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A Place for Humility

Whitman, Dickinson, and the Natural World

Christine Gerhardt

Publication Year: 2014

Emily Dickinson and Walt Whitman are widely acknowledged as two of America’s foremost nature poets, primarily due to their explorations of natural phenomena as evocative symbols for cultural developments, individual experiences, and poetry itself. Yet for all their metaphorical suggestiveness, Dickinson’s and Whitman’s poems about the natural world neither preclude nor erase nature’s relevance as an actual living environment. In their respective poetic projects, the earth matters both figuratively, as a realm of the imagination, and also as the physical ground that is profoundly affected by human action. This double perspective, and the ways in which it intersects with their formal innovations, points beyond their traditional status as curiously disparate icons of American nature poetry. That both of them not only approach nature as an important subject in its own right, but also address human-nature relationships in ethical terms, invests their work with important environmental overtones.

Dickinson and Whitman developed their environmentally suggestive poetics at roughly the same historical moment, at a time when a major shift was occurring in American culture’s view and understanding of the natural world. Just as they were achieving poetic maturity, the dominant view of wilderness was beginning to shift from obstacle or exploitable resource to an endangered treasure in need of conservation and preservation.

A Place for Humility examines Dickinson’s and Whitman’s poetry in conjunction with this important change in American environmental perception, exploring the links between their poetic projects within the context of developing nineteenth-century environmental thought. Christine Gerhardt argues that each author's poetry participates in this shift in different but related ways, and that their involvement with their culture’s growing environmental sensibilities constitutes an important connection between their disparate poetic projects. There may be few direct links between Dickinson’s “letter to the World” and Whitman’s “language experiment,” but via a web of environmentally-oriented discourses, their poetry engages in a cultural conversation about the natural world and the possibilities and limitations of writing about it—a conversation in which their thematic and formal choices meet on a surprising number of levels.

Published by: University of Iowa Press

Title Page, Copyright, Dedication

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pp. vii-viii

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pp. ix-xii

Many colleagues, friends, and mentors have helped me in the process of writing this book, and it makes me happy to bring all of them together here and thank them. The beginnings of this project go back to an inspiring class on ecocriticism that Bob DeMott taught at Ohio University...


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pp. xiii-xvi

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pp. 1-24

Emily Dickinson and Walt Whitman are widely acknowledged as two of America’s foremost nature poets. This recognition rests largely on their explorations of natural phenomena as suggestive symbols for cultural developments, for individual experiences, and for poetry itself. In Dickinson’s...

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Part I: Noticing Small Worlds

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pp. 25-30

In the 1840s Emily Dickinson began work on her first book, a collection of pressed plants preserved in a special herbarium. While keeping a herbarium was a common pastime for midnineteenth- century middle-class women, Dickinson’s collection...

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1. “Turns unperceived beneath – our Feet": Dickinson’s Frequent Acts of Noticing Small Nature

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pp. 31-58

From her earliest poems about America’s most familiar flora and fauna to later philosophical and epistemological meditations that seem to leave all earthly concerns behind, Dickinson’s poetic language emerges from an interest in flowers and birds, grasses and insects, and many of her imaginary...

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2. “What is the Grass?”: Whitman’s Originating Moment of Noticing Small Nature

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pp. 59-86

Leaves of Grass is in many ways the extensive celebration of a large, democratic self that corresponds with the vastness of the American continent. Yet there is only one thing Whitman saw fit to serve as a title, an innocuous weed that most contemporaries would not have deemed worth a...

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Part II: Describing Local Lands

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pp. 87-94

At about the same time that Emily Dickinson signed her letters “Amherst” and regularly referred to northeastern fields and forests in her poetry, Walt Whitman signed a series of early essays for the New York Sunday Dispatch “Paumanok” (Genoways...

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3. “The Acre gives them – Place – / They – Him – Attention”: Dickinson’s Sparse Description

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pp. 95-116

In April 1862, Emily Dickinson responded to Thomas Wentworth Higginson’s inquiry about her social environment with a surprising comment on nearby natural phenomena: “You ask of my Companions Hills – Sir – and the Sundown – and a Dog – large as myself, that my Father bought me...

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4. “With angry moans the fierce old mother incessantly moaning”: Whitman’s Narrative Description

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pp. 117-142

When Whitman published Specimen Days in 1882, this unconventional autobiography included a remarkable number of sketches of his Long Island childhood, his time on a New Jersey farm, and his journeys to Canada and the American West. Most of these local notes “dwell awhile on the...

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Part III: Narrating the Regions

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pp. 143-150

Regional perspectives form an integral part of Dickinson’s and Whitman’s poetry about nature and human-nature relations. Dickinson, who famously claimed to “see – New Englandly” (Fr256), occasionally portrays the Northeast as a pastoral middle...

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5. “A Field of Stubble, lying sere”: Dickinson’s Reluctant New England Narratives

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pp. 151-165

Emily Dickinson lived in the middle of an agricultural enclave in an increasingly industrialized region. In the mid-1850s, Amherst was a rural farming community, but industrial North Amherst was already referred to as a “city” (Habegger 669n70), and by the 1880s, the town’s hat factories...

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6. “Clearing the ground for broad humanity”: Whitman’s Affirmative Regional Narratives

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pp. 166-188

Whitman’s Specimen Days, the unconventional story of his life that is also a narrative of America as a diverse geographical place and contested economic terrain, contains a passage that responds to what his contemporaries had to say about the West as a natural place and means of...

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Part IV: Envisioning the Earth

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pp. 189-196

In their shared fascination with the natural world, Dickinson and Whitman reached far beyond the more immediate levels of small, local, and regional phenomena. Both poets tried to bring all of “this earth” into their work, with an urgency that, for all...

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7. “The Earth and I and One”: Dickinson’s Vision of Global Dwelling

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pp. 197-207

If Dickinson’s imaginative engagement with nature is most intense and diverse on the level of small creatures in their micro-environments, it seems most elusive on the global scale. This has less to do with quantity than with the religious overtones of almost all her thinking about “this...

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8. “What is this earth to our affections?”: Whitman’s Vision of Cosmic Companionship

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pp. 208-220

Leaves of Grass has been global in scope and aspiration from the first edition, in ways that not only situate America and its poetry in transnational and international contexts but also refer to the whole earth as a natural phenomenon. In his 1855 preface, Whitman talks about the vital relationships...

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pp. 221-226

The main point of the readings I have offered here is that Dickinson’s and Whitman’s widely divergent bodies of poetry share a fundamental interest in imagining more equitable relationships with the natural world, an interest that specifically responds to a number of nineteenth-century...


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pp. 227-236


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pp. 237-254


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pp. 255-268

Other Works in the Series

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E-ISBN-13: 9781609382919
E-ISBN-10: 1609382919
Print-ISBN-13: 9781609382711
Print-ISBN-10: 1609382714

Page Count: 286
Publication Year: 2014

Edition: paper

Research Areas


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Subject Headings

  • Whitman, Walt, 1819-1892 -- Criticism and interpretation.
  • Dickinson, Emily, 1830-1886 -- Criticism and interpretation.
  • American poetry -- 19th century -- History and criticism.
  • Nature in literature.
  • Environmentalism in literature.
  • Poetics.
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