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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 for which America stands—which it points to, prophetically.”6 For Whitman, Americana “in the larger sense” is bound up in the ideological purport of the nation, and his own catalogues were designed with that in mind.

A few years before Stevens made his remarks about Whitman’s catalogues, he published a poem entitled “Americana” in the Harvard literary magazine Wake. As R. D. Ackerman succinctly puts it, in the final stanza of that poem, a “fabled ‘American’ mode of identity”—that of the pioneer— “is rejected . . . as mere ‘buckskin hoop-la,’ the cowboy trappings of a self identified with a ‘health of weather’ and not with the vital deprivation of an image in a mirror” (94). In the course of the poem, Stevens observes of the so-called “man in the glass,” “He inhabits another man, / Other men, and not this grass, this valid air” (CPP 458), a statement that could be heard as alluding to Whitman’s Leaves of Grass—the stark, unifying reality of grass in Whitman’s poetic imagination. What Stevens objects to is the directness of “Americana,” a directness felt in Whitman’s brimming catalogues, as opposed to the indirectness of meditative man, “The man who has had the time to think enough, / The central man,” as Stevens describes him in “Asides on the Oboe” (CPP 227). Stevens’ “materialist-resistant [End Page 7] methods” (Riggs 6)—his demands for abstraction—lead him from object to idea, and one critic even paints his poetics in terms of his opposition to Americana: “ideas, not Americana, are his central concern” (Pack xiv). If, as Robert Frost gently joked with Stevens when they met in Key West in 1940, Stevens’ problem was that his poetry contained too much “bric-a-brac,” it was not for the thing’s sake, but rather for the purpose of displaying the mind in reaction to things, the process of perception (Thompson and Winnick 61; Brazeau 160).

As Stevens surveyed Whitman in the only poem he wrote that mentions Whitman by name, he takes note of his decline, or disintegration:

In the far South the sun of autumn is passing Like Walt Whitman walking along a ruddy shore.

Unlike “the opulent sun” that we find in Stevens’ “A Postcard from the Volcano” (CPP 129), we encounter here a sun setting on a world of once opulent things, “the things that are part of” Whitman (the poem tells us), and that are going the way of him (CPP 121).

If Stevens believed that Whitman’s verse had, in time, transmogrified from art into data, others have felt this data quite differently, with the full sweep of sentiment behind it. As Fred Hier pointed out in “Walt Whitman’s Mystic Catalogues” in a 1919 issue of Traubel’s Conservator (a magazine devoted to conserving Whitman’s fame), “The mistake has been made . . . of thinking that these catalogues are mere bulk, put in as though with a big brush and plenty of paint to give a generous background. They are not. They are part of the author’s suggestiveness; the places where his love landed” (394). As Hier argues, the “spiritual elevation” of the names, places, and persons through that form expresses Whitman’s mystical, ecstatic sense of the expansiveness of American democracy and is not in danger of disintegrating (394). It is, as the catalogue believers would have it, Americana at its best. Although perhaps not in every instance, Stevens did not locate the same spiritual, or poetic, validity in Whitman’s insistent materialism, and his own poetics embodies that difference.

Tyler Hoffman
Rutgers University

Notes

1. In work after work, Whitman stands at the center of efforts to reconstruct the American political experiment and the American mind. See, besides Van Wyck Brooks’s essay “On Creating a Usable Past” (1918), Bliss Perry’s The American Spirit in Literature (1918), Vernon Parrington’s Main Currents in American Thought (1927–30), F. O. Matthiessen’s American Renaissance: Art and Expression in the Age of Emerson and Whitman (1941), Henry Nash Smith’s Virgin Land: The American West as Symbol and Myth (1950), and Perry Miller’s “The Shaping of the American Character” (1955). [End Page 8]

2. For these and the following quotations, see the online Walt Whitman Archive under Commentary: Disciples: Horace Traubel. The current citation appears under With Walt Whitman in Camden, vol. 2 (1915), and is dated Thursday, July 26, 1888.

3. With Walt Whitman in Camden, vol. 2 (1915), quotation dated Wednesday, August 15, 1888.

4. With Walt Whitman in Camden, vol. 4 (1953), quotation dated Monday, March 11, 1889.

5. With Walt Whitman in Camden, vol. 2 (1915), quotation dated Sunday, August 12, 1888.

6. With Walt Whitman in Camden, vol. 6 (1982), quotation dated Saturday, April 19, 1890.

Works Cited

Ackerman, R. D. “The ‘Man in the Glass’: The Specular Subject of Stevens’ Poetry.” Wallace Stevens Journal 11.2 (1987): 94–102. Print.
Brazeau, Peter. Parts of a World: Wallace Stevens Remembered; An Oral Biography. New York: Random House, 1983. Print.
Hier, Fred. “Walt Whitman’s Mystic Catalogues.” Conserving Walt Whitman’s Fame: Selections from Horace Traubel’s Conservator, 1890–1919. Ed. Gary Schmidgall. Iowa City: U of Iowa P, 2006. 391–96. Print.
Pack, Robert. Wallace Stevens: An Approach to His Poetry and Thought. 1958. New York: Gordian, 1968. Print.
Price, Kenneth M., ed. Walt Whitman: The Contemporary Reviews. Cambridge: Cambridge UP, 1996. Print.
Riggs, Sarah. Word Sightings: Poetry and Visual Media in Stevens, Bishop, and O’Hara. New York: Routledge, 2002. Print.
Stevens, Wallace. Letters of Wallace Stevens. Ed. Holly Stevens. New York: Knopf, 1966. Print.
———. Wallace Stevens: Collected Poetry and Prose. Ed. Frank Kermode and Joan Richardson. New York: Library of America, 1997. Print.
Thompson, Lawrance, and R. H. Winnick. Robert Frost: The Later Years, 1938–1963. New York: Holt, 1976. Print. [End Page 9]