Whitman as (Non)Transcendentalist: Criticism and the Rearview Mirror of Consensus by Nick Courtright

Critics have a way of shaping the discourse that follows in their wake, and often rightfully so: these are the people studying works most closely, and their vision can lend acute insight to the ways in which a work can be viewed. Even when one can quibble with the nature of these interventions, such as we did with Ed Folsom’s assertions in the previous section, there’s no doubt that critical play offers something essential to our understanding of the events of history, and how they influence our making of meaning for a poem. Without the critic’s observing eye, all of these discussions of biography, culture, and the archive would have governors on their application, and the critic’s role is to remove this governor, to spin the text object around like a sculpture so that others can see it from all sides. In terms of Whitman, one of American literature’s most commonly invoked icons of critical inquiry, we’ve seen all manner of critical investigation, and how different critical views can do very different things with the same cohort of archival historical data. For an example of the spectrum it can run, see Max Cavitch’s study of Whitman’s use of elegy, in which Cavitch characterizes not just Whitman’s experience incorporating his encounters with the Civil War and his President’s assassination, but how that experience has been treated critically: “Whitman’s Civil War mourning has been located at different extremes on the erotic scale: from the almost thoroughly desexualized to the quasi-necrophiliac” (2007, 238). That polar diversity of how critics have located Whitman’s mourning shows the range of “spin” that critics can put on a discussion of a historical matter, and how the same set of information can be seen in wildly divergent ways. For our study here, we’ll investigate how the assumptions we make about Whitman’s relationship to Transcendentalism give us insight not just into the interplay of an individual with his society via our use of the archive but also into how criticism can act as a lens through which to view that interplay and how it can provide an important corrective when a reading of a text conflicts with its historical likelihood.

When it comes to Whitman’s bonafides as an avatar of the Transcendental movement, it is easy to point to the canonical “I greet you at the beginning of a great career” praise from Emerson, a quotation Whitman was quick to use in promotional material, thus taking the shine off of Emerson’s appreciation of Whitman himself. Whitman’s use of this excerpt from the letter on the spine of the 1856 edition of Leaves of Grass is a pretty ham-fisted use of private correspondence for public gain, a move for which, as Jerome Loving notes, “Whitman has been repeatedly scolded by critics ever since” (2000, 89). For Whitman, as Ezra Greenspan puts it in Walt Whitman and the American Reader, the letter “brought him high praise from, in his hero-worshipping eyes, the highest source” (1990, 142). That Emerson bolstered Whitman’s career, even accidentally, makes it practically irresistible to see broad connections between the two, and Whitman’s statement that “Emerson brought me to a boil” (Trowbridge 1902, 166) makes the lineage from Emerson—chief exponent in his day of what we refer to as Transcendentalism—all the more apparent. Whitman also handwrote the following wild flurry in his “Sunday Evening Lectures,” in which he was discussing the Hegelian philosophical underpinnings of Transcendental metaphysics:

Transcendentalism is not only the grandest ante-dating background & appropriate entrance to the study of any science but to the fit understanding of the position of one’s self in Nature, to the performance of life’s duties, to the appreciation and application of sane standards to politics and to the judgment upon and construction of works in any department of art, and that by its realization alone is provided a basis for religion and theology that can satisfy the modern. (Wihl 2001, 117)

But does this unalloyed praise for Transcendentalism make Whitman a Transcendentalist? When interpreting “Astronomer” as a poem about forsaking book learning for the beauty of nature, it certainly can seem so, and it’s no stretch to find in any of Whitman’s discussions of the glories of nature—not to mention his skepticism of received knowledge—the fingerprint of the Transcendental.

Philip F. Gura notes in his American Transcendentalism, though,that Transcendentalism reached its apex in 1836, with that year “in particular [seeing] the appearance of several books and pamphlets that exemplified the religious and philosophical interests of the group” (2007, 9). Whitman was just 17 at the time, and unemployed by August of that year after a fire in the printing district in which he worked (LeMaster and Kummings1988, xiii). In truth, Transcendentalism as a movement was practically done for by the time Whitman released the first edition of Leaves of Grass (1855). The last issue of the influential original iteration of The Dial, the Transcendentalist journal run at different times by Margaret Fuller and Emerson, ceased publication way back in 1844, its leadership having exhausted their dedication to the cause (Gura 2007, 225). David Reynolds, too, states that by the 1850s, “Emersonian Transcendentalism, never a popular movement, was in retreat” (1995, 258). And by the time “When I Heard the Learn’d Astronomer” was written a further decade on, the Civil War had swept away much of the movement’s hopeful claim for finding beauty in the outdoors, and for a personal spiritual awakening, in lieu of a harsher look at the reality of the world before everyone’s eyes. With this sitting us down in the world Whitman would have inhabited in 1865, rather than our world today viewing the past in retrospect—in which it’s seductive to collapse all of these events under the umbrella of the “mid-nineteenth century”—it becomes more questionable to view “Astronomer” as a wholly unironic piece of Transcendental nature-worship, much less a “transparent eyeball” (from “Nature,” Emerson 1836).

In fact, Charles Eliot Norton, reviewing an early, pre-“Learn’d Astronomer” edition of Leaves of Grass for Putnam’s Monthly in 1855, while referring to Whitman’s poetry as transcendentalist, defined Transcendentalism as “the speculations of that school of thought which culminated at Boston fifteen or eighteen years ago,” with this somewhat derisive comment made before “When I Heard the Learn’d Astronomer” was even published. Of course, in the interim, the Civil War happened, and Whitman had focused his writerly output in such works as Drum-Taps on more troubling topics than universal connectedness between people. So, although the Emersonian self-reliance of forsaking school and received knowledge in favor of a Transcendent oneness with the absolute that can occur only outdoors was an undeniable influence in Whitman, and especially in the poet’s early work, by the time this particular poem was written those ideas were already seeming more passé—even naïve—since the harsh realities of internecine sorrow had rained down upon the nation and Whitman himself. And for the Transcendentalists who were still active in the years Whitman was writing his poems, there wasn’t a strong tie of conviviality and togetherness with the poet. For example, James Redpath, a journalist and friend of Whitman, wrote to him during the war years that “there is a prejudice agst you here among the ‘fine’ ladies and gentlemen of the transcendental School,” this acting as a piece of evidence that even among those still identifying with Transcendentalism there was no interest in including Whitman (Kaplan 1980, 276). Redpath makes this comically clear, stating that these “fine” ladies and gentlemen believed Whitman was “not ashamed of [his] reproductive organs” (Kaplan 1980, 276). Under these circumstances, it makes it likely that a contemporary of Whitman would have blanched at the idea of lumping him in with the Transcendentalists. He was just a “rough,” and several steps down in age and sophistication from the likes of Emerson and Margaret Fuller.

Despite all this, “When I Heard the Learn’d Astronomer” is often read as a Transcendental text romanticizing the escape of the speaker from the lecture hall into a nature better suited for achieving wisdom. This reading of the poem—which we’ve seen is the most common reading—tends to villainize the astronomer for his “charts and diagrams” making the speaker “tired and sick,” thus driving him from the room, while idealizing this same speaker for his willingness to forsake received knowledge for firsthand experience in the “mystical moist night-air.” This reading is likely encouraged by readerly expectations regarding mid-nineteenth century American literature and the Transcendental deference to nature, as well as expectations regarding Whitman’s (1855) exhortation to keep “creeds and schools in abeyance,” yet this preconceived method of understanding overstates Whitman’s connections to Transcendentalism, and has clouded an alternative understanding of the poem’s speaker as a lazy or sick or jealous individual who is the poem’s antagonist, rather than its hero. This alternative reading, stoked by the applause the lecturer receives and Whitman’s own avowed love of science and astronomy, positions the poem not as one documenting pedagogical failure, but one demonstrating studently irresolution; Transcendentalism, then, plays no role in the poem. Roy Harvey Pearce, in his The Continuity of American Poetry, says, “The power of American poetry from the beginning has derived from the poet’s inability, or refusal, at some depth of consciousness wholly to accept his culture’s system of values” (1977, 5); this type of idea plays out with respect not just to the poem’s speaker leaving the lecture room but also to Whitman’s relationship to Transcendentalism, which, while certainly not “his culture’s system of values” writ large, was doubtlessly a significant part of American thought in the years prior to Whitman’s publishing of Leaves of Grass.

While we are capable of pointing to aspects of Whitman’s work that would seem to be Transcendentalist, it is telling that critical books devoted to the Transcendentalists often view Whitman only as an afterthought, somebody influenced by the Transcendentalists but not of the Transcendentalists. Barbara Packer’s The Transcendentalists makes only three mentions of Whitman in its 304 pages, the first of which is not about Whitman at all, but about how Whitman reviewed one of Emerson’s lectures for the Brooklyn Aurora (2007, 147). The second mention is a mere analogy stating that Thoreau’s A Week on the Concord and Merrimack Rivers shares some common intensity with Whitman’s work. The third mention is about the 1856 meeting between Thoreau and Whitman in which “both men were guarded” (2007, 263); the meeting receives a scant paragraph of coverage. Similarly, Philip F. Gura’s monograph American Transcendentalism, which is 365 pages long, makes only three mentions of Whitman, the first of which is about how Whitman described social reformer and actual Transcendentalist Albert Brisbane. Gura does, despite having barely discussed Whitman, state that “by most standards, the Transcendentalists’ lasting literary achievement was limited to Emerson, Thoreau, and Walt Whitman (a special case)” (2007, 268). That parenthetical of “a special case” is fascinating, in that Gura assigns Whitman a feather for being a “literary achievement,” yet also ties him in with a group he’s not even a part of. The third mention is to state that Transcendentalism was not so much Whitman’s “deep intellectual substratum but simply another layer to the complex social and imaginative life that eventuated in Leaves of Grass” (2007, 269–70). In this way, Whitman is not a Transcendentalist, but just someone who had its lessons in his piles of tricks. Lastly, Gura suggests that the famous Emerson letter wasn’t particularly significant, in that to Emerson, “Whitman was just another aspiring author, no more or less interesting, finally, than a handful of other young writers whose career he boosted” (2007, 270). Between these 600+ pages of coverage of both Transcendentalism and the Transcendentalists, we have no actual claim that Whitman is part of this movement, and that absence is telling. If those critics who study this school of thought most closely don’t make the argument that Whitman is a practitioner, then why would we read “When I Heard the Learn’d Astronomer” as a Transcendental piece?

Ultimately, it will continue to be a debate as to whether we should read this poem as Transcendental, because no matter what evidence is given to state that Whitman was or was not a Transcendentalist, there will always be evidence to suggest the exact opposite. When it comes to uncovering the history of the past, this is the delightful task that falls on the critic: to determine what is valid or worthy of being brought into relief, and what can be forgotten or willfully ignored—even if not refuted—in the service of a subjectively preferred argument. This is because critics, too, are people, and maybe Gura and Packer didn’t include much Whitman not because he’s truly irrelevant to the movement, but because they wanted to keep their books under 400 pages. And maybe we say Transcendentalism was fading by the 1850s not because it actually was, but because we don’t consider Whitman’s ideas to be sufficiently Transcendental. If we did, we’d have to say Transcendentalism was roaring at least up into the 1870s. These semantic distinctions, though, don’t fall just on Gura and Packer, as their books were subject to peer review and comments from audiences to whom these scholars delivered their arguments prior to publication, meaning that the decision to exclude Whitman is part of a larger critical agreement; that they don’t feel a need to discuss why Whitman is not a Transcendentalist is tacit evidence for the consensus of their exclusion, and also makes all the more curious and historically dubious the common reading of the poem as Transcendental.

Regardless of whether a critical thought is the product of an individual critic or the result of prevailing trends in argument, all of the choices that critics make when determining how to view poems through a historical lens play an essential role in helping to determine what categorizations we uphold and which we discard. They influence how a poem can be read and whether the speaker of “Astronomer” is a representative of a notable nineteenth-century philosophical movement, or just some guy who needs to get out of the room. Because of this, we can start to get a feeling for how, just maybe, the history of a poet’s life, or the society surrounding him, or the archive, have no more to do with the type of work we do on a poem than the type of work that is happening in our own heads when we do that work. After all, what is history if not the memories of those remembering?

Nick Courtright, the Executive Editor of Atmosphere Press, is the author of the forthcoming The Forgotten World (2021, Gold Wake), as well as the collections Let There Be Light and Punchline. His work has appeared in The Harvard Review, Kenyon Review, and The Southern Review, among dozens of others. Find him at atmospherepress.com, nickcourtright.com, and watching birds on his porch in Austin, Texas.