Michael Robertson: Reading Whitman Religiously





[Michael Robertson is a professor of English at the College of New Jersey and author of Worshipping Walt: The Whitman Disciples, just published by Princeton University Press.]

In December 1890, the elderly Walt Whitman received in the mail an unusual Christmas greeting from his admirer William Sloane Kennedy, a Harvard Divinity School dropout turned journalist. "Do you suppose a thousand years from now people will be celebrating the birth of Walt Whitman as they are now the birth of Christ?" Kennedy asked cheekily. "If they don't," he added, "the more fools they."

Kennedy's question was brazen, but it was probably not entirely unexpected. Starting in the 1860s, Whitman attracted a diverse group of adherents who regarded him less as a great poet, an American successor to Wordsworth, than as a great spiritual leader, a successor to the Buddha and Jesus. John Burroughs, the 19th century's most popular nature writer, published two books and dozens of essays on Whitman, all with one central message: Whitman's "Leaves of Grass is primarily a gospel and is only secondarily a poem." Burroughs scoffed at the notion of classing Whitman with "minstrels and edifiers"; he belonged among the "prophets and saviours." Leaves of Grass offers "a religion to live by and to die by," according to Thomas Biggs Harned, a prominent attorney and one of Whitman's literary executors. "I can never think of Whitman as a mere literary man. He is a mighty spiritual force."

Those responses to Whitman may sound strange to 21st-century ears, trained by decades of aesthetically oriented criticism to ignore poetry's religious dimensions. However, in the 19th century, many readers were receptive to the concept of the poet-prophet. As organized religion began to lose its cultural authority in the face of challenges from Enlightenment philosophers, biblical scholarship, and scientific discoveries, poets filled the spiritual void for many readers. William Blake, creator of elaborate private mythologies that cast the human imagination as the universe's divine creative force, was the first English-language poet to be widely regarded as a prophet....



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