Places: Leaves of Grass

  • Last updated on December 10, 2021

First published: 1855

Type of work: Poetry

Asterisk denotes entries on real places.

Places Discussed*Paumanok

*Paumanok. Leaves of GrassVillage on Long Island east of New York City where Whitman was born. His early poem “Starting from Paumanok” describes the village as “fish-shaped,” indicating its (and his) nautical origins, an idea that he developed in detail in “Out of the Cradle Endlessly Rocking,” in which he envisions himself a “little boy again,/ Throwing myself on the sand, confronting the waves.” Whitman recalls Paumanok’s fragrance as “lilac-scent,” its coastline as marked by “Fifth-month grass” and “briers,” and its seashore inhabited by “two feather’d guests from Alabama,” signaling its fertility and hospitality. Later in the poem, now speaking from an adult’s perspective, Whitman cites “Paumanok’s gray beach” as the site of his initial and continuing poetic inspiration.

*Brooklyn

*Brooklyn. City, which is now part of New York City, to which Whitman’s family moved when his father began work as a carpenter in 1823. Whitman lived in Brooklyn intermittently through the next three decades. He became editor of a leading local newspaper, The Brooklyn Eagle, in 1846, and formed a habit of walking in the city observing every aspect of urban life. His poem “Crossing Brooklyn Ferry” describes people traveling between Brooklyn and Manhattan, using the “heights of Brooklyn to the south and east” and the traffic in the passage between the Hudson and East Rivers as symbols of city life and energy. He describes the “fires from the foundry chimneys/ burning high and glaringly into the night” as an image of industrial might, and the terrain of Brooklyn–“Brooklyn of ample hills was mine”–as homeground.

*Manhattan

*Manhattan. For Whitman, “million-footed Manhattan” was the central city of the new American nation. In admiration he asked, “Ah, what can ever be more stately and admirable to me than mast-hemm’d Manhattan?” Multiple vignettes of life in the street (“the blab of the pave”) come together to form an indelible portrait, which images such as “blacksmiths with grimed and hairy chests environ the anvil.”

*United States

*United States. In his preface to the first edition of Leaves of Grass, Whitman says that the “United States themselves are essentially the greatest poem.” He saw himself as literally an organic element of the new land. “I bequeath myself to the dirt to grow from the grass I love.” In boldly accepting Ralph Waldo Emerson’s call for an American poet, Whitman frequently proclaimed himself a genuine voice of the nation. “In the name of these States”–a characteristic formulation–expresses his position, and through his poems, there are apostrophes to and evocations of individual states and regions. “We dwell awhile in every city and town,” he asserts in “On Journeys Through the States,” writing many passages like Section 14 from “Starting From Paumanok”:

Land of the pastoral plains, the grass-fields of the world! land of those sweet-air’d interminable plateaus!Land of the herd, the garden, the healthy house of adobie!Lands where the north-west Columbia winds, and where the south-west Columbia winds!Land of the eastern Chesapeake! Land of the Delaware!

Whitman returns throughout his poetry to his evolving conception of the United States by using place-names such as “Okonee, Koosa, Ottawa, Monongahela, Sauk, Natchez, Chattahoochee, Kaqueta, Oronoco,/ Wabash, Miami, Saginaw, Chippewa, Oshkosh, Walla-Walla.” He also uses physical features, sensual imagery, folkloric depictions as poetic persona, and some historic incidents.

Sources for Further StudyAllen, Gay Wilson. A Reader’s Guide to Walt Whitman. New York: Farrar, Straus & Giroux, 1970. A succinct survey intended to be an introductory work for readers and students of Whitman. A good place to start the study of Whitman.Allen, Gay Wilson. The Solitary Singer: A Critical Biography of Walt Whitman. 1955. Rev. ed. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1985. Describes Whitman’s childhood roots in deism and Quakerism, explores the increasing complexity of Christian thought throughout his life, and finds a wealth of biblical images in the poetry.Crawley, Thomas. “The Christ-Symbol in Leaves of Grass.” In The Structure of “Leaves of Grass.” Austin: University of Texas Press, 1970. Identifies allusions to Christ and sees the figure as formative for the oneness of the “I” with God, nature, America, and humanity.Folsom, Ed, ed. Walt Whitman: The Centennial Essays. Iowa City: University of Iowa Press, 1994. A collection of essays in honor of the centennial of Whitman’s death. Provides a good overview of trends in literary criticism of Leaves of Grass.Kaplan, Justin. Walt Whitman: A Life. New York: Simon & Schuster, 1980. An elegant, deeply imagined biography that focuses on Whitman and his times.Levine, Herbert J. “’Song of Myself’ as Whitman’s American Bible.” Modern Language Quarterly 48 (1987): 145-161. Explores Whitman’s vision of the individual’s relation to the democratic whole through the self as a Christ figure incorporating all Americans in loving embrace.Miller, James E. Leaves of Grass: America’s Lyric-Epic of Self and Democracy. New York: Twayne, 1992. An excellent introduction to the background, themes, and style of Leaves of Grass; especially helpful on the work’s structure.Pearce, Roy Harvey, ed. Whitman: A Collection of Critical Essays. Englewood Cliffs, N.J.: Prentice-Hall, 1962. A collection of articles gathered primarily for use by students. Contains interesting material, including William Carlos Williams’ “An Essay on Leaves of Grass.”Schneidau, Herbert. “The Antinomian Strain: The Bible and American Poetry.” In The Bible and American Arts and Letters, edited by Giles Gunn. Philadelphia: Fortress Press, 1983. Addresses Whitman’s allusions to Old Testament prophets and the prophetic role of the “I.”Traubel, Horace. Walt Whitman in Camden. 6 vols. New York: Rowman and Littlefield, 1961. These recollections from conversations with Whitman in his last years include his views on Christianity in his thought and poetry.Zweig, Paul. Walt Whitman: The Making of a Poet. New York: Basic Books, 1984. Not a chronological biography but a very interesting biographical/critical meditation on Whitman’s development.
Categories: Places