- "From many million heart-throbs":Walt Whitman's Communitarian Sentimentalisms
On March 27, 1892, newspapers across the United States were filled with obituaries of a man whose controversial work had critically accompanied American society for the last half century: Walt Whitman. Though once generally considered a literary hack and even a pornographer, in death, all was forgiven. Accompanied in many cases by drawings of an old, wise-looking figure with a long beard and flowing hair, these obituaries chronicle the preliminary endpoint of Whitman's startling transformation from outcast and lustrous provocateur to the very embodiment of the sentimental. In a phrase echoed from Portland and Texas to Maine and Louisiana, newspapers attested the poet died "calmly and peacefully, like a child asleep" ("The Distinguished Dead," The Daily Picayune). "He gave it cheerfully," a Chicago paper attests, and the very moment "his soul took flight" ("Walt Whitman Dead," The Daily Inter Ocean) the man as much as his work, had already turned into a symbol in the eyes of the American nation. How are we to account for this change in sentiment? Is this just a case of a literary public "catching up" to genius—or is there more to the affective strategies of the poet that enabled such a metamorphosis?1 [End Page 449]
Indeed, this issue takes us back to the very beginnings of Whitman's life as a poet: Halfway through his epic 1855 "Song of Myself" (Leaves of Grass) and immediately after introducing readers to his name (his book's cover and title page mention no author), Walt Whitman casts himself as "one of the roughs" (1855, 29). He is certainly "no sentimentalist" he assures us (29). Many more recent readers tend to agree, often praising Whitman's bold free verse, explicit sexuality, radical politics, and inclusionary embrace of many issues (and persons) considered taboo. Still, Whitman's own assessment glosses over an aspect of his oeuvre also ignored by many of today's critics: the Whitman who exclaims "tears! tears! tears!" (1871, 82), celebrates sentimental motherhood (1860, 213) as well as lovers with "red-flush'd cheeks" (1871, 18), and laces his catalogues of America with images of familial bliss, bucolic farm life, and tearful farewells. Even in his arguably more radical early editions of Leaves of Grass, many nineteenth-century reviewers point out a closeness of Whitman's poetics to the popular, effusive literature often associated with Hawthorne's infamous "mob of scribbling women" (Baym 1999, 21). One review, for instance, quotes Whitman's denial of sentimentalism and exclaims "Yet, he is a sentimentalist!" ("Our Book" 1856), while another writes that the author of Leaves must have been "possessed of the soul of a sentimental donkey that had died of disappointed love" (Griswold 1855) in order to produce such peculiar poetics.
While Whitman's sexual queerness (see Coviello 2013), occasional cross-dressing (cf. Myerson 1991, 338), and personal preferences for sentimental art (be it in literature or music) have become established truths in analyses of Whitman, a certain "anxiety about sentimentality" (Kete 1998, 626) experienced by the poet himself still lingers in discussions of his work. In an eagerness to defend Whitman's genius against his critics, scholars of the poet have at times cultivated a blind-spot for the sentimental similar to the one feminist intellectuals have been arguing against for almost half a century. Even one of Whitman's most popular pieces, his elegy to Lincoln titled "O Captain! My Captain!," has largely been ignored in English speaking academia due to its sentimentality (see Eiselein 1998)—with the majority of the very limited scholarship on the piece produced outside the United States.2 The following pages seek to break from this trend and facilitate a discussion of Whitman's hoary sentimentalisms by avoiding the odd analytical dichotomy [End Page 450] that has crystalized over the years. The goal of this essay is to neither "expose" Whitman as a peddler of schmaltzy populisms, nor to negate (or overlook) the sentimental side of his work. Instead, it argues for a re-reading of sentimental affect in Whitman's oeuvre as a conscious, poetic, and political strategy that goes beyond traditional...