Commentary

Selected Criticism

Title:
November Boughs [1888]
Author:
Barcus, James E., Jr.
Print source:
J.R. LeMaster and Donald D. Kummings, eds., Walt Whitman: An Encyclopedia (New York: Garland Publishing, 1998), reproduced by permission.

When Whitman suffered his physical collapse in 1888, from which he never fully recovered, he was working on a new collection of prose and poetry, intending to break a seven-year silence. With the help of Horace Traubel, who handled the details of publication, carrying copy to the printer, bringing proofs to Whitman, and acting as business manager, Whitman resumed work on the volume. David McKay published the volume, named November Boughs, later in 1888, purchasing from Whitman the rights to print further copies of the volume in 1888, 1889, and 1890 for a royalty fee of twelve cents per copy sold. 

Like Two Rivulets (1876), the book is a mixture of prose and poetry. In the 140 pages are a long preface called "A Backward Glance O'er Travel'd Roads," approximately sixty very short poems which are collected under the title of "Sands at Seventy," and reprints of articles already published elsewhere. The preface, a combination of two articles that Whitman had published in 1884 and 1887, contains a retrospective on his literary theories and practices. He admits that he has not been accepted in his own time, but that he hopes for future recognition. He also recognizes that although Leaves of Grass was a financial failure, it was always intended as an experiment. He explains his primary purpose in his poems: "to exploit that Personality [his own], identified with place and date, in a far more candid and comprehensive sense than any hitherto poem or book" (658). He also expresses reservations about his poetic form, no longer certain that his poems stand firmly on their unique employment of music and rhythm. 

Whitman grouped the poems under the title "Sands at Seventy," perhaps reflecting not only his distress at aging and physical frailty, but also a recognition of his failing poetic powers. These poems he later annexed to Leaves of Grass. Clearly they lack the fire and lyricism of his early work, but they also contain a to-be-envied self-knowledge. And he is thankful that he was able to write them "in joy and hope" ("A Carol Closing Sixty-Nine"). Nevertheless he fears that his long poetic career may be drawing to a close, but he refuses to go gently, underscoring his unwillingness to depart and his expectation to be "[g]arrulous to the very last" ("After the Supper and Talk"). 

The collected prose pieces have received little critical attention, but read as a group they summarize many of Whitman's themes and concerns. They too serve as a kind of retrospective on the issues which both made Whitman the man and poet and which Whitman made the focus of his life and poetry. Central, of course, is Whitman's enthusiasm for democracy and the common man at the core of the American experiment. He urges eminent visitors to the United States not to be deluded by the effete Americans who entertain them in elevated segments of society: the real American genius is in the common people. Elias Hicks, the leader of the divisive movement which split the Quakers, Whitman praises for being the "most democratic of the religionists" (1221). And George Fox, the nearly illiterate founder of the Quaker movement and near contemporary of Shakespeare, inspired Hicks, his open-air pulpit still remembered on Long Island. 

In his comments on Shakespeare and his works, Whitman finds the democratic spirit the distinguishing essence. In the historical plays, Shakespeare undermines, perhaps unconsciously, the feudal system. He suggests that someday critics, "diving deeper . . . may discover . . . the inauguration of modern Democracy" (1150). In contrast, Shakespeare's sonnets are too medieval and feudal. Robert Burns, however, speaks to the American spirit, for he loved the plough and knew the working man. Tennyson, although nondemocratic, is admired for his personal character and the moral dimensions of his work. Whitman points specifically to Tennyson's facility to charm with the English language and recommends the Idylls of the Kings by title. 

Entranced by language, Whitman analyzes the place of slang in English, which he correctly sees as being an accretive language. English, he says, is a "universal absorber" (1165). In English, slang functions like the clowns in Shakespeare's plays. Slang is an attempt of common humanity to escape from bald literalism. Common people understand how slang operates, for they innately use circumlocution to enrich language which arises out of the work, needs, and joys of humanity. 

In "The Bible as Poetry," Whitman finds the roots of American democracy in the Old and New Testament. Rejecting aestheticism as one of the evils of his age, Whitman praises the scriptures for their depth. True, compared to Grecian epics, the scriptures may be "simple and meagre" (1140), but the daring metaphors, extravagant loves and friendships, accounts of religious ecstasy, and suggestions of mortality are unsurpassed. Thus, it is no surprise that Whitman finds the oratory of a preacher like Father Taylor extraordinary and similar to that of the Quaker Elias Hicks. In Taylor as in Hicks, one finds passion, tenderness, and firmness expressed in majestic, picturesque, and colloquial language borrowed from Oriental and biblical forms. 

Whitman also praises the multicultural sources of American society, noting the nobility of the Native American and the importance of the overlooked Spanish influence. The Indians stirred his artistic enthusiasm. Whitman quotes with approbation a correspondent who says, "They [the Indians] certainly have more of beauty, dignity and nobility mingled with their own wild individuality, than any of the other indigenous types of man" (1173). He doubts that any artistic representation, either visual or verbal, does the Native American justice. In a reprinted letter, he suggests that the Spanish influence has been marginalized in American culture, but he predicts it will see a resurgence. 

Not to be omitted are Whitman's accounts of his days spent nursing the wounded and dying Civil War soldiers. In the midst of suffering, agony, death, and occasional survival, Whitman captures the nobility of the human spirit, of husbands and fathers yearning for word from home and desperate to send letters, but hampered by disease and poverty. In declining health and faced with incapacity, Whitman remembers what he had discovered years before: that sudden death, even death in battle, may not be the worst ending.  

Bibliography 

Allen, Gay Wilson. The Solitary Singer: A Critical Biography of Walt Whitman. 1955. Rev. ed. 1967. Chicago: U of Chicago P, 1985. 

____. Walt Whitman Handbook. Chicago: Packard, 1946. 

Asselineau, Roger. The Evolution of Walt Whitman: The Creation of a Book. Trans. Roger Asselineau and Burton L. Cooper. Cambridge, Mass: Harvard UP, 1962. 

____. The Evolution of Walt Whitman: The Creation of a Personality. Trans. Richard P. Adams and Roger Asselineau. Cambridge, Mass: Harvard UP, 1960. 

Reynolds, David S. Walt Whitman's America: A Cultural Biography. New York: Knopf, 1995. 

Whitman, Walt. Complete Poetry and Collected Prose. Ed. Justin Kaplan. New York: Library of America, 1982. 


Comments?

Published Works | In Whitman's Hand | Life & Letters | Commentary | Resources | Pictures & Sound

Support the Archive | About the Archive

Distributed under a Creative Commons License. Ed Folsom & Kenneth M. Price, editors.