In his poems and life, Walt Whitman celebrated the human spirit and the human body. He sang the praises of democracy and marveled at the technological advances of his era. His direct poetic style shocked many of his contemporaries. This style, for which Whitman is famous, is in direct relation to several major American cultural developments. The development of American dictionaries, the growth of baseball, the evolution of Native American policy, and the development of photography all played a part and became essential components of Whitman’s poetry.
Walt Whitman was an avid reader of dictionaries, which he realized were the compost heap of all English-language literature. It was the place where all the elements of literature were preserved, as well as the place out of which all future literature would grow. The nation’s unwritten poems lay dormant in that massive heap of words. Whitman’s own poem, “This Compost,” played on the etymological meaning of the word “compost” with the word “composition”. The denotative meaning of both of these words is “to place or set together”. To compose is to put together in a new form. To compost is to take apart what was put together, and to break down an old form so that it would supply the parts for a new form (Folsom 15).
Whitman was living during a time when it was possible to watch the growth and expansion of the American language, and to see the increasing distance between it and its British source (Allen 53). Whitman was most familiar with the 1847 edition of Webster’s Dictionary. He depended on this one as he developed his notions of language and as he wrote the first poems of Leaves of Grass. It is in this version of the dictionary that we most clearly find the definitions of words that would become keys for Whitman’s poetic projects (Folsom 14).
For Whitman, in certain ways, American culture became a language experiment. His fascination in culture was grounded in what various activities were doing to the language. Whitman was interested in how they were giving America new words, and new ranges of self-expression (E.H. Miller 174-178). It was through continually expanding dictionaries that Walt Whitman learned about the possibilities of an infinite language from which a new kind of poetics could emerge.
When writers mention Walt Whitman’s name, the subje...
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...n in a full and complete life (Loewen 38). “The United States themselves are essentially the greatest poem,” wrote Whitman in his preface to “Song of Myself” (Marx 20). The four major cultural developments that occurred during Walt Whitman’s lifetime—the development of American dictionaries, the growth of baseball, the evolution of American Indian policy, and the development of photography—definitely contributed to his poetic style. Through these events, not only did Whitman find his poetic subjects, but he also discovered his poetic tools and techniques.
Allen, Gay Wilson. The Solitary Singer. New York: New York University Press, 1967.
Bloom, Harold. Walt Whitman. New York: Chelsea House Publishers, 1985.
Folsom, Ed. Walt Whitman’s Native Representations. New York: Cambridge University Press, 1994.
Loewen, Nancy. Walt Whitman. Minnesota: Creative Education Inc., 1994.
Marx, Leo. The Americanness of Walt Whitman. Boston: D.C. Heath and Company, 1960.
Miller, Edwin Haviland. A Century of Whitman Criticism. London: Indiana University Press, 1969.
Miller, James E. Walt Whitman. Boston: Twain Publishers, 19
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