Whitman’s Revolution

Walt Whitman’s America: A Cultural Biography

by David S. Reynolds
Knopf, 671 pp., $35.00

Complete Poetry and Collected Prose

by Walt Whitman
Library of America, 1,380 pp., $35.00

Selected Letters of Walt Whitman

edited by Edwin Haviland Miller
University of lowa Press, 320 pp., $19.95 (paper)

Constructing the German Walt Whitman

by Walter Gründzweig
University of lowa Press, 286 pp., $22.95; $12.95 (paper)

Like Lincoln or Jesus (to both of whom he addressed poems), Walt Whitman has entered irrevocably the realm of myth. In his case the myth is to an astonishing degree of his own design, consciously crafted and deliberately planted. Consider this description of his work from 1867, anticipating in its titanic scale so much subsequent writing about Whitman:

The idea…which is this man’s highest contribution, and which, compared even with the vastness of Biblical & Homeric poetry, still looms & towers—as, athwart his fellow-giants of the Himalayas, the dim head of Kunchainjunga rises over the rest—is the idea of Totality…He holds the solution of each & every problem—the spell, giving full satisfaction; and his talisman is Ensemble.

This was written, of course, by Whitman himself (under the cover of anonymity) to help publicize an English edition of his poetry. His audacity in raising his own work to the level of the Bible and Homer is matched only by his prescience in gauging accurately his work’s future status. He knows how good he is: and if he advertises himself with the expertise of a practiced newspaperman, the gesture is neither cynical nor deluded.

The hyperbolic tone of Whitman’s press release has been echoed a thousand times over by poets from Fernando Pessoa (“Entryway to everything!/Bridge to everything!/Highway to everything!”) to Hart Crane (“O Saunterer on free ways still ahead!”) to Allen Ginsberg (“dear father, graybeard, lonely old courage-teacher”); from Lorca (who envisioned Whitman with his beard full of butterflies por el East River y el Bronx) to the German Expressionists Arthur Holitscher (“this floodwave from nature deluging civilization, this veritable tornado of a human being”) and Arthur Drey (“Swinger of the torch! Blazing titan of virgin primeval forest!”). When modern poetry has been tempted to fill in for a lost religion, Whitman has most often been called into service as its not altogether reluctant messiah. (His qualms and qualifications with regard to such a role are a constant element of that dialogue with himself in which he ceaselessly revises and parenthetically interprets his own writing.)

A large volume, many large volumes, could be made from such responses, and a collection of the poems dedicated to or inspired by Whitman would encompass the work of Edwin Arlington Robinson, Edgar Lee Masters, Ezra Pound, Carl Sandburg, Vladimir Mayakovsky, Pablo Neruda, Langston Hughes, and Frank O’Hara, not to mention countless high-school students, drug users, socially conscious hacks, and government-sponsored apparatchik bards. He is everywhere, often where least expected: Thomas Mann, for instance, weaves an unattributed chunk of “I Sing the Body Electric” (translated into French for good measure) into Hans Castorp’s rhapsodic love letter in The Magic Mountain. And that singer of Wallace Stevens who “sang beyond the genius of the sea,” had she not heard Whitman’s “soprano at intervals sailing buoyantly over the tops of immense waves”?

Be it as if I were with you,” he counsels the future reader of his poems …

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