This essay explores what happens when we uncouple Whitman’s theory of democratic poetics from the force of his poetic example. Doing so, this essay suggests, will allow contemporary literary scholars to look beyond Leaves of Grass as the normative standard for what it means to be “democratic” in poetry. Framing the issue as a theoretical problem serves to reverse the usual critical emphasis on the effects of Whitman’s practice, turning us away from traditional questions of Whitman’s “influence” upon such later figures as Carl Sandburg, Hart Crane, William Carlos Williams, and Allen Ginsberg. Instead, this essay traces a specific moment in U.S. literary history, the decades of the 1910s and 1920s, in order to show how modernist critics applied Whitman’s theory in ways that depart from his original ideas, or, in some cases, how these critics explicitly rejected his views. Whitman’s uneven reception in these years highlights two surprising facts about U.S. literary history and its theoretical foundations: first, that alternatives to Whitman’s theory of democratic poetics were already available in U.S. literary discourse as early as 1912; and second, that a strain of the literary movement known as modernism, often aligned in politics with fascism, authoritarianism, or aristocratic elitism, was actually quite preoccupied with forging a connection between poetry and political democracy. In the skeptical account offered here, to describe a poem as “democratic” does not characterize an object so much as expose a particular way of reading that has become deeply internalized and, thus, unexamined. Twentieth-century readers of Whitman demonstrate that his program was never that coherent in the first place and could be put to many different uses. Rather than tacitly adopt some version of Whitman’s theory, this essay suggests that we should build on the example of his conflicted modernist critics by accepting that there are a variety of models for what it means to read and write democratically.


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pp. 669-690
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