The Democratic Value of Whitman's Leaves of Grass

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Early reviews of Walt Whitman's Leaves of Grass evince an incipient awareness of the unifying and acutely democratic aspects of the poetry. An article in the November 13th, 1856, issue of the New York Daily Times describes the modest, self-published book of twelve seemingly formless poems: "As we read it again and again, and we will confess that we have returned to it often, a singular order seems to arise out of its chaotic verses" (2). The Daily Times's identification of "order" out of "chaos" in Leaves of Grass parallels America's theoretical declaration of e pluribus unum, one out of many—a uniquely democratic objective. Also manifesting the early perception of the democratic poetic in Leaves of Grass, yet focusing more on Whitman and his content, an 1856 edition of the North American Review asserts, "Walter Whitman, an American,—one of the roughs,—no sentimentalist,—no stander above men and women, or apart from them,—no more modest than immodest,—has tried to write down here, in a sort of prose poetry, a good deal of what he has seen, felt, and guessed at in a pilgrimage of some thirty-five years" (275). Here, Whitman is seen as the archetypal American, practicing the democratic ideal of human equality. The reviewers' awareness of order out of chaos and of the ideological American attitude of equality is a written history of the problems of nineteenth-century, post-Jacksonian America, for the presence of their observations, which celebrate Whitman's democratic vision, can only suggest the absence of that vision in American politics and culture. Indeed, the language of mid-nineteenth-century reviews of Leaves of Grass reflects nostalgia for the community focus of early Jeffersonian America, a focus that was fading in a cul... ... middle of paper ... ...ca's Lyric-Epic of Self and Democracy. New York: Twayne, 1992. - - - . Walt Whitman. Boston: Twayne, 1990. Remini, Robert V. The Legacy of Andrew Jackson: Essays on Democracy, Indian Removal, and Slavery. Baton Rouge: Louisiana State UP, 1988. Southard, Sherry. "Whitman and Language: Great Beginnings for Great American Poetry." Mount Olive Review 4 (Spring 1990): 45-54. Warren, James Perrin. Walt Whitman's Language Experiment. University Park: Pennsylvania State UP, 1990. Whitman, Walt. "After the Sea-Ship." Bradley and Blodgett 263. - - - . "As I Ebb'd with the Ocean of Life." Bradley and Blodgett 253-256. - - - . "On the Beach at Night Alone." Bradley and Blodgett 260-261. - - - . "Song for All Seas, All Ships." Bradley and Blodgett 261-262. - - - . "Preface 1855—Leaves of Grass, First Edition." Bradley and Blodgett 711-731.
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