Whitman: From Sayer-Doer to Sayer-Copyist

Michael T. Gilmore

in The War on Words

Published by University of Chicago Press

Published in print July 2010 | ISBN: 9780226294131
Published online February 2013 | e-ISBN: 9780226294155 | DOI:
Whitman: From Sayer-Doer to Sayer-Copyist

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Free soil, free speech, free verse: though Leaves of Grass appeared under the shadow of the Kansas-Nebraska Act, it was the legislation that returned Lincoln to politics and Thoreau to public polemic. This chapter reviews Walt Whitman's poetic masterpiece and the battle over free speech, which was a key ingredient in the making of the 1855 edition of Leaves of Grass. A reawakened belief in the might of words informs Whitman's outpouring, which simultaneously prophesies and brings into textual being its vision of an egalitarian republic. But despite the imaginative inclusiveness of 1855, Whitman, no abolitionist, harbored misgivings about agitation that ultimately resurfaced, and his conception of song as action did not outlast the Civil War. His ideological retreat—he evolved into a foe of black rights and a supporter of Andrew Johnson—played itself out on the level of language, subtly in Leaves of Grass, more obviously in prose pieces written during and after Reconstruction.

Keywords: Walt Whitman; Free soil; free speech; free verse; Leaves of Grass; Kansas-Nebraska Act; black rights

Chapter.  6738 words. 

Subjects: Literary Studies (19th Century)

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