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Whitman's Presence: Body, Voice, and Writing in Leaves of Grass

Tenney Nathanson
Copyright Date: 1992
Published by: NYU Press
Pages: 550
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    Whitman's Presence
    Book Description:

    "Nathanson addresses with renewed insight a problem that has vexed Whitman scholars at least since James E. Miller, Jr.'s A Critical Guide to Leaves of Grass turned Whitman into a respectable academic subject; that is, the unusual status of Whitman's poetic voice. . . . The overall result is the finest articulation of Whitman's project in existence." - Donald Pease, Department of English, Dartmouth College "What enables Nathanson to perform a feat no other critic has accomplished depends as much on his awareness of a range of thinkers from Wittgenstein to J.L. Austin and Derrida as on his sense of the qualities of poetry: he gives the term presence a cultural as well as poetic significance which opens out to cultural history, and makes Whitman as much a representative presence in the culture as our unequalled poet. I see this as a central book about our literature." - Quentin Anderson, J.C. Levi Professor in the Humanities Emeritus, Columbia University

    eISBN: 978-0-8147-5924-0
    Subjects: Language & Literature

Table of Contents

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  1. Front Matter
    (pp. i-xii)
  2. Table of Contents
    (pp. xiii-xiv)
  3. Acknowledgments
    (pp. xv-xvi)
  4. Abbreviations
    (pp. xvii-xviii)
  5. 1. Declarations
    (pp. 1-29)

    In “Crossing Brooklyn Ferry,” one of the major new poems Whitman composed for the 1856 edition ofLeaves of Grass, the poet interrupts the excited but troubled account he has been offering his audience of his daily life as a denizen of Manhattan and a frequenter of Brooklyn harbor to turn directly to us, making some startling claims and posing some unnerving questions:

    Closer yet I approach you,

    What thought you have of me, I had as much of you—I laid in my stores in advance,

    I considered long and seriously of you before you were born.

    Who was...

  6. 2. The World in the Word
    (pp. 30-56)

    1. What does it mean to name something, to bestow or utter a name? Whitman’s poetry is a sustained if troubled effort to conceive of naming as an act of mastery and transfiguration, and to inherit the powers this conception implies. We will be concerned throughout with how this notion of naming shapesLeaves of Grass; in this chapter, I want to attend to the way Whitman’s catalogues enact it. In these litanies the word seems to assume a magical power over the thing: the poet characteristically claims to control the objects whose names he pronounces, indeed often suggesting that he...

  7. 3. Indications and Crossings: Light and Flood
    (pp. 57-84)

    Scattered throughout Whitman’s early editions are what might be called the first rumblings of a cosmologizing imagination. It is not until the 1870s, when Whitman published “Passage to India,” that these issue in the full-blown cosmic fantasizing that increasingly dominates the later poetry. Yet even in such early poems as “Crossing Brooklyn Ferry” we encounter images that imply the presence of at least a roughly traced cosmology. Full of such unfamiliar entities as “the float,” a “due emission,” and “a necessary film,” this cosmic system will need some explaining. But it is probably more important to assess its significance for...

  8. 4. The Embodied Voice
    (pp. 85-161)

    Who is the hero ofLeaves of Grass?From where do his powers derive, and in which of the protagonist’s multiple guises can they be exercised? Whitman’s sliding lexicon makes such questions hard to answer. “I do not doubt that from under the feet, and beside the hands and face I am cognizant of, are now looking faces I am not cognizant of—calm and actual faces,” the poet declares in a passage from the 1856 poem “Assurances” we looked at in chapter 3; “I do not doubt that interiors have their interiors, and exteriors have their exteriors—and that...

  9. 5. Writing and Representation
    (pp. 162-278)

    1. One of the many ironies recorded by Horace Traubel, mostly unconsciously, in his mammoth record of Whitman’s last years in Camden is the vision it proffers us of the poet of the voice awash in the exotic sea of his own archives. Justin Kaplan masterfully renders the weird landscape over which Whitman hovered:

    From boxes and bundles in the storeroom, from the big iron-banded double-hasped trunk that had been with him in Washington and now stood against the bedroom wall, he released drifts and billows of paper. He had kept every imaginable variety of written and printed matter: manuscripts, old...

  10. 6. Inscriptions
    (pp. 279-365)

    “To read apostrophe as sign of a fiction which knows its own fictive nature,” Jonathan Culler suggests, “is to stress its optative character, its impossible imperatives: commands which in their explicit impossibility figure events in and of fiction” (“Apostrophe” 146). Understood in this way, Culler notes, apostrophe and other modes of poetic address that seem to exceed the powers of ordinary speech are neither mystified nor demystified, involving instead an investment in mystification that simultaneously registers its contrary (“Apostrophe” 153). That being so, our task as readers of apostrophe and similar lyric speech acts is to attend to this play...

  11. 7. Legacies
    (pp. 366-476)

    Over the course of Whitman’s career, the paradoxes to which we have been attending proved difficult to sustain. Tenuous itself yet never quite free of the liabilities it supposedly leaves behind, Whitman’s image of voice pretty much vanishes from the poems written after 1860. The national cataclysm that for a time became the focus of Whitman’s work, demanding attention to the sort of intractable material rendered inDrum-Taps, is certainly one reason for this disappearance. Yet the cosmic opinionizing that in turn succeeds Whitman’s war poetry assuages not only his lingering doubts concerning the legacy of the nation’s conflict, but...

  12. 8. Vistas
    (pp. 477-500)

    It is a truism of Whitman criticism, and a useful one, that after 1860 the poet of the body gradually gives way to the poet of the soul. As M. Jimmie Killingsworth notes, taking up a long line of commentary, the incendiary sexual stance that energizes Whitman’s first three editions metamorphoses into the grimly sublimated eros ofDrum-TapsandMemoranda During the War, and then disappears (131–54).¹ C. Carroll Hollis offers a different account of the change that overtookLeaves of Grassafter 1860: Whitman’s fascination with performative utterance, and with poetry as speech act, is replaced by an...

  13. Works Cited
    (pp. 501-512)
  14. Index
    (pp. 513-532)
  15. Back Matter
    (pp. 533-533)