Walt Whitman in Dixie

By Moss, William | The Southern Literary Journal, Spring 1990 | Go to article overview
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Walt Whitman in Dixie

Moss, William, The Southern Literary Journal

Readers in the Confederacy in January 1862 might have been surprised to find in the foremost Southern literary periodical, The Southern Literary Messenger, a war poem by Walt Whitman. But then Walt Whitman too would have been, and so would be most modern students of either Whitman or Southern literature. The poem, not surprisingly, is a parody, billed by editor George William Bagby as "not only the best imitation, by long odds, of Walt Whitman, the b'hoy-poet and representative man of Yankeedon [sic], which we ever saw, but an excellent bit of sarcasm besides" (72). The appearance in the Messenger, however, of even a parody of Whitman is notable, especially in light of the identity of the anonymous parodist--John Reuben Thompson.

Although the parody was never publicly claimed by Thompson, is included nowhere among his collected poems, and has never directly been attributed to him, his authorship is clear enough. Bagby, Thompson's friend and successor as editor of the Messenger, identified the author as "the same who wrote that capital parody on Southey's `On to Moscow,' entitled `On to Richmond.'" The latter, acknowledged by Thompson though also published anonymously, had appeared in the Richmond Daily Whig (27 July 1861). "The War," a fairly telling parody of Whitman, is remarkable not only as an untypical piece by a poet known chiefly for his serious war poems but also for the acquaintance with Whitman's poetry that it demonstrates.

Evidence of Thompson's opinion of Whitman--evidence that he had any opinion at all--has rested in a remark by Paul Hamilton Hayne in a letter of June 10, 1860, to Thompson:

   Your critique upon Mr Walt Whitman delighted me beyond measure!

   The comparative success of his work demonstrates the lowness both of morals
   & taste among even the better class of readers, & critics at the North. God
   help this poor country, for--, assuredly it needs help, & enlightenment.
   (Collection 125-27)

Although this response to Thompson's "critique" has been noted, the critique itself has gone altogether unnoticed, as has an accompanying attack by Hayne himself. Unlike Thompson's, most of Hayne's vitriolic views of Whitman have been well documented, but his first attack, too, has been altogether overlooked. Rayburn Moore, in the most thorough treatment of those views, cites the letter to Thompson as "Hayne's earliest reference to Whitman" and his only reference before 1867 (75-76). Gerald M. Garmon, in his 1979 John Reuben Thompson, citing Hayne's letter as the only evidence of Thompson's distaste for Whitman, admits, "Where Thompson's review appeared I cannot discover" (156, n.28).

In fact, both Thompson and Hayne had their flings at Whitman in the same issue of The Southern Field and Fireside. Their scathing criticisms, considered in relation to their literary, political, and personal views, reveal more about their own attitudes than about Walt Whitman or his poetry. Along with Thompson's parody, they suggest that Walt Whitman, for these two Southern men of letters, came to represent all the ills of the North that threatened to infect the South.

In the June 9, 1860, issue, his third as literary editor of The Southern Field and Fireside, Thompson began his review of "A New American Poem" (20) by noting "a favorite subject of complaint with English critics and reviewers, in treating of American Civilization, that in this country we have produced as yet no peculiar, distinctive literature of our own.... "According to these critics, says Thompson, mocking both them and the "Young Americans" closer to home, "we can point to no one great poem on which is stamped the impression of a new and mighty continent....--a poem, in short, full of the energy, the passion, the vim of large-veined, stout-breasted, hopeful, wide-awake, go-ahead Young America." (1) "But," Thompson announces, "the reproach can be made no longer":

   We have an American poem. 

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