Walt Whitman Among the French: Poet and Myth

Walt Whitman Among the French: Poet and Myth

by Betsy Erkkila


View All Available Formats & Editions
Use Standard Shipping. For guaranteed delivery by December 24, use Express or Expedited Shipping.

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9780691615868
Publisher: Princeton University Press
Publication date: 07/14/2014
Series: Princeton Legacy Library , #48
Pages: 308
Product dimensions: 6.00(w) x 9.00(h) x 0.70(d)

Read an Excerpt

Walt Whitman Among the French

Poet and Myth

By Betsy Erkkila


Copyright © 1980 Princeton University Press
All rights reserved.
ISBN: 978-0-691-06426-0



* * *

"We grand-sons and great-grand-sons do not forget your grand-sires."

— "Bravo, Paris Exposition"

Throughout his life, Whitman felt a strong political, social, and even temperamental affinity with France. Thinking about the French, Whitman once remarked: "I never had the common Puritan ideas about France: I have long considered the French in some ways the top of the heap. We too generally lack the elemental affinities to judge the Latin races with anything like justice." He expressed surprise that Emerson would be favorable to the French. "Emerson," he says, "was so soaked in and in with English currents of ancestry. I love Emerson — I do not need to say that — but he was somewhat thin on the physiological side. There are things in the French which I do not criticise but which I believe must have been very offensive to Emerson." Whitman's words suggest the French affinities of his own physiological interest, most fully expressed in the "Children of Adam" poems, to which Whitman initially gave the French title "Enfans d'Adam." And this, it might be remembered, was precisely the section that Emerson, in that famous walk on the Boston Common, attempted to persuade Whitman to eliminate from the 1860 edition of Leaves of Grass.

Whitman's reference to a certain Puritan antagonism to France among Americans is a fairly accurate description of Franco-American relations in general at that time. In his book America and French Culture, Howard Mumford Jones shows that up until about 1770 there was hostility in America to the French because of their close association in the American mind both with Catholicism and with the Indians. Although there was a brief interlude of American sympathy and alliance with France during the period of the American Revolution and the early period of the French Revolution, the American people generally tended to associate France and the French language with atheism, anarchy, and immorality.

In aggressively stating his profound sympathy with France both in conversation and in writing, Whitman was in a very real sense showing his moral and political colors. To be sympathetic with the French in early nineteenth-century America could never be a politically or morally neutral position, a mere preference for one nationality or country over another. To be pro-French was to be for Jefferson, the Democrats, agrarianism, and the common man; it was to champion social and moral liberty. To be anti-French was to be for Hamilton, the Federalists, aristocracy, and privilege; it was to champion social and moral restraint. Just as in the Revolutionary period in American literature belles lettres had tended to reflect the battle between Federalist and Democrat, so Whitman, somewhat in the tradition of Philip Freneau and Joel Barlow, reflected in his own writings the final stages of this political struggle.

Whitman looked to France as a model in his attempt to liberate American sensibility, with its deep roots in the Puritan past, into a new moral and political consciousness. He admired the openness and freedom of the French in human relationships. As early as 1845, in an article written for the Long Island Star, Whitman commended the French influence in the fashionable world of New York:

As for manners, we are assimilating to the Parisian, more and more — and I must confess I like it so. Stiffness and reserve are banished — dignified silence laughed at — all kinds of keeping one's state, sent to Coventry. A dash of familiarity, even with the strangers, (either sex to either sex) you meet at parties, &c. is good breeding now.

Even at this early stage in his career, Whitman's admiration of the freedom and permissiveness of French society was related to his sense that the French way of life, in allowing a "dash of familiarity" between strangers, would provide a more open atmosphere in which to release hiw own Calamus emotions. In French society Whitman saw a model for the kind of sexual freedom he envisioned for the American nation. He once told Horace Traubel: "I am aware of what our puritans think of the French: it counts for little with me ... the main difference between us and the French in sex directions is in their frankness as opposed to our hypocrisy."

In addition to his identification with the social and sexual attitudes of the French, Whitman also had a deep sense of political kinship with the French republic. This sense of kinship with France is perhaps best expressed in a note in Specimen Days:

The official relations of Our States we know, are with the reigning kings, queens, &c., of the Old World. But the only deep, vast, emotional, real affinity of America is with the cause of Popular Government there — and especially in France.

Whitman's lifelong sympathy with France was in some ways a result of his belief that the American and the French Revolutions emerged from the same root. Drinking an imaginary toast to France on Bastille Day in 1888, Whitman said: "What America did for the Fourth, France did for the Fourteenth: both acts were of the same stock."

In his poetry, Whitman continually returns to the theme of the French Revolution. One of his earliest free verse poems, "Resurgemus," was in part inspired by the revolution in France in 1848, when Louis Philippe was dethroned and a second French Republic was declared. In the poem "O Star of France," Whitman expresses his sense of identification with the spirit of France and with the French Revolution:

    Dim smitten star,
    Orb not of France alone, pale symbol of my
     soul, its dearest hopes,
    The struggle and the daring, rage divine
     for liberty,
    Of aspirations toward the far ideal,
     enthusiast's dreams of brotherhood,
    Of terror to the tyrant and the priest.

Whitman never lost this fundamental faith in France as the symbol of his hopes for liberty and brotherhood not only in America but throughout the world. Unlike the many people whose support of the French Revolution did not extend beyond the Reign of Terror, Whitman in "France, The 18th Year of these States" expresses his own belief that the "terrible red birth and baptism" of the Terror was the just retribution for years of oppression and suffering:

    Pale, silent, stern, what could I say to that
     long-accrued retribution?
    Could I wish humanity different?
    Could I wish the people made of wood and stone?
    Or that there be no justice in destiny or time?

As late as 1889, Whitman again recorded his debt of gratitude to France and to the French Revolution in the poem "Bravo, Paris Exposition." In sending his love and good will to the French people on the occasion of the Paris Exposition, Whitman says: "We grandsons and great-grand-sons do not forget your grand-sires" (4). At the end of his life, as at the beginning, Whitman regarded himself as the offspring of France rather than of England.

I. The French Background

In her book of memoirs entitled A Backward Glance, Edith Wharton recalls Henry James's admiration for Walt Whitman. On one occasion, she remembers how "James, in one of his sudden humorous drops from the heights, flung up his hands and cried out with the old stammer and twinkle: 'Oh, yes, a great genius; undoubtedly a very great genius! Only one cannot help deploring his too-extensive acquaintance with the foreign languages.'" Whitman used French words and phrases throughout his writing, and it was probably his extensive and frequently inaccurate use of the French language that provoked James's ironic comment. However, Whitman's use of the French language was neither merely ignorant nor merely arrogant, as is commonly assumed. Not only did his use of the French language come out of some very serious thought about the nature and function of language, but his use of the language, particularly in the titles of his poems, was a way of self-consciously flaunting and celebrating his pro-French sympathies and thus defying traditional American loyalties.

Although some critics have maintained that Whitman had a reading knowledge of the French language, there is no evidence for this assertion. In his biography of Whitman, Richard Maurice Bucke says: "He read no language but English, yet I believe he knew a great deal more French, German, and Spanish than he would own to." Whitman may have known a great many French words and phrases, but his acquaintance with the language was limited to a brief flirtation with the surface. He picked up French words and phrases, which he absorbed and projected in terms of his own poetic program, but he never arrived at any real comprehension of the underlying structure, meaning, or content of the language.

Late in life Whitman would sometimes wait weeks for one of his acquaintances to translate the correspondence and articles that he received from his French admirers. Commenting to Traubel on Jules Laforgue's French translations of some of his poems, Whitman remarked: "I never could have known how they were done, of course, as I have absolutely no conversancy with the language. ... I try to look at my face in a French glass but somehow it don't work very well." If Whitman's secret knowledge of French was as great as Bucke would have us believe, it is strange that he could not even begin to transcribe some of the letters and articles he had received from France; and it is even more strange that he would be unable to recognize his own face in the French glass of Laforgue's translations.

With such a limited knowledge of the French language, Whitman was probably unable to read anything in the French original. His reading was limited to those works already translated into English and available in America. Thus, even though Whitman's artistic theory and practice often coincide with or anticipate the Symbolist and Modern periods in French literature, his actual reading did not extend much beyond the writings of the French Romantic period which were available in translation.

Although Whitman had some fragmentary and superficial acquaintance with Medieval and Classical French writers, he tended to lump them together as alien to the natural genius and democratic spirit of the American continent. In one of his early notebooks, Whitman says: "I fancy the classical tragedies of Comeille, Racine, Voltaire &c., must illustrate the vital difference between a native and normal growth (as the Greek tragedies themselves) and all that comes from the mere study of that growth." And in an article written for Life Illustrated, he made the following remarks on the "Condition of Writers before the American Era":

Racine, Boileau, Corneille, Molière, La Bruyere, Fenelon — what had they to eat or drink but the shadows of royalty or the aristocracy? ... There was only one other choice for litterateurs. Some were devoted to the service of priests. ... Among the profuse shoals of the writers of those times, not one appeared to speak for man, for mind, for freedom, against superstition and caste.

In the form and artifice of French Classical literature, as well as in the political system by which it was nourished, Whitman found the direct antithesis to the vital, organic, and democratic literature that he envisioned for America.

With the exception of Rabelais and Montaigne, whom he read and admired, the early French writers provided a rather barren field for Whitman in his search for precedents and examples of his democratic and spontaneous art. It was primarily among the French writers of the Enlightenment and Romantic periods that Whitman found worthy models for the outserting American bard.

II. The French Enlightenment

Throughout his childhood and during his early years as a journalist and politician, Whitman was schooled in the social and political philosophy of the Enlightenment and of the French Revolution. Whitman's early acquaintance with the thought and writings of Tom Paine, Thomas Jefferson, and Frances Wright brought him into contact with some of the more radical and important philosophies of the French Enlightenment. He also had some direct acquaintance with the work of such French philosophes as Voltaire, Volney, and Rousseau.

Whitman owned a copy of Voltaire's Philosophical Dictionary, and a reference to the Dictionary in his early notebooks indicates that he may have read Voltaire before the appearance of the first edition of Leaves of Grass in 1855. Since the Dictionary gives voice to many of the common Enlightenment ideals upon which Whitman was raised, it would be difficult to make a case for any particular impact that this work had upon Whitman's thought and writing. At times, however, Whitman's prose and poetry echo in phrase and meaning the Voltaire of the Dictionary.

In the section entitled "Miracles" in the Philosophical Dictionary, Voltaire says: "A MIRACLE, according to the true meaning of the word, is something admirable; and agreeably to this, all is miracle. The stupendous order of nature, the revolution of a hundred millions of worlds round a million of suns, the activity of light, the life of animals, all are grand and perpetual miracles." In his campaign against the superstitions and remarkable providences of organized religion in general and Puritanism in particular, Whitman expresses much the same idea of miracle in his 1855 Preface; he rejects

Any miracle of affairs or persons inadmissible in the vast clear scheme where every motion and every spear of grass and the frames and spirits of men and women and all that concerns them are unspeakably perfect miracles all referring to all and each distinct and in its place.

Whitman embodies the same idea in the 1856 poem "Miracles":

    Why, who makes much of a miracle?
    As to me I know of nothing else but miracles,
    To me every hour of the light and dark is a
    Every cubic inch of space is a miracle,
    Every square yard of the surface of the
     earth is spread with the same,
    Every foot of the interior swarms with the
     (1-2; 17-20)

Although it may be mere coincidence that Whitman's words on miracles both in the 1855 Preface and the 1856 poem echo Voltaire in tone, image, and meaning, we can see how close Whitman's vision of the natural and cosmic universe was to the new and more secular vision of the French philosophes.

Unlike many of his American contemporaries who had come into the orbit of New England Transcendentalism, Whitman found his own and America's roots in the similar but much more politically based philosophy of self-reliant individualism practiced by Voltaire and the French rationalists. In an article written in 1856 entitled "Voltaire: A Fragment by Walt Whitman," he describes Voltaire as "a fit precursor, in one or two points, of the American era" (p. 71). For Whitman, Voltaire represented the assertion of individual freedom and of the rational mind against the superstitions and shams of the past. He says of Voltaire: "He had a clear head, never to be cheated by the traditions, quibbles, shams, and tyrannies of those who made a good thing out of churches and courts. He loved to expose the old shysters. He also loved knowledge in itself (p. 73).

Whitman also regarded the French Encyclopaedists as precursors of the American era. His article on Voltaire includes an encomium on the French Encyclopaedia:

Out of the times of Buffon, La Motte, Fontenelle, Diderot, Piron, Crebillon the tragic, and Crebillon the gay — of Mademoiselle Clairon, Sophie Arnold, Madame de Pompadour, and Marie Antoinette — rose the Encyclopaedia Francais. Long live free literature! Long live science! The French Encyclopaedia tuned the instruments of the French Revolution and the American Revolution. (pp. 71-72)

In this tribute to the Encyclopaedia as a gathering together of the separate intellectual energies of the French Enlightenment, Whitman again points up the roots of the future republics of France and America in the common ground of the French Enlightenment.

In addition to his early connections with Voltaire and the French Encyclopaedists, Whitman's youthful reading of Count Volney's The Ruins, or Meditations on the Revolutions of Empires (1802) left a deep impression. Speaking to Traubel, Whitman described Volney's Ruins as "another of the books on which I may be said to have been raised."

In The Ruins, Volney expresses the fundamental faith of the Enlightenment in reason, science, civilization, and progress. Motivated by the most important virtue of the enlightened man, social usefulness, Volney undertakes to discover the causes of the ruins of empires in order to improve the happiness of man in a social state. He defines and describes at length the physical and natural laws that govern man and the universe. He expresses the ideal of toleration and good will in religion, order and balance in society, liberty and equality in politics. And he looks forward to the establishment of an international community, with all men existing equally under the same natural law of right and reason.


Excerpted from Walt Whitman Among the French by Betsy Erkkila. Copyright © 1980 Princeton University Press. Excerpted by permission of PRINCETON UNIVERSITY PRESS.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.

Table of Contents

  • FrontMatter, pg. i
  • Contents, pg. ix
  • Introduction, pg. 1
  • Chapter I. France in Whitman, pg. 10
  • Chapter II. Whitman and French Symbolism, pg. 52
  • Chapter III. Whitman and Post-Symbolism, pg. 98
  • Chapter IV. Whitman and L'esprit Nouveau, pg. 178
  • Appendix I. Chronological List of French Criticism of Whitman since 1861, pg. 239
  • Appendix II. Chronological List of French Translations of Whitman since 1886, pg. 251
  • Notes, pg. 257
  • Bibliography, pg. 275
  • Index, pg. 287

Customer Reviews

Most Helpful Customer Reviews

See All Customer Reviews