Whitman Unit 8
What sort genre (“type” or “kind”) of work is Leaves of Grass? Is it an epic, doctrine, biography and autobiography, or philosophy—or a combination of all of these and, perhaps, more? Let us begin with the idea of an “epic.” If we adhere to the classical definition of “genre,” then the kind of genre to which a work is assigned is determined by the central character or hero. For example, a detective story is about a detective, an adventure story about an adventurer, a romance about a lover, and an epic about a warrior. What are the most famous epics and who are they about? Who is Leaves of Grass about? Ordinarily, poems about the writer (first-person poems that are about the “I” who is telling the story) are considered in the genre called the lyric. Generally, these are short poems. How does Whitman fit into this category—if he does?
Is Leaves of Grass an extended lyric, an autobiography, or an epic? If it is all of these, then what role does each genre contribute to the whole? Why in literary studies is it important to designate genres and there use? How is this important to the understanding of Whitman’s poetry?
Is Leaves of Grass really a work of philosophy? Does the title tell us the content or give us the overall and underlying transcendental philosophy? How so? What is the meaning of Whitman’s use of “leaf” or “leaves” mean today? How is this important? Again, refer back to Units 2 and 3 and our discussion of transcendentalism and naturalism. Discuss how Whitman’s philosophy developed in a consistent fashion from the 1855 Edition to the Deathbed Edition.
After all my recent research into Whitman, I am going to say that Leaves of Grass is an autobiography/biography. “The messages of great poets to each man and woman are, Come to us on equal terms, Only then can you understand us, We are no better than you, What we enclose you enclose, What we enjoy you may enjoy” (from the introduction to the 1855 edition). These are his images and his meanderings. Somehow, somehow he understands that the future will think highly of him. He truly feels that he is a man ahead of his time. “The proof of a poet is that his country absorbs him as affectionately as he has absorbed it” (1855 edition).
There are so many instances where he is simply talking about himself—the entire poem “Song of Myself.” In “Crossing Brooklyn Ferry” he begins to love the area that he is gazing upon yet starts to see the people of the future and how they will perceive things—and it is the same way that he perceives things. This is an extraordinary revelation for a man who brags in the introduction to the first flimsy little 1855 edition of Leaves of Grass, “An individual is as superb as a nation when he has the qualities which make a superb nation.” He is saying that his experiences typify the nation. How bold. What would a multicultural teacher think of this, I wonder?
I guess it could be an epic if you apply a definition of the character standing for greater-than-life qualities. However, I believe an epic hero is not looking for approval. Whitman is, in one way or another, even if it is just a head nod from a reader. He kept republishing it after Emerson wrote him that letter. To be honest, I had thought that Whitman’s title Leaves of Grass referred to the pages in the book. It is about the leaves of grass that is under all our feet in this great country. We are all free, yet walk a similar path.
Whitman, Walt. Leaves of Grass (1855 edition). Available online 20 September 2005 http://www.whitmanarchive.org/archive1/works/leaves/1855/text/frameset.html.