting tension finds its fullest expression in Whitman’s “unnumbered Supremes”—if unnumbered, then supreme over whom? The point is not so much to document contradictions (Whitman cannily rendered that project futile) but to suggest the nature of the problem. To speak effectively on behalf of democracy (as well as to gain an audience), the poet ought to have authority—a new or better perspective. On the other hand, to be an American democrat necessarily entailed holding to the idea of equality. The attempt to reconcile these two aspects of being the “national poet” seems to generate the ten pages of prefatory prose as Whitman searches for different ways to imagine a productive relationship with his readers. The preface also contains evidence that Whitman conceived of his free verse (or at least marketed it) as the way to avoid assuming artistic superiority over his readers: “The best singer is not the one who has the most lithe and powerful organ . . . the pleasure of poems is not in them that take the handsomest measure and similes and sound.” The cadences of Whitman’s language depend on his own rhythm rather than on their ability to fulfill an abstract and traditional metrical frame. He speaks directly to his readers in a prose-verse that circumvents the criteria informing the judgment of professional critics.

If poetry is a medium like radio or television, then Whitman relied on its technological power to spread his message, but he simultaneously attempted to undercut an authority that relied too heavily on a class system of elite education and bookish learning. He did this by emphasizing the importance of his American readers, by inviting them to participate in creating the meaning of his poetry, by choosing a poetic style that deliberately avoided the metrical fluency associated with the careful study of verse forms. This endorsement and undercutting was meant to shift from a European class-based conception of authority to an American democratic one: a poet with a constituency of the people. And in order to complete the transformation, Whitman perceived that he ought to be read by, as well as write about, a broad swath of the population. This reconception of poetic power is present in the poetry itself and in the preface. It radiates further outward as Whitman anxiously continued to frame his work in order to reach the large American audience that would justify his endeavor.

Comparing Wordsworth’s preface to Whitman’s essay also reveals a more subtle and perhaps insidious strategy Whitman used to incorporate readers into his poetic project. Although Lyrical Ballads was published anonymously, Wordsworth’s “Advertisement” (later the “Preface”) directly addresses the difficulties and aims of his poetry, just as the titles overtly signal that the introduction was written to serve the poetry that follows. Whitman’s prose, on the other hand, begins without a title and speaks in oracular and impersonal tones about America and the greatest poets. Furthermore, it is printed in the two columns commonly used for newspaper articles. Nineteenth-century readers, of course, would have assumed the author of the prose to be the same man who subsequently celebrates himself in verse (and possibly the same man pictured on the frontispiece facing the title page). But the lack of a title makes the preface more of an independent essay than an introduction, which subtly masks the extent to which Whitman is making claims for his own poetry. It’s not a question of readers being fooled by the ruse, but rather how Whitman effectively previews the response he’s hoping to elicit from his readers. Anyone who has seen TV ads that consist entirely of images of consumers relishing some food product, will appreciate the psychology behind Whitman’s ten pages on the symbiotic relationship between America’s greatest poets and the American people. As in advertisements or laugh tracks, modeling the response that you hope to create is often a fairly effective way to induce it.

The preface was not the final framing for the poetry of the 1855 Leaves of Grass or the last time Whitman modeled its ideal reception.In an effort to alert potential readers to the arrival of a new poet, Whitman wrote anonymous self-reviews which he had published in periodicals. He then attached those reviews and other promotional material to the review copies of Leaves of Grass that he distributed to prominent British and American journals in the hopes that they would generate more articles, and further disseminate his volume.Now this proceeding is open to fairly obvious objections. The British Saturday Review took advantage of it to score a national point by printing extracts from the self-reviews next to selections from the poetry in order to criticize what it identified as “American” reviewing practices. Like Murphy, the liberal Saturday Review had high-minded ideals about independent judgment and the reader’s autonomy. It regularly attacked other periodicals perceived to engage in the commercialism of coterie reviewing. This interesting bit of reception history points to cross currents in democracy itself: independence and autonomy is not how an author or politician mobilizes a crowd. Whitman like an evangelical preacher, a quack doctor, or a stump-orator works the crowd, creating his democratic populist platform by addressing each reader as an intimate “you,” creating the need that only his product can fulfill. When Murphy claims for his textual ideal of democracy the virtues of autonomous individualism, he conveniently bypasses the less ideal, hands-on manipulation that is also a crucial component of the dissemination of texts. Whitman attempts to exploit the possibilities of popular mass media.

However, the ease with which Whitman could be exposed as his own reviewer ought to make us pause before assuming the worst. (After all, someone intent on mystification would hardly have taken material from the anonymous review and republished it as a poem in a subsequent edition of Leaves of Grass.)  It suggests that Whitman may have been motivated by considerations other than, or in addition to, increasing his personal profits through the sale of his book. The self-reviews, like the first poem in Leaves of Grass, areobviously Whitman’s work because they focus relentlessly and obsessively on the poet. “Walt Whitman, a Brooklyn Boy,” might be called “Essay of Myself.” It was published in the Brooklyn Daily Times and says about the poet:

He makes no allusions to books or writers; their spirits do not seem to have touched him; [. . .] Of pure American breed, of reckless health, his body perfect, free from taint top to toe, free forever from headache and dyspepsia, full-blooded, six feet high, a good feeder, never once using medicine, drinking water only—a swimmer in the river or bay or by the seashore—of straight attitude and slow movement of foot—an indescribable style evincing indifference and disdain—ample limbed, weight one hundred and eighty-five pound, age thirty-six years (1855)—never dressed in black, always dressed freely and clean in strong clothes, neck open, shirt-collar flat and broad . . .

The poet who makes “no allusions to books or writers” of the high art tradition depends instead on the medium of popular journalism, just as he adopts a populist platform. But surely the intent cannot be to deceive, because even if someone very close to the poet Walt Whitman could know his age, activities, habit of dress, health, and weight, no one could describe him in that indescribable and distinctive style, in a prose so like his poetry. I choose this paragraph not only because it so clearly reveals its author (part of this passage became “Broad-Axe Poem” in the 1856 edition), but also because it exposes a move that Whitman makes in all of his self-reviews: a turn towards the poet. Whitman usually shies away from pronouncing a single judgment his own work (“very devilish to some, and very divine to some, will appear these new poems,” he writes at the beginning of this self-review) in favor of describing the poetic persona: its attitudes, attributes, style, and the difficulty it will present to bookish critics. Whitman begins “Walt Whitman, a Brooklyn Boy” (Brooklyn Daily Times September 1855), “To give judgment on real poems, one needs an account of the poet himself” and “Walt Whitman and His Poems” (United States Review September 1855) with “An American bard at last! One of the roughs, large, proud, affectionate, eating, drinking, and breeding, his costume manly and free, his face sunburnt and bearded, his posture strong and erect . . .”

In one sense the celebration of self is no different from what happens in his verse. Like that verse, it makes a bid for the intimacy of face-to-face encounters where Whitman, no king or prince, meets you as just one of the guys. And like the preface, by assuming the guise of one of his readers, Whitman shows us an intimacy with the poet he hopes his actual readers will experience. This model of intimate reading exfoliates from the center of the verse to its perimeter, reaching out at every stage to his reader. But I’d like to argue that there is another reason that Whitman appears so persistently and in such great detail in the self-reviews. Periodical essays are a crucial part of the high art tradition, more so than poetry itself. Newspapers, journals and periodicals spread the news about who is famous and what is well regarded far beyond—or, more properly speaking, below—the cultural elite. In the medium that might decisively dismiss him, Whitman inserted not a statement of his poetry’s worth but himself. Like the ideal of the democratic public sphere that is based on personal contact, Whitman attempts to get around the question of high and low, good and bad by making himself present to his readers. He asks his readers not to judge him, nor to look up to him, but to experience him.

The insertion of experience for judgment proved a wonderfully successful rhetorical technique, but no more than that. In 1861, Whitman received a letter instigated by the natural sexuality of Leaves of Grass from one of its most ardent readers, Susan Garnet Smith, a washer woman. “Know Walt Whitman that thou hast a child for me!” she wrote, continuing, “He must be begotten on a mountain top, in the open air. Not in lust, not in mere gratification of sensual passion, but in ennobling pure strong deep glorious passionate broad universal love. I charge you to prepare my love.” Smith takes Whitman’s invitation to an ennobling sexual license quite literally and issues her own invitation in response. Whitman’s reaction was scrawled on the envelope the letter arrived in—“? insane asylum” Now certainly Smith’s letter was somewhat intimate, but “insane asylum” is a fairly negative reaction from the poet of democracy to a fan letter from one of the people. Though written in his own terms, the washer-woman’s literalism—not taking his invitation as a metaphor issued generically to anyone who could buy his books—was not the kind of reading Whitman looked for. The poet responded more favorably when educated English or American men wrote to him about their experience of reading Leaves of Grass. Small groups of disciples sprung up on both sides of the Atlantic brought together by Leaves of Grass and often corresponding with the poet. This was the audience Whitman wanted to reach and his self-reviews were another attempt to form that attenuated intimacy.

We know that Whitman sent out copies of Leaves of Grass with the self-reviews clipped out of journals and pasted in the front pages because the Saturday Review describes in detail the appearance of the volume that showed up on its editor’s desk. Subsequently, Whitman found a more permanent way to incorporate the volume’s reception into itself by reprinting reviews and binding them to the beginning of later issues of the first edition. The reviews and other journal articles that Whitman included ran eight pages and came before the title page. In the second edition (1856) Whitman added Emerson’s letter and a number of other reviews, called the whole Leaves Droppings, and moved it to the end of volume. In 1860, Whitman published and sold a pamphlet of nothing but reviews of Leaves of Grass, called Leaves of Grass Imprints.

The reprinting of the self-reviews continues the trajectory from poetry to preface to review. And the farther that Whitman went from his poetry, the more closely he focused on himself. This tendency finds its epitome, or perhaps nadir, with Whitman’s inclusion of L. N. Fowler’s “phrenological notes on W. Whitman.” The sentence fragment quoted above from “Walt Whitman, A Brooklyn Boy” (“never dressed in black, always dressed freely and clean in strong clothes . . .”) continues with another thirty-three lines of descriptive appositives. When he reprinted the review at the beginning of later issues of the 1855 Leaves, Whitman added a clause to the middle of the list: “his physiology corroborating a rugged phrenology,” which he footnoted with the phrenological notes on his head. At the center of his self-description, Whitman draws us as close as we can get to the organ of poems. Not surprisingly, a scientific reading of the bumps on Whitman’s head revealed a character similar to that portrayed in the poetry and self-reviews. Fowler noted that Whitman’s head showed that he contained a large dose of egotism, amativeness, and adhesiveness.

Despite their similarity to the rest of his work, the decision to include the reviews in later issues of the 1855 edition still puts the question of Whitman’s intention front and center. To publish anonymous reviews written by the author, the author’s friend or (most usually) the author’s publisher was a practice common enough in the nineteenth century to have its own name, “puffing,” and was regularly disparaged by upstanding periodicals like the Saturday Review. Including these anonymous reviews in the volume itself not only served no practical purpose—the reader had already purchased the book—in Whitman’s case it also made it more likely that he would be exposed as having engaged in the widely discredited practice. The most likely explanation seems to be that he wanted to create a sense of Leaves’public. The best way, then as now, to make something public is to stir up controversy, and the reviews give the volume a sense of the dramatic, its arrival an event. But given the book’s central concerns with the relationship between poet and readers, part of Whitman’s project must also have been to include a public place for his readers’ voices. That in the 1855 edition his most vocal and eloquent reader was himself might simply indicate the difficulty of gathering a crowd at the beginning of a poetic career. The 1856 edition has proportionately fewer reviews by Whitman as reports from other readers begin to find their way in.

But the ideal of a public discussion about that literary event, the 1855 Leaves of Grass cannot but be compromised. Again, how to include readers’ judgments without shaping and therefore manipulating them? How to model a vital democratic exchange in the frozen frame of print? In the 1855 edition, Whitman includes one virulently hostile review by the notorious Rufus Griswold who ruined Poe’s reputation shortly after his death. Like the other reviews, however, this one was published anonymously so readers had no opportunity to register a track record of extraordinary personal malice. The review ends with an accusation of homosexuality that would have been clear to many of the nineteenth-century readers Whitman was trying to reach. Griswold writes,

In our allusions to his book, we have found it impossible to convey any, even the most faint idea of its style and contents, and of our disgust and detestation of them, without employing language that cannot be pleasing to ears polite; but it does seem that some one should, under circumstances like these, undertake a most disagreeable, yet stern duty. The records of crime show that many monsters have gone on in impunity, because the exposure of their vileness was attended with too great indelicacy. “Peccatum illud horribile, inter Christianos non nominandum.

The Latin phrase—that terrible sin never named among Christians—was code for sodomy and by the century’s end would be more positively appropriated by a proto-gay community as “the love that dare not speak its name.” This is a review that Whitman chose to republished entire as one of the introductions to the 1855 Leaves of Grass. His reasons for doing so, as well as the review’s effect are extremely hard to determine. (I will not address here the equally fascinating question of how, or whether, Griswold found homosexual desire in the 1855 text, which does not contain Whitman’s most explicitly homoerotic poetry). On one hand, the accusation of homosexual activity brought it to public attention and might have served as a form of social, albeit negative, recognition. If Whitman wanted to enfranchise men who experienced same-sex desire, advertise to them, this review would certainly have done the trick. Even those readers who strongly disapproved might be titillated into investigating what all the fuss was about, and there was the book, already in hand. Alternatively, it might scare off the potential reader and it would certainly damage the poet’s credibility. Or would it? The sexual scandals attending Byron’s career had done nothing to diminish his readership—much the opposite.

Whatever Whitman’s murky motives, one effect is clear. Once the hint is given, what reader can resist the powerful lens thus introduced on the poetry that follows? Who, whether hetero or homo, nineteenth, twentieth, or twenty-first century, is free to ignore the question of what exactly is depicted in the verse? As long as sodomy remains of public interest, poetry so framed will be more than ordinarily interesting. The reverse is also true. Griswold published the review and Whitman republished it, making Leaves of Grass as implicated in the public debate involving illicit sexual practices, gender, nature, and social morality as it continues to be today. If we take Leaves of Grass as a public statement promoting a certain kind of lifestyle, there’s evidence that we are not reading it so very differently from the way its author intended.

Whitman’s motives are unclear, but he uses the occasion of reprinting Griswold’s review to respond in classical terms to the charge of homosexuality by accusing his rivals of effeminacy. Whitman changed the chronology of the periodical reviews by placing the self-review “An English and An American Poet,” directly following Griswold’s attack, and Whitman’s authorship of this particular review is masked by its generic style. The article ostensibly reviewed Alfred Tennyson’s Maud, and other Poems, along with Leaves of Grass,both published in 1855. Although Whitman admired Tennyson’s poetry his whole life, here Tennyson serves only as a symbol. Not a word from Maud or any of Tennyson’s poetry makes it into Whitman’s review, possibly because it would disrupt the purely symbolic purpose of Tennyson’s name and literary status. The review opens,

It is always reserved for second-rate poems immediately to gratify. As first-rate or natural objects, in their perfect simplicity and proportion do not startle or strike, but appear no more than matters of course, so probably natural poetry does not, for all its being the rarest and most telling of the longest and largest work.

This, remember, is the sentence that follows Griswold’s Latin accusation. It asserts its natural simplicity in the face of Griswold’s charge of monstrosity. As usual, Whitman enfolds nationalism and populism within his discussion of poetry as the review continues: “Sure as the heavens envelope the earth, if the Americans want a race of bards worthy of 1855, and of the stern reality of this republic, they must cast around for men essentially different from the old poets, and from the modern successors of jinglers and snivellers and fops. . . . Everybody writes poetry, and yet there is not a single poet.” The slight charge of effeminacy and the needs of “this republic” hints at what Whitman states more directly a few paragraphs later:

[Tennyson] is the bard of ennui and of the aristocracy and their combination into love. This love is the old stock love of playwrights and romancers, Shakspeare the same as the rest. It is possessed of the same unnatural and shocking passion for some girl or woman, that wrenches it from its manhood, emasculated and impotent, without strength to hold the rest of the objects and good of life in their proper positions. It seeks nature for sickly uses.

Whitman as the poet of nature finds all things good in their use; Tennyson, courtly, aristocratic, impotent, emasculated, and sickly is the poet of that conventional affair called “love.” These two reviews exemplify the terms of the public conversation around homosexuality in the nineteenth century. Whitman draws on a classical Republican discourse of luxury, effeminacy, and an imperiled state in order to respond to Griswold’s charge. Whitman’s “a shocking passion for some girl or woman” signals effeminacy through contact with the feminine. Too much love made a man effeminate, since men established their virility through a military and manly association with other men. This conception of effeminacy was on its way out, and the indirection of the accusation and response—“he advocates/commits sodomy,” “no, he portrays natural and manly affections suitable for a strong nation” marks the exchange as a particularly nineteenth-century negotiation where sexual desire and gender norms were only beginning to take on their current associations.

While the inclusion of dissent seems to represent the ideal contentious democratic public, the arrangement of the reviews out of chronological order gives Whitman the last word. Actually the whole series of reviews are framed on either end by what I’ve been arguing is the volume’s enabling condition: the call for a national poet. Whitman begins the eight page selection with E. P. Whipple’s review not of Leaves of Grass, but rather of “Poets and Poetry of America”: “We can hardly conceive that a reasonable being should look with coolness or dislike upon any efforts to establish a national literature, of which poetry is such an important element.” It ends with some anonymous “Extracts from Letters and Reviews,” about the national poet and the work he might do. It was the desperate need for a national poet and poetry that made the other issues the poetry takes up worthy of public scrutiny. As if poetry were publicity in its purest form.

And that my soul embraces you this hour, and we affect each other without ever seeing each other, and never perhaps to see each other, is every bit as wonderful

Despite its investment in intimacy, Whitman’s work ultimately serves as an excellent example of the virtues Murphy celebrates as the ideal democratic public. Whitman’s constant efforts to enforce his own model of reading and the meaning of his own persona, betrays his sense that readers might still get away from him, that they lurk somewhere beyond his reach making their own judgments about his ability to write poetry or the soundness of his vision. Readers are anonymous, their judgment cannot be coerced, and many readers have escaped Whitman’s amative grasp. But not all. The dissemination of his attempts at intimacy also provoked exactly the kind of response Whitman really did want. In Bolton, England, in Camden, New Jersey, small groups of men and (some) women formed around Whitman’s texts and the vision they embodied. Little, local publics sprung up and communicated with each other and sometimes back to the master. Not to form one enormous national justification for the poet—an American bard at last!—but to join with others nearby to work out and recognize their common ideal of same-sex desire or social equality. As Gay Wilson Allen and Ed Folsom have amply documented in Walt Whitman and the World, the extensive reach of Whitman’s vision is as impressive as its intimacy. And it may be that the insistence of that intimacy is less adhesive than dispersive.


This question is for testing whether or not you are a human visitor and to prevent automated spam submissions.

Recommended Reading