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Walt Whitman and the Earth

A Study in Ecopoetics

M. Jimmie Killingsworth

Publication Year: 2009

How did Whitman use language to figure out his relationship to the earth, and how can we interpret his language to reconstruct the interplay between the poet and his sociopolitical and environmental world? In this first book-length study of Whitman's poetry from an ecocritical perspective, Jimmie Killingsworth takes ecocriticism one step further into ecopoetics to reconsider both Whitman's language in light of an ecological understanding of the world and the world through a close study of Whitman's language.Killingsworth contends that Whitman's poetry embodies the kinds of conflicted experience and language that continually crop up in the discourse of political ecology and that an ecopoetic perspective can explicate Whitman's feelings about his aging body, his war-torn nation, and the increasing stress on the American environment both inside and outside the urban world. He begins with a close reading of “This Compost,” “Whitman's greatest contribution to the literature of ecology,” from the 1856 edition of Leaves of Grass. He then explores personification and nature as object, as resource, and as spirit and examines manifest destiny and the globalizing impulse behind Leaves of Grass, then moves the other way, toward Whitman's regional, even local appeal---demonstrating that he remained an island poet even as he became America's first urban poet. After considering Whitman as an urbanizing poet, he shows how, in his final writings, Whitman tried to renew his earlier connection to nature. Walt Whitman and the Earth reveals Whitman as a powerfully creative experimental poet and a representative figure in American culture whose struggles and impulses previewed our lives today.

Published by: University of Iowa Press

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pp. ix-13

This book seeks a double audience of ecocritics and Whitman scholars, a goal that has required me to draw upon the resources of a wide and generous community. An anonymous reviewer at the University of Iowa Press and my own energetic students and colleagues in the study of American nature writing and environmental rhetoric have provided the impetus and...

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Introduction: Why Whitman?

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pp. 1-14

I started college in 1970, the year we celebrated the first Earth Day, two years after Congress passed the National Environmental Policy Act. In my junior year, 1973, the Endangered Species Act was passed. One of the first big test cases was enacted not far from the University of Tennessee where I went to school. The law posed a problem for the plans of the...

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1. Things of the Earth

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pp. 15-47

Troubles in the relationships among physical objects, people, and abstractions haunt American ecopoetics from the nineteenth century down to the present time. For his part, Whitman follows Wordsworth in resisting the personification of abstractions — treating ideas as if they were people.1 And like Marx, he resists the treatment of people as if they were objects — the property of slave owners or cogs in the industrial machine...

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2. The Fall of the Redwood Tree

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pp. 48-73

Chapter 1 has shown how Whitman’s ecopoetical experiments depend largely upon his concept and method of indirection. For Whitman, an indirection in its simplest sense is a trope; in the cases considered thus far — the respect for the terrible thingishness of the earth in “This Compost,” the complicated attempt to define the limits and possibilities of communion in “A Song of the Rolling Earth,” the externalization of the soul...

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3. Global and Local, Nature and Earth

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pp. 74-97

A manuscript draft of a never-used preface for “Song of the Redwood-Tree” that Whitman sketched for possible inclusion in the 1876 Leaves of Grass shows not only that he was very much aware of the geographical element of his poetic program but also that he felt some anxiety about drifting too far away from the places he knew best — the sea islands, villages, and cities of his homeland on the Atlantic Shore;1

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4. The Island Poet and the Sacred Shore

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pp. 98-131

“This Compost” spans the rural landscape of pasture, field, and forest but returns for its climactic realization of nature’s power to an image of the poet surrendering to the ocean’s waves, the “transparent green-wash of the sea which is so amorous after me,” the water rising “to lick my naked body all over with its tongues” (LG 1891–92, 286). In the “voluptuous earth”...

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5. Urbanization and War

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pp. 132-163

With the onset of the Civil War, Whitman was, according to his own accounts, drawn out of nature and into history. His attention to the sacred time of tides and seasons and the sacred places of ancestors and origins yielded to a worldview in which time is measured by the events of social and political life and the sense of place is colored by the geographic mobility and dislocation associated with modernity. Not that he was ever...

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6. Life Review

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pp. 164-184

In the troubled years of the 1870s, confronting the depression brought on by ill health, which he always associated with his service in the Civil war, Whitman devoted a good deal of prose and poetry to explaining his poetic aims and justifying his work in terms of national need and public trends. These were the years he published “Passage to India," Democratic Vistas, Memoranda During the War, “Song of the Redwood-Tree,” and...


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pp. 185-202


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pp. 203-214


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pp. 215-224

E-ISBN-13: 9781587295164
E-ISBN-10: 1587295164
Print-ISBN-13: 9780877459033
Print-ISBN-10: 1587294516

Page Count: 238
Publication Year: 2009