By now the Americanness of Walt Whitman's poetry is one of the postulates of literary discourse. It is an idea almost as axiomatic as the greatness of Shakespeare. People of every nationality, temper, and belief seem to find in Whitman the essence of the American way. Europeans are particularly fond of the idea -- perhaps they are more fond of it than Americans are, but of course no one can have liked it better than Walt Whitman. (In the present collection, only George Santayana would deny the representative quality of the poetry.) When readers of Whitman get around to naming the American essence in the poetry, however, the agreement ends -- just as it does when they try to locate Shakespeare's greatness. The native bias in Whitman has been identified with egalitarianism (both noble and vicious), democracy, expansiveness, egotism, a visionary bent, a taste for experiment, lack of refinement, hostility to traditional forms, a symbol- making imagination, mindlessness -- one could go on. Today some of our critics are fascinated by affinities between Whitman's work and the mode of native humor. At any rate, whether we have a specific notion in mind or not, we can hardly avoid thinking of Leaves of Grass as if it bore the subtitle: "Poems-- Uniquely American."
These readings have been selected to assist students in forming a more precise idea of the relation between Whitman's poetry, especially "Song of Myself," and American experience. Again, there is widespread agreement about the importance and typicality of "Song of Myself." Few critics, to be sure, would say that it is Whitman's best poem. Certainly it is not his most finished or coherent piece of work. According to current literary standards, "Song of Myself" is less successful than, say, either of the great elegies, "Out of the Cradle Endlessly Rocking" or "When Lilacs Last in the Dooryard Bloom'd." But "Song of Myself," partly because of its scope and, even more important, its theme, more fully reveals Whitman's special view of life. Besides, the poem exhibits the extraordinary range of his poetic voice, containing passages as delicate and moving as any he wrote, and others that are astonishingly crude. In short, "Song of Myself" is the poem to which statements about Whitman's Americanness most often refer.
The aim of this volume is to accompany and illuminate, not to supplant, a serious reading of Whitman's poetry. The first and most important fact about Walt Whitman is that he wrote, as Emerson put it, "an extraordinary piece of wit and wisdom." If we are interested in his Americanness it is because of the existence of the poetry and not the other way around. By rights this collection should be stamped with a warning in red, like some medications:
DANGER! POISON! DO NOT READ CRITICISM BEFORE BEADING WHITMAN!