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  • Organic Compacts, Form, and the Cultural Logic of Cohesion; or, Whitman Re-Bound
  • Ivy G. Wilson (bio)

I know I have the best of time and space—and that I was never measured, and never will be measured.

—Walt Whitman, "Song of Myself" (1855)

Walt Whitman's poetry and poetics have frequently been thought of as "unbound" in both content and form. The first published review of the 1855 Leaves of Grass, Charles A. Dana's in the New-York Daily Tribune, observed that the poems were "certainly original in their external form," that they had been "shaped on no pre-existent model out of the author's own brain."1 Other contemporaneous critics noted Whitman's rupturing of poetic convention: Charles Eliot Norton in 1855 called Leaves of Grass a "very irregular production," a sentiment reiterated by Henry James in 1865.2 Some readers may have been willing to accept blank verse, but Whitman's seeming indulgence in so-called free verse was—and until at least the early twentieth century continued to be—figuratively out of bounds. Early reviews of Leaves of Grass like Dana's and Norton's saw the volume as a violation not only of the aesthetic properties of poetry but also as a breach of social decorum. Norton, for example, criticized the poet for employing "words usually banished from polite society . . . with perfect indifference to the effect on the reader's mind," adding that it was not a book "to be read aloud to a mixed audience."3 This kind of reaction persisted through such critics as T. S. Eliot, who famously announced that he had to [End Page 199] "conquer an aversion" to Whitman's "form, as well as to much of his matter."4 And Whitman himself articulated the idea of the "unbound" in such poems as "Song of Myself," where "all goes onward and outward," signifying a continuous broadening of temporal and spatial coordinates.5 In its most abstract conceptualization, the "unbound" can connote that which lies outside the normative, both aesthetically and socially. Whitman's poems often push into that territory, contesting midnineteenth century conventions of meter, for instance, as well as understandings of social stratification in his veneration of the working class.

But can Whitman's poetry and other writings be described as completely "unbound," without direction or focus? In the absence of conventional stanzaic formulas, what allows us to perceive the cohesiveness of Whitman's poetry as recognizable units? Lawrence Buell, in his foundational essay on Whitman's catalogs, has observed that, even there, discernible patterns amount to a kind of logic that prevents them from being understood as unduly haphazard or random.6 Buell's assessment of the catalogs' formal properties might be extended to the internal logic latent in both the form and content of Whitman's poetry, in both the aesthetic and political preoccupations of his cultural vision of America. No term better encapsulates this vision than "organic compact."

As distinctive and important as any of his other conceptions, including "divine average," "common aggregate," and "en-masse," Whitman's idea of the "organic compact" appears repeatedly, with slight variation, in numerous writings. One of its earliest articulations appears in an August 1856 letter to Emerson. Here Whitman wrote: "There is not a single History of the World. There is not one of America, or of the organic compacts of These States, or of Washington, or of Jefferson, nor of Language, nor any Dictionary of the English Language."7 Although it is not precisely manifest what he means by "organic compacts" in this letter, a nominal definition of the phrase begins to emerge as a theory of relation and, more specifically, as a theory of political relation.

This nascent idea of the organic compact is more fully formulated in "The Eighteenth Presidency!" a political tract [End Page 200] composed around the time of, or slightly before, the Emerson letter. Here Whitman wrote that the platforms for the presidency were "simply the organic compacts" of the states, the Declaration of Independence, the Constitution, acts of Congress, "and the now well-understood and morally established rights of man, wherever the sun shines, the rain falls, and the grass...


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