restricted access A Prefatory Note on Whitman, Stevens, and the Poetics of Americana
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A Prefatory Note on Whitman, Stevens, and the Poetics of Americana

IN A LETTER he wrote in 1955, the year of his death and one hundred years after the first publication of Leaves of Grass, Wallace Stevens makes one of his few recorded remarks about Walt Whitman, expressing his ambivalence toward the earlier poet:

I can well believe that he remains highly vital for many people. The poems in which he collects large numbers of concrete things, particularly things each of which is poetic in itself or as part of the collection, have a validity which, for many people, must be enough and must seem to them all opulence and elan.

For others, I imagine that what was once opulent begins to look a little threadbare and the collections seem substitutes for opulence even though they remain gatherings-together of precious Americana, certain to remain precious but not certain to remain poetry.

Here Stevens is reacting to Whitman’s notorious catalogues, reading his body of poetry as a curio cabinet, one that exhibits “precious” items out of America’s past and that, for him, retains for the most part a merely historical interest. His collections of “large numbers of concrete things” are, according to Stevens, essentially relics that, over time, have been drained of their vigor. While he admits that the “elan of the essential Whitman is still deeply moving,” he imagines Whitman and his art as receding: “It seems to me, then, that Whitman is disintegrating as the world, of which he made himself a part, disintegrates” (L 871).

These are provocative statements, and not least for Stevens’ use of the term “Americana” in his characterization of Whitman’s poetics, with its reminder that Whitman’s inventories of the national heritage resonate with the vast catalogues of Americana in the form of folk songs, tales, art works, and crafts compiled during the 1930s and 1940s. In part on the strength of his catalogues, Whitman was deemed to be part of a “usable past”—a focal point of a national culture—by early-twentieth-century historicists like Van Wyck Brooks, who sought in the past referents upon which to build a more democratic future.1 [End Page 6]

Stevens was not the only person to question the value of Whitman’s catalogues; an early review of Leaves of Grass claims that they are a “form of lunacy,” no more exalted than “a real auctioneer’s catalogue” (Price 43). According to Whitman himself (speaking to his friend Horace Traubel), “some cuss my long catalogues, some think them holy.”2 Whitman staunchly defended the form, telling Traubel at a later date that a certain critic “gags at my ‘catalogues.’ Oh God! how tired I get of hearing that said about the ‘catalogues!’ I resolved at the start to diagnose, recognize, state, the case of the mechanics, laborers, artisans, of America—to get into the stream with them—give them a voice in literature: not an echoed voice—no: their own voice—that which they had never had before.”3 In another conversation, Whitman observed, “it is that catalogue business that wrecks them all—that hauls them up short, that determines their opposition: they shudder at it. . . . They call the catalogue names: but suppose they do? it is names: but what could be more poetic than names?”4 For Whitman, the sturdy materialism of his catalogues did not make them any less opulent and stood as a sign of his democratic idealism.

Whitman actively advocated for “Americana,” once noting to Traubel (in terms similar to those he used to support his catalogues) that “I think the time has come for the American magazine—for a magazine designed to reflect America—its mechanics, its great labor masses—to give the smack of the heath—the native heath: to get its color from a life particularly American and offer the result to the world. Americana in the best sense—that we need.”5 In another instance, Whitman remarked that it “Now is the time for the American newspaper,” saying that “it must be for Americana: not in a strict literal sense, but in the larger sense of that ultimate democracy...