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Between Surface and Influence:
Stevens, Whitman, and the Problem of Mediation

The prophet and the bard, Shall yet maintain themselves, in higher stages yet, Shall mediate to the Modern. . . .

—Walt Whitman, “Eidólons” (1876)


WHEN I FIRST set out to write a dissertation on the theory and practice of American democratic poetics, I was initially quite puzzled by the frequency with which commentators would explicate Wallace Stevens’ poetry through passing reference to the figure of Walt Whitman. Given that Stevens had said very little about Whitman in his poetry, letters, and prose, why, I wondered, did these two names get linked together with such frequency? What assumptions about the nature of the American lyric and American literary history needed to be activated in order for scholars to fall back on casual analogies and tacit alliances instead of demonstrated proof of Whitman’s influence on Stevens? How did the conjunction of Whitman and Stevens become not just a plausible pairing, but also a natural, even inevitable one? As the dissertation slowly grew into the initial stages of a book manuscript, my thinking turned in directions that no longer included Stevens, allowing me to put these questions off to the side for a time. Now, returning to the topic some years later, I am grateful to the editor of this special issue and to my fellow contributors for the opportunity to follow up on a few early hunches about the way that Stevens approached Whitman as an American poet and cultural icon, and to reflect upon some problems of evidence and method that have continued to nag me over the years but never quite crystallized into an argument.

In this essay, I argue that Wallace Stevens was probably not a careful or frequent reader of Whitman’s poetry, though he did have fairly specific views about Whitman’s personality and position within American literary culture. This argument is based upon a skeptical reading of those instances [End Page 10] in his body of writing where Stevens discusses Whitman by name. Because the relationship between Stevens and Whitman has for so long been treated in ways that are largely theoretical rather than empirical, I have adopted a somewhat literal-minded approach, one that Stephen Best and Sharon Marcus have influentially characterized as “surface reading.”1 My aim here is not to persuade readers that this relationship is non-existent or insignificant, but rather that it is significant for other reasons than we have supposed. My thesis is that Stevens rarely encountered Whitman’s texts directly, but rather came at them through a particular site of mediation: through the literary criticism published by Barrett Wendell and George Santayana, two prominent faculty members at Harvard College while Stevens was an undergraduate (1897–1900). Stevens probably did not revisit these accounts often, but his initial encounter in college with these views seems to have left a lasting impression, and shaped his attitude toward Whitman throughout the entirety of his career. Before we turn to the details of this case study in historical mediation, however, I would like to return to the questions with which I began: when and why did scholars start linking Stevens with Whitman in the first place? And what might this tell us about how best to position Whitman and Stevens within literary history today?

“Whitman and Stevens”: The Rise and Fall of a Paradigm

To the best of my knowledge, until 1961 no major critic claimed Stevens had a significant poetic or intellectual relationship to the work of Walt Whitman.2 The plausibility of conjoining Stevens and Whitman depended both logically and historically upon two scholarly developments that did not take place until the 1940s and 1950s. First, before Whitman could be viewed as Stevens’ literary ancestor, Whitman’s own verse forms needed to achieve a measure of scholarly respectability. While Stevens had been praised for his technical accomplishments almost from the start of his career, Whitman’s admirers in the 1910s and 1920s praised his democratic spirit and expansive vision at the expense of his verbal artistry. Whether standing for or against Whitman’s technique and vision, modernist readers tended to agree that he chose not to concern himself with the technical issues of poetic craftsmanship. Critics in the 1910s, such as Louis Untermeyer and James Oppenheim, praised Whitman’s poetry as a primitive burst of free-form American energy, an untrammeled effusion of song that defied all prevailing conventions. Others writing in these years, such as Josephine Preston Peabody, deplored the public’s inability to memorize Whitman’s metrically irregular lines. For Peabody, Whitman’s fault lay not in his aspirations but in his flawed technique: democratic poetry needed to be learned by heart before it could enter into the hearts and souls of the common people. Nearly everyone in the early years of modernism in [End Page 11] America pointed to Whitman’s indecorousness, the wildness of his diction, his metrical disobedience.3 They understood Whitman to be a savage kind of genius, an iconic and wayward prophet who yawped and declaimed his way to public recognition. Whitman had succeeded in committing a memorable act of provocation but was ultimately to be considered a failure in the eyes of discerning, educated readers. From the point of view of poet-critics like Ezra Pound and Amy Lowell, Whitman’s self-proclaimed disdain for formal metrical rules was both his greatest strength and his greatest weakness. He made a breakthrough into free verse without truly understanding the significance of the formal rebellion that he fomented (hence the need for so many treatises on the true nature of imagism). He never grasped that free verse had its own system of rules based on the length of breath, accentual stress, or the density of image clusters. And because of this general agreement by modernists about Whitman’s lack of conscious technique, critics like Allen Tate and Yvor Winters argued that anyone seeking to appropriate Whitman’s style and vision would arrive at an aesthetic dead end. Tate and Winters cited, for example, the structural incoherence of Hart Crane’s The Bridge (1930), one of several modernist poets who made the mistake of invoking Whitman as his muse.4 Until the 1940s, Whitman’s devotees and detractors agreed that his poetry failed to offer much in the way of intentional formal design, making him an ill-fitting companion for Stevens, the hyper-articulate modernist aesthete.5 It was not until the late 1930s and early 1940s that critics like Gay Wilson Allen, F. O. Matthiessen, and Henry Seidel Canby, among others, advanced the claim that Whitman was a deliberate craftsman of innovative verse forms, a poet on a par with the medieval Italian sonneteers, Provençal balladeers, and English metaphysical poets so beloved by T. S. Eliot and the New Critics.6

Along with the scholarly acceptance of Whitman as a technically innovative artist, the conjunction of Whitman with Stevens also depended upon a demonstration that Stevens was not simply a cosmopolitan modernist but a poet who consciously worked within the American grain. In an effort to challenge the reputation that Stevens had acquired in the 1920s as a Frenchified dandy, U.S. scholars in the 1950s and 1960s argued that his work could profitably be read against the background of nineteenth-century American literary traditions alongside that of his symbolist contemporaries in France and England. The Americanization of Stevens’ literary context was largely the achievement of mid-century critics such as William York Tindall, Roy Harvey Pearce, Joseph Riddel, and Harold Bloom.7

Since the 1960s, Stevens’ readers have typically construed his relationship to Whitman in one of three ways: as analogy, as influence, or as evidence for an overarching theory of poetry. The only monograph devoted exclusively to both poets, Diane Middlebrook’s Walt Whitman and Wallace Stevens, is essentially an extended riff on the similarities between Whitman and Stevens’ shared approach to the romantic imagination. For [End Page 12] Middlebrook, Whitman’s “Me Myself” resembles Stevens’ lyric “I,” and Whitman’s manly comrades anticipate Stevens’ bearded rabbis and heroic major men.8 A similar use of argument by analogy informs the presentation of the Whitman-Stevens relationship in works by Pearce, Riddel, and James E. Miller, Jr. Each critic is less interested in the historical process through which Stevens came to know Whitman than in the way the Good Gray Poet created a model for poetic identity that Stevens implicitly explored and revised. Though rarely citing extended verbal parallels, these critics argued that Whitman set the terms in which Stevens forged a creative voice and a professional career in the United States.9

Throughout the 1970s and 1980s, the towering figure of Harold Bloom brought a new vigor and originality to the study of Stevens, largely by constructing analogies between the way Stevens’ work reverberates with the ideas and poetic stance of Emerson and Whitman. Bloom went into much greater detail about specific textual and thematic connections than had Pearce, Riddel, and Miller. At times, the readings offered by Bloom function as forms of genetic criticism, such that a poem by Stevens may be said to descend from or begin with a poem written by Whitman. (The desire to view Whitman and Stevens as working within a shared poetic genre, whether described as the “American epic” or the “personal epic,” also informs the work of Pearce and Miller.) Bloom’s Wallace Stevens: The Poems of Our Climate (1977) argues (among many other things) that Stevens inherited Whitman’s general “stance” toward creativity, pausing nearly every other page to discuss specific echoes between each poet. To cite just one instance, Bloom claims that Stevens’ “Stars at Tallapoosa” “repudiates (or attempts to repudiate) Whitman’s curious warble” in “Out of the Cradle Endlessly Rocking” (15). Bloom’s critical practice was widely imitated and extended in these years, producing countless readings of Stevens’ poetry with Whitman hovering close by somewhere in the background. And yet Bloom’s method, a potent blend of Nietzsche, psychoanalysis, and intertextuality, left historically oriented critics in an epistemological no man’s land, since his analysis flirted with and logically presumed but never quite documented the historical pathway by which Whitman’s texts were transmitted to Stevens. Bloom’s account depended upon a belief in authorial agency (that Stevens likely had a knowledge of poem x by Whitman when writing poem y) but skirted the thorny issue of showing how and when Stevens acquired that knowledge.

In still other instances, Stevens and Whitman have been conjoined in order to illustrate or exemplify a particular theory of poetry, a specific view of literary originality, or a notion of the American national character. This theoretical impulse is most evident in Bloom’s characterization of Stevens as engaged in a lifelong battle with precursor poets such as Emerson, Whitman, and Dickinson. In books like A Map of Misreading, Poetry and Repression, and Figures of Capable Imagination, Bloom explored Stevens’ response to Whitman not so much to prove a particular case of literary [End Page 13] influence as to elaborate upon general theoretical concepts of poetic “revisionism” and “strong misreading” (cf. Wallace Stevens vii). The Whitman-Stevens relation also informs John Hollander’s theory of allusion in Figure of Echo and Angus Fletcher’s theory of democracy and environmentalism in A New Theory of American Poetry.10 These critics remain less concerned with Stevens’ response to Whitman as a historically specific event than with what this response can teach us about the general psychic conditions of poetic creation, the conflicted process by which a poet acquires an idiom of his own, or the open-ended nature of environmental patterns.

Needless to say, the three types of relation that I have outlined here— analogy, influence, theory—rarely exist in strict isolation from one another. A study that begins with an analogy often blurs into one that presumes influence; studies that seek to elaborate abstract theoretical vocabularies tend to build their cases by reference to specific texts and careers. It is striking that none of these approaches is much in vogue of late, and it is worth pausing for a moment to speculate about why this might be. The historicist shift that took place in the American academy in the 1980s and 1990s is surely one reason for the decline in scholarly references to the Whitman-Stevens parallel. Historical and biographical critics tend to foreground relations between Stevens and extra-literary texts and events rather than concentrate on relations internal to America’s national literary tradition. Broadly speaking, the historicist turn promoted a synchronic orientation (a focus on contemporaneous wars, economic fluctuation, political parties and movements, and literary publications) rather than a diachronic one (e.g., a shift from Victorian to modern culture or the relation of events in Stevens’ childhood to those in old age).11 Yet the omission of Whitman from most historicist studies of Stevens was largely a matter of choice rather than methodological necessity. The study of poetic influence is not antithetical to historicist assumptions, of course, provided one can document the flow and degree of impact between two authors. Indeed, the critical genre of the “influence study” was quite popular among historically attentive readers of Stevens before the advent of the New Historicism.12 The notion of “influence” is, after all, a firmly empirical concept, one that would seem to comport well with the dominant historicist tendencies of the past few decades. As a critical method, examining a poet’s influences often requires some consideration of the prior author’s reception history, opening up a form of inquiry that examines literary texts in light of social institutions of publication and distribution. (By contrast, critics who rely on concepts of “allusion” or “intertextuality” tend to regard the literary object in isolation from the institutional processes of historical mediation.)13 Despite the fact that there is no methodological reason to exclude issues of influence from the purview of the literary historian, it remains the case today that the historical impact of Whitman and his legacy upon Stevens almost never figures in the explicit argumentative apparatus of recent scholarship. We thus find ourselves at something of a methodological [End Page 14] crossroads: many of us continue to feel that Whitman played some role in Stevens’ writing and career, and some of us even continue to think and teach about Stevens in light of that Whitmanian inheritance; yet the prevailing historicist orientation of American and modernist literary studies, which prioritizes empirical verification over theoretical speculation, makes it hard to specify precisely what that relation consists in.

Perhaps the problem arises less from our scruples about method and more from the limitations of the historical record. As Stevens scholars have long known, there is very little evidence of when or where Stevens engaged explicitly with Whitman’s writing. He mentions Whitman by name only once throughout his collected poems (CPP 121). In an interview in 1939, Stevens said that neither Henry James nor Whitman “means anything to me” (CPP 804). In a lecture of 1948, he cited a few lines by Whitman for the sake of illustrating a philosophical point, but failed to say anything at all about their aesthetic value as lines of poetry (CPP 715–16). In a 1955 note entitled “Walt Whitman,” he says nothing about the quality of Whitman’s verse, only that he associated the older poet with “lounging” in “open street cars” (CPP 879). Stevens told one correspondent that he was unable to “conscientiously” comment on Whitman’s poetry because it was not very familiar to him; to do so would require that he “reread” Whitman for more than the “several hours” he was able to give to the task on one afternoon in 1955, most likely after many years of neglect (L 870). At the time of his death, Stevens’ personal library contained no editions of Whitman’s writings.14 Whitman is mentioned by Stevens only twice in over 800 published letters, and both times he portrays Whitman negatively, once as an inauthentic “poseur” and another time as a homespun hayseed who remains alluring only to collectors of “precious Americana” (L 414, 871). From the basis of these biographical facts (which I will discuss in more detail later), it would appear that Stevens gave little sustained thought to specific passages of Whitman’s verse, viewing their author instead as an “eccentric” psychological “category” rather than an individual artist with whom Stevens felt intimacy and sympathy (L 414). It seems fair to conclude that Stevens remained consistently aloof and fairly dismissive toward Whitman’s writing throughout his long career. Despite the persistence of our inherited assumptions—that there is a natural connection between the poetry of Whitman and Stevens—it is difficult to defend this belief in light of the paucity of biographical evidence and the lack of a concrete historical context that can comfortably accommodate the work of both poets. [End Page 15]

Surfaces and Influences, Symptoms and Synchrony

Based upon the limited number of citations in which he mentions Whitman, we can no longer simply assume that a great American poet like Stevens must have felt a shock of recognition when reading another great American poet like Whitman, as if such authors communicated with one another in ways that remain impervious to historical investigation. Perhaps, then, it is time to see what we can learn by adopting a more skeptical and empirical attitude toward the available evidence. What if we revisit this topic and focus carefully, with as few presuppositions as possible, on what Stevens actually said about Whitman in his poetry, prose, and letters? In calling for a return to the facts, I do not intend to advocate for a crude form of biographical positivism, as if we had access to a pristine and complete historical record and simply needed to make the appropriate deductions. No such record exists nor will it ever exist. But in adopting a more literal-minded approach to the evidence that remains, I want to push back against two tendencies prevalent in the Stevens scholarship of the past forty years, which I will call the symptomatic and the synchronic approaches. The first tends to assume that no matter what Stevens himself may have said or written, there are hidden traces of Whitman in the depths of Stevens’ psyche—traces that cannot be documented through any means other than the identification of oblique poetic allusions to precursor texts. Bloom, of course, is the paradigmatic practitioner of the symptomatic approach, and he has left many ephebes in his wake. The second approach tends to assume that the most important historical context for a remark or poem by Stevens is nearly always a contemporary context—usually a text or an event that occurred in the same year, though sometimes in the same month, week, or even day as an utterance or publication by Stevens. To my mind, James Longenbach and Alan Filreis have practiced the synchronic approach most impressively and vigorously, leading many other scholars (including the author of this article) to adopt similar lines of thought. For these critics, a properly historical method suggests that whatever Stevens wrote in 1935 is probably best explained through other events or cultural texts of 1935 rather than vague appeals to “tradition” or the general “climate of opinion.”

Both approaches have their strengths, but I want to stress their limitations for understanding Whitman’s relation to Stevens. The symptomatic approach is far too idealist in that it allows scholars to posit the existence of historical relationships for which there is little to no empirical evidence. The synchronic approach, by contrast, is too temporally constricted in its practice of empiricism. It tends to assume that the forces of history shape writers through discrete bursts of action rather than at variable and unpredictable speeds of historical change. On the contrary, I would argue that a childhood memory or an anecdote from college, although more personal and private, is no less historical than a contemporary newspaper article [End Page 16] or letter. The colligation of a contemporary event or publication with a poem written by Stevens does not possess greater explanatory force than a book he read or a person he met over thirty years prior; the evidence for a historical relationship lies in the persuasiveness of the juxtaposition—the degree of fit between rhetoric, image, idea, or event—rather than its immediate temporal proximity to the text at hand.15

In seeking to avoid the pitfalls of these two approaches, I have drawn inspiration (and redeployed some terminology) from a provocative and widely discussed article by Stephen Best and Sharon Marcus entitled “Surface Reading.” The authors argue that literary scholars today have a tendency to leap too quickly over the manifest characteristics of a text in order to delineate its repressed ideological content. They refer to this search for deeper, hidden meanings as a form of “symptomatic reading”:

Broadly speaking, this practice encompasses an interpretive method that argues that the most interesting aspect of a text is what it represses, and that, as Fredric Jameson argued, interpretation should therefore seek “a latent meaning behind a manifest one” (60). The interpreter “rewrite[s] the surface categories of a text in the stronger language of a more fundamental interpretive code” (60) and reveals truths that “remain unrealized in the surface of the text” (48).


For many who employ historicist methods, literary texts are organized so as to conceal their true ideological investments. It is the job of the critic to disclose such investments by reference to a richer, more powerful theoretical vocabulary. In opposition to this tendency, Best and Marcus ask us to examine those elements in literary texts that are so conspicuous—so tedious, banal, simple, or literal—that they are shockingly, almost embarrassingly, legible. They ask us to attend to “what is evident, perceptible, apprehensible in texts; what is neither hidden nor hiding; what, in the geometrical sense, has length and breadth but no thickness, and therefore covers no depth” (9).16 Instead of treating the relationship between Whitman and Stevens symptomatically (in terms of Stevens’ repressed agon with a daunting literary father figure), what if we clung tenaciously to what lies openly on the surface of the extant record? What if we took Stevens’ dismissive references to Whitman at face value rather than as evidence of his (inevitable) sense of competition and anxiety?

Nor does reading for the surface require us to adopt the optic of historical synchronicity. For example, it is tempting to locate Stevens’ explicit citation of Whitman in “Like Decorations in a Nigger Cemetery” (1935) in the context of other poems of the period that directly address Whitman, such as Michael Gold’s “Ode to Walt Whitman” or Stephen Vincent Benét’s “Ode to Walt Whitman” (both also from 1935).17 But Gold’s and Benét’s poems are largely topical, conscripting Whitman into the polemical context [End Page 17] of the 1930s, where nineteenth-century ideals of rugged individualism are found wanting. Stevens’ treatment, by contrast, uses Whitman mainly as a jumping-off point for a quite varied set of meditations on death and imaginative impoverishment. Reading the poem in light of contemporary authors and concerns may throw into relief the apolitical and deflationary attitude that Stevens adopts toward Whitman in this poem, but ultimately this type of contextual reading tells us more about Stevens’ complicated attitude toward politics in the mid-1930s than it does about his specific attitude toward Whitman. Such a synchronic approach occludes the strong degree of continuity between Stevens’ perspective toward Whitman in a poem of 1935 and other references to Whitman in letters from 1941 and 1955 that have little to do with the politics of the 1930s, but that have much to do with the arguments of his Harvard teachers in the early 1900s. A surface reading asks us to read closely, even literally, and historically, but not always adjacently or horizontally. An attention to the manifest meaning of Stevens’ words need not limit our sense of historical context to what was immediately apprehensible at the moment of composition or expressed by a cohort of peers; “context” can just as easily refer to patterns of thought established over wider distances of time and space.

Working from the surface to understand influence permits me to move between essays written by Santayana and Wendell in the early 1900s and comments made by Stevens several decades later while remaining faithful to the exact words of the material written record. Moving back and forth across several decades, I hope to demonstrate that the pathway of influence can be historically situated and analytically precise while enduring over fairly long stretches of time. Keeping in mind Best and Marcus’ insistence that “A surface is what insists on being looked at rather than what we must train ourselves to see through” (9; emphasis in orig.), let us turn now to the way that two specific representations of Whitman intersect in concrete ways with the language of Stevens’ letters, essays, and poems. By doing so, we can uncover the degree of historical mediation that shaped Stevens’ engagement with the aesthetic beliefs and cultural associations of Walt Whitman. Stevens persisted throughout his career in understanding Whitman much as his Harvard teachers had characterized him at the turn of the century.

Whitman and Stevens from Harvard to Hartford

Whitman’s reputation remained quite controversial and divisive throughout the final decades of the nineteenth century. A number of prominent literary critics at the time, such as Thomas Wentworth Higginson and W. D. Howells, decried Whitman’s poetry for its formlessness, erotic abandon, allusions to homosexual love, disrespectful attitude toward women and marriage, affirmation of sensuality, and willingness to drag private issues [End Page 18] into the public sphere.18 Growing up in an observant Presbyterian household, it seems unlikely that Stevens would have heard many kind words about Whitman’s poetry or beliefs from his mother or father, though we do not know for sure. What we do know is that Stevens would have encountered a fairly negative portrayal of Whitman as an undergraduate at Harvard from 1897 to 1900.19 Two Harvard professors with whom Stevens had extended contact, Barrett Wendell in the English department and George Santayana in the Philosophy department, published critical accounts of Whitman’s poetry while Stevens was still an impressionable undergraduate. Both Wendell and Santayana belonged to a conservative faction of the Harvard faculty that included celebrated authors such as Henry Adams and Charles Eliot Norton. These men resented the efforts of President Charles W. Eliot to modernize the undergraduate curriculum in a more discipline-specific, vocational direction. Both Wendell and Santayana fought against the forces of utilitarian rationalism that Eliot represented, and both had serious reservations about the impact of democracy upon the development and growth of American intellect and art. Wendell would go on to attack the business-oriented outlook of American educators in The Privileged Classes (1908), and Santayana would do the same in his famous essay “The Genteel Tradition in American Philosophy” (1911).

Stevens likely took two classes with Wendell while attending Harvard. He knew his teacher well enough to procure a letter of recommendation for a job in journalism at the end of his final semester. In his courses with Wendell, Stevens probably encountered some of the opinions about American literature that his teacher would soon elaborate at much greater length in A Literary History of America (1900), which includes a fifteen-page chapter devoted to Whitman.20 Two features of Wendell’s account appear to have shaped Stevens’ subsequent attitude toward Whitman. First, Wendell emphasized Whitman’s self-appointed role as a democratic bard: “he seemed the inspired prophet of an America which he asserted to be above all things else the land of the people” (466). Like many others, Wendell was impressed by the sincerity of Whitman’s egalitarianism, the belief that “kings, nobles, and gentlemen” are no “lovelier than the mob” (468). Second, Wendell claimed that, despite his professed intentions, Whitman was neither a man of the people nor capable of representing the masses. In his view, Whitman’s temperament was far too extreme to be taken as emblematic of the average American: “many critics have been disposed to maintain that his amorphous prophecies of democracy are deeply characteristic of America. . . . Whitman is professedly the most democratic of American writers; consequently he must be the most typical” (466–67). Yet nothing could be further from the truth, said Wendell. Whitman’s idea of equality was essentially foreign rather than homegrown. Whereas democracy in America had always honored the “ideal of liberty,” Whitman reflected the European emphasis on the “ideal of fraternity”: “His conception of equality, utterly ignoring values, is not that of American democracy, [End Page 19] but rather that of European. His democracy, in short, is the least native which has ever found voice in his country” (467, 471). Wendell recognized that Whitman was a striking, unusual—even in his way, a great—American poet. Despite his literary originality, however, Whitman’s personality placed him far outside the mainstream of American culture: “Beyond question Whitman had remarkable individuality and power. Equally beyond question he was among the most eccentric individuals who ever put pen to paper” (466).

Wendell uses the word “eccentric” (or versions thereof) eleven times in this chapter, and he often pairs it with a string of negative qualifiers: “Such eccentricity of manner,” “perverse eccentricity,” “his eccentricity is a misfortune,” “this decadent eccentricity” (475–77). His emphasis on Whitman’s strange character and odd behavior made a lasting impression on the young Wallace Stevens. In a letter composed over four decades later, Stevens characterized Whitman in the same terms as his teacher Wendell, focusing on his eccentricity and lack of typicality. In the course of discussing how the “image of the poet” evolves over time, Stevens points to Whitman as a notable exception to the rule:

The conception of the figure of the poet has changed and is changing every day. It was only a few years ago when Joaquin Miller or Walt Whitman were considered to be approximations of a typical image. But were they? Weren’t they recognized by people of any sense at all as, personally, poseurs? They belong in the same category of eccentrics to which queer looking actors belong. When you think of an actor, do you think of him as the typical figure or do you think of him in terms of the ordinary men and women round you? Assuming that you think of him in the terms of the ordinary men and women round you, why shouldn’t you think of a poet in the same way: in terms of the ordinary men and women round you?

(L 414)

Here, Stevens draws a contrast between the poet’s stereotypical image as a wildcat visionary and the prosaic facts of reality. Quoting the words of his correspondent, Stevens agrees that the modern poet tends to be regarded by most people as “an idler, a man without clothes, a drunk” (L 414). For Stevens, the less colorful but more truthful observation is that most poets look and act no differently than “ordinary men and women.”21 Most poets, like most actors, lack the eccentric mannerisms and odd quirks that society expects of them. Still, there will always be a few poets who choose to fashion themselves after the clichés of their day—poets like Miller and Whitman, for example. According to Stevens, Whitman willingly chose to adopt a style of self-presentation that corresponded to conventional beliefs about poets as oddballs, outcasts, libertines, and bohemians. It is in this respect that Stevens pairs Whitman with another nineteenth-century [End Page 20] American poet, Joaquin Miller, who was famous for posturing as a savage frontiersman while visiting England in 1870. As Stevens points out in this letter, both Miller and Whitman were happy to cloak themselves in the approved images of their day, thus satisfying a demand from foreign audiences that American poets enact a “Western” attitude and a roughneck style of dress. For such foreign audiences, American poets served as the literary equivalent of American pioneers—rustic, raw, rough-hewn, barbaric—and Whitman was only too happy to fulfill their fantasies through his casual style of dress and rough manners. Both Miller and Whitman were aware, Stevens claims, that they were putting on a show for a credulous audience—hence his charge that they were, “personally, poseurs.”22 Most striking for my purposes is Stevens’ characterization of Whitman as belonging to “the same category of eccentrics to which queer looking actors belong.” Stevens’ point here is that most actors are not “queer looking” or physically grotesque but rather resemble “the ordinary men and women round you.” Relatedly, the modern poet does not need to strike an avant-garde pose or dress the part of the wild bohemian, as Whitman did; he simply “looks like anyone else, acts like anyone else, wears the same kind of clothes” as anyone else (L 414).

Though Wendell sees sincerity in Whitman’s pose and Stevens sees only an act, they converge on the fact of Whitman’s eccentricity, his unrepresentativeness as an American poet and citizen. For Wendell, Whitman served as a false representative of the typical American democrat. For him, the average American held private liberty in much higher regard than the intense fraternal solidarity assumed by Whitman’s comrades on the open road. For Stevens, Whitman provided a poor model for the contemporary poet because the “image of the poet” had changed since the nineteenth century: the modern poet no longer needed to act like a raffish scoundrel or deck himself out in buckskin, rifle, and coon-cap to be treated as a legitimate American artist. In the age of high modernism, as Stevens well knew, the successful poet was likely to wear a business suit and work regular hours in a bank (T. S. Eliot), operate out of a doctor’s office (W. C. Williams), or occupy a desk at a little magazine (Marianne Moore), an advertising firm (Hart Crane), or an insurance company (Wallace Stevens).

Despite his characterization of Whitman here as an “eccentric” and a “poseur,” Stevens did appreciate some aspects of Whitman’s persona and certain characteristics of his poetry. This becomes apparent when we look at several other references to Whitman scattered across Stevens’ poetry and prose. In “Like Decorations in a Nigger Cemetery,” first published in Poetry in 1935, Stevens portrays Whitman as a fiery prophet chanting the doctrine of immortality: “Nothing is final, he chants. No man shall see the end. / His beard is of fire and his staff is a leaping flame” (CPP 121). In a letter of 1955, Stevens notes that Whitman’s “specific power” rests in those “poems in which he collects large numbers of concrete things,” such as “Song of the Broad-Axe, Song of the Exposition” (L 871). Often, he continues, [End Page 21] Whitman seems “to have driven himself to write like himself”—that is to say, Whitman’s most pronounced stylistic effects were so powerful that they tempted their author into self-parody. But the “essential Whitman,” he insists, can still be found in those poems “in which he was himself deeply moved,” since these poems exhibit an “extemporaneous and irrepressible vehemence of emotion” (L 871). These relatively affirmative citations of Whitman will require a bit of unpacking, which I would like to do by way of discussing Stevens’ other major pedagogical influence at Harvard, George Santayana. As we will see, the terms of Stevens’ appreciation of Whitman in this letter reflect the idiom and ideas of his Harvard mentor and friend.23

While Stevens attended Harvard, Santayana published his first major work of literary criticism, Interpretations of Poetry and Religion (1900). According to Samuel French Morse and Alan Filreis, it seems likely that Stevens was the author of an anonymous review of Santayana’s book for the Harvard Advocate, the campus literary magazine to which he had been a regular contributor since his sophomore year and for which he served as president in his third and final year (1899–1900) (Filreis, “Wallace Stevens” 32–33). At the very least, we know that Stevens was present in the room when Santayana discussed a negative review of his book that had recently appeared in The Nation.24 In Chapter VII of Interpretations, entitled “The Poetry of Barbarism,” Santayana made a sustained attack on the aesthetic and philosophical limitations of the poetry of Whitman and Browning, probably in response to Oscar L. Triggs’s valorization of both poets as examples of the “free and purified will” in his Browning and Whitman: A Study in Democracy (1893).25 Santayana accused Whitman and Browning of exemplifying the characteristics of barbarism, which he defined as a reverence for the quickness of the passions over the controlling power of reason. Santayana accused their poems of wallowing in the immediacy of sensation rather than achieving a mature detachment or arriving at a considered definition of the good life:

the barbarian is the man who regards his passions as their own excuse for being. . . . He is the man who does not know his derivations nor perceive his tendencies, but who merely feels and acts, valuing in his life its force and its filling, but being careless of its purpose and its form. His delight is in abundance and vehemence; his art, like his life, shows an exclusive respect for quantity and splendour of materials.


Throughout the essay, Santayana’s rhetoric is by turns aghast and amazed that such a barbaric creature could still happily exist in the modern world. What is so shocking and so fascinating to him is that Whitman has deliberately discarded any desire for achieving a rational perspective on the universe beyond the satisfaction of his immediate emotions. Whitman [End Page 22] does not strive for higher things, he writes, but actively embraces “with a canine devotion” the life of bestial instinct: Whitman “has approached common life without bringing in his mind any higher standard by which to criticise it; he has seen it, not in contrast with an ideal, but as the expression of forces more indeterminate and elementary than itself; and the vulgar, in this cosmic setting, has appeared to him sublime” (110, 111). Rather than pull back from the sordid confusions of modernity, Whitman walks through the earth “Surrounded by ugly things and common people” and yet feels “happy, ecstatic, overflowing with a kind of patriarchal love” (111).

Two things about Santayana’s essay are important in light of their subsequent impact upon Stevens. First, Santayana regards Whitman as a chanting prophet who claims to understand his community but ultimately fails to do so, much as Stevens would suggest in his portrayal of Whitman in “Like Decorations.” Second, Santayana emphasizes that Whitman’s originality and philosophical incoherence derive from his “vehemence” of feeling to the exclusion of every effort to curb or restrain the impulses. Whitman, like Browning, believes that “to live hard can never be to live wrong” (129). Santayana presents Whitman as an egotistical prophet who looks always toward the future in hopes of inspiring others to chant along with him:

In Whitman’s works, in which this new literature is foreshadowed, there is accordingly not a single character nor a single story. His only hero is Myself, the “single separate person,” endowed with the primary impulses, with health, and with sensitiveness to the elementary aspects of Nature. The perfect man of the future, the prolific begetter of other perfect men, is to work with his hands, chanting the poems of some future Walt, some ideally democratic bard.


Despite Whitman’s professed desire to serve as a representative voice of the people, he does not really grasp the motives of the citizens for whom he writes: “for all his acquaintance with the ways and thoughts of the common man of his choice, he did not truly understand him. For to understand people is to go much deeper than they go themselves; to penetrate to their characters and disentangle their inmost ideals. Whitman’s insight into men did not go beyond a sensuous sympathy” (113). For this reason, Santayana concludes, like Wendell before him, that Whitman “is surely not the spokesman of the tendencies of his country” and “is regarded as representative chiefly by foreigners, who look for some grotesque expression of the genius of so young and prodigious a people” (112).

This image of Whitman as a fiery but slightly ridiculous and out-of-touch soothsayer, heart ablaze with endless images of futurity, corresponds rather closely to the single explicit mention of Whitman in all of Stevens’ poetry, the opening stanza of “Like Decorations in a Nigger Cemetery”: [End Page 23]

In the far South the sun of autumn is passing Like Walt Whitman walking along a ruddy shore. He is singing and chanting the things that are part of him, The worlds that were and will be, death and day. Nothing is final, he chants. No man shall see the end. His beard is of fire and his staff is a leaping flame.

Here, Whitman is identified with the power of the sun and the overflowing heat of emotion. He is portrayed as an Old Testament priest or prophet, one who is “singing and chanting” along the shore while sporting a “beard” and holding a “staff,” proclaiming a message of immortality and indestructibility.

The vivid picture with which Stevens begins his poem feels as if it were copied directly from the pages of Interpretations of Poetry and Religion. Santayana describes Whitman in his essay as a modern-day poet-savage, a sun-loving pagan priest who “basked in the sunshine of perception and wallowed in the stream of his own sensibility” (110). In addition to identifying Whitman with sunlight and shoreline, Stevens also portrays him as deeply in touch with the elemental forces of nature while remaining sublimely out of touch with the emotions and perspective of the average man or woman. After we encounter the confident bard of the first stanza, the next stanza abruptly changes tone, introducing a speaker who does not share Whitman’s cosmic faith in immortality: “Sigh for me, night-wind, in the noisy leaves of the oak. / I am tired. Sleep for me, heaven over the hill. / Shout for me, loudly and loudly, joyful sun, when you rise” (CPP 121). The “he” of stanza one, identified with Whitman’s egotism—“chanting the things that are part of him”—becomes in the following stanza an empty and subdued “me,” incapable of generating feeling from within. Unlike Whitman, the voice of the poet in the second stanza is not secure in his private visions, but rather hopes to discern emotional correspondences in the natural world outside the self, offering playful riffs on the pathetic fallacy (sighing leaves, sleeping skies, a shouting sun).26

The remainder of “Like Decorations in a Nigger Cemetery” explores a tension between the passionate immortal chants of Whitman and the chastened realism promoted by many poets writing in Depression-era America. The poem voices this tension through a series of contrasts: the romantic “oriole” versus the realistic “crow,” the “pundit of the weather”—who thinks only of “man the abstraction, the comic sum”—in contrast to those pragmatists concerned only with the “affairs of men” (CPP 124, 126). There is also a second tension that runs throughout “Like Decorations” and Ideas of Order as a whole, and which emerges as an even more dominant theme just a few years later in The Man with the Blue Guitar (1937): the discrepancy between the desires and beliefs of the poet and the desires and beliefs of the poet’s audience. In the mid-1930s, when “Like [End Page 24] Decorations” was first published, Stevens began to test his willingness to forgo the Whitmanian pleasures of visionary indulgence—the radiant lushness of the poems of Harmonium—so as to turn and face those members of society he was supposedly writing to and for.27 Hence, in the final stanzas of “Like Decorations,” it is with a measure of reluctance that the poet allows himself to be pulled away from the realm of pure solipsistic sensuousness and back toward the realm of the common life:

It needed the heavy nights of drenching weather To make him return to people, to find among them Whatever it was that he found in their absence, A pleasure, an indulgence, an infatuation.

The final stanzas of the poem leave these tensions unresolved. Stevens remains preoccupied—in a way that Whitman seems rarely to have pondered in his poetry—with the question of whether collectives can generate knowledge along with power: “Union of the weakest develops strength / Not wisdom.”28 Without ever quite arriving at a conclusion, the poem reminds us that “all men, together,” often fail to arrive at forms of pleasure and infatuation that satisfy all parties equally, leaving the poet little choice but to strike out on his own: “the wise man avenges by building his city in snow” (CPP 128).

On this reading of “Like Decorations in a Nigger Cemetery,” Whitman presents a powerful example of egotistical sensuality to which Stevens sometimes felt attracted but that he ultimately resisted as too narrow, too single-mindedly confident in the poet’s ability to substitute his voice for the views of all members of society. As such, Stevens’ attitude toward the historical figure of Walt Whitman bears a strong resemblance to the portrayal of Whitman provided by Santayana. Elements of Santayana’s characterization continue to be felt in Stevens’ writing as late as 1955, when in a letter to Joseph Bennett he offers his only sustained commentary on Whitman’s poetry. Even at the end of his career, Stevens remains reserved and cagey in his praise of Whitman:

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.

Here, Stevens concedes that Whitman’s poetry of “concrete things” has its contemporary admirers, though he does not say whether he is one of them. As the letter continues, Stevens rehearses the opinion of Whitman’s [End Page 25] contemporary detractors, explaining why some readers no longer marvel at Whitman’s music:

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.

(L 871)

In this passage, Stevens again conceals whether he agrees with such assessments. He merely acknowledges that certain “others” of his time feel ill disposed toward the “opulence” of Whitman’s verse. What had once seemed grand now seems “threadbare,” more like a collection of “precious” objects than a fully realized body of work.

Yet, despite all the hedging and ventriloquizing up to this point, the concluding paragraphs of Stevens’ letter offer a clear evaluation of Whitman’s achievement. Stevens’ attitude toward the older poet’s reputation is unmistakably negative: “It seems to me, then, that Whitman is disintegrating as the world, of which he made himself a part, disintegrates. Crossing Brooklyn Ferry exhibits this disintegration” (L 871). This is a rather striking way to characterize Whitman’s poetic legacy in mid-century America. Whitman and his poetry are said to be disintegrating in the 1950s, literally falling apart or decaying. His reputation and his poetry are breaking down, just as the nineteenth-century world to which he belonged crumbled into ruins amidst the sweeping historical changes of the twentieth century. Though Stevens’ choice of idiom initially seems quite strange, it becomes more intelligible once we view these remarks in the context of Santayana. Unlike the ancient poets of classical civilizations, today’s poets

have no total vision, no grasp of the whole reality, and consequently no capacity for a sane and steady idealisation. The comparatively barbarous ages had a poetry of the ideal; they had visions of beauty, order, and perfection. This age of material elaboration has no sense for those things. Its fancy is retrospective, whimsical, and flickering; its ideals, when it has any, are negative and partial; its moral strength is a blind and miscellaneous vehemence. Its poetry, in a word, is the poetry of barbarism.


For Santayana, poets such as Whitman and Browning “should be viewed in relation to the general moral crisis and imaginative disintegration of which [their poetry] gives a verbal echo; then we shall avoid the injustice of passing it over as insignificant” (104). As the essay goes on, Santayana makes it clear that Browning was intellectually more sophisticated than Whitman, again linking Whitman with an advanced stage of cognitive and [End Page 26] perceptual decay: “The elements to which Browning reduces experience are still passions, characters, persons; Whitman carries the disintegration further and knows nothing but moods and particular images” (108).

When Stevens writes that Whitman is “disintegrating as the world, of which he made himself a part, disintegrates,” he is offering a new spin on Santayana’s conservative argument about the nature of cultural decline in modern life. Yet whereas Santayana condemns Whitman and Browning for embodying the fundamental philosophical illusions of the modern era, Stevens perceives merely a local error: “Crossing Brooklyn Ferry” exhibits disintegration, according to Stevens, precisely because it is a poem that bases its moral authority upon an appeal to a transcendent, ahistorical relevance. In that poem, Whitman presumes that the physical world of his poem will always remain intelligible to the reader, even to those readers who might encounter his poem hundreds of years later. Whitman repeatedly seeks to obliterate the historical distance separating poet and reader in “Crossing Brooklyn Ferry”: “It avails not, time nor place—distance avails not, / I am with you, you men and women of a generation, or ever so many generations hence” (308). From Stevens’ perspective in 1955, such a claim was extremely difficult to accept, since very little of Whitman’s physical environment had endured into the present day. Inhabiting a world of automobiles and commercial airplanes, Stevens could no longer glimpse the same antiquated New York harbor that Whitman had portrayed so vividly:

Saw the white sails of schooners and sloops, saw the ships at anchor, The sailors at work in the rigging or out astride the spars, The round masts, the swinging motion of the hulls, the slender serpentine pennants, The large and small steamers in motion, the pilots in their pilot-houses, The white wake left by the passage, the quick tremulous whirl of the wheels.


To modernist poets of Stevens’ generation—seasoned riders of subways and owners of personal automobiles—such appeals to the continuity of experience across time failed to carry conviction. Whitman was at his weakest, Stevens felt, when he fell into describing the external trappings of the immediate social landscape, when he succumbed to being a merely descriptive poet of “things.”

Whitman’s best work, Stevens argued, lay in those poems “in which he was himself deeply moved” (L 871). These included Whitman’s sympathy for the bodies and tools of the laboring classes in “Song of the Broad-Axe” and his invocation of the Muse in “Song of the Exposition.” Such [End Page 27] poems, which Stevens describes in this letter as “superbly beautiful and moving,” succeeded where “Crossing Brooklyn Ferry” failed because in them “he wrote naturally, with an extemporaneous and irrepressible vehemence of emotion” (L 871). In arriving at this opinion, Stevens draws on the very same term of praise—“vehemence”—as employed by Santayana. The word appears several times in the chapter on Whitman, as when he writes that the passions that motivate the poetry of barbarism are “aimless in their vehemence and mere ebullitions of lustiness in adventurous and profoundly ungoverned souls” (108). The barbarian, Santayana writes elsewhere, is careless about the “purpose” and “form” of art; rather, “His delight is in abundance and vehemence” (109). The “moral strength” of Whitman and Browning lay in their willingness to court “a blind and miscellaneous vehemence” (104).

Neither Santayana nor Stevens rejected Whitman’s primitive pleasures outright; both were keen, however, to acknowledge the immense aesthetic and political costs of submerging oneself within what Santayana called “the conception of things immediate. The pulse of the emotion, the bobbing up of the thought, the streaming of the reverie” (126). Both associated Whitman with one pole of an ongoing cultural dialectic—for Santayana, between rationalism and barbarism, for Stevens, between romanticism and realism—that could never be decided once and for all, though each favored the former over the latter. For both writers, the strength of Whitman’s verse was also its greatest weakness, for it depended on seeing only the sunny side of life, all fire and flames, prophecies and poetry, with little evil or tragedy to stand in the way of chanting immortality. In Santayana’s words, Whitman represented the immature desire for a life of “perpetual vagrancy”: “to have an infinite number of days to live through, an infinite number of dinners to eat, with an infinity of fresh fights and new love-affairs, and no end of last rides together” (124). Yet such a passionate one-sidedness exacted a steep price. If it was true, as Santayana claimed, that for “Whitman imagination was limited to marshalling sensations in single file” (127), then Stevens hoped to march his reader in both directions at the same time, and sometimes to break out of the marching line altogether.

Even when Stevens does not explicitly mention Whitman by name in his poetry, he tends to focus, like Santayana, on the vulgar, bodily passions that urged Whitman into song. Consider the following lines from “Parochial Theme” (1938), which adopt a recognizably Whitmanian idiom:

This health is holy, this descant of a self, This barbarous chanting of what is strong, this blare.29

Such moments of vigorous naturalism are certainly not rare in Stevens’ poetry. These lines call to mind another Whitmanesque moment of jocular piety—the seventh stanza of “Sunday Morning,” where men “chant in orgy [End Page 28] on a summer morn” in “boisterous devotion to the sun” (CPP 55–56). In both instances, the tone is solemn but the diction produces a comic effect: health becomes “holy,” chants are “orgies,” devotion is “boisterous.” Such naked proclamations of bodily vigor, while perhaps necessary for the “health” of the poet, also require him to block out other parts of the world. That the chanting is barbarous—crude, impulsive, without acknowledgement of or concern for artistic convention or the sensitivities of the audience—is part of what makes this a parochial theme, after all. In such moments, Stevens is simultaneously enacting and parodying the poetry of barbarism.


By treating Whitman as a hot-blooded primitive, a vernacular prophet shouting folksy American rhythms into the open air, Stevens, like so many other modernists, profoundly underestimated the thematic and tonal variety of Whitman’s poetry as well as his capacity to inhabit roles other than prophet or sage. Dipping into Leaves of Grass casually and erratically, Stevens never looked past Whitman’s endless catalogues and bombastic eloquence to discover the descriptive war poet, the philosophical inquirer into the nature of identity, the tragic elegist, or the surreal image-maker. Still, coming at that poetry through the lens of Wendell and Santayana enabled Stevens to grasp the power and the limits of writing poetry that was devoted to the flux of sensations. His teachers at Harvard helped him to see the difficulties of using lyric poetry to speak with and to “the people,” a subject that would come to occupy an increasingly important place in Stevens’ mind during the 1930s.

Throughout this essay, I have attempted to go beyond reading for ideological symptoms or reading for historical synchrony. I have tried to join the methodological imperatives of surface reading to the traditional literary-historical practice of explaining an author’s influences. While I suspect that Stevens thought about Whitman now and again throughout his career, it is important not to overstate the nature of their relationship, which remained fairly limited in scope. In the absence of the discovery of new documents, or a more extensive demonstration of allusions to Whitman in Stevens’ poetry, it is difficult to escape the conclusion that the historical author of Leaves of Grass failed to make a sustained impact upon Stevens’ writing and thought. Stevens was not, I think, a close or careful reader of Whitman’s verse; from the tenor of his few published remarks, he seems to have dipped into Leaves of Grass just often enough over the years to absorb its general atmosphere and characteristic rhetorical patterns—just enough, that is, to accurately parody Whitman’s inflated diction, lengthy catalogues, and vatic pronouncements. To the extent that he thought about Whitman at all, it was less as a writer of memorable lines of poetry and more as a cultural icon, a national figurehead and folk hero [End Page 29] who offered one example of how to approach—or, more exactly, how not to approach—the vocation of being a poet in America. Still, even if Stevens had a fairly superficial grasp of Whitman’s richly varied body of work, that is no reason for us to look past the surface of his words.

Patrick Redding
Manhattanville College


1. See Best and Marcus. This essay has been the subject of lively debate in several literary subfields. See, for instance, the essays by Rooney; Schmitt; Lesjak.

2. I arrived at this conclusion by searching for extended references to Whitman in academic scholarship on Stevens prior to the 1960s, as collected in John Serio’s invaluable secondary bibliography.

3. For example, in an influential early survey of modernist poetry in 1919, Untermeyer wrote, “It was Whitman who came with a double challenge; he assailed the intolerable prurience of the Puritans and outraged the aesthetic formalists of his period by taking his themes hot from the rude and raucous tumble of life” (11). Peabody agrees in her stylistic assessment but draws the opposite political conclusion: “Whitman . . . was a democrat in principle, but not in poetic practice. He loved humanity, but he was kept from reaching his widest audience because his verse lacked music, lacked strongly stressed, intelligible, communal music” (qtd. in Kilmer 14). For a more comprehensive account of the modernist reception of Whitman, with special attention to questions of form, see Redding.

4. Reviewing Crane’s The Bridge in 1930, Winters wrote, “And one thing he has demonstrated, the impossibility of getting anywhere with the Whitmanian inspiration. No writer of comparable ability has struggled with it before, and, with Mr. Crane’s wreckage in view, it seems highly unlikely that any writer of comparable genius will struggle with it again” (165).

5. There were a handful of appreciative studies of Whitman’s prosody before this time, but the sentiment was largely confined to specialist academic journals, never quite penetrating mainstream academic opinion. For more on Whitman’s reception among early-twentieth-century academics, see Willard 190–98.

6. See Allen, American Prosody 217–43 and Whitman Handbook; Matthiessen; and Canby. This evaluation was not shared by those mid-century critics who later came to be associated with the New Criticism. On the history of the New Critical resistance to Whitman, see Golding 86–102.

7. See Tindall; Pearce; Riddel; and Bloom, “Central Man.”

8. Middlebrook’s reliance upon conceptual analogy rather than empirical influence is emphasized in Rawson’s review of her book.

9. See Pearce; Riddel; and Miller.

10. Fletcher presents Stevens’ “Sea Surface Full of Clouds” as an “early homage” to Whitman (106).

11. For representative examples of this tendency, see Brogan; Longenbach; and Filreis, Modernism.

12. See, for instance, Buttel; Morse; and Litz.

13. For more on the theoretical status of “influence,” see Elfenbein. Mazur explicitly rejects the concept of influence in favor of intertextuality, and thus provides a notable exception to my claim here (xv–xvi). Note, however, that Mazur’s book is not historicist in orientation, and thus is somewhat unrepresentative of dominant tendencies in Americanist and modernist scholarship at the present time. [End Page 30]

14. No volumes of Whitman’s poetry are included in the checklists of Stevens’ personal library housed at the Huntington Library and the University of Massachusetts, Amherst. See the checklists compiled by Bates; Brazeau; and Moynihan. This fact may not, of course, be in any way definitive, as many of Stevens’ books were auctioned off to private collectors. I am not suggesting that Stevens never owned a volume of Whitman’s poetry; L 871 suggests that he very likely did. Whether or not his copy of Whitman turns up eventually, it is notable that Whitman was never sufficiently important to Stevens for him to acquire multiple volumes of his writing, as he did with Shakespeare, the romantics, and selected French poets. Yet again, though, I would not want to make too much of the holdings in his personal library. Stevens was just as likely to acquire a book for the beauty of its binding as for the illumination of its contents.

15. In thinking about these issues of historical causality and proximity, I have been chastened by Perkins 121–52. See also the arguments about the relation of memory to history and the use of “inference to the best explanation” in Megill 17–59 and 127–32.

16. For an attempt to recuperate the literal in relation to surface reading, see Freedgood and Schmitt.

17. Both poems are collected in Perlman et al. 168–83.

18. On Whitman’s late-nineteenth- and early-twentieth-century reception, see Willard; Folsom, “Affording” and “Talking”; Trachtenberg; Morris 27–53; and Higgins.

19. For more on Whitman’s late-nineteenth-century reception among writers and critics at Harvard, see Price 122–46.

21. Late in life, Stevens seemed to accept without question that Whitman had secured a public reputation as an idler and a loafer. In “On Walt Whitman,” he wrote, “I always think of him as one who lived in Camden and rode around Philadelphia on open street cars. If he was up front, he would be lounging with one foot on the running-board. If he was in back, he would have both feet on the rail” (CPP 879).

22. In referring to Whitman as a “poseur,” Stevens may have been alluding to a controversial attack on the poet in 1938 by Esther Shephard, the author of Walt Whitman’s Pose. For more on this moment in Whitman’s reception, see Willard 163–64.

23. Stevens’ admiration and affection for Santayana have been well documented. See Bates, “Selecting”; Filreis, “Wallace Stevens”; Lensing 13–28; Leggett 73–92.

26. Stevens attributed the title of the poem to a saying by Judge Arthur Powell, a friend with whom he vacationed in Key West. Yet it is interesting to note that a similar phrase also appears in Santayana’s discussion of Whitman: “a multiplicity of images pass before him and he yields himself to each in turn with absolute passivity. The world has no inside; it is a phantasmagoria of continuous visions, vivid, impressive, but monotonous and hard to distinguish in memory, like the waves of the sea or the decorations of some barbarous temple, sublime only by the infinite aggregation of parts” (110; emphasis added). The poem also seems to anticipate Stevens’ later remark about Whitman as a producer of “precious Americana” insofar as the title refers to the colorful, homemade decorations festooned around African-American cemeteries (L 871).

27. My account of the poem overlaps in some ways with Filreis, Modernism 100–12.

28. Whitman was notably more critical in prose than in poetry of crude applications of majority rule. See, for instance, the first section of Democratic Vistas (1871).

29. Notice how strongly Stevens’ diction in this poem resembles Santayana’s already quoted characterization of Whitman, with its focus on “health” and “chanting”: “His only hero is Myself, the ‘single separate person,’ endowed with the primary impulses, with health, and with sensitiveness to the elementary aspects of Nature. The perfect man of the future, the prolific begetter of other perfect men, is to work with his hands, chanting the poems of some future Walt, some ideally democratic bard” (112). [End Page 31]

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