‘The Real Critter’

On Whitman

by C.K. Williams
Princeton University Press, 187 pp., $19.95
Library of Congress
Walt Whitman, 1887


Late in his long life, when he was hampered by a series of devastating strokes and had pretty much given up hope of winning the affectionate following of such best-selling poets as Longfellow or Whittier, Walt Whitman complained to Horace Traubel, his self-appointed Boswell, that he was “not only not popular (and am not popular yet—never will be) but I was non grata—I was not welcome in the world.” He consoled himself with the sour-grapes conviction that if he ever were to achieve widespread acceptance, it could only mean that his revolutionary message had been dulled, and that Leaves of Grass had become just another book of respectable poetry, to place on the shelf alongside The Song of Hiawatha:

I wouldn’t know what to do, how to comport myself, if I lived long enough to become accepted, to get in demand, to ride on the crest of the wave. I would have to go scratching, questioning, hitching about, to see if this was the real critter, the old Walt Whitman—to see if Walt Whitman had not suffered a destructive transformation—become apostate, formal, reconciled to the conventions, subdued from the old independence.

Whitman died in 1892 at the age of seventy-two, but the crest of the wave caught him anyway. It now seems obvious, though it hardly did when the self-published first edition of Leaves of Grass appeared to almost no notice in 1855 (beyond a couple of enthusiastic reviews that Whitman himself wrote anonymously), that American poetry began with Whitman. It is simply impossible, in a way that it is with no other poet—not Bradstreet or Dickinson, Melville or Poe—to conceive of American poetry without him. As Ezra Pound, no particular fan of Whitman, wrote, “It was you that broke the new wood,” though he couldn’t resist adding—as though Whitman were a ham-fisted lumberjack rather than a meticulous sculptor like himself—“Now is a time for carving.”

Whitman’s appeal, at home and abroad, has always been more than merely literary, however. “Whitmanizing is not only a matter of liberating oneself from meter and rhyme,” as the Polish poet Czesław Miłosz observed, “it is also a rapturous movement toward happiness, a democratic pledge of breaking down class divisions, expressed in poetry, prose, painting, theater, and also in a noticeable change of customs.” In the United States, where we are always building a church to something, Whitman during his lifetime had a small but impassioned cult following, which he did much to cultivate. “The priest departs,” he wrote in Democratic Vistas, “the divine literatus comes.” His apostles, as Michael Robertson has shown in his absorbing book Worshipping Walt, regarded Whitman as a prophet and Leaves of Grass as a new Bible, a revelation for modern times, though they sometimes disagreed about precisely what had been revealed, and who could blame them?1

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