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