Arts & Ideas: The yawp heard round the world
One hundred and fifty years agoon or close to the Fourth of JulyWalt Whitman, Brooklynite and sometime journalist, published the first edition of an utterly original book of poems. The great New England sage Ralph Waldo Emerson quickly recognized that Leaves of Grass marked the beginning of what he had long been calling for: a truly distinctive American literature.
Dana Gioia, chairman of the National Endowment for the Arts and a poet of distinction himself, talked to U.S. News about Whitman's enduring legacy:
What was the immediate impact of Leaves of Grasson American poetry, on American readers, on American culture in general?
Leaves of Grass had little immediate impact. Whitman published the book himself in a small edition that had limited distribution and few sales. In order to stir up publicity, Whitman actually reviewed the book himselfanonymously, of course.
When did Whitman finally become popular?
His fame grew very slowly. Most of his early admirers were writers, and for years he remained a cult figure. His work was too openly sensual for most American readers 150 years ago. Emily Dickinson wouldn't even read Whitman because of his unsavory reputation. Even his first champion, Ralph Waldo Emerson, found the sexuality of Leaves of Grass disturbing. By the time the "Good Gray Poet" had become moderately famous, he was already an old man in ill health. Only posthumously did Whitman become the preeminent poet we now celebrate.
In what ways, good and bad, has Whitman's poetry influenced the development of American poetry?
Much of what is great and glorious about American poetry comes from Whitman. So does much of what is pretentious and self-indulgent. Whitman's range, energy, and originality set a standard of ambition and invention that has inspired American literature ever since. But his influence has also been troublesome. Whitman made himself the central subject of his poetry. Who else would create an epic poem titled "Song of Myself"? Whitman brought it off with humor, tenderness, and joyful exuberance, but his example gave permission to lesser poets to talk endlessly about themselves. Not everyone's life deserves an epic poem. That is the trouble with geniusit's so hard to imitate.
One arguable defect of contemporary poetry is that, in terms of subject matter, it tends to bite off far less than it can chew. That certainly couldn't be said of Whitman. How would you characterize his large ambitions in this regardand how well did he realize them?
No one can accuse Whitman of being modest. "I am large," he boasted. "I contain multitudes." He tried to squeeze all of America into his poetrythe cities, people, landscapes, technology, and politics. He wrote brilliantly about the Civil War, Lincoln's death, and the western frontierconsciously trying to capture the spirit of the unruly new democracy in which he lived. This shameless grandiosity might be annoying in another author, but Whitman makes it oddly irresistible. The more cosmic his vision, the more personable his style. He brims with affection and goodwill. He embraces the reader in a joyful bearhug, and there is really no escaping him.