Whitman, Slavery, and the Emergence of Leaves of Grass

By Martin Klammer | Go to book overview

5
AN AUDIENCE AT LAST

The five years leading up to the publication of Leaves of Grass in 1855 are among the most important, and least understood, in Whitman scholarship. Little is known about Whitman because so few texts by him or records about him exist. He published no poetry during this time and only a few journalistic pieces in 1851. Whitman himself provides few clues to this period of his life. In the autobiographical Specimen Days he notes merely: "'51, '53 occupied in house-building in Brooklyn" ( CP, 705).

Yet during this time a peculiar coalescing of forces and events centered upon the nation's divided response to slavery would inspire Whitman to develop the radical new poetry about African Americans he had first begun in 1847. Little that he did or wrote in these years would seem to have much bearing on either his racial attitudes or his poetry. But when the nation erupted in 1854 over the Kansas-Nebraska Act and the case of the fugitive slave Anthony Burns, the long foreground of Whitman's deep interest in slavery well prepared him for a poetic response that would, at long last, find an audience. For having failed earlier to move his newspaper readers on slavery, Whitman was now encouraged, even compelled, by the changing national mood to express in his poetry a radical egalitarianism and sympathy for blacks. Thus liberated, Whitman could feel free to publish ideas about blacks and slavery that only a few years earlier would seem like abolitionist extremism. Whitman's own rhetorical emancipation on slavery may well have opened the doors to the wider range of ideas and language experiments he had been work-

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Whitman, Slavery, and the Emergence of Leaves of Grass
Table of contents

Table of contents

  • Title Page *
  • Contents *
  • Acknowledgments *
  • Introduction 1
  • 1 - The Construction of a Pro-Slavery Apology 7
  • 2 - The Failure of Borrowed Rhetoric 27
  • 3 - Emerson, New Orleans, and an Emerging Voice 45
  • 4 - The 1850 Compromise and an Early Poetics of Slavery 61
  • 5 - An Audience at Last 85
  • 6 - A Slave's Narrative 115
  • 7 - Speaking a New Word 141
  • Epilogue - "On the Extremest Verge" 159
  • Bibliography 165
  • Index 171
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