James E. Miller, Jr.
Certain writers belong not only to the history of literature but to history itself, and Whitman is one of them. . . . Psychically, his life stretched from the Revolution through the Civil War to the era of the robber barons. Truly an American poet of change . . . Whitman was several men in one: Brahmin, bohemian, spokesman for a new democratic society, dandy, creator of an original kind of American poetry--a self-educated and self-intoxicated peasant of the ecstatic." 1
These words open Howard Moss 1981 New Yorker review of Justin Kaplan's Walt Whitman--A Life. I have quoted this passage not only because it is a remarkable summary view of Whitman's achievement but also because the general nature of the review (a lengthy outpouring of praise for Whitman) together with its appearance in The New Yorker may be taken to symbolize the radical shift in Whitman's fortunes during the past thirty or forty years--a period of time during which his poetry was more frequently scorned than praised, especially by successive dominant critical movements, beginning with the New Criticism.
Indeed, Moss places Whitman in rarefied company in the concluding sentence of his review: "Whitman bears a relation to Lincoln not unlike Shakespeare's to Elizabeth I and Michelangelo's to the Medici. In each instance, as the years pass the more obvious it becomes that the representative figure of the age, like a negative gradually developing in time, is not the ruler, but the artist." If Whitman's placement in such company is to be justified, surely the justification would have to be based on his creation of what Moss described earlier as "an original kind of American poetry." I want to take that statement as my theme and inquire into the general nature of this "original kind of American poetry."