Whitman's "studious" technique per Samuel Sillen, 1955

In 1955, International Publishers issued Walt Whitman, Poet of American Democracy, edited by the communist critic Samuel Sillen. Sillen wrote an introductory essay, which, in part, points out that Whitman's style was not "slovenly." Sillen wrote (pp. 26-27):

Whitman was not unaware that the absence of rhyme and regular stress would at first strike his reader with incredulous amazement. But he was hardly prepared for the storm of abuse that was to greet his new verse form. Genteel critics from 1855 on have denounced what a Brahmin like Barrett Wendell called the "decadent eccentricity" of his style. They accused Whitman of artistic laziness and exhibitionism, looseness and vulgarity. They attributed his esthetic pioneering to ignorance and ineptitude.

Yet modern scholarship has demonstrated that Whitman was anything but slovenly in technique; he was a highly conscious artist. A detailed study of his manuscripts and notebooks has led, C. J. Furness, editor of Walt Whitman's Workshop, to the conclusion that they reveal "habits so studious that Whitman himself wished to conceal them from the public, who were already too dependent, he thought, upon bookish literature.... Most of his conceptions were the logical outgrowth of sustained and detailed study." If he rejected some Poetic conventions, he mastered the devices of repetition and parallelism in the Bible and folk poetry. The range of influences on his work includes Homer, Shakespeare, and Italian opera. A sensitive reading of his elemental and dynamic lines confirms Whitman's own faith that they are "lawless at first perusal, although on closer examination a certain regularity appears, like the recurrence of lesser and larger waves on the sea-shore, rolling in without intermission, and fitfully rising and falling."


Document URL: http://www.writing.upenn.edu/~afilreis/50s/whitman-per-sillen.html
Last modified: Thursday, 31-May-2007 09:41:30 EDT