A Defense of Whitman

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A Defense of Whitman

Whether they have loved or loathed his poetry, each writer or critic who has encountered "Leaves of Grass" has had to come to some sort of reckoning with Walt Whitman. The Good Gray Poet, the grandfather of American poetry, has been deified by some and labeled a cultural and artistic barbarian by others. While Whitman freely admitted in his preface to the final publication of "Leaves of Grass" that the work was faulty and far from perfect, some critics see no redeeming qualities in Whitman's art. Henry James goes so far as to say, "Whitman's verse...is an offense to art." (James, p.16) James chastises Whitman for extolling and exploiting what James feels are truisms. To James, Whitman's poetry is completely self-aggrandizing; it lacks substance and coherence. Through an examination of a specific poem, "The Wound Dresser", the claims of James and other negative critics can be refuted.

The broadest and most general critiques can be dismissed most readily. Henry James accuses Whitman of refusing to deal with challenging moral questions in his poetry. Whitman speaks of the evils of war, suffering, and senseless death in graphic detail in "The Wound Dresser", but to James these evils are obvious targets for lesser poets.

"A great deal of verse that is nothing but words has, during the war, been sympathetically sighed over and cut out of newspaper corners because it possessed a certain simple melody." (James, p.16)

James denies Whitman's poetry even a simple melody. Whitman is more an emotional opportunist than a poet. James even claims that Whitman's primary goal is the glorification of the Union army. The poem in question, however, hints at a different conclusion. "(was one side so brave? The other side was equally brave)" (Whitman, p.249). In dealing with supposed truisms Whitman's poem begins to ask the question: if the inherent evils of war, suffering, and senseless death are indeed so painfully obvious to you, Henry James, and your world, why are they supported with such fervor? Why in fact do they exist at all? Whitman happens to write from a sincere moral minority of which Henry James is a part. Thus to label Whitman altruistic is to label James as well.

John Jay Chapman levels the most absurd attack on Whitman:

"The man [Whitman] knew the world merely as an outside observer, he was never a living part of it, and no mere observer can understand the life about him.
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