Walt Whitman: Critical Reception

Within our exhibit on Walt Whitman, I wanted to investigate Whitman’s critical reception during his lifetime. While Whitman is often regarded as one of the greatest American poets today, it took decades for his work to be as appreciated and esteemed as it is now. I plan to focus solely on reviews of Leaves of Grass that were published during Whitman’s lifetime. I hope that these reviews will shed light on the truly innovative nature of Leaves of Grass and the controversies it aroused.

The first object I chose to examine is Charles Eliot Norton’s “Review of Leaves of Grass (1855)” published in Putnam’s Monthly: A Magazine of Literature, Science, and Arts. Norton’s review demonstrates the confusion that surrounded the first edition of Leaves of Grass. Norton’s his emphasis on Leaves of Grass as truly American fits into our group’s overall theme of Whitman’s embodiment of American ideals.

The second object I chose to examine comes from the “Leaves-Droppings” section of the second edition of Leaves of Grass. This review from the London Weekly Dispatch interested me because it provides insight on Whitman’s critical reception abroad. I thought it would be interesting to include a review that Whitman chose to re-print his second edition of Leaves of Grass.

The next object is an anonymous review that was published in The New York Times after the publication of the third edition of Leaves of Grass. The author addresses some of Whitman’s changes in this edition as vulgar and suggests that Whitman become more “civilized.”

The fourth object I chose to inspect is a review by William Douglas O’Connor, which examines the changes Whitman made in the 1867 publication of Leaves of Grass. This review was unique because the author praised Whitman as a truly American poet, while most reviews criticized him. I found it particularly interesting that The New York Times printed a brief protest of Leaves of Grass directly above O’Connor’s column.

Lastly, I chose to look at Peter Bayne’s review of the 1971-1972 edition of Leaves of Grass. Bayne’s disapproval of the work shows that, even after 20 years, Leaves of Grasscontinued to garner criticism and instill controversy.

I hope that these objects will provide a well-rounded examination of Whitman’s critical reception during his lifetime.

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