‘Sweep on, O River…’

American Poetry: The Nineteenth Century, Volume One: Philip Freneau to Walt Whitman

edited by John Hollander
Library of America, 1,099 pp., $70.00 boxed set

American Poetry: The Nineteenth Century, Volume Two: Herman Melville to Trumbull Stickney, American Indian Poetry, Folk Songs and Spirituals

edited by John Hollander
Library of America, 1,050 pp., $70.00 boxed set

In the summer of 1832 a cholera epidemic ravaged New York City and something like a third of the population fled. One of those who remained behind, alone in his family house, was thirteen-year-old Walt Whitman, whose job as a printer’s apprentice kept him city-bound. His parents must have been terrified that he would be one of the epidemic’s victims. Let’s assume he was. And assume, likewise, that Emily Dickinson, whose childhood illnesses caused her to miss whole terms of school, failed to reach adulthood. Neither of them, that is, lived long enough to become poets. What would the map of nineteenth-century American poetry now look like?

It’s a question implicitly but powerfully raised by this new Library of America two-volume set edited by John Hollander. Needless to say, it scants neither Whitman nor Dickinson; the complete Leaves of Grass is here (as well as another hundred pages of Whitman), and one hundred and seventy-two Dickinson poems. But these paired volumes in their range and intelligence and sheer comprehensiveness do more than any predecessor to populate that sparse mountain at whose summit Whitman and Dickinson—those two colossi—have long stood.

Their shared reign has no counterpart in twentieth-century American literature—or in the prose of their own era. If from the pantheon of nineteenth-century American fiction writers we were to remove, say, James and Twain, the resulting holes would be tremendous, but we still would have Irving, Cooper, Hawthorne, Melville, Poe, Jewett, Howells, Harte, Chopin, Crane. Poetry is another matter. It almost seems that Whitman and Dickinson are nineteenth-century American verse. To imagine the landscape without them is like imagining Colorado without the Rockies, Louisiana without the Mississippi. Bereft of our primary landmarks, we hardly know where we are.

While inviting us to contemplate the field without the two of them, the anthology also manages, ironically, to advance their supremacy. For anybody who has ever had trouble appreciating either poet, I can’t think of a course of action more likely to clarify their virtues than a thoroughgoing immersion in their contemporaries. We’ve grown accustomed to reading Whitman and Dickinson in conjunction with modern poets—beside whom they still succeed in looking innovative and arresting. But their triumphant originality emerges all the more vividly when they are placed beside not Eliot, Cummings, Pound, Moore but beside Henry Timrod, James Russell Lowell, John James Piatt, Nathaniel Parker Willis.

Criticism abhors a vacuum, and if Whitman and Dickinson had never appeared, other reputations would have expanded to claim our attention. Who would now loom as the century’s paramount figures? Longfellow and Poe? Whittier and Bryant? These two volumes do what anthologies so frequently promise but so rarely achieve: they inspire us to reassemble the landscape.

When you add in the biographical and textual notes, there are more than two thousand pages here—more than a thousand poems, more than a hundred and fifty poets. In its magnitude, this isn’t a collection one easily steps back from in order to gather together a few summary observations. My…

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