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University of Washington Press 
Seattle 1961 

Copyright 1961 by University of Washington Press 
Library of Congress Catalog No. 61-11574 
Printed in the United States of America 


This present study of the esthetics of Henry Thoreau and Walt 
Whitman takes its point of departure from an earlier effort 
regarding the esthetics of Ralph Waldo Emerson and Horatio 
Greenough, * and represents in one sense an extension of it. 
I have chosen to add this study of Thoreau' s and Whitman's 
esthetics because I believe that all four writers subscribed in 
their own ways to closely related versions of the same tran- 
scendental tradition. All four of them are Protestant esthe- 
ticians whose religious views ordered their esthetic convic- 
tions. All four were unusually interested in architecture, es- 
pecially in so far as architecture provided them with clear 
illustrations of their esthetic positions. With the possible ex- 
ception of Greenough, all of them are difficult writers, and for 
similar reasons. They consistently use commonly understood 
terms giving them highly special and often multiple meanings. 
For example they frequently discuss art from a religious point 
of view, using religious terms such as "soul" and "salvation" 
in developing their arguments. 

I chose to consider Emerson and Greenough initially because 
they came first in time, and because their esthetic theories, 
however abstruse they appear, are stated directly as theories. 
I have chosen now to consider Thoreau and Whitman together 
because even though they are responsible for some very inter - 

*Charles R. Metzger, Emerson and Greenough (Berkeley and 
Los Angeles: University of California Press, 1954). 


iv Preface 

esting theories, they persisted in thinking of themselves as 
practical men rather than theorists, and their theories are 
stated for the most part indirectly. I have chosen to consider 
them after Emerson (and therefore Greenough) because be- 
tween them they have translated into action what Emerson as 
theorist called for earlier in his description of the ideal poet. 
If other poets did "not with sufficient plainness or sufficient 
profoundness address [themselves] to life, M certainly Thoreau 
did. If other poets did not "dare . . . chaunt our own times 
and social circumstances, " certainly Whitman did. 

I have chosen to admit persons such as Greenough in the 
earlier study and Whitman in this present study into the tran- 
scendental circle because I am convinced that the epithet tran- 
scendentalist indicates more than mere geographical, his- 
torical, or social distinction. I believe, as Emerson himself 
suggested, that the term transcendentalist indicated a special 
cast of mind, one that has revealed many interesting and re- 
warding insights into a number of matters, including esthetics. 
I believe that this transcendental cast of mind is as character- 
istic of Whitman as it is of Thoreau; even as I have suggested 
earlier that it is as characteristic of Greenough as it is of 

Acknowledgments: I should like to thank the editors of the 
Annals of Science and the Journal of the Society of Architec- 
tural Historians tor permission to reprint those sections con- 
cerning Thoreau and Whitman which appeared earlier as articles 
in these journals. 

Charles R. Metzger 


1. A Transcendental Economist 3 

2. The Economist as Communicant 10 

3. Thoreau's Poetics 19 

4. Architecture at Walden 28 

5. Whitman as Transcendental Esthetician 39 

6. Whitman's Vision of Democracy 47 

7. The Divine Literatus 57 

8. Whitman's Esthetics 66 

9. Whitman on Architecture 83 
10. Conclusion 90 
Notes 95 
Bibliography 109 
Index 111 







Like Emerson the poet and Greenough the sculptor, Henry 
Thoreau was a transcendental esthetician. He was a Protestant 
communicant with nature; he was a critic and a seer. As a 
Protestant communicant he was more extreme than Emerson 
or Greenough, being, in his own sense of the terms, more 
practical and more mystical than either of them. Like Emerson 
he rejected the dominion of the church as an institution and of 
the clergy as its agency. "The religion I love, " said Thoreau, 
"is very laic. Ttl He objected to formal religion because it was 
institutional rather than personal, political rather than poetic. 
Like Emerson he complained that the church and the clergy 
were not religious enough, and he chose not to join the clergy 
for the same reason that Emerson left it: to seek a superior 
ministry as a direct communicant in nature. 

Like Emerson, Thoreau considered himself a mystic and a 
transcendentalist. "The fact is, " he said, "I am a mystic and 
a transcendentalist, and a natural philosopher to boot. " 2 He 
subscribed to the Emersonian assertion that "all parts of na- 
ture belong to one head, as the curls of a maiden 1 s hair. " 3 He 
celebrated "Truth, Goodness, Beauty, -[as] those celestial 
thrins. ft4 Yet he was less concerned finally with deriving uni- 
versal principles from nature than with apprehending partic- 
ulars. "Let me not be in haste, " he said, "to detect the uni- 
versal law; let me see more clearly a particular instance of 
it." 5 

Similarly with respect to salvation Thoreau was less theoret- 
ical, more practical than Emerson. He worried less about sal- 

4 Thoreau and Whitman 

vation for American art and more about salvation for the in- 
dividual artist as practical man. Like Emerson, he sought 
truth, goodness, and beauty, but as experience, not theory. 
"I wish to be getting experience, " 6 he said; for he considered 
the highest truth derivative from experience rather than from 
faith or reason. "It is when we do not have to believe, " he 
argued, M but come into actual contact with Truth, and are re- 
lated to her in the most direct and intimate way [that] waves 
of serener life pass over us from time to time." 7 This con- 
cern with truth, directly experienced, ordered Thoreau T s 
ideas of worship, of goodness, and of beauty. His ideas on these 
matters, he insisted, were merely those of the practical man 
who, in seeking direct experience with truth, made this ex- 
perience the end of all his actions. For he believed that per- 
ception of beauty was possible (and only possible) to the prac- 
tical, to the moral, man. "The perception of beauty, " he said, 
M is a moral test. " 8 He saw wisdom and goodness, therefore, 
less as ends in themselves than as prerequisites to communion 
with nature and truth, and to the perception of beauty. "The 
constant inquiry, " he said, "which nature puts is T Are you 
virtuous? Then you can behold me. ' Beauty, fragrance, music, 
sweetness, and joy of all kinds are for the virtuous. " 9 Yet 
Thoreau T s was not the reformers concern with virtue. "What 
good I do, in the common sense of the word, " he said, "must 
be aside from my main path and for the most part wholly un- 
intended. " 10 He wanted to be virtuous mainly so that he could 
perceive beauty. To Thoreau of course the highest beauty aside 
from that incorporate in God's nature lay in the simple, eco- 
nomical, and poetic life of the practical man whose actions 
were directed toward immediate experiences with the truth, 
goodness, and beauty present in nature. Such a life constituted 
Thoreau' s idea of salvation, here; "he alone, " he said, "is 
the truly enterprising and practical man who succeeds in main- 
taining his soul here/' 11 

Thoreau felt that the main trouble with society was that it 
had not been set up to allow for the salvation of a truly prac- 
tical man like himself. Like Emerson he complained that tradi- 
tions and institutions often supported inaccurate generalizations 
about life. He described tradition as "a more interrupted and 
feebler memory, ' ?12 and he insisted that "no way of thinking or 

A Transcendental Economist 5 

doing, however ancient, can be trusted without proof. " 13 He 
objected even to a man's following "his father's or his mother's 
or his neighbor's" way of doing anything. "I would have each 
one be careful to find out and pursue his oum way, " u he said. 
He went so far as to complain of civilization and its traditions 
and institutions altogether. 'The life of a civilized people, " 
he announced, is tf an institution in which the life of the indi- 
vidual is to a great extent absorbed, in order to preserve and 
protect that of the race." 15 More extreme than either Emerson 
or Greenough, Thoreau criticized society not in part but in 
toto; yet he appears to have withdrawn from it upon various 
occasions for the same reasons that Emerson left the min- 
istry and Greenough left the country namely, that society as 
he knew it interfered with his plans. 

It is easier to withdraw from a church or a country to wor- 
ship beauty or to practice art than it is to withdraw from soci- 
ety altogether. Even the purist must conduct some business 
with society however much he disapproves of it. But a limited 
traffic with society does not rule out criticism entirely: often, 
as in Thoreau' s case, it sharpens it. Thoreau did not, like the 
anchorite, withdraw wholly from society (even though he agreed 
with the anchorite that society interferes with salvation of the 
soul). Instead, he remained in society at least part of the time 
to argue against it, and from its own Yankee, economical point 
of view. Such argument was appropriate because Thoreau 
viewed both the road to salvation and the roadblocks erected on 
it by society in economical terms. 

"Economy, " said Thoreau, "is a subject that admits of being 
treated with levity, but it is not a subject that can be so dis- 
posed of." 16 Neither was his main charge that society was un- 
economical. It was so, he argued, because it was too complex. 
Although "we love actions that are simple, which are all po- 
etic, " he said, our life in society "is frittered away in de- 
tail. " 17 "As for the complex ways of living, " he added, "I love 
them not, however much I practice them. " 18 He disliked them 
because of the irrelevant demands which they made upon time 
better devoted to the "proper pursuit" of salvation, here. 

Although Thoreau' s critique of society was economically 
oriented, the currency by which he totaled its accounts dif- 
fered from his neighbor's. To Thoreau cost was counted not 

6 Thoreau and Whitman 

in dollars but in the "amount of ... life which is required to 
be exchanged for [a thing], immediately or in the long run. " lfl 
Yet the chief problem of Thoreau 1 s economy, as of anybody 
else's, was getting a living. This problem was made uncom- 
monly difficult by Thoreau' s insistence that he should get his 
"living honestly, with freedom left for proper pursuits" 20 
which is to say for salvation. He found the commoner ways 
of getting a living in a dollar economy unsuited to "proper 
pursuits. " He tried trade, "but found that it would take ten 
years to get under way in that, and that then" he would "prob- 
ably be on [his] way to the devil. '** He considered farming no 
better than trade. It also was too complex. "The farmer, " said 
Thoreau, "is endeavoring to solve the problem of livelihood 
by a formula more complicated than the problem itself. To 
get his shoestrings he speculates in herds of cattle. Tl22 Manu- 
facturing in any organized way he considered downright dis- 
honest. T l cannot believe that our factory system is the best 
mode by which men get clothing, " he said. "The condition of 
the operatives is becoming every day more like that of the 
English: and it cannot be wondered at, since . . . the prin- 
cipal object is, not that mankind may be well and honestly 
clad, but, unquestionably, that the corporation may be en- 
riched. " 23 Of schoolkeeping he said, "I ... found that my 
expenses were in proportion, or rather out of proportion to 
my income, for I was obliged to dress and train, not to say 
think and believe, accordingly, and I lost my time into the 
bargaining. As I did not teach for the good of my fellow-men, 
but simply for a livelihood, this was a failure. "* 4 Thoreau 
was doubtful anyway of the value of institutional instruction. 
The occupation of teaching seemed to dissipate not only the 
teacher's integrity and time, but the student's as well. Even 
economy was taught in an impertinent manner. "The poor stu- 
dent, " he said, "studies and is taught only political economy, 
while the economy of living which is synonymous with philos- 
ophy is not even sincerely professed in our colleges. Tl25 

The trouble with teaching was that both the instructor and the 
student were too far removed from nature and, hence, truth. 
"The lover of books and systems, " said Thoreau, "knows na- 
ture [and hence truth] chiefly at second hand. " 26 This removal 
from nature, from truth, from the possibility of salvation here, 

A Transcendental Economist 7 

characterized not only the profession of teaching but life gen- 
erally in society and constituted a threat to a man's moral and 
intellectual health. "How important, " said Thoreau, T 'is a 
constant intercourse with nature and the contemplation of nat- 
ural phenomena to the preservation of moral and intellectual 
health. " 27 "But in society you will not find health, but [only] 
in nature. . . . Society is always diseased, and the best is the 
sickest. 7128 

Unable in society to get a living that allowed him to main- 
tain his health and to transact the business of salvation, Tho- 
reau tried removing from it. "I turned my face more exclu- 
sively than ever to the woods, " he said. "I determined to go 
into business at once [the business of salvation] and not wait 
to acquire the usual capital, using such slender means as I had 
already got. Tt29 Applying the ethics of a dollar economy to his 
own purpose, Thoreau announced that his intention "in going 
to Walden Pond was not to live cheaply nor to live dearly there, 
but to transact some private business with the fewest obstacles; 
to be hindered from accomplishing which for the want of a little 
common sense, a little enterprise and business talent, ap- 
peared not so sad as foolish. " "I have always endeavored to 
acquire strict business habits, " he said; "they are indispen- 
sable to every man." 30 Like any other businessman Thoreau 
chose Walden as the site of his enterprise because of its con- 
venient location- in nature. "I seek acquaintance with Nature, " 
he announced, "-to know her moods and manners. " 3l 

Thoreau' s concern with economy went considerably beyond 
a rationale for rejecting society for setting up to do business 
in nature; it involved considerably more than a rather witty 
critique of an acquisitive way of life. Economy was the prin- 
cipal concept ordering both Thoreau' s ethics and his esthetics. 
Only through exercise of the strictest economy did he consider 
salvation, here, possible for a practical man like himself. Yet 
in adopting economy as his principal strategy Thoreau betrayed 
more of the Yankee merchant in himself than he is likely to 
have admitted. To Thoreau, as to the tradesman, economy in- 
volved two coordinated programs of action: (1) the negative, 
elimination or minimizing of all activity removed from the 
chosen goal, and (2) the positive, concentration of activity upon 
attainment of the goal. It was Thoreau' s concern with acquiring 

8 Thoreau and Whitman 

spiritual wealth as experience in nature rather than material 
wealth got from society which distinguished him from his more 
literally acquisitive neighbors. He was a most businesslike 
mystic; and his rejecting as irrelevant the quest for material 
wealth was simply the negative manifestation of his enterprise. 

Thoreau heavily emphasized this negative economy. Unlike 
Emerson who usually argued expansively, outflanking the ways 
of thinking or doing which he opposed, Thoreau argued re- 
strictively, casting these ways out as irrelevant. That he 
should have argued so is understandable in view of his practical 
concern with salvation. In his role as prophet Emerson could 
afford to argue expansively. His insistence that "words are 
also actions" gave him unlimited freedom to speculate. But 
Thoreau 1 s concern with "salvation here" limited consideration 
to what could be accomplished during his own life. As his argu- 
ment demonstrates, a practical rather than a cosmical concern 
with salvation leads to a restricted program. 

To Thoreau the economical life was a restricted one, char- 
acterized by a lowest-common-denominator simplicity from 
which all things irrelevant to salvation here were canceled out. 
"I do believe in simplicity, " he said. f lt is astonishing as well 
as sad how many trivial affairs even the wisest man thinks he 
must attend to in one day . . . [yet] when the mathematician 
would solve a difficult problem, he first frees the equation of 
all encumbrances, and reduces it to its simplest terms." "So 
simplify the problem of life, " he said, "distinguishing the nec- 
essary and the real. " 32 To this purpose Thoreau retired to 
Walden, to try his own brand of economy: there to simplify 
his life, to prepare himself for salvation here by reducing life 
to its irreducible essentials. 

But simplification even in the interest of salvation can be 
overdone. And after his experiments at Walden, Thoreau re- 
marked, "there are two kinds of simplicity"- two kinds of 
economy-"one that is akin to foolishness, the other to wis- 
dom. " 33 One is the simplicity of the savage; the other is that 
of the philosopher. "The savage lives simply through ignorance 
and idleness or laziness, but the philosopher lives simply 
through wisdom." "The philosopher's style of living, " said 
Thoreau, "is only outwardly simple, but inwardly complex. 
The savage's style is both outwardly and inwardly simple. " 34 

A Transcendental Economist 9 

It is not always easy to tell which kind of simplicity Thoreau 
subscribed to at any given moment. Speaking of Ruskin's Seven 
Lamps of Architecture, he announced that it "is made of good 
stuff; but as I remember, there is too much about art in it for 
me and the Hottentots." 35 Thoreau appears, however, to 
have identified more often with philosophers than with Hot- 
tentots. He may have been thinking of the philosopher's sim- 
plicity when he announced that "by simplicity, commonly called 
poverty, my life is concentrated and so becomes organized, or 
a x6opoq [cosmos], which before was inorganic and lumpish." 36 
Like most people Thoreau respected the philosopher's or- 
ganized exercise of "free and absolute thoughts. " 3T But as a 
practical man he made certain characteristic demands. "To be 
a philosopher, " he said, "is not merely to have subtle thoughts, 
nor even to found a school, but so to love wisdom as to live 
according to its dictates a life of simplicity, independence, 
magnanimity, and trust. It is to solve some of the problems 
of life, not only theoretically, but practically. " 38 Thoreau ad- 
mired the philosopher's intellectual organization only insofar 
as it contributed to that practical "economy of living" which 
he considered "synonymous with [true] philosophy. " 39 Thus, 
in reply to the question "to what end do I lead a simple life at 
all, pray?" he answered, not "that I may teach others, to sim- 
plify their lives, " but rather to "lay the most stress forever 
on that which is most important- imports the most to me." 40 
To Thoreau that most important thing was salvation here: by 
means of economy to achieve communion with nature. 



For Thoreau communion with nature served two related func- 
tions: one therapeutic, the other religious and esthetic. He 
considered nature first of all as a kind of refuge from the poi- 
sonous influences of society. "I love Nature partly, " he said, 
"because she is not man, but a retreat from him. None of his 
institutions control or pervade her. " l After working four or 
five days as a surveyor, said Thoreau, "I especially feel the 
necessity of putting myself in communication with nature again, 
to recover my tone. tl2 He considered this frequent intercourse 
with nature necessary not only to recuperate from life in soci- 
ety but also to safeguard his morality and his poetic sensi- 
tivity. "After having some business dealings with men, " he 
said, "I am occasionally chagrined, and feel as if I had done 
something wrong, and it is hard to forget the ugly circum- 
stance. I see that such intercourse long continued would make 
one thoroughly prosaic, hard and coarse. But the longest inter- 
course with Nature, though in her rudest moods, does not 
thus harden and make coarse." 3 Thoreau believed, further- 
more, that "a man's relation to Nature must come very near 
to a personal one; he must be conscious of a friendliness in 
her. . . . " He could not "conceive of any life which deserves 
the name [without] a certain tender relation to Nature. "* Such 
a tender relation to nature was the thing to be sought by the 
truly practical man above all other things. 


The Economist as Communicant 11 

But "it is very rare, ft said Thoreau, 

that I hear one express a strong or imperishable attachment to a par- 
ticular scenery, or to the whole of nature,-! mean such as will con- 
trol their whole lives and character. Such [persons] seem to have a 
true home in nature, a hearth in the fields and woods, whatever tene- 
ment may be burned. The soil and climate is warm to them. They 
alone are naturalized, but most [people] are tender and callow crea- 
tures that wear a house as their outmost shell and must get their lives 
insured when they step abroad from it. They are lathed and plastered 
in from all natural influences, and their delicate lives are a long 
battle with dysp'epsia. The others are fairly rooted in the soil and are 
the noblest plants it bears, more hardy and natural than sorrel. 5 

These naturalized persons were the truly practical, the truly 
healthy, moral, and poetic; they were such as had achieved 
salvation here. This salvation involved an essentially religious 
as well as personal connection with nature. The "stillness, 
solitude, wildness of nature, " announced Thoreau, "is what 
I go out to seek. It is as if I always met in those places some 
grand, serene, immortal, infinitely encouraging, though in- 
visible companion, and walked with him. " 6 

This highly personal connection with nature amounts to a 
version of the mystic's direct communion. "Nothing, " said 
Thoreau, "so inspires me and excites such serene and prof- 
itable thought ... [as a walk] alone in the distant woods or 
fields ... I come to myself, I ... feel myself grandly re- 
lated, and . . . cold and solitude are friends of mine. I sup- 
pose that this value, in my case, is equivalent to what others 
get by churchgoing and prayer. " 7 Thoreau considered this 
communion the most natural and fundamental sort of religious 
experience. "I doubt if men ever simply and naturally glorify 
God in the ordinary sense, " he said, "but it is remarkable 
how sincerely in all ages they glorify nature." 8 

While worshipping God in this most fundamental sense, said 
Thoreau, the "earth which is spread out like a map around me 
is but the lining of my inmost soul exposed. " 9 Such a relation 
with nature when experienced continuously over a long period 
of time led Thoreau to a feeling of complete correspondence, 
to the point almost of blurring the distinctions between nature 
and himself. Speaking of nature's seasons, he announced: 

12 Thoreau and Whitman 

These phenomena of the seasons get at last to be-they were at first, 
of course -simply and plainly phenomena or phases of my life. The 
seasons and all their changes are in me. . . . Almost I believe the 
Concord would not rise and overflow its banks again, were I not here. 
After a while I learn what my moods and seasons are. I would have 
nothing subtracted. I can imagine nothing added. My moods are thus 
periodical, not two days in my year alike. The perfect correspondence 
of Nature to man, so that he is at home in her! 10 

This intimate connection of man with nature also charac- 
terized Thoreau 1 s idea of genius. To Thoreau, as to Emerson, 
genius was not so much a matter of personal distinction as 
one of connection with God in nature. Speaking of genius, Tho- 
reau observed that "men commonly talk as if genius were 
something proper to an individual. I esteem it but a common 
privilege, and if one does not enjoy it now, he may congrat- 
ulate his neighbor that he does. There is no place for man- 
worship. We understand very well a man's relation not to his 
genius, but to the genius. TtU He agreed with Emerson that what 
passes for personal genius is merely the result of the individ- 
ual's connection with M the genius. " He did not, however, expect 
as much from persons so connected as Emerson did. Thoreau 
did not charge genius with solving M the secret enigmas of sci- 
ence, Tfl2 with formulating the laws of creation in nature and in 
art. To Thoreau the individual man as genius was not a hero ded- 
icated to surpassing the art of the ancients through his formu- 
lation and application of natural principles. He was merely a 
man to be congratulated for having achieved communion. 

Thoreau did not even believe it necessary for a man to be 
a genius in order to produce acceptable art. "The man of gen- 
ius, " he said, "may at the same time be, indeed is commonly, 
an Artist, but the two are not to be confounded. " 13 He agreed 
with Emerson that genius involved both independent thought and 
original creative activity: "The man of genius, " he said, "is 
an originator, an inspired or demonic man, who produces a 
perfect work in obedience to laws yet unexplored. " But he 
added that "the artist is he who detects and applies the law 
from observation of the works of Genius, whether man or 
nature. The Artisan is he who merely applies the rules which 
others have detected." 14 

Even though he came close to Emerson's assertion that 

The Economist as Communicant 13 

"Genius is power; Talent is applicability, " 15 Thoreau made a 
distinction between the genius and the artist which placed the 
artist largely within the category of talent. To Emerson it was 
the artist and the genius who were most closely identified; to 
Thoreau it was the communicant and the genius. The insights 
of Emerson 1 s genius as artist were ordered by principles de- 
riving from nature; those of Thoreau 1 s genius as communicant 
were ordered less by identified principle than by inspiration. 
M To perceive freshly, with fresh senses, " said Thoreau, "is 
to be inspired. It is only necessary to behold ... the least 
fact or phenomena, however familiar, from a point of view a 
hair's breadth aside from our habitual path or routine, to be 
overcome, enchanted by its beauty and significance. Ttl6 In this 
statement Thoreau comes close to Emerson's observation that 
"Genius seems to consist merely in trueness of sight. " 1? 

Both Thoreau and Emerson believed that genius extended 
beyond mere visual acuity- that it involved insight deriving 
from unusual perspective. But they differed in their views of 
perspective itself. Emerson believed that the individual genius 
achieved perspective by his formulation and application of nat- 
ural principles: not only principles of phenomenal nature but 
of the mind as well. Thoreau believed that genius achieved 
perspective directly by way of communion. To achieve this 
communion and this perspective, he said, "I must walk more 
with free senses. It is as bad to, study stars and clouds as flow- 
ers and stones. I must let my senses wander as my thoughts, 
my eyes see without looking. What I need is not to look at all, 
but a true sauntering of the eye. " 18 

Thoreau believed that the proper approach to nature involved 
the search "for such inward experience as will make nature 
significant. " 19 He did not rule out the scientist's way of looking 
at nature, but he did insist upon recognizing the limitations of 
that approach to nature and to insight. He announced that even 

as it is important to consider Nature from the point of view of science, 
remembering the nomenclature and systems of men . . . so it is 
equally important often to ignore or forget all that men presume that 
they know, and take an original and unprejudiced view of Nature, let- 
ting her make what impression she will on you. . . . For our science, 
so called, is always more barren and mixed up with error than our 
sympathies are. 20 

14 Thoreau and Whitman 

Natural philosopher that he was, Thoreau 1 s relation to the 
science of his day was less cordial than Emerson's. Tf Nature, " 
he said, "is reported not by him who goes forth consciously as 
an observer, but in the fullness of life'^-not by the scientist 
but by the communicant. 

Any consideration of Thoreau as a naturalist must take into 
account the major reservations which characterized his attitude 
toward science. Using a version of Emerson's expansive argu- 
ment, he complained that the scope of science was too limited. 
Speaking of astronomy, he said: "A few good anecdotes is our 
science, with a few imposing statements respecting size, and 
little or nothing about the stars as they concern man. . . . t!22 
When asked to tell the secretary of the Association for the 
Advancement of Science "what branch of science [he] was spe- 
cially interested in, " Thoreau had been unable to answer: not, 
he explained, from any deficiency on his own part, but because 
of the limitations of science and scientists. The traditional 
conception of science was not large enough to include what he 
was doing. Hence, his declaration that he was "a mystic, a 
transcendentalist, and a natural philosopher to boot. " "I should 
have told them at once that I was a transcendentalist, " he said. 
"That would have been the shortest way of telling them that they 
would not understand my explanations. t|23 

Thoreau considered the "science" by which his writings are 
often judged an inadequate way of knowing. "All science, " he 
said, "is only a makeshift, a means to an end which is never 
attained ... the truest description, and that by which another 
living man can most readily recognize a flower, is the un- 
measured and eloquent one which the sight of it inspires. " 24 
"Whatever aid, " cautioned Thoreau, "is to be derived from the 
use of a scientific term, we can never begin to see anything 
as it is so long as we remember the scientific term which al- 
ways our ignorance has imposed on it. tl25 "Our scientific names 
convey a very partial information only. . . . How little I know 
of that arbor vitae, when I have learned only what science can 
tell me! ... No science does more than arrange what know- 
ledge we have of any class of objects. Tl26 

Thoreau admitted the value of taxonomical system, its con- 
ception of genus and species, in learning to know the plants 

The Economist as Communicant 15 

around Concord. "We cannot see anything until we are pos- 
sessed with the idea of it, " he said. 

In my botanical rambles I find that first the idea, or image, of a plant 
occupies my thoughts, though it may at first seem very foreign to this 
locality, and for some weeks or months I go thinking of it and expect- 
ing it unconsciously, and at length, I surely see it, and it is henceforth 
an actual neighbor of mine. This is the history of my finding a score 
or more of rare plants which I could name. 27 

But by 1855 Thoreau had got nearly all out of taxonomical sys- 
tem that was useful to him had learned enough to look beyond 
nomenclature. By that time "his emphasis had shifted sharply 
toward an interest in habitat and various other aspects of ecol- 
ogy, and that interest continued and increased until his final 
illness. tl28 In turning away from the identification of genus and 
species Thoreau argued simply that a science of nomenclature 
was insufficiently poetic. "Botanies, " he complained, "instead 
of being the poetry, are the prose of flowers. ll29 

The botany of his time did not carry Thoreau far enough into 
the matter it claimed to deal with. Natural science as tax- 
onomy, he argued, dealt not with the poetry which is in nature, 
but only with its vocabulary and its grammar. "The artificial 
system" of classification, he said, 

has been very properly called the dictionary, and the natural method, 
the grammar, of the science of botany by botanists themselves. But 
are we to have nothing but grammars and dictionaries in this liter- 
ature? ... I asked a learned and accurate naturalist to direct me to 
those works which contain the more particular popular account, or 
biography of particular flowers . . . but he informed me that I had 
read all, that no one was acquainted with them. . . . 30 

Not finding such biographies as he wanted, Thoreau put to- 
gether and wrote his own. These "later entries" in his Journal, 
"marked by a definite emphasis on habitat, " 31 exploring the 
relations of soil, shade, temperature, and even wind currents, 
to the biographies of individual forms of plant and animal life 
establish Thoreau as a pioneer ecologist. 

To the communicant, ecology provides a much more satis- 
factory approach to nature than taxonomy. The ecologist in 
concentrating upon the biography of a particular plant is large- 
ly freed from the strictures of order and system. His insight 

16 Thoreau and Whitman 

comes from the particular object under study. Thus, Thoreau 1 s 
study of individual plants squared both with his desire to escape 
the proscriptions of intellectual system, and with his desire to 
apprehend what he considered nature's system one much less 
arbitrary, much more poetic than the taxonomist's. "In the 
true natural order, " said Thoreau, M the order or system is 
not insisted on. ... That which presents itself to us this mo- 
ment occupies the whole of the present and rests on the topmost 
point of the sphere [of attention]. Tl32 Ecology was from Tho- 
reau 1 s point of view simply a more accurate way of looking at 
nature, one more akin to the communion he called "seeing. " 
It was more accurate because closer to nature, farther from 
abstract system. "In proportion, " he said, "as we get and are 
near our object, we do without the measured or scientific 
account. . . . " 33 

As an ecologist Thoreau could commune as well as observe. 
He could commune for the reason that apprehending the ecology 
of man in God's nature-nature as it affects man, spiritually, 
morally, esthetically- encompassed the greater part of his 
scheme of salvation. Ecology 34 is in this sense the term merely 
by which modern scientists describe their own more precise 
approaches to what Thoreau conceived of as natural philosophy, 
as communion- but without Thoreau' s particular religious em- 
phasis. That Thoreau considered this religious emphasis im- 
portant is suggested by his complaint against conventional 
"men of science [that] when they pause to contemplate 'the 
power, wisdom, and goodness' of God, or, as they sometimes 
call him, 'the Almighty Designer, ' [they] speak of him as a to- 
tal stranger whom it is necessary to treat with the highest con- 
sideration. They seem suddenly to have lost their wits. " 35 They 
seemed so to Thoreau because they were scientists merely, 
not communicants, and, therefore, did not actually know God, 
nor, from Thoreau' s point of view, nature either. 

Thoreau believed that the ordinary man of science had par- 
ticularly damaged his ability to see nature, and to know God, 
in adopting the rule of objectivity. "I think that the man of 
science makes [a] mistake, " he said, in believing 

that you should coolly give your chief attention to the phenomenon 
which excites you as something independent on you, and not as it is 
related to you. The important fact is its effect on me . . . [the sci- 

The Economist as Communicant 17 

entist] thinks that I have no business to see anything else but just what 
he defines the rainbow to be. ... [But] I find that it is not they them- 
selves [i. e. , the rainbows] (with which the men of science deal) that 
concern me; the point of interest is somewhere between me and them 
[the rainbows]. 36 

For one thing, said Thoreau, "there is no such thing as pure 
objective observation." 37 Even if there were such a thing, he 
argued, it would still produce statements that were insuffi- 
ciently interesting, economical, or poetic. "Your observation 
to be interesting, i.e. to be significant, " he said, "must be 
subjective. The sum of what the writer of whatever class has 
to report is simply some human experience, whether he be 
poet or philosopher or man of science. The [true] man of sci- 
ence, " suggested Thoreau, "is the man most alive whose life 
is the greatest event. " 38 Such a man of science is like the com- 
municant and poet. He recognizes that "no willful activity what- 
ever whether in writing verse or collecting statistics, will pro- 
duce true poetry or science. " 39 

Thoreau believed that the true scientist, like the true poet, 
was the man who could look consciously to nature, as most 
people do, and yet see it intuitively as well-he was the student 
of nature who was also the inspired man, the communicant. 
"The true man of science, " said Thoreau, "will know nature 
better by his finer organization; he will smell, taste, see, 
hear, feel, better than other men. His will be a deeper and 
finer experience. " 40 For "we do not learn by inference and 
deduction and the application of mathematics to philosophy, " 
said Thoreau, "but by direct intercourse and sympathy. . . . 
We cannot know truth by contrivance and method; the Baconian 
system is as false as any other, and with all the helps of 
machinery and the arts, the most scientific will still be the 
healthiest and friendliest man. . . . t?41 It was not looking mere- 
ly in terms of intellectual system, but seeing in terms of sym- 
pathy, which was Thoreau 1 s principal method as natural philos- 
opher. "How unexplored still, " by this method, he remarked, 
"are the realms of nature. . . . What we know and have seen 
is always an insignificant portion." 42 "How much is written 
about Nature as somebody has portrayed her, how little about 
Nature as she is, and chiefly concerns us, i.e. how much 
prose, how little poetry!" 43 Thoreau assigned these tasks of 

18 Thoreau and Whitman 

exploring Nature as she really is and writing about her poeti- 
cally to the communicant. He considered it his business, there- 
fore, to experience communion, to seek out God in nature, and 
to write poetically about such experience. M My work is writ- 
ing, tt44 he had announced in his Journal. 



"Every man will be a poet if he can, " said Thoreau; "otherwise 
a philosopher or a man of science. Ttl Emerson also had an- 
nounced that "every one would be a poet if his intellectual di- 
gestion were perfect. tt2 But it was the genius rather than the 
poet that Emerson had charged with bringing back art into its 
proper relationship with nature. "All the particulars of the 
poet's merit, " he said, "his sweetest rhythms, the subtlest 
thoughts, the richest images, if you can pass into [the poet's] 
consciousness . . . would class themselves in the common 
chemistry of thought, and obey the laws of the cheapest mental 
combinations. " 3 The genius thinking in terms of these laws was 
Emerson's champion. Thoreau's champion was the poet. "So 
far as thinking is concerned, " Thoreau admitted, "surely 
original thinking is the divinest thing, "* but not merely think- 
ing itself. Thoreau did not subscribe to Emerson's reduction of 
poesis to intellection. Rather he announced that "poetry is the 
mysticism of mankind. " 5 

Thoreau was concerned more with the poetic or mythic state- 
ment of the facts of nature than with the pronouncement of nat- 
ural principles themselves. "I would so state facts that they 
shall be significant, shall be myths or mythologic, " 6 he said. 
"I love the birds and beasts because they are mythologically 
in earnest. " 7 The poet who is similarly in earnest, said Tho- 
reau, "will write for his peers alone. He will remember only 
that he saw truth and beauty from his position. . . . " 8 Thoreau 
believed the poet's point of view was the most accurate- the one 
which brought the practical man closest to God in nature. Facts 


20 Thoreau and Whitman 

are "seen with the eye of a poet as God sees them, " 9 said Tho- 
reau; and no view could be more accurate than that. 

Thoreau believed that the poet, the seer, the man possessing 
superior vision, combined the highest qualities of both the nat- 
uralist and the philosopher. "The collector of [natural] facts, " 
he said, "possesses a perfect physical organization, the phi- 
losopher a perfect intellectual one. One can walk, the other 
sits: one acts, the other thinks. But the poet in some degree 
does both; he generalizes the widest deductions of philoso- 
phy." 10 The poet does this, said Thoreau, because he looks 
upon nature from the larger viewpoint of worship. "All the phe- 
nomena of nature need to be seen from the point of view of won- 
der and awe, " u he said. "Men are probably nearer to the es- 
sential truth in their superstitions [i.e., in their myths] than 
in their science." 12 He insisted that one of the principal dan- 
gers to poetic insight was the poet's tendency to slip into a 
limited, scientific frame of mind. "Every poet, " he said, "has 
trembled on the verge of science." 13 Yet "how differently do 
the poet and the naturalist look at objects!" 14 how much more 
limited is the scientist's way of looking compared with the 
poet's way of seeing. On one occasion he announced flatly that 
"it is impossible for the same person to see things from the 
poet's point of view and that of the man of science. " l5 

With philosophy as with science, Thoreau complained of a 
limited point of view. He believed the "philosopher was in this 
world as a spectator" 16 merely. "Poetry, " he said, "implies 
the whole truth. Philosophy expresses a particle of it. " 1? Yet 
he did not reject philosophy completely any more than he did 
science. He carefully distinguished between philosophy and 
what he considered true philosophy, between science and true 
science, between poetry and true poetry the true variety of 
each partaking always of subjective observation, of communion, 
of transport: with the sum of these, true philosophy, true sci- 
ence, true poetry, incorporate in the experiences of the prac- 
tical man living in harmony with nature. Only by living in such 
harmony did Thoreau consider anyone adequately prepared for 
the practice of true philosophy, true science, or true poetry. 

Of the true poet, Thoreau announced: "It is not important 
that the poet should say some particular thing, but [that he] 
should speak in harmony with nature. " 18 For the "true poem 

Thoreau' s Poetics 21 

is not that which the public readfs]" (any more than the true 
poet is that which the public conceives as such); "it is what he 
has become through his work." 19 "Our moments of inspiration 
are not lost, " said Thoreau, even "though we have no partic- 
ular poem to show for them: for those experiences have left 
an indelible impression, and we are ever and anon reminded 
of them. ... [In them] we are receiving our portion of the 
infinite. The art of life. Tl2 This is to suggest that the inspi- 
rations experienced through communion, and the poetic life 
to which such inspirations contribute, constitute the sum and 
substance of man T s highest art. "There are two classes of men 
called poets, " Thoreau said; "the one cultivates life, the other 
art.'* 1 As Professor Matthiessen has suggested, Thoreau "left 
no doubt about which he wanted to be. Tl22 He considered the po- 
etic life of the communicant in nature to involve not only the 
highest art, but the highest wisdom and the highest morality; 
such a life represented both the agency and the end of salvation 
here for the truly practical man. "Even the wisest and the best 
are apt to use their lives as the occasion to do something other 
than live greatly, " said Thoreau. "But we should hang as fondly 
over this work as the finishing and embellishment of a poem. tt23 
That Thoreau believed he had lived according to this admonition 
is suggested by his announcement in A Week, that "My life 
hath been the poem I would have writ/ But I could not both live 
and live to utter it. " 24 His choice, made early and kept till 
the last, to cultivate the poetic life in preference to the poet's 
art, leads immediately to the question of what theories re- 
garding art and beauty can be derived from his poetics. 

Thoreau assumed that nature's was the highest beauty and 
that natural forms constituted the highest art. "There is noth- 
ing more handsome than a snowflake or a dewdrop, " he said. 
"I may say that the maker of the world exhausts his skill with 
each snowflake and dewdrop he sends down ... in truth they 
are the product of enthusiasm, the children of an ecstasy fin- 
ished with the artist's utmost skill. Tl25 Thoreau saw the objects 
and phenomena everywhere in God's nature as representing 
both "artists and subjects, God and Nature!" 26 To him accord- 
ingly even the humblest natural object represented the highest 
art. "Bring a spray from the wood, " he said, "or a crystal 
from the brook, and place it on your mantel, and your house- 

22 Thoreau and Whitman 

hold ornaments will seem plebeian beside its noble fashion 
and bearing. tl27 Such assumptions as Thoreau's, when unqual- 
ified by active concern with creative art principles, can lead 
to what amounts to the contemplative fallacy. They lead to 
nonperformance in art: the poet is reduced to nonproductive 
contemplation of nature instead of the creation of art forms. 

That Thoreau was not involved finally in this fallacy is sug- 
gested by the volume of his writings. That he sensed the weak- 
ness of his position is suggested by his adding that although the 
poet's life is his subject, autobiography is his medium. He did 
not choose Emerson's and Greenough's way out of the diffi- 
culties inherent in asserting that God's nature is the highest 
art: he did not argue that the genius creating new forms in 
line with natural principles is emulating God's creative activity 
in nature. He argued instead that nature is at once God's art 
and his autobiography, and that so is the poet's life. 

It becomes apparent that Thoreau' s conception of unity was 
considerably more limited than either Greenough's or Emer- 
son's. Furthermore, the unity that Thoreau sought in life and 
art was expressed implicitly rather than explicitly in his 
protest against any but a man's own way of "seeing or doing 
things. " It was implicit in his idea of communion in his desire 
to live simply, to reduce the problem of living to its simplest 
terms. It was implicit finally in his idea of a T 'true economy 
which is synonymous with philosophy 1 '-whereby everything 
irrelevant to the attainment of salvation is cast out, and all 
else is subordinated to the principal end, the life as poem. 

Although Thoreau denied the universal validity of any man- 
made principle, he appears to have made economy his own 
universal principle. As such, Thoreau' s economy is notice- 
ably inferior to Emerson's threefold conception of unity. In 
recognizing the tendency of the mind to unify, Emerson had 
equipped himself to explain the nature of principle itself as 
unifying device. In refusing to deal with principle as principle, 
Thoreau remained unequipped to judge his own assertion of 
economy as principle, and to mark its limitations. Thoreau, 
for example, had considerably less success in his efforts to 
find confirmation of his universal principle of economy in na- 
ture than Emerson did in confirming his threefold assertion 
of unity. 28 TT Nature, M Thoreau had announced, "will bear the 

Thoreau' s Poetics 23 

closest inspection, tl29 as indeed it most certainly will; but not 
without doing a certain amount of violence to Thoreau 1 s asser- 
tion of economy as nature's central characteristic. T 'Simplicity 
is the law of nature for men as for flowers, " Thoreau had said. 
Citing Linnaeus on flowers, he had added: M when the tapestry 
(corolla) of the nuptial bed (calyx) is excessive, luxuriant, it 
is unproductive. Linnaeus says, 'Luxuriant flowers are none 
natural but all monsters, ' and so for the most part abortive, 
and when proliferous 'they but increase the monstrous deform- 
ity.'" 30 

In turning to nature from the uneconomical complexities of 
society, Thoreau probably expected to see there evidence of 
the economy and simplicity that defined his idea of the poetic 
life. He was not long in recognizing that nature's economy was 
not the same as the tradesman's, nor even the poet-naturalist's 
-that it was in many ways an economy of abundance. 'There is 
none of that kind of economy in Nature that husbands its stock, " 
he observed, "but she supplies inexhaustible means to her most 
frugal methods. " 31 That he was not entirely satisfied with this 
prodigality in nature is suggested by his observation that "when 
Porter apples . . . are ripe, there are also other early apples 
and pears and plums and melons, etc. Nature by her bounte- 
ousness thus disgusts us with a sense of repletion-and un- 
cleanness even. Tt32 Thoreau had to admit that Nature "has her 
luxurious and florid style as well as Art, " 33 but he was not 
happy about it. He suggested almost wistfully that possibly the 
prodigality of nature was only apparent to the ignorant ob- 
server. "Nature would not appear so rich, the profusion so 
rich, if we knew a use for everything, " 34 he said. Examining 
a bird's nest, he remarked: "How partial and accidental our 
economy compared to Nature's. In Nature nothing is wasted. 
Every decayed leaf and twig and fibre is only the better fitted 
to serve in some other department, and all at last are gathered 
in her compost heap. " 35 Observing a wooden bridge, he noted 
that the economic life of the fir tree extends beyond the forest 
habitat to subsequent functions: "the best material for bridge 
planking . . . outlasting all other woods ! " 36 

As he became more learned in ecology, Thoreau found in- 
creasing evidence of an economy of abundance in nature hidden 
beneath the superficial appearance of prodigality. Even so, he 

24 Thoreau and Whitman 

was capable of throwing up his hands on occasion and exclaim- 
ing of Nature that "her motive is not economy but satisfac- 
tion. Tt37 Ultimately Thoreau was concerned less with seeing 
economy in nature than with seeing nature economically, from 
his own poetic point of view. And what amounts to his theory 
of beauty is less dependent upon his observations of economy 
in nature than upon his assertion that beauty is a function of 
the poetic life. 

Thoreau believed it was only possible to see beauty in nature 
after having chosen poesis as a way of life. "Nature is beauti- 
ful, " he said, "only as a place where life is to be lived. It is 
not beautiful to him who has not resolved on a beautiful life. " 38 
Presumably this poetic way of life was also requisite to the 
perception of beauty in man's lesser arts, but Thoreau had re- 
latively little to say of man's art. Of Nature's art, however, 
he observed that, "from the right point of view every storm 
and every drop in it is a rainbow. Beauty and music are not 
mere traits and exceptions. They are the rule and character [of 
nature]. It is the exception that we see and hear. " 39 Beautiful 
"objects, " he said elsewhere, "are concealed from our view 
not so much because they are out of the course of our visual 
ray ... as because there is no [proper] intention of the mind 
and eye toward them. We do not realize how far and widely, 
or how near and narrowly we are to look. The greater part of 
the phenomena of nature are for this reason concealed to us 
all our lives. Tt4 "Here too, " Thoreau added, "as in political 
economy, the supply answers the demand. . . . There is just 
as much beauty visible to us in the landscape as we are pre- 
pared to appreciate, -not a grain more. Tt41 

Thoreau believed it was unnecessary for a man to cultivate 
the arts in order to perceive and to appreciate beauty. All he 
had to do was look at nature from the proper point of view. 
Early in his Journal he reported: "I was inclined to think that 
the truest beauty was that which surrounded us but which we 
failed to discern, that the forms and colors which adorn our 
daily life . . . are our fairest jewelry, tf42 and there is little 
evidence that he ever departed from this view. Thoreau pre- 
ferred to approach beauty as he approached God: simply, di- 
rectly, and in nature. He characterized beauty by the same 
qualities which he ascribed to the poetic life and to nature, 

Thoreau 1 s Poetics 25 

namely: sincerity, transparency, truth, humility, and above 
all these a utility and a luxury beyond the calculation of any- 
thing less than a spiritual economy like his own. "Perfect sin- 
cerity and transparency, " he said, "make up a great part of 
beauty, as in dewdrops, lakes, and diamonds." 43 

Thoreau T s concern with sincerity and transparency led him 
to a rustic bias much like Wordsworth's. He insisted, for ex- 
ample, that "the humble or sincere and true is more commonly 
rough and weatherbeaten, so that from association we prefer 
it. t|44 "The most devoted worshippers of beauty, " he said, are 
those by whom "the rude pioneer work of this world has been 
done. fr45 This rustic bias brought him close to the dangerous 
assumption that picturesque rusticity in nature constitutes the 
highest beauty, and that rustic or primitive art is necessarily 
man T s highest art. The danger here does not lie in assuming 
that Nature's art encompasses the highest beauty, but in as- 
suming that the rustic's life and art are superior to all others 
simply in being rustic. Thoreau, of course, was no more in- 
clined to celebrate the beauty of the rustic's life and art above 
the beauty of nature than he was inclined to celebrate the rus- 
tic's poverty over the economy of the philosopher. 

Being occupied chiefly with living the beautiful life in nature, 
Thoreau had considerably less to say about man's art than 
either Emerson or Greenough. As might be expected, however, 
he complained that man's art was a poor second to God's na- 
ture. Like Emerson and Greenough he complained that man's 
art had become divorced from nature. "It has come to this, " 
he said, "that the lover of art is one, and the lover of nature 
another, though true art is but the expression of our love of 
nature. It is monstrous when one cares little about trees but 
much about Corinthian columns, and yet this is exceedingly 
common. " 46 Thoreau believed man's art inferior to Nature's 
for two principal reasons: (1) the experiences got from man's 
art are not so rich as those got from nature, and (2) the effects 
generally of man's art upon the mind are injurious rather than 
sanative. In the first place, he said, "art can never match the 
luxury and superfluity of Nature. . . . ?t47 In the second place, 
he complained, "now [even] the best works of art serve com- 
paratively but to dissipate the mind. . . . tt48 But "the true art 
is not merely a sublime consolation and holiday labor which the 

26 Thoreau and Whitman 

gods have given to sickly mortals . . . [but] a human life . . . 
not a bald imitation or rival of Nature, but the restored origi- 
nal of which she is the reflection. Tt49 Compared to "such a work 
as this, " he said, "whole galleries of Greece and Italy are a 
mere mixing of colors and preparatory quarrying of marble. M5 

Only in living life as a work of art could the artist reflect 
nature and approach the supreme art of God. Only through the 
poetic life- through being at once the poet and the poem- could 
man approach the high art of God: not through "bald imitation, " 
but by "reflection. " Thoreau insisted that the artist cannot 
achieve the paradoxical condition of simplicity and wealth char- 
acteristic at once of nature, of beauty, and of the poetic life, 
by mere imitation. "We are not rich, " he said, "without super- 
fluous wealth; but the imitator only copies the superfluity." 51 
Thoreau deplored the irrelevant luxury of imitative art. Like 
Emerson and Greenough, he argued for a higher art deriving 
from genius. "The art, " he said, "which only gilds the surface 
and demands merely a superficial polish, without reaching to 
the core, is but varnish and filigree. But the work of genius 
is rough hewn from the first . . . and has an ingrained polish, 
which still appears when fragments are broken off, an essential 
quality of its substance. Its beauty is its strength. " 52 

The statement above suggests an application of Thoreau' s 
idea of the philosopher f s simplicity to his consideration of art. 
He believed that in art, as in the true philosopher's life and as 
in nature, true simplicity masks richness. He had said of 
nature that "each phase . . . while not invisible, is yet not too 
distinct and obtrusive. It is there to be found when we look for 
it but not demanding our attention. tt53 He said also of high art 
that it is at once simple and rich, but rich only to those who 
recognize true wealth: "It is the height of art that on first pe- 
rusal, plain common sense shall appear; on the second, severe 
truth; and on a third, beauty. ft54 He believed that "the highest 
condition of art is artlessness." "Truth is always paradox- 
ical, " 55 he said. 

Thoreau believed that the combined simplicity and richness 
of high art, its artlessness, derived from the superior sim- 
plicity and richness of the life it described. The richest of all 
possible lives being that of the communicant, Thoreau con- 
cluded that "he is the richest who has the most use for nature 

Thoreau' s Poetics 27 

as the raw material of tropes and symbols with which to de- 
scribe his life. " 56 But with writing as with living, Thoreau con- 
sidered the tropes and the themes subordinate. "The theme, " 
he said, "is nothing, the life is everything. All that interests 
the reader is the depth and intensity of the life excited. fr57 All 
this is to suggest that art is essentially autobiographical, and 
that in order for art to be true and beautiful it must proceed 
from a true and beautiful life in nature. As has been suggested, 
such a conception can lead to nonperformance in the arts. Even 
when not pursued to its logical conclusion, it still demands an 
autobiographical approach by the artist which can easily limit 
him to examining his own personal experience and can separate 
him from the experiences recorded by other men thinking. 
Hardly anyone will deny that art is unavoidably autobiograph- 
icalthat it records the artist's efforts, his skills, his ex- 
periences, his insights; but most people will insist that auto- 
biography includes indirect as well as direct experiences, in- 
tellectual as well as emotional experiences. 

What Thoreau had to say about art in general is less satis- 
factory than what either Emerson or Greenough said. It is 
neither so interesting nor so important as his poetics. But 
what he had to say specifically about architecture is another 
matter and illustrates his own observation that we get some 
of our finer insights out of the corner of the eye, while attend- 
ing to something other than what concerns us chiefly. 



Thoreau considered Nature f s the highest architecture. "The 
most interesting domps I behold, M he said, "are not those of 
Oriental temples and palaces, but of the toadstools. Ttl Like 
Emerson and Greenough, he believed that architectural forms 
developed from primitive circumstances in nature. Observing 
the circus tent, he remarked: "the main central curve and 
wherever it rested on a post, -suggested that the tent was the 
origin of much of the Oriental architecture, the Arabic per- 
haps. There was the pagoda in perfection." 2 

Like Greenough, he complained that in monumental archi- 
tecture life was subordinated to art rather than conversely. 
"As for the Pyramids, " said Thoreau, "there is nothing to be 
wondered at them so much as the fact that so many men could 
be found degraded enough to spend their lives constructing a 
tomb for some ambitious booby. . . . Many are concerned 
about the monuments of the West and East- to know who built 
them. For my part, I should like to know who in those days did 
not build them, -who were above trifling. " 3 Like Greenough, he 
objected to "the American taste for architecture." "Consider 
the beauty of New York architecture, " he said, "and there is 
no very material difference between this and Baalbec, a vulgar 
adornment of what is vulgar. To what end pray is so much 
stone hammered? An insane ambition to perpetuate the memory 
of themselves by the amount of hammered stone they leave. " 4 
Thoreau 1 s blindness to the considerable agreement between 
Greenough and himself may have been due to his "prickly re- 
action to anything advanced by Emerson, " but it may have been 


Architecture at Walden 29 

due also to his awareness that Greenough practiced, despite 
his criticisms of it, the monumental architecture that Thoreau 
deplored. For Thoreau denied the monumental functions of ar- 
chitecture almost entirely. "It should not be by their archi- 
tecture but by their abstract thought, " he said, "that a nation 
should seek to commemorate itself. " 5 Upon this crucial point 
Thoreau differed from Greenough, who considered "first the 
organic structure of the works; second their monumental char- 
acter. " 6 

As poet- communicant Thoreau not only rejected ornament in 
architecture, in monuments, and in monumental buildings, but 
he rejected public architecture itself. He believed that only do- 
mestic architecture was capable of contributing to the beautiful 
life in nature. Yet in his concern with domestic architecture he 
insisted upon attention to its "organic structure" just as Green- 
ough did in regarding all architecture. Thoreau 7 s concern was 
characteristically more extreme than Greenough' s. Greenough 
had asserted that "the occupants alone can say if they have 
been well served; time alone can stamp any building as solid. " 
Thoreau not only announced that architecture is best judged by 
"the Ihdweller, " but added that "the indweller is the only build- 
er." 7 He complained that architecture was too far removed 
from the lives of ordinary men- that it, like poetry, was too 
often dominated by a concern with art and not often enough by 
a concern with life. "What does architecture amount to in the 
experience of the mass of men?" he asked. "I never in all my 
walks came across a man engaged in so simple and natural 
[an] occupation as building his house." 8 

During his experiment at Walden Pond, Thoreau had oppor- 
tunity to consider the role of domestic architecture in contrib- 
uting to the poetic life. He believed, to begin with, that a 
man's house should not be so costly in time or money as to 
interfere with his living the good life. "It is possible, " he said, 
"to invent a house still more convenient and luxurious than we 
have, which yet all would admit that man could not afford to 
pay for." 9 "But, " he said, "if the civilized man's pursuits are 
no worthier than the savage's, if he is employed the greater 
part of his life in obtaining gross necessaries and comforts 
merely, why should he have a better dwelling than the for- 
mer?" 10 As far as Thoreau was concerned the poetic life came 

30 Thoreau and Whitman 

first, and the lesser arts, painting, architecture, carpentry, 
came after when they contributed to or reflected such a life. 
Thoreau considered the architecture of his cabin at Walden 
more nearly conducive to the poetic life than that of the build- 
ings in New York, or Concord. At Walden he had reduced do- 
mestic architecture very nearly to its extreme simplicity. He 
had even considered the possibility of living after the manner 
of Diogenes in a section hands' tool box. "I used to see a large 
box by the railroad, " he said, 

six feet long by three wide, in which the workmen locked up their tools 
at night; and it suggested to me that every man who was hard pushed 
might get him such a one for a dollar, and having bored a few auger 
holes in it, to admit the air at least, get into it when it rained and at 
night, and shut the lid and hook it, and so have freedom in his mind, 
and in his soul be free. . . Many a man is harrassed to death to 
pay the rent of a larger and more luxurious box who would not have 
frozen to death in such a box as this. ll 

Having more than a dollar to spend on his house at Walden, 
Thoreau chose to style it larger thamthis sleeping box, to build 
it to allow more light and air, to be better suited to the life of 
the writer. 

In his Excursions and in his Cape Cod and Miscellanies, he 
measured the architectural value of the houses he saw in his 
travels beyond Concord. He concluded that the New England 
house was far more economical, more philosophical, than the 
Canadian house. Rewrote: 

As we were passing through Ashburnham, by a new white house which 
stood at some distance in a field, one passenger exclaimed, so that 
all in the car could hear him, 'There, there's not so good a house as 
that in all Canada!' I did not so much wonder at his remark, for there 
is a neatness, as of circumstances, so to speak, when not rich, about 
a New England house, as if the proprietor could at least afford to 
make repairs in the spring, which the Canadian houses do not suggest. 
Though of stone, they are no better construction than a stone barn 
would be with us. ... l2 

He complained particularly of the monumental emphasis in 
Canadian village architecture: "the only building except the 
chateau on which money and taste are expended, being the 
church. " 13 
Although he considered American domestic architecture 

Architecture at Walden 31 

superior to Canadian, Thoreau was not blind to the deficiencies 
of "modern American houses . . . such as they turn out at 
Cambridgeport. " "I call them American houses, " he said, "be- 
cause they are paid for by Americans, and T put up T by American 
carpenters; but they are little removed from lumber ... the 
least interesting kind of driftwood to me. " 14 Like Greenough 
he noted the superiority of American naval architecture over 
its counterpart ashore. "Perhaps we have reason to be proud 
of our naval architecture, " he said, 

and need not go to the Greeks, or the Goths, or the Italians, for the 
models of our vessels. Sea-captains do not employ a Cambridgeport 
carpenter to build their floating houses, and for their houses on shore, 
if they must copy any, it would be more agreeable to the imagination 
to see one of their vessels turned bottom upward, in the Numidian 
fashion. 15 

Probably the most poetic example of domestic architecture 
that Thoreau ever found beyond Walden was provided by the 
miller at Kaaterskill Falls. "I lodged at the house of a saw- 
miller last summer, " wrote Thoreau, 

on the Caatskill Mountains, high up as Pine Orchard, in the blueberry 
and raspberry region, where the quiet and cleanliness and coolness 
seemed to be all one, -which had their ambrosial character. He was 
the miller of the Kaaterskill Falls. They were a clean and wholesome 
family, inside and out, like their house. The latter was not plastered, 
only lathed, and the inner doors were not hung. The house seemed 
high-placed, airy, and perfumed, fit to entertain a travelling god. . . . 
Could not man be man in such an abode ? It was the very light and 
atmosphere in which the works of Grecian art were composed, and in 
which they rest. l8 

What in addition Thoreau had to say concerning high archi- 
tecture is so mingled with his criticism of Greenough that it 
is necessary to return to the matter of his reaction to the 
sculptor and look beyond Professor Matthiessen's remark that 
"it was too bad that Thoreau's prickly reaction against anything 
proposed by Emerson . . . should have kept him from appre- 
ciating that in Greenough he had a natural ally whose mature 
thought could have guided his own," 17 Writing in his journal 
on January 11, 1852, 18 Thoreau had said: 

R. W. E. showed me yesterday a letter from H. Greenough, the sculp- 
tor, on architecture, which he liked very much. Greenough 1 s idea was 

32 Thoreau and Whitman 

to make architectural ornament have a core of truth, a necessity and 
hence a beauty. AH very well, as I told R. W. E. , from Greenough's 
point of view, but only a little better than common dilettantism. I was 
afraid I should say hard things if I said more. . . . 

But as for Greenough's idea, Thoreau added, 

I felt as if it was dilettantism, and he was such a reformer in archi- 
tecture as Channing in social matters. He began at the cornice. It 
was only how to put a core of truth within the ornaments, that every 
sugarplum might in fact have an almond or carroway seed in it, and 
not how the inhabitant, the indweller, might be true and let the orna- 
ments take care of themselves. He seemed to me to lean over the 
cornice and timidly whisper this half truth to the rude indwellers, who 
really knew it more interiorly than he. lq 

Thoreau charged, in short, that Greenough was just such a 
poet as cultivated art rather than life. To this he added his own 
observation that 

what of architectural beauty I now see, I know has gradually grown 
from within outward, out of the character and necessities of the in- 
dweller and builder, without even a thought for mere ornament, but 
an unconscious nobleness and truthfulness of character and life; and 
whatever additional beauty of this kind is destined to be produced 
will be preceded and accompanied, aye, created by a like uncon- 
scious beauty of life. 20 

It was Thoreau' s reaction to poets that cultivated art rather 
than life, as much as a prickly reaction to anything suggested 
by Emerson, which was responsible for his hostile attitude to- 
ward Greenough. For even if the two men thought similai ly of 
the architecture of monuments and sailing vessels, 21 such 
similarities can easily be overstressed and must be matched by 
recognizing the different attitudes which these men held re- 
garding such things as industry and the machine. Thoreau for 
his part was mindful of the damage industrialization could do 
to his scheme for the poetic life. He had complained that the 
end of manufacturing appeared to be the enrichment of the cor- 
poration rather than the consumer's life. He chose the hand- 
made pail in preference to the machine-made one, even though 
"they may make equally good pails, and cheaper as well as 
faster, at the pail factory, " because the workman in the pail 
factory "is turned partly into a machine there himself, " i.e. , 

Architecture at Walden 33 

because his relation to his work is not sufficiently poetic. "We 
admire more, " said Thoreau, "the man who can use an axe or 
an adze skillfully than him who can merely tend a machine. " 22 
Greenough, on the other hand, looked to industry and the 
machine for suggestions which the laws of the mind applied to 
manufacture could offer fine art. "if we compare, " he had said, 
"the form of a newly invented machine with the perfected type 
of the same instrument, we observe , . . how weight is shaken 
off where strength is less needed . . . till the straggling and 
cumbersome machine becomes the compact, effective, and 
beautiful engine. " 23 Similarly with primitive art, Greenough 
looked for the esthetic principle; Thoreau judged in terms of 
the poetic life. Greenough observed that "when the savage of 
the South Sea islands shapes his war club, his first thought is 
of its use. ... We admire its effective shape ... its grace- 
ful form and subtle outline . . . [but] we neglect the lesson it 
might teach. Tt24 Thoreau saw in the savage* s art evidence that 
even he had lived a rudely poetic life supplemented by crude 
art forms. "J. Hosmer showed me a pestle which his son had 
found this summer while plowing, " wrote Thoreau. 

It had a rude bird's head, a hawk's or eagle's, the beak and eyes (the 
latter a mere prominence) serving for a knob or handle. It is affect- 
ing, as a work of art by a people who have left so few traces of them- 
selves, a step beyond the common arrowhead and pestle and axe. 
Something more fanciful, a step beyond pure utility. As long as I find 
traces of works of convenience merely, however much skill they show, 
I am not so much affected as when I discover works which evince the 
exercise of fancy and taste, however rude. It is a great step to find a 
pestle whose handle is ornamented with a bird f s head knob. It brings 
the maker still nearer to the races which so ornament their umbrella 
and cane handles. " 

The preceding passage demonstrates among other things how 
Thoreau, in refusing to consider principle, failed to see, as 
Greenough did, the connections between primitive and modern 
technologies. It becomes apparent in looking beyond these dif- 
ferences in attitude toward manufacture, the machine, toward 
primitive art, that Thoreau' s reactions to what Greenough said 
are essentially the same as his reactions to Emerson's saying 
similar things. Thoreau' s reactions are those of the practical 
man in the presence of the theorist. He complained, even as 

34 Thoreau and Whitman 

Greenough admitted, that theory without demonstration was of 
small value. And he announced accordingly that M when R. W. E. 
and Greenough have got a few blocks finished and advertized, 
I will look at them. tl26 Thoreau's argument with Emerson and 
Greenough leads back ultimately to the fact that Emerson and 
Greenough were Unitarian thinkers arguing from principle, 
while Thoreau was a communicant arguing from direct ex- 
perience. Thoreau sought to experience beauty rather than to 
apprehend its principles. Greenough sought unity, order, de- 
sign, and law or principle-both in nature and in art. He had 
concluded that in art ft there is one truth, even as one God, 
and . . . organization is his utterance." 27 Like Emerson, he 
argued from the perception and assertion of divine organi- 
zation, while Thoreau argued from his own brand of economy. 

Thoreau and Greenough both arrived, finally, facing each 
other at approximately the same position, asserting what 
amounted to two slightly different versions of the organic prin- 
ciple. The one version was applied to the cultivation of the 
life; the other to the cultivation of art, with both focused for 
the moment upon the subject of architecture. It may be well 
to review briefly Greenough' s somewhat less poetic, more 
consciously theoretical assertion of this organic principle. 
Greenough 1 s assertion involved the acceptance of two sub- 
principles: (1) the natural principle of adaptation deriving from 
the biological sciences, and (2) a principle which approximates 
closely the less mystical aspects of Thoreau's theory of econ- 
omy. As an economist, Greenough was concerned with getting 
at the essential in art, even as Thoreau was concerned with 
getting at the essential in life. "The aim of the artist, " said 
Greenough, "should be first to seek the essential. . . . tt28 

But Greenough' s approach to the essential was not entirely 
economical in Thoreau's sense. Gre enough 1 s approach was 
initially by way of the principle of adaptation. "The law of ad- 
aptation, " he said, "is the fundamental law of nature in all 
structure. tl29 In Greenough 1 s version of the organic principle 
the achievement of economy was secondary to adaptation. "Ac- 
tual approximation to beauty, " he said, "has been [effected 
first by a strict adaptation of forms to functions, second, by 
the gradual elimination of all that is irrelevant or imperti- 

Architecture at Walden 35 

nent. rr30 "The aim of the artist, " he said, "should be first to 
seek the essential. When the essential has been found, then if 
ever will be the time to commence embellishment. Tt "I will 
venture to predict, " he added, "that the essential, when found, 
will be complete." 31 

Gre enough T s organic principle reveals emphasis upon the 
positive or adaptive aspect of economy, with the negative as- 
pect, the elimination, following almost axiomatically. Tho- 
reau' s economy reveals emphasis upon the negative aspect of 
adaptation: upon eliminating the nonfunctional by way of ar- 
riving at the truly economical. Greenough's functionalist as- 
sertions and Thoreau' s economical assertions come closer to 
each other than Thoreau realized. ffl Regarding both literature 
and architecture, Thoreau expressed an attitude toward orna- 
ment which was almost identical with Gre enough's. Speaking 
of ornament in literature, he had asked: "Suppose an equal 
ado were made about the ornaments of style in literature (as 
in architecture), should we be any more likely to attain to a 
truly beautiful and forcible style?" To this he answered, "I do 
believe that any writer who considered the ornaments, and not 
the truth simply, ever succeeded. So are made the belles 
lettres and beaux arts and their professors, which we can do 
without." 33 

Thoreau 1 s economy differed from Greenough's functionalism 
primarily in emphasis and application. In furnishing his hut at 
Walden, Thoreau was as severe a functionalist as can be found 
anywhere. But characteristically he was concerned less with 
the adaptation of a single piece of furniture to its intended use 
than with judging the contribution of each kind of furnishing to 
the conduct of the poetic life. He was concerned less with dis- 
covering the most effective and beautiful curtains for his house 
than with deciding whether they were necessary at all. Of floor 
covering, for example, he announced: "A lady once offered me 
a mat, but as I had no room to spare within the house, nor 
time to spare within or without to shake it, I declined, pre- 
ferring to wipe my feet on the sod before my door. It is best 
to avoid the beginning of evil. " 34 "Our furniture, " he said, 
"should be as simple as the Arab's or the Indian 1 s. " 35 "Not 
that ornamental beauty should be neglected, but at least, let 

36 Thoreau and Whitman 

it first be in ward- looking and essential, like the lining of a 
shell, of which the inhabitant is unconscious, and not merely 
outside garnishing. " 36 

Thoreau disagreed most violently with Greenough upon this 
matter of adaptation. As has been suggested, he considered 
Greenough a dilettante, felt that he cultivated art rather than 
life- that he was concerned with adaptation as art-principle 
rather than as life -principle. From his own poetic point of 
view Thoreau was justified in considering Greenough "a senti- 
mental reformer in architecture, beginning his reform at the 
cornice, not at the foundation. " 37 He was justified not only 
because of Greenough 1 s actual connection with monumental 
architecture in Washington, but also because Greenough really 
did argue his reform in architecture from the consideration 
of inappropriate ornament in public and monumental archi- 

As has been mentioned, part of Thoreau f s objection to Green- 
ough derived from his own restrictive concern with domestic 
architecture, as compared with Greenough' s more expansive 
concern with public and monumental architecture as well. Still 
another part of Thoreau' s objection to Greenough derived from 
the different way each brought nature into his argument: Green- 
ough bringing in biological nature as authority for principle, 
Thoreau bringing in nature metaphorically and poetically as 
example. Consider in this latter vein Thoreau 1 s metaphorical 
statement about architectural ornament in Walden: 

What reasonable man ever supposed that ornaments were something 
outward and in the skin merely, -that the tortoise got his spotted shell, 
or the shell-fish its mother-o r -pearl tints, by such a contract as the 
inhabitants of Broadway their Trinity Church? But a man has no more 
to do with the style of architecture 01 his house than a tortoise with 
that of its shell. 

By way of clarifying this statement Thoreau added: 

What of architectural beauty I now see, I know has gradually grown 
from within outward, out of the necessities and character of the in- 
dweller, who is the only builder, -out of some unconscious truthful- 
ness, and nobleness, without ever a thought for appearance; and what- 
ever additional beauty of this kind is destined to be produced will be 
preceded by a like unconscious beauty of life. 38 

But metaphor, even as principle, has its limitations and 

Architecture at Walden 37 

creates its own difficulties. And the difficulty here lies in the 
fact that man has a great deal to do with determining the style 
of his house. It would be less poetic but more accurate to say 
that a man has no more to do with the style of his skeleton than 
the tortoise with its shell: man's house, as Greenough sug- 
gested, is another matter. Thoreau's assertion is essentially 
poetic and mystical. Such a theory of unconscious adaptation as 
Thoreau asserted could lead to the celebration of primitive 
living in huts. He had declared in this vein that "the most in- 
teresting dwellings in the country, as the painter knows, are 
the most unpretending, humble log huts and cottages of the 
poor 11 ; but he had added that "it is the life of the inhabitants 
whose shells they are and not any peculiarity in their sur- 
face merely which makes them picturesque. " 39 

In celebrating the rustic cottage as reflecting the life, the 
necessities, and the character of its inhabitants, Thoreau ap- 
proached Greenough T s definition of character as "the record 
of function." 40 But he failed to see that character is also re- 
corded by architectures more complex than that of the rustic 
poor. Thoreau looked beyond the rustic hut only to suggest 
that the "citizen's suburban box ff might become as interesting 
as the log hut "when [the citizen's] life shall be as simple and 
agreeable to the imagination, and there is as little straining 
after effect in the style of his dwelling. " 41 He proposed only 
that domestic architecture should be improved by improving 
the indweller's life. 

Greenough r s less poetic theory of adaptation got more di- 
rectly to the problem of creating and evaluating art, and ap- 
pears superior to Thoreau' s as practical advice to the artist 
(in any but Thoreau's sense of the word "practical") because 
it suggests a broad and reasonable criterion of esthetic judg- 
ment. Yet from Thoreau's point of view, accepting Greenough' s 
version of the organic principle was equivalent to abandoning 
the poetics which ordered and justified his way of life. It is 
no wonder that Thoreau reacted in a prickly way to the ideas 
of a man who, in agreeing with him on architecture, threatened 
his scheme for the poetic life. Thoreau, unlike Greenough, 
set himself up neither as a theorist nor as a prophet. He was 
concerned only incidentally with art theory, being a practical 
man occupied with experiencing the poetic life. From Tho- 

38 Thoreau and Whitman 

reau's point of view, too great an interest in esthetic principle 
removed the poet from the life experience and weakened his 
position as poet, i.e., as communicant and seer. To the ex- 
tent that Emerson and Greenough were interested in esthetic 
principle, Thoreau considered them isolated from the nec- 
essary and the real. Yet he was scarcely less a transcenden- 
tal esthetician than either of them. In company with them he 
was a Protestant, a communicant with nature, a seer, a critic, 
and a worshipper of beauty. His differences from Emerson and 
Greenough, though marked, are still differences in emphasis 
and application. He was not, for example, so much a transcen- 
dental theorist as he was a transcendental practitioner. Though 
he actually wrote considerably less poetry than Emerson, he 
was more nearly a poet, in Emerson's own sense, than Emer- 
son himself. For it is Thoreau and Whitman together who most 
exactly represent the two halves of Emerson's ideal poet. They 
come immediately to mind as positive examples demonstrating 
the validity of this statement in Emerson's essay: "I look in 
vain, " he said, "for the poet whom I describe. We do not with 
sufficient plainness or sufficient profoundness address our- 
selves to life, nor dare we chaunt our own times and social 
circumstances. tr42 

Possibly the most important thing about Thoreau' s esthetics 
is its different emphasis. It is neither so broad as Emerson's 
nor so concise as Greenough' s, yet it is more emphatic. It ex- 
plores with considerable vigor some of the implications of that 
part of transcendental art theory which Thoreau considered 
important- which he considered relevant to his own life. The 
two things which he emphasized most as poet and practical man 
were economy and the primacy of the individual life. The im- 
portance in esthetics of these two themes is suggested by the 
fact that, although they were not specifically designed by Tho- 
reau to do so, they suggest major avenues of approach to the 
problems of creating high art and of judging it. 




That Walt Whitman was also a kind of transcendental es- 
thetician is not immediately suggested by his background and 
training; he was not born into the traditions of New England 
Unitarianism ; he did not go to Harvard College. But if, by 
these geographical, social, and educational requirements, 
Whitman is not strictly a transcendentalist, he comes close 
enough on other counts to suggest that considering him one may 
prove rewarding. 

His most obvious connection with New England transcenden- 
talism is by way of his discipleship to Emerson. Such disciple - 
ship does not necessarily lead to point-for- point agreement 
with the master. As Whitman himself said, "the best part of 
Emersonianism is, it breeds the giant that destroys itself. Who 
wants to be any man's mere follower? lurks behind every page. 
No teacher ever taught that has so provided for his pupil's set- 
ting up independently-no truer evolutionist. tfl The better part 
of discipleship to Emerson lies in understanding the master, 
not in accepting his position without qualification. And it is 
in claiming to understand Emerson that Whitman considered 
himself a disciple. 

Emerson [he said] is not most eminent as poet or artist or teach- 
er, though valuable in all those. He is best as critic, or diagnoser. 
Not passion or imagination or warp or weakness, or any pronounced 
cause or specialty dominates him. ... He does not see or take one 
side ... he sees all sides. His final influence is to make his stu- 
dents cease to believe in anything, outside of themselves. 2 

Whitman was prepared by his religious background and Prot- 


40 Thoreau and Whitman 

estant temperament to recognize and to welcome likenesses 
between Emerson's convictions and his own, and yet to main- 
tain his differences. Although Whitman grew up under the in- 
fluence of the Dutch and Quaker Pietists in New York 3 and not 
the Unitarians of Emerson's New England, there was enough 
of the two influences in common to make the ideas of each con- 
genial to the other. 4 Both Emerson and Whitman were extreme 
radical Protestants. Like Emerson, Whitman objected to the 
dominion of institutions over religious experience. "The time 
has certainly come, " he said, "to begin to discharge the idea 
of religion, in the United States, from mere ecclesiasticism. 
. . . " 5 Like most radical Protestants he asserted the doctrine 
of the individual priesthood of all believers and accepted as its 
corollary the disappearance of a professional clergy. "There 
will soon be no more priests, " Whitman announced. "Their 
work is done. A new order shall arise . . . and every man 
shall be his own priest. " 6 Like Thoreau he was secular in the 
special sense of denying the church as the principal agency of 
salvation. He rejected the "mere ecclesiasticism" of the clergy 
as too limited. Along with Emerson he chose to extend radical 
Protestant religion till it embraced art and the artist; and like 
Thoreau he judged art and the artist as these were instrumental 
in achieving salvation here. 

Like the Quakers and the New England transcendentalists 
Whitman turned from institutional guidance to a higher au- 
thority, seeking communion with divine authority at its source. 
But his approach was less by way of God in nature than by way 
of the individual religious conscience-the Quaker's Inner Light. 
Along with Thoreau he did consider the "outdoors the best anti- 
septic yet. " 7 He attributed his improved health after the illness 
of 1873 to the fact that he had "been almost two years, off and 
on, without drugs and medicines, and daily in the open air. ... 
Never before ... so close to Nature ; never before did she 
come so close to me. " 8 He recorded in "Specimen Days" a ver- 
sion of Thoreau' s mystical communion. 9 But his principal ap- 
proach to Deity was directly by way of the soul. This concern 
with soul per se distinguishes Whitman's brand of communion 
from Emerson's, and Thoreau' s. Even though Emerson's Uni- 
tarianism and Whitman's Pietism represent versions of the 
same radical Protestantism, the differences between the 

Whitman as Transcendental Esthetician 41 

versions are crucially important. These are best seen in terms 
of a radical Protestant continuum upon which the Unitarian 
and the Pietist occupy major positions. 

Although Emerson enlarged Unitarian doctrine to admit "in- 
spiration and ecstasy, tfl the original emphasis was upon the 
individual interpretation of scriptures which left room, as it 
still does, for a rational interpretation of religious texts by 
a learned clergy. This rational character of Unitarianism 
leads, with the gradual abandonment of texts, to a deistical 
consideration of nature- to a search for knowledge of God, for 
connection with Deity, via rational study of the designs and 
principles exhibited in God r s nature. A less rational, more 
enthusiastic version of the deist's attitude is the mystical pan- 
theism of Emerson and Thoreau. Even at its extreme limits, 
however, the Unitarian religious attitude is predominantly in- 
tellectual and metaphysical and relies heavily upon a theolog- 
ical concern with Deity. 

The Pietist occupies a position considerably beyond the most 
mystical extension of Unitarianism. His doctrine of the Inner 
Light bypasses the critical examination of texts and appeals 
directly to the individual religious conscience. It teaches, as 
Whitman says in speaking of Elias Hicks, 

the Platonic doctrine that the ideals of character, of justice, of re- 
ligious action, whenever the highest is at stake, are to be conform'd 
to no outside doctrine of creeds, Bibles, legislative enactments, con- 
ventionalities, or even decorums, but are to follow the inward Deity- 
planted law of the emotional soul. . . . ll 

The emphasis here is upon the individual conscience, upon re- 
ligious enthusiasm, upon ecstatic revelation. There is little 
concern with reason, little need for a learned clergy little 
need even to consult God in nature. The Pietist* s position is 
essentially nonintellectual, nonmetaphysical. It assumes the 
immediate practicality of achieving divine sanction by com- 
munion with the individual conscience conceived as repre- 
senting the soul. Even though, from their positions along this 
Protestant continuum, the Unitarian metaphysician and the 
Pietist mystic both argued against the dominion of institutions 
by appealing to higher authority, their appeals were different. 
The Pietist got more directly to the final argument from auton- 
omous religious conscience; he not only ruled out institutional 

42 Thoreau and Whitman 

authority, but to a large extent the authority of reason and ob- 

In extending the Protestant argument to this final extremity, 
the Pietist weakened it. The direct sanction of conscience can 
be applied too easily to too many things. When applied consis- 
tently to all actions, it exhausts itself. To submit every action 
to what may easily become an approving conscience is tanta- 
mount to having no conscience at all. That Whitman was aware 
of this weakness is suggested by the following long footnote in 
his Democratic Vistas: 

I am reminded as I write that out of this very conscience, or idea of 
conscience, of intense moral right, and in its name and strain 1 d con- 
struction, the worst fanaticisms, wars, persecutions, murders, &c. , 
have yet, in all lands, in the past been broach' d, and have come to 
their devilish fruition. Much is to be said- but I may say here, and in 
response, that side by side with the unflagging stimulation of the ele- 
ments of religion and conscience must henceforth move with equal 
sway, science, absolute reason, and the general proportional develop- 
ment of the whole man. . . . Abstract religion, I perceive, is easily 
led astray, ever credulous, and is capable of devouring remorseless, 
like fire and flame. Conscience, too, isolated from all else, and from 
emotional nature, may but attain the beauty and purity of glacial, 
snowy ice. We want for these States, for the general character, a 
cheerful religious fervor, endued with the ever-present modifications 
of human emotions, friendship, benevolence, with a fair field for sci- 
entific enquiry, the right of individual judgment, and always the cool- 
ing influences of material Nature. 12 

Whitman realized that a thoroughgoing Pietist position is too 
extreme. Actually he was less radical in his religious and es- 
thetic positions than the Pietism of his background would sug- 
gest. He appears somewhere between Elias Hicks and Emer- 
son. As worshippers of beauty whose esthetics derive from 
their religious convictions, Emerson, Greenough, Thoreau, 
and Whitman may be ranged along an esthetic continuum run- 
ning parallel to the above-mentioned Protestant religious con- 
tinuum. Emerson and Greenough appear, when viewed in this 
manner, slightly more radical as estheticians than their re- 
ligious backgrounds might suggest, arguing finally, even though 
in reasoned terms, from the individual conscience deriving 
from nature. Whitman appears less radical than his Pietist 
background might suggest, admitting to his esthetics the con- 

Whitman as Transcendental Esthetician 43 

siderations of nature, of metaphysics, 13 and a brand of rea- 
soned argument. Thoreau shows more moderation than might 
be expected of him, appearing somewhere between Emerson's 
position and Whitman's: as a rather thoroughgoing pantheist 
concerned with the salvation of the individual soul, here, but 
through connection with natural beauty rather than the religious 

Whitman did not ignore phenomenal nature. 14 But because 
his major emphasis was upon soul, some understanding of 
Whitman's idea of soul is important. Although he did not de- 
fine this idea of soul formally, he appears to have conceived 
of soul in three senses: in an individual sense, a general sense, 
and a literary sense. In all three his emphasis is primarily 
ethical rather than metaphysical. He was concerned less with 
the divine topography of the universe than with the practice of 
"moral power and ethic sanity." He considered soul in this 
first, individual, sense roughly equivalent to the individual re- 
ligious conscience. He saw the surest approach to moral ac- 
tion and hence salvation here by way of communion with this 
individual religious conscience, through inviting "the outpour 
[of] God-like suggestion pressing for birth in the soul. " 15 "The 
simple unsophisticated conscience, " he said, is "the primary 
moral element. " 16 Although he refined and extended this indi- 
vidual conception of soul, he seems to have derived it from 
the Pietist doctrine of the Inner Light. Writing of Elias Hicks, 
he summarized this doctrine as he understood it. Of Hicks, 
he wrote: 

He was very mystical and radical and had much to say of 'the light 
within. ' Very likely this same inner light (so dwelt upon by newer 
men, as by Fox and Barclay at the beginning, and all Friends and deep 
thinkers since and now), is perhaps only another name for the reli- 
gious conscience. In my opinion they have all diagnos'd like superior 
doctors, the real inmost disease of our times, probably any times. n 

As a communicant Whitman was concerned more, like Hicks, 
with the inner human conscience, "the inward Deity-planted law 
of the emotional soul, " 18 than with the laws of nature and the 
mind. It is for this reason, very likely, that he considered the 
Unitarianism of Boston a "bloodless religion, " 19 and announced 
that "it is . . . not consistent with the reality of the soul to ad- 
mit that there is anything in the known universe more divine 

44 Thoreau and Whitman 

[even nature and abstract reason] than men and women. TfZO The 
actual process by which Whitman effected communion with this 
outpour of "God-like suggestion pressing for birth in the soul" 
is not entirely clear. There is some likelihood that his method 
of communing with soul developed from the Pietist', s practice 
of working up a self-induced emotional state known as "en- 
thusiasm"- extending beyond this to a differentiation of the in- 
dividual conscience and beyond this even further to a kind of 
reverential awareness of individual identity. Whitman wrote 
in Democratic Vistas: 

Alone, and identity, and the mood-and the soul emerges, and all 
statements, churches, sermons, melt away like vapors. Alone, and 
silent thought and awe, and aspiration- and then the interior conscious- 
ness, like a hitherto unseen inscription, in magic ink, beams out its 
wondrous lines to the sense. Bibles may convey, and priests expound, 
but it is exclusively for the noiseless operation of one's isolated Self, 
to enter the pure ether of veneration, reach the divine levels, and 
commune with the unutterable. 21 

"The Ripeness of Religion, " he said, "is doubtless to be looked 
for in this field of individuality and is a result that no organi- 
zation or church can ever achieve." 22 "Religion, " he said, 

although casually arrested, and, after a fashion, preserv f d in the 
churches and creeds, does not depend at all upon them, but is a part 
of identified soul, which, when greatest, knows not bibles in the old 
way, but in new ways- identified soul, which can really confront Re- 
ligion when it extricates itself entirely from the churches, and not 
before. 23 

Whitman's communion with an awareness of identity (with the 
identified soul) was superior to the ordinary Pietist's com- 
munion with his conscience because it led not only to sanction, 
which is the most primitive function of communion, but beyond 
sanction to those insights which are opened up to .an individual 
by his achieving some degree of self-consciousness. 24 It is 
important to note in passing that Whitman's reverence for the 
physical body as an aspect of soul, his celebration of sensory 
experience as contributory to awareness of personal identity, 
separates him from ascetic pietists like the Shakers and puts 
him on a side with modern psychologists. 

The ultimate extension of this self-consciousness is con- 
sciousness of the individual self-as-soul in its context, not 

Whitman as Transcendental Esthetician 45 

only the context of phenomenal nature, but that of all other 
selves, arriving finally at the consciousness of the self's par- 
ticipation in a generalized, all-inclusive soul. Speaking of this 
general conception of soul, Whitman announced in his Demo- 
cratic Vistas that to the individual consciousness of the soul 
the thought of something else must be added, 

something before which the magnitude even of democracy, art, litera- 
ture, &c. , dwindles, becomes partial, measurable som ething that 
fully satisfies (which those do not). That something is the All, and the 
idea of the All, with the accompanying idea of eternity, and of itself, 
the soul, the soul, buoyant, indestructible, sailing space forever, 
visiting every region, as a ship at sea/ 5 

More particularly, "in respect to absolute soul, " Whitman 
announced that "there is in the possession of such by each 
single individual, something so transcendent, so incapable of 
gradations (like life), that to that extent it places all beings 
on a common level. . . . Tl26 He concluded, regarding this All 
or idea of the All, that 

the climax . . . loftiest range of civilization, rising above all the 
gorgeous shows and results of wealth, intellect, power, and art, as 
such-above even theology and religious fervor-is to be its develop- 
ment, from the eternal bases, and the fit expression of absolute Con- 
science, moral soundness, Justice . . . moral conscientiousness, 
crystalline, without flaw, not Godlike only, entirely human [which] 
awes and enchants forever. 27 

These two conceptions of soul-as consciousness of the in- 
dividual self, and as consciousness of the self in relation to 
the concept of All- suggest immediately Whitmans more com- 
pactly stated concern with "independent separatism," "indi- 
vidualism, " "personalism, " with "the idea of the aggregate, " 
"adhesiveness, " "generalization. " They also point in the di- 
rection of Whitman 1 s idea of democracy-and beyond that to his 
idea of literature as the soul of democracy. In his Democratic 
Vistas Whitman refers to "this Soul- its other name, in these 
Vistas, is Literature."** In equating soul with literature Whit- 
man not only dignified literature but also prepared himself to 
argue that literature could be instrumental in attaining salva- 
tion here. By expressing through literature the insights he got 
from communing with the identified soul and with the idea of 
All, Whitman proposed to help other people who had not a- 

46 Thoreau and Whitman 

chieved communion. Guidance toward such insight is the cen- 
tral function of Whitman's art. 

Like Thoreau, Whitman subscribed to an esthetics which 
supported a practical program for salvation, here. Like Tho- 
reau like most communicants who have pursued communion 
beyond the goal of primitive sanction into some new area of 
insight- Whitman was also a seer; and he brought forth from 
his communion with soul not only divine sanction, but a vision 
of democracy and a program by means of it for salvation. 




Walt Whitman's vision of democracy was religious in the 
same sense as Thoreau' s ethics, being concerned practically 
with salvation here. It was social in extending beyond Tho- 
reau's concern with salvation for the individual self, to a con- 
cern with salvation for America, and beyond that for mankind. 
Like Thoreau, Whitman conceived of salvation in terms of an 
intimate association with nature as out-of-doors, but for all 
of American society. As an ideal society, he said, "Democracy 
most of all affiliates with the open air, is sunny and hardy and 
sane only with Nature. . . . M "I conceive of no flourishing and 
heroic elements of Democracy in the United States, or of De- 
mocracy maintaining itself at all without the Nature-element 
forming a main part. . . . ?fl Whitman recommended to all of 
society that sanative effect of nature which Thoreau prescribed 
for the individual. He was less concerned, therefore, with in- 
dividual withdrawal from society to nature than with estab- 
lishing a more intimate connection between society and nature, 
and ultimately with soul. He proposed to make withdrawal from 
society unnecessary. To the extent that Whitman's idea of de- 
mocracy involved a whole society in close connection with na- 
ture, it represents a social extension of Thoreau' s economi- 
cal ethics. Whitman's concern with nature was not, however, 
so literally pantheistic as Thoreau' s, since he accepted the 
divinity not only of bare natural phenomena, but the divinity 
even of urban man and his works. 2 Even though Whitman turned 
occasionally to God in nature for confirmation of his ethics, he 
appears to have derived his ethics and its confirmation, pri- 


48 Thoreau and Whitman 

marily from his conception of God in man, i.e. , of soul. 
Fundamental to Whitmans conception of democracy is the 
idea of the unhampered operation of conscience by free men, 
subservient only to God and nature. MT The ideal form of human 
society, '" said Whitman, quoting Canon Kings ley, 

! is democracy. A nation-and were it even possible, a whole world-of 
free men, lifting free foreheads to God and Nature; calling no man 
master . . . knowing and doing their duties toward the Maker of the 
universe, and therefore to each other: not from fear, nor calculation 
of profit or loss, but because they have seen the beauty of righteous- 
ness, and trust, and peace, because the law of God is in their hearts. n 

To Whitman this overarching law of God in the human heart 
was not at all incompatible with the lessons of nature. "The 
greatest lessons of Nature through the universe, " he said, 
"are perhaps the lessons of variety and freedom. . . . Tt4 But 
these lessons, he added, are rarely understood. "It is not only 
true that most people entirely misunderstand Freedom, " said 
Whitman, "but I sometimes think I have not yet met one person 
who rightly understands it. " 5 To Whitman, freedom and democ- 
racy were primarily spiritual rather than political or phe- 
nomenal matters, rising above the laws of society, of culture, 
of religion. "The whole Universe is absolute Law, " he said, 
(including everything in it), and "Freedom" as commonly con- 
ceived "only opens entire activity and license under the law. " 6 
What, therefore, he asked, is freedom properly and spiritually 
understood? "What is independence?" It is "freedom from all 
laws or bonds except those of one f s own being, controird by 
the universal ones. To lands, to man, to woman, what is there 
at last to each, but the inherent soul, nativity, idiocracy, free, 
highest poised, soaring in its own flight, following out itself?" 7 
In asserting his ethics Whitman did not, like Thoreau, deny 
the value of institutions, of governments. He did place in ad- 
vance, and above the recognized values of institutions, the 
value of something else, the something central to his vision. 
Speaking of this "something else, " he said: 

After the valuable and well-settled statement of our duties and rela- 
tions in society is thoroughly conn'd over and exhaustedit remains 
to bring forward and modify everything else with the idea of that Some- 
thing a man is (last precious consolation of the drudging poor), stand- 
ing apart from all else, divine m his own right . . . sole and untouch- 

Whitman's Vision of Democracy 49 

able by any canons of authority, or any rule derived from precedent, 
state-safety, the acts of legislatures, or even from what is called 
religion, modesty, or art. 8 

Central to Whitman's vision of freedom and democracy is 
the idea, central also to his conception of soul, of the inde- 
pendent identity of the individual conscience, of the right and 
duty of each individual to be self-consciously autonomous. "The 
mission of government, henceforth, " he said, 

in civilized lands, is not repression alone, and not authority alone, 
not even of law, nor by the favorite standard of the eminent writer 
fCarlyle], the rule of the best men, the born heroes and captains of 
the race (as if such ever, or one time out of a hundred, get into the 
big places, elective or dynastic), but higher than the hignest arbitrary 
rule, to train communities through all their grades, beginning with 
individuals and ending there again, to rule themselves. 9 

"The purpose of democracy, " said Whitman, 

is, through many transmigrations ... to illustrate, at all hazards, 
this doctrine or theory that man, properly train'd in the sanest, high- 
est freedom, may and must become a law, and a series of laws, unto 
himself, surrounding and providing for, not only his own personal 
control, but all his relations to other individuals, and to the state; 
and that . . . this, as matters now stand in our civilized world, is 
the only scheme worth working from as warranting results like those 
of Nature's laws, reliable, when once established, to carry on them- 
selves. 10 

The problem of politics and ethics, said Whitman, "is, un- 
der permanent law and order, and after preserving cohesion 
(ensemble-Individuality), at all hazards, to vitalize man's free 
play of special Personalism. . . . " u It was not possible, Whit- 
man believed, to generalize a reliable, self-adjusting, a uni- 
versal politics or ethics without taking into account the indi- 
vidual identity, the individual soul. "For the treatment of the 
universal, " he said, "in politics, metaphysics, or anything, 
sooner or later we come down to one single, solitary soul. " 

there is, in sanest hours, a consciousness, a thought that rises, in- 
dependent, lifted out from all else, calm, like the stars, shining eter- 
nal. This is the thought of identity- yours for you, whoever you are, 
as mine for me. Miracle of miracles, beyond statement, most spir- 
itual and vaguest of earth 1 s dreams, yet hardest basic fact, and only 
entrance to all facts. 12 

50 Thoreau and Whitman 

Generalizing from this idea of autonomous, individual ethi- 
cal and political identity, Whitman went on to add that "not 
that half only, individualism which isolates, " is important to 
the idea of spiritual democracy: M there is another half, which 
is adhesiveness or love, that fuses, ties and aggregates, mak- 
ing the races comrades, and fraternizing all. " 13 His conception 
of democracy partakes not only of the Pietist doctrine of the 
autonomous conscience but also the New Testament doctrine 
of the brotherhood of man. His conception of a democratic 
aggregate is consistent not only with the Christian doctrine 
of love (or adhesiveness) but also with his conception of an 
absolute or collective soul. Whitman believed that only such a 
conception of the aggregate could be squared with "the most 
spiritual and vaguest of earth's dreams, yet hardest basic 
fact. " He believed that only such a spiritually and factually 
ordered conception of the aggregate was congenial to the es- 
tablishment and maintenance of moral and political laws as 
reliable and self -regulating as those of phenomenal nature. For 
it is only "this idea of perfect [or universal] individualism," 
said Whitman, "that deepest tinges and gives character to the 
idea of the aggregate. " 14 Only such a democratic conception of 
the aggregate was consistent, at once, with his ideas of the in- 
dividual and the collective soul and with the lessons of nature- 
variety and freedom. Whitman believed that individuality, 
when ordered by respect for the divinely sanctioned individual- 
ities of others, was most conducive to the development in soci- 
ety of variety. Near the end of his Democratic Vistas he wrote: 

As we have shown the New World including in itself the all-leveling 
aggregate of democracy, we show it also including the all-varied, all- 
permitting, all-free theorem of individuality, and erecting therefor 
a lofty and hitherto unoccupied framework or platform, broad enough 
for all, eligible to every farmer and mechanic- to the female equally 
with the male-a towering selfhood, not physically perfect only-not 
satisfied with the mere mind's and learning 1 s store, but religious, 
possessing the idea of the infinite. 15 

Whitman's social and religious conception of democracy was 
ideal, spiritual- ordered by his conceptions of freedom, of 
soul, of universal, spiritual law. It appears to have been the 
principal consequence of his communion with the Inner Light, 
and the positive substance of his vision as seer. 

Whitman's Vision of Democracy 51 

But whenever the seer turns away from his ideal vision, he 
runs into conflict between its afterimage and the spectacle of 
the real world of objects and events. A seer, such as Whitman, 
whose vision of the ideal is social as well as religious is par- 
ticularly susceptible to this hazard. With Whitman as with 
Emerson, Greenough, and Thoreau, the conflict between this 
image of the ideal and the spectacle of the real resolved itself 
into criticism. Hardly less than Emerson, Whitman also was 
eminent "as a critic or diagnoser. " Like Emerson and Green- 
ough he wanted to secure those religious and political freedoms 
that had already been achieved in America by asserting and 
establishing similar freedoms in art and esthetics. Like Tho- 
reau, however, he was less confident than Emerson or Green- 
ough of the security even of the political and religious freedoms 
that had so far been attained. Advancing beyond Emerson and 
Greenough, he argued not only against foreign influences upon 
American art but upon American society as well; like Thoreau 
he criticized not only American art, but American society. 
Whitman has not often been identified as a critic 16 because his 
emphasis is primarily upon positive rather than negative as- 
pects of criticism-upon criticism expressed as prophecy, and 
through the silent defiance of new free forms. 

The negative aspect of Whitman's criticism i& largely im- 
plicit; nevertheless, there remains a considerable body of ex- 
plicit, negative criticism in Whitman's prose writing. Like 
Thoreau, for example, he complained that society in America 
was not simple, and, hence, was uncongenial to proper devel- 
opment of the individual soul. In his Democratic Vistas he 
wrote: "Singleness and normal simplicity and separation, amid 
this more and more complex, more and more artificialized 
state of society-how pensively we yearn for them ! how we 
would welcome their return!" 17 Like Thoreau, he complained 
also that society as currently set up was inimical to soul be- 
cause of its primary concern with acquiring wealth. In Amer- 
ica, he observed, society was more congenial to soul than in 
Europe only in being less firmly established. "As in Europe, " 
he said, 

the wealth of to-day mainly results from and represents, the rapine, 
murder, outrages, treachery, hoggishness, of hundreds of years ago, 
and onward, later, so in America, after the same token- (not yet so 

52 Thoreau and Whitman 

bad, perhaps, or at any rate not so palpable-we have not existed long 
enoughbut we seem to be doing our best to make it up. ) 18 

"Society in these States, " he charged, "is canker'd, crude, 
superstitious, and rotten. Political, or law-made society is, 
and private or voluntary society, is also. " 19 "It is useless to 
deny it. Democracy grows rankly in the thickest, noxious, 
deadliest plants and fruits of all- brings worse and worse in- 
vaders-needs newer, larger, stronger, keener compensations 
and compellers. f * 

Whitman believed that the main trouble with American soci- 
ety, the reason for all the hoggishness, was simply that society 
lacked an adequate or appropriate soul. "In vain, " he said, 
"have we annex'd Texas, California, Alaska, and reach north 
for Canada and south for Cuba. It is as if we were somehow 
being endow'd with a vast and more and more thoroughly- 
appointed body, and then left with little or no soul. tl21 "America 
has yet morally and artistically originated nothing. She seems 
singularly unaware that the models of persons, books, man- 
ners, &c. , appropriate for former conditions and for European 
lands, are but exiles and exotics here." 22 The trouble with 
American society was not only that it lacked soul, but that what 
little it had in the way of a conception of identity or soul was 
inappropriate. "At present, " said Whitman, 

these states, in their theology and social standards (of greater im- 
portance than their political institutions), are entirely held possession 
of by foreign lands. We see the sons and daughters of the New World, 
ignorant of its genius, not yet inaugurating the native, the universal, 
and the near, still importing the distant, the partial, and the dead. 
We see London, Paris, Italy-not originals, superb, as where they 
belong-but second-hand here, where they do not belong. 23 

Like Emerson and Greenough, Whitman saw what he feared 
most in an increasing rather than a decreasing acceptance by 
Americans of imported conceptions of culture. It was this idea 
of culture as generally conceived in America that Whitman 
criticized most violently. Turning to the word "culture, " he 
announced: "We find ourselves abruptly in close quarters with 
the enemy. This word Culture, or what it has come to repre- 
sent, involves by contrast, our whole theme [i.e., spiritual 
democracy], and has been, indeed the spur, urging us to en- 
gagement. " 24 For "as now taught, accepted and carried out, 

Whitman's Vision of Democracy 53 

are not the processes of culture rapidly creating a class of 
supercilious infidels who believe in nothing?" 25 -that is, who 
lack positive faith? Not to develop, through the exploration 
of one's conscience and one's consciousness of the self in 
its universal context, he said, but rather "to prune, gather, 
trim, conform, and even cram and stuff, and be genteel and 
proper, is the pressure of our days. tt26 "Shall a man, " shall 
an American, asked Whitman, be content under the guidance 
of such a foreign conception of culture to "lose himself in 
countless masses of adjustments, and be so shaped with ref- 
erence to this, that, and the other, that the simply good and 
healthy and brave parts of him are reduced and clipp'd away, 
like the bordering of box in a garden?" 27 Unfortunately, said 
Whitman, "taste, intelligence, and culture (so called) have 
[always] been against the masses [i. e. , inimical to democracy 
and soul], and remain so. . . . '* 

Nevertheless, he said, "we pronounce not so much against 
the principle of culture ; we only supervise it, and promulgate 
along with it, as deep, perhaps a deeper principle. tl29 For "the 
best culture" will not be one of emulation and propriety, but 
"will always be that of the manly courageous instincts, and 
loving perceptions, and of self-respect-aiming to form, over 
this continent, an idiocracy of universalism." 30 Whitman diag- 
nosed as treatment for the condition of American society 

a program of culture, drawn out, not for a single class alone . . . but 
with an eye to practical life, the West, the working men, the facts of 
farms and jack-planes and engineers. I should demand [he said] of this 
programme or theory a scope generous enough to include the widest 
human area. 31 

In short, and to sum up, America . . . must for her purposes, cease 
to recognize a theory of character grown of feudal aristocracies, or 
fornVd by merely literary standards, or from any ultramarine, full- 
dress formulas of culture, polish, caste &c., and must sternly pro- 
mulgate her own new standards. . . . 32 

Then we shall 

see that the real interest of this people of ours in the theology, his- 
tory, poetry, politics, and personal models of the past ... is not 
necessarily to mould ourselves or our literature upon them, but to 
obtain fuller, more definite comparisons, warnings, and the insight 
to ourselves, our own present, and our own far grander, different, 
future history, religion, social customs, &c. 33 

54 Thoreau and Whitman 

As indicated in his criticism of American society's con- 
ception of culture, Whitman advanced beyond mere complaint 
to the framing of a positive program. He did not, like Thoreau, 
propose to withdraw from society. He saw at least some reason 
for hope in the political character of American society. In 
"their politics, " he said, "the United States have, in my opin- 
ion, with all their faults, already substantially establish* d, for 
good, on their own native, sound, long- vista 1 d principles, 
never to be overturn' d, offering a sure basis for all the rest. " 34 
He was encouraged also by the vitality of American business 
and industry. "I hail with joy the oceanic, variegated, intense 
practical energy, the demand for facts, even the business 
materialism of the current age, our States, " he said. M But 
woe [he added] to the age or land in which these things, move- 
ments, stopping at themselves, do not tend to ideas. " 35 

These reasons for hope (the political character of America, 
its vigor and wealth) suggested to Whitman that the first two 
stages in the development toward a real and lasting democracy 
had already been realized in a rough way. But the third and 
most important stage had scarcely been envisioned. "For the 
New World, indeed, after two grand stages of preparation- 
strata, I perceive now a third stage, " he said. 

The First stage was the planning and putting on record the political 
foundation rights of immense masses of all people ... in the or- 
ganization of republican, National, State, and municipal govern- 
ments. . . . The Second stage relates to material prosperity, wealth, 
produce, labor-saving machines. . . . The Third stage, rising out 
of the previous ones, to make them all illustrious, I, now, for one, 
promulge, announcing a native- expression- spirit, getting into form, 
adult, and through mentality, for these States, self -con tain' d, dif- 
ferent from others, more expansive, more rich and free, to be ev- 
idenced by original authors and poets to come. . . . 36 

Whitman believed that the realization of this third and last 
stage was absolutely necessary to achieving and securing a 
democracy at once material and spiritual. "Not only is it not 
enough, " he said, 

that the new blood, new frame of democracy shall be vivified and held 
together merely by political means, superficial suffrage, legislation, 
&c., but it is clear to me that, unless it goes deeper, gets at least 
as firm and as warm a hold on men's hearts, emotions and belief, 

Whitman 1 s Vision of Democracy 55 

as, in their day, feudalism or ecclesiasticism, and inaugurates its 
own perennial sources, welling from the centre forever, its strength 
will be defective, its growth doubtful, and its main charm wanting. 3T 

Like many of his fellow Americans, Whitman was aware of 
living in a time of crisis; only he saw the crisis as primarily 
a cultural one. He saw its major issue that of settling upon a 
valid conception of soul for America. TT Not an ordinary one is 
this issue, " he said. According to its outcome, "the United 
States are destined either to surmount the gorgeous history 
of feudalism, or else prove the most tremendous [spiritual and 
social] failure of all time. " 38 Success, he said, would be in- 
dicated, as well as secured by "vigorous, yet unsuspected 
Literatures, perfect personalities and sociologies, original, 
transcendental, and expressing (what, in highest sense, are 
not yet expressed at all) democracy and the modern. " 39 Amer- 
ica, he said, will be unable to "prove itself beyond cavil, 
until it founds and luxuriantly grows its own forms of art, 
poems, schools, theology, displacing all that exists, or that 
has been produced anywhere in the past, under opposite in- 
fluences. " 40 Unfortunately, said Whitman, "the first sign of 
proportional, native imaginative Soul, and first-class works 
to match, is (I cannot too often repeat) so far wanting." 41 

Whitman attributed the lack of an emergent, native American 
culture to the relative immaturity of the country and to its lack 
of an adequate culture hero. He assumed "democracy to be at 
present in its embryo condition, Tt42 and, therefore, he pro- 
jected into the future its eventual fruition, 43 which he believed 
could only come from realizing the need for "a fusion of the 
States into the only reliable identity, the moral and artistic 
one. tr44 Regarding the preoccupation of Americans with amass- 
ing wealth (necessary to sustain democracy but harmful when 
pursued for its own sake), Whitman predicted that: "Soon it 
will be fully realized that ostensible wealth and money-making, 
show luxury &c. , imperatively necessitate something beyond- 
namely, the sane, eternal moral and spiritual-esthetic attri- 
butes, elements." 45 

To hasten the development of an appropriate culture (and of 
an appropriate conception of soul underlying it), Whitman pre- 
scribed "a more splendid theology, and . . . ampler and di- 
viner songs" 46 - both of these to be advanced by his champion 

56 Thoreau and Whitman 

of democracy, of culture, and of soul- the divine literatus. 
"Our fundamental want to-day in the United States, " he said, 
is of a class, and the clear idea of a class, of native authors, lit- 
eratuses, far different, far higher in grade than any yet known, sac- 
erdotal, modern, fit to cope with our occasions, lands, permeating 
the whole mass of American mentality, taste, belief, breathing into 
it a new breath of life, giving it decision, affecting politics far more 
than the popular superficial suffrage . . . accomplishing . . . (what 
neither the schools nor the churches and their clergy have hitherto 
accomplish^, and without which the nation will no more stand, per- 
manently, soundly, than a house will stand without a substratum) a 
religious and moral character beneath the political and productive 
and intellectual bases of the States. . . , 47 

This was the problem, not only for America, but for all of 
humanity. "View'd today, from a point of view sufficiently 
over-arching, " said Whitman, "the problem of humanity all 
over the civilized world is social and religious, and is to be 
met and treated by literature. The priest departs, the divine 
literatus comes." 48 



Whitman's divine literatus amounted to something like a com- 
bination of Carlyle's hero 1 and Emerson's representative 
man, i.e., the representative man as hero: not in the role of 
superman, but in the role of the full- sized man, appropriate 
to Whitman's conception of spiritual democracy, symbol of the 
modern and prototype of the truly democratic citizenry to 
come. M The pride of the United States, " said Whitman, "leaves 
the wealth and finesse of the cities, and all returns of com- 
merce and agriculture, and all the magnitude of geography or 
shows of exterior victory, to enjoy the sight and realization of 
full-sized men, or one full- sized man, unconquerable and 
simple." 2 The full-sized man, he said, "sees health for him- 
self in being one of the masses. . . . " 3 Being aware of the 
identity of his own soul and of its context, he recognizes that 
"to be under the general law is great, for that is to correspond 
with it. " 4 As "libcralist, " said Whitman, the full-sized man 
"has this advantage over antique or medieval times, that his 
doctrine seeks not only to individualize but to universalize. " 5 
He seeks not only to be heroic, but to be representatively so. 
Whitman's full- sized man suggests an incarnation of Emer- 
son's expansive strategy. He embraces all men and all things. 
To him "the idea of political liberty is indispensable. " 6 He is 
a poet: the "one complete lover ... of the known universe." 7 
But above all else, he cultivates and preserves his own soul, 
his identity. Thus, said Whitman, the literatus, the hero, "the 
full man, wisely gathers, culls, absorbs"; he consults other 
societies as well as his own, other cultures. Yet he avoids be- 


58 Thoreau and Whitman 

coming "engaged disproportionately in that. . . . " 8 As culture 
hero, the divine literatus partakes of culture in Whitman's 
modern, democratic sense. "Book learning is good, " said 
Whitman, "let none dispense with it, but a man may [be] of great 
excellence and effect with very little of it ..." may be, in- 
deed, representative and heroic; for "all book knowledge is 
important [only] as helping one T s personal qualities, and the 
use and power of a man. " 9 Whitman went so far as to suggest 
that heroes, "powerful persons and first inventors and poets of 
the earth never come from the depths of the schools-never. " 10 
Such a conception of a culture hero is in line not only with 
Whitman's lack of formal education, but with the Pietist's 
assertion of the divine authority of simple conscience in all 

Whitman's divine literatus was not only a representative, 
full- sized man, and a poet, but a theologian as well. As theo- 
logian his bias was strictly anti-Calvinist. 

Part of the test of a great literatus [said Whitman] shall be the absence 
in him of the idea of the covert, the lurid, the maleficent, the devil, 
the grim estimates inherited from the Puritans, hell, natural de- 
pravity, and the like. The great literatus will be known by his cheer- 
ful simplicity, his adherence to natural standards, his limitless faith 
in God, his reverence, and by the absence in him of doubt, ennui, 
burlesque, persiflage, or any strain' d and temporary fashion. 11 

Whitman's principal complaint against what he called Puritan- 
ism was that it was restrictive. "At the risk of being mis- 
understood, " he said, 

I should dwell on and repeat that a great imaginative literatus for 
America can never be merely good and moral in the conventional 
method. Puritanism and what radiates from it must always be men- 
tion'd by me with respect; then I should say, for this vast and varied 
Commonwealth, geographically and artistically, the puritanical stand- 
ards are constipated, narrow, and non- philosophic. l2 

Accordingly, one of the things that Whitman desired of the 
literatus, one of the things that he considered necessary to 
realize and to secure his idea of spiritual democracy, was a 
new and "more splendid theology" 13 to supplant the inappro- 
priate and alien theologies which had been brought to America 
from European cultures. In line with his expansive strategy 
and with his reluctance to surrender identity to any less en- 

The Divine Literatus 59 

compassing doctrine than his own, Whitman welcomed science 
as an aid to the literatus in establishing this new and more 
appropriate theology. l4 "With science, " he said, 

the old theology of the East, long in its dotage begins evidently to 
die and disappear. But (to mymind) science-and maybe such will 
prove its principal service- as evidently prepares the way for One 
indescribably grander- Time's young but perfect offspring the new 
theology- heir of the West- lusty and loving and wondrous beautiful. 15 

He added that "for America, and for today, just the same as 
any day, the supreme and final science is the science of God 
what we call science being only its minister as Democracy is, 
or shall be also. " 16 Therefore, "in addition to establish'd sci- 
ences, " and extending beyond them, Whitman "suggested] a 
science as it were of healthy average personalism, on original- 
universal grounds, " I7 a science i.e., a theology deriving from 
his conceptions of soul and of spiritual democracy. This su- 
preme science, this theology which Whitman desired of the di- 
vine literatus, involved substantially those ideas regarding soul 
and spiritual democracy which he documented in his prose 
writings and expressed in his verse. 

Whitman's divine literatus (his full-sized man, his poet, 
his theologian) is characterized by the same major activities 
as Emerson's genius: namely, independent thought and crea- 
tive activity. The independent thought, the insight, character- 
istic of Whitman's divine literatus is the principal subject here 
under consideration: it involves Whitman's theology, his vision 
of democracy, his criticism of society, his diagnosis, his 
prescription, his prophecy, his esthetics. But independent 
thought alone is not enough; it requires expression, as theol- 
ogy, as poetry, since it cannot be apprehended by others unless 
it is given form. Thus the culture hero as independent thinker 
must inevitably become the culture hero as artist as the giver 
of objective form to his independent thoughts. And though Whit- 
man admitted that the hero conceived as the doer of great deeds 
was (in Thoreau's sense) the primal artist, 18 he insisted, none- 
theless, that the divine literatus should produce heroic ideas 
and heroic forms as well as heroic actions. "A heroic person, " 
he said, "walks at ease through and out of that custom or pre- 
cedent or authority that suits him not"-he is an independent 
thinker and doer. But, added Whitman, "of the traits of the 

60 Thoreau and Whitmati 

brotherhood [of heroes] of first-class writers, savans, musi- 
cians, inventors and artists, nothing is finer than the silent 
defiance advancing from new free forms. . . . " "He is great- 
est for ever and ever who contributes the greatest original 
practical example." 19 Thus, as critic, Whitman had warned 
"not to blaat constantly ior Native American modes, literature, 
etc., and bluster out 'nothing foreign' . . . it would be best 
not at all to bother with Arguments against the foreign models 
or to help American models-but just go on supplying American 

Whitman's choice of literature as the medium of his cham- 
pion is understandable not only because he himself was a liter- 
ary artist, and because language is the usual medium of theol- 
ogy, but also because language is the most influential, the 
most all encompassing of the arts, and admits, even when re- 
stricted to belles-lettres, the greatest degree of allusiveness. 
Language art, Whitman argued, is the principal and most 
ample source, the primary support and evidence, of culture. 21 
"It is not generally realized, but it is true, " he said, that 

as the genius of Greece, and all the sociology, personality, politics 
and religion of those wonderful states, resides in their literature or 
esthetics, that what was afterwards the main support of European 
chivalry, the feudal, ecclesiastical, dynastic world over there . . . 
was its literature, permeating to the very marrow, especially that 
major part, its enchanting songs, ballads, poems. 22 

Regarding the influence exerted by language arts, Whitman 
observed that "a single new thought, imagination, abstract 
principle, even literary style, fit for the time, put in shape 
by some great literatus, and projected among mankind, may 
duly cause changes, growths, removals, greater that the long- 
est and bloodiest war, or the most stupendous merely political, 
dynastic, or commercial overturn. " 23 Because of the power 
of literature, he said: "Above all previous lands, a great 
original literature is surely to become the justification and 
reliance (in some respects the sole reliance) of American 
democracy/ 124 Unfortunately, a class of representative heroes, 
of divine literatuses, suitable to the achievement of a great 
original literature for democracy was little in evidence. "I 
feel with dejection and amazement, " said Whitman, "that among 
our geniuses and talented writers or speakers, few or none 

The Divine Literatus 61 

have yet spoken to this people, created a single image -making 
work for them, or absorb 1 d the central spirit and the idiosyn- 
cracies which are theirs. . . . Tl25 

American poets especially were anything but exemplars of 
the literatus as culture hero. "The accepted notion of a poet, " 
said Whitman, 

would appear to be a sort of male odalisque, singing or piano-playing 
a kind of spiced ideas, second-hand reminiscences, or toying late 
hours at entertainments in rooms stifling with fashionable scent. I 
think I haven't seen a new-publish'd healthy, bracing, simple lyric 
in ten years. Not long ago there were verses in each of three fresh 
monthlies, from leading authors, and in every one the whole central 
motif (perfectly serious) was the melancholiness of a marriageable 
young woman who didn't get a rich husband, but a poor one ! 26 

Whitman believed such American poets deficient because 
they were insufficiently religious, because they lacked a con- 
ception of soul appropriate to America. "The fatal defects our 
singers labor under, " he said, "are subordination of spirit and 
absence of the concrete and of real patriotism." 27 Whitman's 
conception of the divine literatus is important, therefore, be- 
cause it clarifies, even as it appears to order, his ideas of the 
character and function of the ideal poet. He saw this ideal poet 
as a candid "full-sized man, unconquerable and simple, "-as a 
seer and a prophet, as an apostle of soul . 

Just as Thoreau considered honesty requisite to the poetic 
life and to high art, so Whitman also insisted that "great poets 
are to be known by the absence in them of tricks, and by the 
justification of perfect personal candor. All faults may be for- 
given, " he said, "of him who has perfect candor." 28 The ideal 
poet was to be unconquerable as well as candid and simple in 
being conscious of the identity of his own soul and of its con- 
text. Such consciousness would enable the poet to be candid 
and to rise above the need for deceit or pettiness in defense of 
any hierarchical distinction. "The greatest poet hardly knows 
pettiness or triviality, " said Whitman. "He is a seer- he is 
individual he is complete in himself-the others are as good 
as he, only he sees it, and they do not. Tt29 "The American 
bards, " he said, once having perceived the divine identities 
of their own consciences, as well as the divine identities of 
all others, "shall be mark T d for generosity and affection, and 

62 Thoreau and Whitman 

for encouraging competitors. tt30 The American poet's reaction 
to the competition of other poets, of other schools of poets, 
past or present, will be better poetry rather than invidious 
criticism. "The power to destroy or remould is freely used 
by the greatest poet, " said Whitman, "but seldom the power of 
attack. ... If he does not expose superior models, and prove 
himself by every step he takes, he is not what is wanted. " 31 

Whitman believed that the great poet's strategy should be 
positive rather than negative, creative rather than destructive, 
expansive rather than restrictive. He will be the richest man 
and the greatest poet, in short, who encompasses the most. 
"The most affluent man, " said Whitman, "is he that confronts 
all the shows he sees by equivalents out of the stronger wealth 
of himself." "The American bard [therefore] shall delineate no 
class of persons, nor one or two out of the strata of interest, 
nor love most, nor truth most, nor the soul [as commonly con- 
ceived] most, nor the body most and not be for the Eastern 
States more than the Western, or the Northern States more 
than the Southern, Tt32 but be for each and for all. To the great- 
est poet, "past and present and future are not disjoin'd but 
join'd. The greatest poet forms the consistence of what is to 
be, from what has been and is. " 33 

Yet for all his expansiveness, Whitman's ideal poet was still 
an economist akin to Thoreau' s. Speaking of the poet's virtue, 
prudence, Whitman announced: "It has been thought that the 
prudent citizen was the citizen who applied himself to solid 
gains, and did well for himself and for his family, and com- 
pleted a lawful life without debt or crime. The greatest poet 
sees and admits these economies as he sees the economies of 
food and sleep, but he has higher notions of prudence. tt34 "The 
prudence of mere wealth and respectability of the most es- 
teemed life appears too faint for the eye to observe at all, 
when little and large alike drop quietly aside at the thought of 
the prudence suitable for immortality. . . . " 35 The truly pru- 
dent man, said Whitman, is concerned (like Thoreau' s truly 
economical man) with soul. 

Only the soul is of itself-all else has reference to what ensues. . . . 
The prudence of the greatest poet answers at last the craving and glut 
of the soul, puts off nothing, permits no let-up for its own case or 

The Divine Literatus 63 

any case, has no particular sabbath or judgment day, divides not the 
living from the dead, or the righteous from the unrighteous, is satis- 
fied with the present, matches every thought OP act with its correla- 
tive. . . , 36 

Whitman combines in his conception of the ideal poet the 
expansive strategy of Emerson's metaphysics with the re- 
strictive strategy of Thoreau' s economics: this to an end which 
is similar, at once, to Thoreau' s goal of salvation for the soul 
by living out the life as a work of art, and to Emerson's goal 
of salvation for art via recourse to soul. Despite Whitman's 
concern with salvation, the character of his poet-as-hero is 
not didactic. 'The greatest poet, M he said, "does not moralize 
or make application of morals. " 3? Didacticism, after all, is 
inconsistent with the doctrine of the Inner Light. 38 The poet 
does not preach, said Whitman, because "he knows the soul, " 
and he knows that "the soul has that measureless pride which 
consists in never acknowledging any lessons or deductions but 
its own. But it has [also] sympathy as measureless as its 
pride, and the one balances the other. . . . " 39 The poet's 
subjects, said Whitman, are humanity and nature, as these are 
concretely and phenomenally manifest, but looked upon spirit- 
ually, in terms of insights got from communion with soul. 
Whitman urged poets not to settle in selecting subject matter 
for high poetry upon anything less than real things. "Poet! 
beware, " he warned, "lest your poems are made in the spirit 
that comes from the study of pictures of things-and not from 
the spirit that comes from the contact with real things them- 
selves." 40 Like Thoreau, he insisted upon the poet's deriving 
his art directly from experience. Like Thoreau also, he in- 
sisted that "Nature consists not only in itself, objectively, but 
at least just as much in subjective reflection, from the person, 
spirit, age, looking at it, in the midst of it and absorbing it. 
" 4l 

Both Whitman and Thoreau were concerned with nature as 
the phenomenal context of the individual soul- but Whitman's 
over-all conception of soul was much more social, less pan- 
theistic in its orientation than Thoreau 1 s, and so accordingly 
was his conception of poesis. To Thoreau, poesis was roughly 
equivalent to communion with nature; to Whitman it was more 
nearly equivalent to prophecy. Whitman's poet, although not 

64 Thoreau and Whitman 

neglecting the celebration of phenomenal nature, had assigned 
to him another more important task. 

The land and sea, the animals, fishes and birds, the sky of heaven 
and the orbs, the forest, mountains and rivers are not small themes 
[said Whitman] but folks expect of the poet to indicate more than the 
beauty and dignity which always attaches to dumb real objects. . . . 
M.en and women perceive the beauty well enough- probably as well 
as he. . . . They can never be assisted by poets to perceive [beauty 
in this sense] . 42 

M What the people expect of the great poet" is that he should 
"indicate the path between reality and their souls." 43 The poet 
can do this through the lyrical expression of his individual, 
emotional soul, addressed to all other individual souls and to 
the collective soul. "The poetry of the future, " said Whitman, 
"aims at the free expression of emotion (which means far more 
than appears at first) and to arouse and initiate, more than to 
define or finish. Like a 1 ! modern tendencies it has direct or in- 
direct reference continually to the reader, to you or me, to the 
central identity of everything, the mighty Ego. tt44 

Whitman believed that the mark of the greatest poets is reg- 
istered in their concern with this central matter of identity. 
Such concern he said connects Shakespeare with George Fox. 
"What, " he asked, "is poor plain George Fox, compared to 
William Shakespeare to fancy's lord, imagination's heir? Yet 
George Fox stands for something too-a thought- the thought 
that wakes in silent hours perhaps the deepest, most eternal 
thought latent in the human soul. This is the thought of God, 
merged in the thoughts of moral right and the immortality of 
identity" 45 identity which is the "most spiritual and vaguest 
of earth 1 s dreams, yet hardest basic fact. ..." 

Whitman believed, in effect, that the expressions of the ideal 
poet are both inspiring and inspired, that they constitute the 
better part of prophecy. "Prediction, " said Whitman, "is a 
minor part of prophecy. The great matter is to reveal and out- 
pour the God-like suggestions pressing for birth in the soul." 46 
As a prophet, he said, "the great poet has less a mark'd style, 
and is more the channel of thoughts and things without increase 
or diminution, and is the free channel of himself. " 47 He con- 
sults himself, his own soul, his consciousness of the self in 
its total spiritual and phenomenal context, and, in a manner at 

The Divine Literatus 65 

once poetical and oracular, "without effort and without exposing 
in the least how it is done . . . brings the spirit of any or all 
events and passions and scenes and persons some more and 
some less to bear on your individual character as you hear or 
read. To do this well, " said Whitman, "is to compete with the 
laws that pursue and follow time. " 48 It is to produce poetic ex- 
pression that is at once spiritual and factual, at once personal 
and universal. 



Intimately involved in Whitman's poetics is his esthetics. In 
one sense the entire discussion of Whitman so far has con- 
cerned his esthetics. Yet for the very reason that Whitman's 
esthetics is directly involved in his religious conviction, in 
his ethics, his esthetics qua esthetics is hard to get at. Be- 
cause of this difficulty it will be prudent to begin by way of con- 
sidering Whitman first, in company with Emerson, Greenough, 
and Thoreau, as an esthetic Protestant. 

Like other esthetic Protestants, Whitman objected to the 
dominion of artistic institutions over art. In a manner char- 
acteristic of Emerson, he argued against the strictures of 
traditional schools of art by expanding the term M school" to 
the point of encompassing all humanity. Referring to "schools 
of art- the French school, the German school, the English 
school, " he said: "What do I care for a school? any school? 
There's only one school: I don't know what to name it. I be- 
long to that school, whatever its name; the human school, the 
man and woman school, the heart school. . . . " l Along with 
the various "schools, " Whitman rejected "the conventional 
themes, " in his Leaves of Grass, "the stock ornamentation 
. . . choice of plots . . . legends . . . myth . . . romance 
. . . euphemism . . . rhyme." His principal concern was 
with an original, self -regulating art unhampered by the pro- 
scriptions of styles, of rimes or rhetorics, of themes or plots 
deriving from other times and other occasions than his own. 
These he considered inimical to original art. "All original 
art, " he said, quoting Taine, "is self-regulated, and no origi- 


Whitman's Esthetics 67 

nal art can be regulated from without; it carries its own coun- 
terpoise, and does not receive it from elsewhere lives on its 
own blood. tt2 

Like others who turned away from the rules and customs of 
a prescriptive esthetics, Whitman spoke of nature as superior 
to most art. "Nature is rude at first, " he said, "but once begun 
never tires. Most works of art tire. " 3 To Whitman, as to 
Emerson and Thoreau, nature was beautiful per se ("the only 
complete actual poem"), altogether and in each of its parts. 
"I do not doubt but the majesty and beauty of the world are 
latent in any iota of the world, tt4 he said. Yet Whitman did not 
subscribe to literal imitation of phenomenal nature any more 
than to imitation of prior art forms. He warned against the 
"useless attempt to repeat the material creation, by daguerre- 
otyping the exact likeness by mortal, mental means." 5 "No 
prepared picture, no elaborate poem, no after narrative, " 
said Whitman, "could be what the thing itself is. " 6 Indeed, "the 
true use of the imaginative faculty" is not to imitate natural 
objects literally, but to illuminate all the facts and phenomena 
of nature, principally human nature, by means of the poet's 
awareness of identity or soul. It is "to give ultimate vivifica- 
tion to facts, to science, and to common lives, endow them 
with the glows and glories and final illustriousness which be- 
longs to every real thing and to real things only." 7 It was by 
means of facts (objects and phenomena) represented by words 
and considered in terms of identity or soul that Whitman pro- 
posed to unite the ideal with the real, the spiritual with the 
physical in his art. 

"The process," said Whitman, whereby an art, at once factual 
and spiritual, is expressed, "so far, is indirect and peculiar, 
and though it may be suggested, cannot be defined. " 8 It in- 
volves, in a variety of modes, the artist's unhampered ap- 
proach to his subject. The artist, said Whitman, via 

observing, rapport, and with intuition, the shows and forms presented 
by Nature, the sensuous luxuriance, the beautiful in living men and 
women, the actual play of passions in history and life . . . out of 
these, and seizing what is in them, the poet, the esthetic worker, in 
any field, by the divine magic of his genius, projects them, their anal- 
ogies, by curious removes, indirections, in literature and art. . . . 
This is the image -making faculty, coping with the material creation, 
and rivaling, almost triumphing over it. 9 

68 Thoreau and Whitman 

Yet, said Whitman, "to put anywhere before the human eye 
indoors or out, that which distorts honest shapes, or which 
creates unearthly beings or places or contingencies, is a nui- 
sance and revolt. " 10 

Whitman believed that the problem of the artist was to en- 
liven, to vivify, and to make illustrious, real things, doing so 
indirectly, without either copying them exactly, or distorting 
their identities. A working out of this problem is perhaps best 
demonstrated in the paintings of Whitman's friend Thomas 
Eakins. 11 In Eakins' portrait of Whitman one can see a portrait 
which works by indirections. It is very much as Whitman would 
have art be, and provides a graphic demonstration of what 
Whitman was after in the larger canvas of his poems. Eakins 1 
is a work which regards not only the physical features of Whit- 
man's person, but also the spiritual facts of Whitman's own 
conception of identity, of self, of soul. Such presentation of 
material facts ordered by the supreme fact, the supreme idea 
of identity, is fundamental to Whitman's esthetics. This idea 
of identity entered into Whitman's view of nature as well. Not 
only variety and freedom, he said, but the particular quality 
of identity or being which attends these, is the lesson of nature. 
"The quality of Being, in the object's self, according to its own 
central ideal and purpose, and growing therefrom and thereto- 
is the lesson of Nature t|12 -for men and for art. As has been 
suggested, Whitman was much less concerned with explaining 
the development of natural forms, and with deriving from 
natural principles a guide to a creative art process, than he 
was with celebrating nature and natural phenomena as the con- 
text of the most exalted forms of identity or be ing- men and 
women . 

One main contrast of the ideas behind every page of my verses, com- 
pared with establish'd poems [he said] is their different relative at- 
titude towards God, towards the objective universe, and still more 
(by reflection, confession, assumption, &c.) the quite changed atti- 
tude of the ego, the one chanting or talking, towards himself and to- 
wards his fellow -humanity. 12 

Whitman's esthetics, as suggested by his lyric mode, is 
predicated upon the expression of this self -consciousness of 
identity or being through appropriate, self -regulating forms. 
Such a point of departure for a theory of creative activity ap- 

Whitman 1 s Esthetics 69 

pears quite radically different from Emerson's, or Green - 
ough's, or Thoreau' s; and yet Whitman also refers to a version 
of natural principle-one suggested to him by the quality in 
nature of identity or being. Radically different as it appears 
in comparison with the attitudes of Emerson, Greenough, and 
Thoreau, Whitman's attitude suggests little more than a Pietist- 
colored extension of the expressionistic view implicit in Tho- 
reau' s assertion that the poet's life is the highest art form. 
Like Thoreau, Whitman asserted the validity of communion 
with nature for the sake of the individual soul; but he also as- 
serted the validity of art-expression for the sake of America's 
collective soul. He was concerned not only with poesis as com- 
munion but with poesis as expression and as prophecy. Whitman 
was as much a communicant as any of the other transcenden- 
talists. But his emphasis as a communicant was upon the Inner 
Light, and that emphasis extended his concern beyond com- 
munion itself to the expression as art of the insights deriving 
from it. 

Whitman saw art properly conceived as an instrument to be 
used in realizing his scheme of salvation, and he denied the 
value of creative activity and of art solely for their own sake . 
He proposed to include in his art "nothing" solely "for beauty's 
sake." His scheme of salvation did not permit him to apply to art 
itself, at its full strength, his conception of being or identity. 
He refused to raise man's art to a level equal to or above that 
of man himself. He saw that although the art form as fact has 
an autonomous identity of its own, it does not have identity at 
the same level as the fully developed man, the literatus, of 
whose life it is the mere by-product (even when conceived as 
the flower or fruit of that life). Whitman saw in admitting art 
and beauty for their own sake the danger of divorcing art from 
life. And he called accordingly for a literature not "merely to 
copy and reflect existing surfaces, or pander to what is called 
taste not only to amuse, pass away time, celebrate the beau- 
tiful, the refined, the past, or exhibit technical, rhythmic, or 
grammatical dexterity but a literature underlying life, reli- 
gious. . . ," 14 

He was unwilling to accept any attitude toward art which was 
contrary to this request. Thus speaking of "art for art's sake, " 
he said: 

70 Thoreau and Whitman 

. . . think of it-art for art's sake. Let a man really accept that- let 
that really be his ruling thought-and he is lost . . . politics for poli- 
tic' s sake, church for church's sake, talk for talk's sake, government 
for government's sake: state it any way you chose it becomes offen- 
sive: it's all out of the same pit. Instead of regarding literature only 
as a weapon, an instrument, in the service of something larger than 
itself, it looks upon itself as an end as a fact to be finally worshipped 
and adored. 15 

"To me, " he said, "that's all a horrible blasphemy-a bad- 
smelling apostasy. " 16 "I think of art as something to serve the 
people [not the state] the mass: when it fails to do that it's 
false to its promise." 17 Of art criticism, therefore, he an- 
announced that although 

it may be that all works of art are first to be tried by their [strictly] 
art qualities, their image forming talent, and their dramatic, pic- 
torial, plot-constructing, euphonious and other talents . . . [yet, ] 
whenever claiming to be first-class works, they are to be strictly 
and sternly tried by their foundation in, and radiation, in the highest 
sense, and always indirectly, of the ethic principles, and eligibility 
to free, arouse, dilate. 18 

High art, Whitman believed, must have this ethical character 
underlying its art qualities in order to escape the eventual ex- 
cesses, the irrelevancies deriving from a highly developed but 
precious concern with "art. " 

On this particular score Whitman agreed with Charles Bau- 
delaire that "immoderate taste for beauty and art leads men 
into monstrous excesses. " 19 Concern with the esthetic must be 
ordered by a higher concern with soul. "'The true question to 
ask of art, f " said Whitman, quoting the librarian of Congress, 
"'the true question to ask respecting a book, is, has it help'd 
any human soul?'" 20 Of his own art, Whitman wrote, "No one 
will get at my verses who insists upon viewing them as a liter- 
ary performance, or attempt at such performance [merely], or 
as aiming mainly toward art or aestheticism." 21 As this passage 
suggests, the major terms by way of which Whitman's esthetics 
is to be approached are not exclusively terms such as "art, " 
"beauty, " "poetry, " but also the nonesthetic, religious, social, 
and political terms already discussed (e.g., "soul, " "self, " 
"being, " "democracy") that Whitman brought to bear upon 
esthetic considerations. 

Whitman' s E sthetics 7 1 

Whitman was considerably less concerned with defining 
esthetic terms than Emerson, Greenough, or Thoreau. What 
he said about the definitions of such terms as "poetry, " "re- 
ligion, " "love, " "nature, " appears representative of his at- 
titude toward definition in general: 

Let me not dare, here or anywhere, for my own purposes, to attempt 
the definition of poetry, nor answer the question what it is. Like Re- 
ligion, Love, Nature, while those terms are indispensable, and we 
all give a sufficiently accurate meaning to them, in my opinion no 
definition that has ever been made sufficiently encloses the name of 
Poetry. . . , 22 

Whitman appears to have been aware that precise definition 
might endanger an expansive strategy. Nevertheless, he did 
give particular values to certain indispensable terms whether 
he defined them or not, and the problem of getting at the mean- 
ings of these terms is one of examining the uses to which the 
terms have been put in context. For the most part Whitman's 
uses of such terms as "art" and "beauty" involve those general 
meanings which he considered sufficiently accurate for common 
discourse. But Whitman's uses of the terms "aestheticism" and 
"esthetic" or "esthetik" are another matter, since they suggest 
by their employment a distinction in Whitman's mind between 
good esthetics and bad esthetics. 

He seems to have used the root term "esthetic" in four some- 
what different senses. And though it may be unwise to rely too 
heavily upon orthographic variations in discriminating one of 
Whitman's meanings of a term from another, the fact remains 
that in the five different places where he uses the terms "es- 
thetic" or "esthetik" in either favorable or neutral context he 
uses the simplified spelling of the term, and in the one place 
where he uses the term "aestheticism" in a derogatory sense, 
he retains the more conservative spelling. 23 In the latter case, 
Whitman uses the term "aestheticism" pretty much in Baum- 
garten's sense, meaning "criticism of taste, Tf24 although that 
meaning is mingled somewhat with the more common, suf- 
ficiently understood meaning of the term, denoting things artis- 
tic in general. Referring to "the poet, the esthetic worker in 
any field, tt25 Whitman uses the term in this second, general, 
and rather neutral sense . In using the term with reference to 
the eventual spiritual awakening of American society, Whitman 

72 Thoreau and Whitman 

suggests a third, positive meaning of the term, as associated 
with soul or spirituality. He refers thus to M the sane, eternal 
moral and spiritual-esthetic attributes of American society. ?t26 
In the following passage from "Poetry To-Day in America, " 
Whitman amplifies his positive meaning of the term "esthetik, M 
suggesting finally that it involves not only the artistic and the 
spiritual, but the expression of these by appropriate "native 
expressers. " 

Though no esthetik worth the present condition or future certainties 
of the New World seems to have been outlined in men's minds, or has 
been generally called for, or thought needed, I am clear that until the 
United States have just such definite and native expressers in the high- 
est artistic fields their mere political, geographical, wealth-forming, 
and even intellectual eminence . . . will constitute but a more and 
more expanded and well appointed body, and perhaps brain, with little 
or n0 soul. 27 

In advancing an esthetics of expression, Whitman comes much 
closer to Thoreau than to Emerson or Greenough, who were 
more concerned as theorists with "esthetics" in the older 
Greek sense (defended by Kant) meaning "the science which 
treats of the conditions of sensuous perception. Tt28 It is not 
quite accurate to suggest that Whitman was not concerned with 
the perception of beauty, since he clearly was. The fact re- 
mains, however, that he was more directly concerned with 
apprehending and expressing the thought of identity than with 
apprehending and creating beauty per se. 

Like Emerson, Greenough, and Thoreau, Whitman sub- 
scribed to the Unitarian proposition that art should be simple 
and economical, that forms should grow out of their purports 
or functions, and that art (i.e., his poems) should suggest a 
unity in something like Emerson's cosmic sense of standing in 
relation to all things. "The art of art, the glory of expres- 
sion, " said Whitman, "is simplicity. Tt29 "Of ornaments to a 
work nothing outre can be allow* d. . . . Most works are beau- 
tiful without ornaments. " 30 Speaking of Leaves of Grass, in the 
1872 Preface, he said, "my form has strictly grown from my 
purports and facts and is the analogy of them. " 31 "My poems, " 
he said, "when complete should be a unity in the same sense 
that the earth is. . . . tt32 Yet Whitman was not concerned, as 
Emerson and Greenough, with unity in the abstract, as a con- 

Whitman's Esthetics 73 

cept applied to the assessment of beauty, or as one of the prin- 
cipal devices of the mind. Although he subscribed to versions 
of Emerson's simplicity and Greenough' s completeness, Whit- 
man did so in a characteristically different way. To a greater 
extent than Thoreau, even, he concerned himself more with 
saving the soul here, by means of art and beauty, than with 
saving art by re-establishing its connection with Deity. 

Such esthetic conceptions of unity as may be educed from 
Whitman's prose writings appear to derive from his prior re- 
ligious conceptions; and they differ as his religious conceptions 
differed from the religious conceptions of Emerson, Greenough, 
and Thoreau. Whitman's conception of soul, of identity, i.e., 
of unity, was threefold. Underlying this threefold conception of 
soul is the basic idea of identity or being, in the Hegelian sense. 
Whitman did not develop this idea to the extent, or in the man- 
ner, that Emerson explored his concept of unity or Greenough 
his concept of completeness. He probably did not do so because 
he was not functioning primarily in the role of a philosopher, 
or esthetician, but rather in the role of a prophet-one con- 
cerned with promulgating a new theology, a new poetry. 

What amounts to Whitman's religious conception of unity cen- 
ters around his idea of an awareness of personal identity got 
through communion, and expressed as literature rather than 
as discursive argument. The basic idea of unity with which 
Whitman concerned himself as poet and divine literatus in- 
volved that particular human identity or being which is capable 
of self-conscious awareness. "In the center of all" his verse, 
he said, "and the object of all, stands the Human Being, towards 
whose heroic and spiritual evolution poems and everything 
directly or indirectly tend. . . ," 33 Whitman's initial extension 
of his idea of unity was also ordered by this idea of awareness, 
and resulted in his asserting that each human being ought to be 
aware not only of his own identity but of the rightful place of 
that identity in the context of all other identities, personal and 
phenomenal. Whitman's extension, by way of a program of ac- 
tion for these two complementary versions of a conception of 
identity, involved their expression by means of literature. 
Thus, he had announced in reference to Leaves of Grass: 
"Indeed (I cannot too often reiterate) [it] has mainly been the 
outcropping of my own emotional and other personal nature 

74 Thoreau and Whitman 

an attempt, from the first to last, to put a Person, a human 
being (myself, in the latter half of the nineteenth century, in 
America) freely and truly on record. tt34 "As I have lived in fresh 
lands, inchoate, and in a revolutionary age, future -founding, I 
have felt to identify the points of that age, these lands, in my 
recitatives, altogether in my own way. " 35 In such expression, 
he said, whether it be manifest as theology, as art, or as lit- 
erature, "the spirit and the form are one, and depend far more 
on association, identity and place, than is supposed. " 3e Whit- 
man's development of these ideas of identity suggests, roughly, 
social versions of those static, organic, and cosmic orders of 
unity which Emerson saw the mind ascribing to things con- 
sidered beautiful- with this important difference: that all three 
orders of unity or identity in Whitman's scheme are given focus 
by his idea of soul rather than by a theory of the cosmos or the 

Implicit in Whitman's conception of soul as literature is the 
idea that literature is the organic expression of insight got 
from realizing the idea of identity and the facts of identity. To 
Whitman beauty was the result, properly, of such expression. 
To him, not beauty but appropriate expression (which is beau- 
tiful per se) is to be sought by the artist. Hence, Whitman's 
attitude toward words: "The words of true poems give you more 
than poems. . . . They do not seek beauty- they are sought, 
Forever touching them, or close upon them follows beauty. " 37 
This amounts to saying that words have greater, albeit more 
nebulous, meaning out of context than in, and leads to Whit- 
man's assertion that the thing which orders words, which fixes 
at one instance in language some of the meanings of them is 
"the purport" of the author. What is responsible for the selec- 
tion of a particular word is the experience, the facts of the 
author's acquaintance with language and with the things that 
suggest language. 

By way of pursuing this matter further it will be well to re- 
view in some detail Whitman's assertion that "My form has 
strictly grown from my purports and facts and is the analogy 
of them." 38 As has been suggested, Whitman's purport as an 
artist was twofold. In the first place it was to promulgate the 
idea of identity by means of art addressed to the soul. Such art 
was to operate by indirections, i.e., by demonstration rather 

Whitman's Esthetics 75 

than by assertion. This demonstration was Whitman's second 
purport, and involved recording the identity of an exemplary 
person, himself, his facts (phenomenal, emotional, conceptual) 
fully and truly. 

That the form of Whitman's art actually did grow from his 
purports and facts can hardly be denied. It is possible to argue 
by way of weakening Whitman's organic assertion- either in 
spreading it too thin or in making it sound commonplace that 
what he has asserted is too true, that it applies to all artists 
good or bad and is, therefore, of little value. To this argument 
it may be suggested in riposte that applicability to all cases is 
the primary character of universal propositions, which are still 
treasured by philosophers, scientists, and critics. It may be 
suggested as well that the theorems of Euclid are also common- 

But the matter at hand is not solely the validity of what Whit- 
man said about the genesis of art forms; it is also how what he 
said relates to what Emerson, Greenough, and Thoreau said. 
In company with these others, Whitman subscribed to the 
growth analogy taken from organic forms in nature. "The 
rhyme and uniformity of perfect poems, " he said, M show the 
free growth of metrical laws, and bud from them as unerringly 
and loosely as lilacs and roses on a bush. . . . " 39 Like these 
other theorists, Whitman asserted the necessity in art of or- 
ganic or dynamic unity. His assertion, however, that forms 
grow from the purports and facts of the artist is a more highly 
developed version of Emerson's assertion that the mind as- 
cribes beauty to those forms which it sees exactly answering 
their ends, and it bears a somewhat different emphasis from 
Emerson's assertion. It approaches in a different way the 
question which immediately follows the general assertion that 
art forms ought to grow out of, and in response to, their 
functions. That question is: Specifically what functions? 

The various assertions representing what is commonly called 
the organic principle that have been made by Emerson, Green- 
ough, Thoreau, and Whitman suggest several answers to this 
question. Emerson's assertion that "every necessary or or- 
ganic action pleases the beholder" indicates his primary con- 
cern with function in its fine-art (i.e., principally psycho- 
logical) sense. Greenough' s concern with completeness, with 

76 Thoreau and Whitman 

the sublime as "a mental perception of relations'" suggests a 
similar attention to function in this fine-art sense. His distinc- 
tion, however, between the monumental and the domestic func- 
tions of architecture extends consideration into the area of 
useful-art function relating more to the satisfaction of crea- 
ture-type wants than to those exclusively of the mind. Tho- 
reau extends this domestic- or useful-art consideration of 
function beyond the service of utilitarian or creature functions 
to include within it a religious function of art. He appears to 
have considered man's fine-art requirements fulfilled ade- 
quately enough by natural forms, leaving to the forms of man's 
art the fulfillment of those useful -art functions which contribute 
to the conduct of the life as art. Like Thoreau, Whitman was 
also concerned with the religious functions of artonly he in- 
sisted that art, even Thoreau's life-as-art, should serve re- 
ligious functions that are social as well as personal, that 
contribute to the salvation of society as well as that of the 

Taken altogether, the several views regarding the functions 
of art forms that were entertained by Emerson, Greenough, 
Thoreau, and Whitman suggest that form may be considered in 
terms of function at four different levels: (1) at the level of the 
mind, concerning the intellectual operations that create the art 
object and order appreciation of it; (2) at the level of the art 
object itself, concerning the relations of the materials and 
functions of the parts to the functions of the whole; (3) at the 
level of the artist, concerning the relations of the artist's 
forms to his view of the world and of the good life for himself; 
and finally (4) at the level of society, concerning the relations 
of the artist's entire work to his conception of his role in soci- 
ety. These categories of consideration embrace what might be 
called the fine art, the useful art, the personal, and the social 
functions of art forms. Together they encompass in general 
outline nearly all of the commoner ways of applying the idea 
of function to the consideration of art. 

It is perhaps well to mention in passing that Whitman's ver- 
sion of Emerson's static conception of unity (involving ideas 
of unity conceived in terms of singleness, simplicity, of bal- 
ance, proportion, precision) is not, strictly speaking, static 
at all, since it derives from the identity of the artist and comes 

Whitman's Esthetics 77 

to his art organically by way of his expressing that identity. 
Whitman considered simplicity mainly in terms of the identity 
of "the full-sized man, unconquerable and simple"; but the 
simplicity of this full- sized man involved both candor and a 
kind of economy. With regard to simplicity conceived as candor 
Whitman had said that "all faults may be forgiven him who has 
perfect candor." He considered simplicity, conceived as can- 
dor, to be "the art of art, the glory of expression. " T Nothing, " 
he said, 

is better than simplicity-nothing can make up for excess, or for lack 
of definiteness. To carry on the heave of impulse and pierce intellec- 
tual depths and give all subjects their articulations, are powers nei- 
ther common nor very uncommon. But to speak in literature with the 
perfect rectitude and insouciance of the movements of animals and 
the unimpeachableness of the sentiments of the trees in the woods and 
grass by the roadside, is the flawless triumph of art. 40 

Whitman would have the artist and his art be as simple and 
candid as objects in phenomenal nature. 

Such candor involves as its corollary the denial of all ideas, 
of all ornaments brought to the work from outside e. g. , from 
irrelevant feudal and tribal traditions. Like Greenough, Whit- 
man argued that "those ornaments can be allow ? d that conform 
to the perfect facts of the open air, and that flow out of the 
nature of the work, and come irrepressibly from it, and are 
necessary to the completion of the work." 41 Like Thoreau he 
insisted that the "nature of the work, " including its ornamenta- 
tion, derives initially and relates ultimately to the character, 
the identity of the artist as expresser. He argued that "the 
fluency and ornaments of the finest poems or music or ora- 
tions or recitations are not independent [of the expresser] but 
dependent. All beauty, " he said, "comes from beautiful blood 
and a beautiful brain, tt42 i. e., from the identity of the ex- 
presser. "If the greatnesses are in conjunction in a man or 
woman it is enough. " "The fact will prevail through the uni- 
verse . . . but the gaggery and guilt of a million years will 
not prevail. Who troubles himself about his ornaments or 
fluency is lost." 43 "Words, " the media of fluency, the stuff of 
ornament in language, said Whitman, "follow character nativ- 
ity, independence, individuality. Tf44 To this may be added that 
not only the artist's words but the ideas he candidly expresses 

78 Thoreau and Whitman 

with them follow his character, his nativity, his individuality. 

Whitman's insistence upon candor and economy, his insist- 
ence upon simplicity and directness of expression, may be 
accountable in part to his lack of education in the formal rhet- 
oric of ornament. It appears accountable in greater part, how- 
ever, to his having accepted the Quaker's traditional pref- 
erences: simplicity, lack of ornamentation, plain clothing, 
plain speech, direct action. Candid expression as well as di- 
rect, economical action are the natural corollaries of the idea 
of direct communion. The temperament that subscribes to one 
is likely to subscribe to ail-to deal as directly as possible with 
the problems of knowing, saying, and doing. Whitman's "pru- 
dence M and Thoreau' s "economy" represent, in a sense, ver- 
sions of this mode of direct approach. 

Whitman was not primarily concerned with unity conceived as 
proportion or balance in the conventional rhetorical sense, 
i.e., in terms of the physical arrangement of lines or locutions 
on a page. He conceived of proportion, of balance, in terms of 
that which in art is to be expressed: in his own art, of insights 
into the facts of identity and the idea of identity. His work is 
characterized, therefore, less by a lack of proportion, of bal- 
ance or precision, than by his own particular versions of these 
things. To Whitman proportion in art was achieved less by 
physical arrangement than by the artist's insight into the mat- 
ters of soul, of identity and the facts of identity-by his har- 
monious expression of these in his art. Whitman believed that 
beauty results from a candid expression of this special sense 
of proportion. Such expression, he said, 

is no chance of miss or hit- it is as inevitable as life- it is exact and 
plumb as gravitation. From the eyesight [of the communicant] pro- 
ceeds another eyesight, and from the hearing proceeds another hear- 
ing, and from the voice proceeds another voice, eternally curious of 
the harmony of things with man. These understand the law of perfec- 
tion in masses and floods. . . . This is the reason that about the 
proper expression of beauty there is a precision and balance. [This is 
the reason that] one part does not need to be thrust above another. 45 

Whitman's conception of balance does not rest, however, at 
the level of mere equalitarian inclusiveness. It extends beyond 
it, and involves a kind of Hegelian synthesis which character- 
izes both Whitman's art and his individual and general con- 

Whitman's Esthetics 79 

ceptionsof identity or soul. Indeed, Whitman's conception of 
democracy, insofar as it is ordered by these first two elements 
(the individual and the general) of his conception of soul appears 
to approximate the "Hegelian formula" as applied to "the cate- 
gories of Essence." As G. R. G. Mure points out in referring 
to Hegel's thesis -antithesis -synthesis formula, 

we shall find [regarding categories of essence, that] the relation of 
thesis to antithesis fis] that of identity to diversity, or of immediacy 
to mediation, rather than that of sheer affirmation to sheer negation. 
Here the synthesis will show identity in diversity, but in every triad 
the aspects of cancellation and preservation will be present together 
and almost in equipoise. 46 

Such is the relationship between the identity of self and of All in 
Whitman's conception of democracy. That Whitman was at 
least aware of the Hegelian formula, that he may have done 
serious reading in Hegel's logic, is suggested by his refer- 
ence to it. 47 However, he may have developed independently 
his conceptions of soul, balance, and proportion, and merely 
noticed in passing the similarity between the German philos- 
opher 1 s line of reasoning and the results of his own com- 
munion with consciousness. 

In any case Whitman's idea of balance, although apparently 
equalitarian, 48 involves the further idea of synthesis; and the 
particular kinds of inclusiveness characteristic of Whitman's 
verse are designed to serve that synthesis. Whitman was con- 
cerned with the synthesis of the one with the many, of the ideal 
with the real, in society and in his art. In society the synthesis 
of the one with the many (of self with All) was to be achieved by 
promulgating the idea of democracy. The synthesis of the ideal 
with the real (of the spiritual with the material) was to be 
achieved in the same way, by promulgating an ideal conception 
of identity which was more realistic than the current heroic 
conception deriving from feudal circumstances. Whitman be- 
lieved that only a conception of identity which was consistent 
with the idea of the individual self, which was consistent with 
that M most spiritual and vaguest of earth's dreams, yet hardest 
of basic facts"-one capable of generalization without at the 
same time denying individual identities-was sufficiently real- 
istic, as well as sufficiently ideal, for modern society. 

Whitman's art was designed not only as an instrument to be 

80 Thoreau and Whitman 

employed in achieving for society a synthesis of the one with 
the many, of the real with the ideal, but it was designed also 
as an exemplary demonstration of that kind of synthesis. A 
synthesis of the real with the ideal, of the material with the 
spiritual, was fundamental to the very kind of poetry that Whit- 
man was writing. The material or real was involved in his con- 
cern with the facts of human experience, with his use of words 
as things; the spiritual, or ideal, was involved in his concern 
with vivifying these facts, not by means of imitation or by un- 
usual arrangement, but by means of their consideration in 
terms of his democratic conception of identity. Whitman at- 
tempted to achieve in his art a synthesis of the self with All 
by portraying the representative self as hero- by portraying 
his own identity, his nativity, his connections with his phenom- 
enal and social context his containment of multitudes. 

Whitman expressed this containment of multitudes in his 
poetry indirectly through his copious use of nouns and lists of 
nouns. These nouns are indirect to the extent that they are used 
boldly, as dots of paint were used by Seurat, to suggest facts; 
and they lead like the dots of paint, when viewed from the 
proper point of view (i. e. , one like Whitman's) to a kind of 
agglomerative synthesis. By suggesting the identities of various 
"Essential" categories of persons in America, e.g., teamsters, 
carpenters, prostitutes, soldiers, savants, along with the facts, 
the objects, and places common to their experiences-express 
wagons, broadaxes, tenements, artillery pieces, books, Ore- 
gons, Brooklyns, Dakotas, Paumanoks- Whitman presents 
factually yet indirectly his idea of identity and the facts of that 
identity, in short, his world picture. The over-all or cosmic 
unity of Whitman's poetry derives accordingly from this world 
picture. Hence Whitman's statement that his "poems when com- 
plete should be a unity, in the same sense that the earth is, or 
that the human body (senses, soul, head, trunk, feet, blood, 
viscera, man-root, eyes, hair), or that of a perfect musical 
composition is." 49 Hence, the "great constituent elements of 
[his] poetry . . . viz. : Materialism-Spirituality M50 -and hence, 
the difficulty of getting at Whitman's poetry by routes of ap- 
proach deriving exclusively from knowledge of earlier poets 
who subscribed to different conceptions of identity, and of 
unity to different views of art, of artists, and of the world. 

Whitman's Esthetics 81 

The equalitarian, the inclusive, balance suggested by Whit- 
man's particular use of nouns in his poetry does not show up 
readily in its proper role, as leading to a cosmic unity or syn- 
thesis, unless it is viewed in terms of Whitman's world picture. 
Unfortunately this final synthesis, this over-all or cosmic unity 
which characterizes Whitman's art, does not become as clear 
in Leaves of Grass, for example, as does a similar synthesis 
in Eakins' portrait of Whitman, which is directed toward a 
similar end. This is so in part because Whitman's canvas is 
much larger and its draftsmanship more complex than Eakins', 
because his work includes more facts, because it comes much 
closer than Eakins' to standing in relation to all things. It is 
so also because the mind does not synthesize the sensory ef- 
fects of words as readily as the mind guided by the retina does 
the effects of blobs of paint. These are two of the principal 
reasons that the purport of Whitman's verse (its character, its 
intention, its meaning) is more difficult to apprehend than that 
of Eakins' work which is ordered by similar principles. The 
third and most important reason that Whitman's purport is 
difficult to see, that his conceptions of unity are difficult to 
apprehend, is that his work is regularly studied in terms of 
purports and conceptions of unity that are inapplicable to it. 
His poetry will be obscure to some, argued Whitman, exactly 
because of its pur port- because it is addressed to the soul. 
"Poetic style, M he said, "when address'd to the soul is less 
definite form, outline, sculpture, and becomes vista music, 
half-tints, and even less than half - tints. M51 Whitman argued 
that such obscurity was necessary to insure that his poetry 
would be approachable only from the proper point of view. 
Such poetry, he said, though aiming at completion, must be 
forever incomplete until its readers have worked through its 
demonstrations to an awareness of their own identities as seen 
in Whitman's terms and in fulfillment of Whitman's purport. 

"In fact, " he said 

a new theory of literary composition for imaginative works of the very 
first class, and especially for higher poems, is the sole course open 
to these States. Books are to be call'd for and supplied, on the as- 
sumption that the process of reading is not a half-sleep, but, in the 
highest sense, an exercise, a gymnast's struggle; that the reader is 
to do something for himself, must be on the alert, must himself or 

82 Thoreau and Whitman 

herself construct indeed the poem, argument, history, metaphys- 
ical essay- the text furnishing the hints, the clue, the start or frame- 
work. Not the book needs so much to be complete but the reader of the 
book does. That were to make a nation of supple and athletic minds, 
well- train 1 d$ intuitive, used to depend on themselves, and not on a 
few coteries of writers. M 

"I seek less, " he concluded, "to state or display any theme or 
thought, and more to bring you, reader, into the atmosphere of 
the theme or thought- there to pursue your own f light 1 ' 8B - i. e. , 
your own identity. Whitman's concern as literatus, as poet, as 
theologian, as representative American, was with the matter of 
identity (as self, as All), and its proper expression; and this 
matter of identity orders his ethics, his poetics, his esthetics; 
it orders his conceptions of unity, order, design. And this 
matter of identity, therefore, must condition any thoroughgoing 
critique of Whitman's art and his art theory. This is not to 
suggest that Whitman's conceptions of unity, of balance, of 
synthesis lead to anything exactly like the "system" suggested 
by Hegel's logic. However, it is to suggest that there is more 
design in Whitman's argument than he gets credit for. 



Like Emerson, Greenough, and Thoreau, Whitman was inter- 
ested in other arts than his own; like them his interest focused 
in part upon architecture. He believed that American architec- 
ture was as fit a subject for poetic treatment, as much repre- 
sentative of the facts and identity of America, as its rivers, its 
teamsters, its savants. In his "Notes and Fragments, " he 
scribbled the suggestion for a "Poem of Architecture? The 
Carpenter's and Mason's Poem, tfl which he fulfilled in part 
with his "Song of the Exposition, " and his "Song of the Broad- 

What Whitman said about architecture supports, by giving 
clear and simple examples, the purport he announced in his 
poetics. Like Emerson he descended to lower ground in dis- 
cussing architecture. As is natural to poets, he considered 
language arts the highest: "To make a perfect composition in 
words, " he said, "is more than to make the best building or 
machine, or the best statue, or picture-It shall be the glory of 
the greatest master to make perfect compositions in words. " 2 
In company with Emerson he considered painting and sculpture 
declining in importance. "I am not sure, " he said, "but the day 
for conventional monuments, statues, memorials, &c., has 
pass f d away and that they are henceforth superfluous and 
vulgar." 3 "It would seem painting, sculpture, and dramatic 
theater ... no longer play an indispensable or even important 
part in the workings and mediumship of intellect, utility, or 
even high esthetics." 4 But "architecture remains, doubtless 
with capacities, and a real future. . . . " 5 Regarding the state 


84 Thoreau and Whitman 

of current architecture, however, Whitman made some major 

His criticism of American architecture was ordered by his 
ideas of simplicity, economy, and of prudence. Along with 
Emerson, Thoreau, and Greenough, he objected to the over- 
emphasis of the monumental or showy features of public archi- 
tecture- to the display in such architecture of the builder's or 
proprietor's concern with displaying wealth. Grace Church, 
he said, "is by superficial observers called beautiful. The 
proper word is not beautiful but showy. " 6 

Grace Church inside and out is a showy piece of architecture, and the 
furnishing of the pews, the covering of the luxurious cushions, etc. , 
appear to be unexceptionable, viewed with the eye of an upholsterer. 
The stainless marble, the columns, and curiously carved tracery, 
are so attractive that the unsophisticated ones of the congregation may 
well be pardoned if they pay more attention to the workmanship about 
them than to the preaching. 7 

We don't see how, " said Whitman, "it is possible for people to 
worship God there. It is a place where the world, and the 
world's traits, and the little petty passions and weaknesses of 
human nature, seem to be as broad blown and flush as upon the 
Exchange in Wall Street, Broadway, or any mart of trade, of a 
week day. " 8 

Like Greenough, Whitman saw some evidence of mature at- 
tention in public architecture to its domestic- or useful-art 
functions. And like Greenough he saw also that American public 
architecture as a whole had a long way to go before it could ar- 
rive even at zero. "In Broadway, " he said, 

grand edifices have become so much a matter of course that what 
would ten years ago have caused the greatest admiration and comment, 
is now altogether passe. Some of the most magnificent stores in the 
world are now on Broadway-with still greater to come. With all these, 
among the elder buildings, only the Astor House, in its massive and 
simple elegance, stands as yet unsurpassed as a specimen of exqui- 
site design and perfect proportion. It is thoroughly modern in its uses 
and appropriateness to its purpose, but classic and severe as a Greek 
temple. 9 

Like Greenough, Whitman objected to the unconsidered bor- 
rowing of Greek forms without attention to Greek principles. 

Whitman on Architecture 85 

He observed that 

the Savings Bank in Bleeker street just east of Broadway is Grecian, 
of the most ornamental and florid order. It is a wonderful and lovely 
edifice. But the surroundings, (the Greeks always had reference to 
these, ) are enough to spoil it- let alone the discordant idea of a Greek 
temple, (very likely to Venus) for a modern Savings Bank I 10 

Such considerations as these make one laugh at the architecture of the 
New York Custom House, with its white sides and its mighty fluted 
pillars. In the original some twenty-three or five hundred years ago, 
when Socrates wandered the streets of Athens talking with young men 
. . . there stood the original, the temple of the ideal goddess, the 
learned, brave, and chaste Minerva. It was of immense extent, and 
was manly, a simple roof supported by columns. There were per- 
formed the rites- in that city and among that people, they and the 
building belonged. And to that the United States government has gone 
back and brought down (a miniature of it, ) to modern America in Wall 
street, amid these people these years, for a place to settle our fi- 
nances and tariffs. How amusing! 11 

Like Greenough, Whitman concluded that "at the present, few 
persons pay any attention to architecture in its higher planes, 
its philosophy, its reference to all other things, few have any 
profound idea of beauty in a building. f?12 For he believed that 
true beauty, in building as in poetry, was the result of simple, 
candid expression of the facts and purports of the structure, of 
its site, its materials, its intended functions the consideration 
of these ordered always by his conception of democracy. Thus, 
even as he was concerned with the nature of words as things, as 
the raw stuff of poetry representing by indirections the facts of 
American experience, Whitman was also concerned with the 
nature of building materials as the raw stuff of architectural 
expression, representing likewise the facts of American ex- 
perience. Regarding the Crystal Palace, he commended the 
increasing use of iron and glass. He considered these materials 
more representative of the facts of modern society than feudal 
stone. "Iron and glass, " he said, "are going to enter more 
largely into the composition of buildings. So far iron used in 
large edifices is a perfect success. " 13 It is only a short step 
from Whitman 1 s statement here to Frank Lloyd Wright's insis- 

86 Thoreau and Whitman 

tence upon the candid expression (i.e., respect) of the nature 
of materials in architecture. 

In architecture as in poetry Whitman saw beauty resulting 
from proper expression achieved not only by attention to facts- 
to the materials and environs of the work, the facts of human 
identity but by attention also to the efficient fulfillment of pur- 
ports or functions. Like Greenough he saw the finest current 
expression of architectural functions, not in America's public 
architecture, but in its naval architecture. M The huge hull'd 
clean-shap'd New York Clipper, " he said, "at sea under steam 
or full sail gleams with unmatched beauty." 14 More like Tho- 
reau, however, he was concerned mainly with the domestic 
functions of architecture ashore. He insisted that domestic 
architecture ought to contribute to the realization of democ- 
racy. Like Thoreau he questioned the morality implicit in cur- 
rent standards of American dwelling-house architecture, par- 
ticularly in large cities. Unlike Thoreau he did not suggest 
withdrawing from society to cabins in the woods; rather he pro- 
posed the construction in congested areas of tenement flats 
and in suburban areas of low cost housing. 

Like Thoreau, Whitman charged that America's domestic 
architecture was too costly, and for that reason immoral. He 
blamed this condition upon the current preoccupation in Amer- 
ica (in New York City at any rate) with the acquisition of wealth 
and with its ostentatious display. In a long newspaper article he 
objected to what he called "Wicked Architecture. " Such archi- 
tecture, he said, was 

not wicked in carelessness of material construction, like the crumbly 
structures sometimes run up in our city by mercenary builders, that 
prove death-traps to the inmates; nor in purpose, like an Inquisition 
or a panel- thief's haunt; but in the uprighteous spirit of ostentation 
that unconsciously directs it, and in the manifold and frightful social 
evils following from it. 15 

"It may not at first appear, " said Whitman, 

that the architecture of New York has any very distinct connection 
with anything good or evil. But there is a connection, and one start- 
lingly close and efficient. The domestic architecture- the dwelling 
house architecture- of the city (for our Architectural Wickedness 
exists mainly there), even though perhaps not absolutely in itself the 
efficient cause of evil, is the most striking type of that condition of 

Whitman on Architecture 87 

social morality which is the fertile hot-bed for evils the most enor- 
mous. 18 

Whitman considered New York dwelling-house architecture 
to be wicked because it did not provide adequately for the 
proper functioning of the family of modest means. He con- 
sidered a spacious, well-lighted, well -ventilated dwelling suit- 
able for family living to be one of the three material prerequi- 
sites to the development of democracy. "A house to live in, " he 
said, "is the third great necessity; food and clothing being be- 
fore it." "Furthermore it is in some sense true that a man is 
not a whole and complete man unless he owns a house and the 
ground it stands on. . . ." l7 

Whitman believed accordingly that New York architecture 
was wicked (i.e., inadequate to the realization of democracy) 
because of the high cost of real estate and ostentatious treat- 
ment of it. "In New York, " he said, "closed in by rivers, press- 
ing desperately toward the business center at its southern end, 
and characterized by an unparalleled fierceness in money 
chasing, land is dear. This of course makes the possession 
of it a basis for an increased ostentation of it; for the dearer 
a thing is, the more pride in showing it." 18 This building of 
large, ostentatious dwellings by rich and ostentatious persons 
would not lead to wicked consequences, argued Whitman, if it 
were not for the fact that the "ways of thinking, throughout so- 
ciety are more or less formed on patterns set by the rich. " 
The unfortunate consequence of these patterns of thought was 
that "as a general principle . . . among all ranks except the 
poorest, there is a habit of occupying houses outrageously and 
absurdly too expensive, whether in prime cost or in rent, for 
the resources of the occupant. " 19 The wicked consequences 
traceable directly to such a habit were those inherent in the 
boarding house or rooming house existence caused by the need 
of owners or renters of moderate means to sublet, and by the 
need of families of even smaller means to rent cheap dwelling 
space, however inadequate. The boarding house, argued Whit- 
man, was a poor substitute for a home. He considered it "sim- 
ply a place to keep a man's trunk and his wife while he is at 
work, and where he had breakfast, tea, and sleeping room." 
"All day long, " he added, "these thousands arid thousands of 

88 Thoreau and Whitman 

wives, many of them with their children, are left alone, with- 
out responsibility, with little or no employment . . . they spin 
street yarns in Broadway; shop; dine at Taylor's or Thomp- 
son's; make calls; talk scandal; sleep. There is no chance for 
the gathering of the wretched husband's family. ? * 

By way of achieving a domestic architecture appropriate to 
the needs of the urban family in an emerging democracy, Whit- 
man advanced two relatively simple plans. These he admitted 
were not to be considered long range solutions of the problem. 
"Of whatever remedies are applicable to this state of things, " 
he wrote, "many are too profound and remote even to be stated 
in a newspaper article. Tt21 Yet by way of practical suggestion 
for immediate relief from some of the wickedness, he sug- 
gested for metropolitan areas in which property was expensive 

the erection of tenement-houses, so arranged that each floor is a 
complete isolated habitation by itself. . . .- Such tenements, judi- 
ciously located and handsomely furnished, could be rented at rea- 
sonable rates; would restore to many of the 'married bachelors 1 a 
place for their household goods, a home and hearth of their own . . . 
would furnish the unoccupied minds and listless bodies of their wives 
with the stimulus and responsibilities which they need, and which God 
meant for them: and last-and least- yet most necessary of all, could, 
as may be demonstrated, yield a remunerative percentage on the in- 
vestment of the capitalist. 22 

Better still, as a means of eliminating the consequences of 
boarding-house living, Whitman suggested low- cost, suburban 
construction similar to that already appearing in Brooklyn. 
"Our architectural greatness, " he said, consists not in the 
mansions of Manhattan, but "in the hundreds and thousands of 
superb private dwellings, for the comfort and luxury of the 
great body of middle class people-a kind of architecture un- 
known until comparatively late times, and no where known to 
such an extent as in Brooklyn. . . . T|23 He saw the validity of 
such a scheme of domestic architecture confirmed by the rapid 
growth of Brooklyn. "Perhaps the principal reason after all, " 
he said, "of the unprecedented growth of Brooklyn in population 
is to be found in the fact that here men of moderate means may 
find homes at moderate rent, whereas in New York there T is 
no medium 1 between a palatial mansion and a dilapidated hovel. 

Whitman on Architecture 89 

In such a community as Brooklyn, "men of moderate means, 
living say at the rate of a thousand dollars a year or there- 
abouts, " can live decently. "These men, comprising the most 
valuable class in any community . . . cannot afford to consume 
their salaries in paying house rent as they would inevitably be 
forced to do in New York if they wished to live in a respectable 
neighborhood. . . . Tl25 "Property owners, " concluded Whitman, 
"will, we think, find their account in erecting just such a class 
of buildings. There is a popular demand for them and nothing 
else will suit the people/* 6 Voicing an effective popular demand 
for appropriate dwelling houses, rather than retreating to even 
more primitive living accommodations, as at Walden, was 
Whitman's recommendation for combating the general wicked- 
ness of American domestic architecture. Yet his attitude 
toward architecture was in the long run more like Thoreau's 
than, for example, Greenough's. Despite Whitman's concern 
with public architecture, despite his sympathetic interest in 
machinery, in building materials, the fact remains that he was 
more concerned with saving the soul (with the help of an appro- 
priate architecture) than he was with saving architecture per 
se. With respect to architecture at any rate, Whitman appears 
something like an urban, social, Quaker version of Thoreau. 



Considered as estheticians only, apart from any examination 
of their art forms, Thoreau and Whitman are worth attending to 
because they have interesting and important things to say about 
some of the essential qualities of art and beauty. They have 
significant things to say about the nature of the artist and his 
responsibilities to himself and to his art- even as they have 
significant things to say about the artist's connections with his 
God, with nature, and with society. 

These things continue to be intrinsically as well as histori- 
cally significant because as writers Thoreau and Whitman were 
concerned as much with selecting appropriate strategies of 
thought as they were with chosing appropriate subject matter. 
As a consequence, in the process of explaining their theories 
they sometimes reveal not only unusual insights, but demon- 
strate significant modes of perspective significant ways of 
achieving even further insights. Their writings are thus rich 
in suggestion. The things Thoreau and Whitman have to say on 
what amounts to esthetics continue relevant in our own time not 
only because these writers concerned themselves with matters 
of strategy and perspective in regarding subject matter, but 
also because neither one of them ever abandoned his basic 
assumption that a man's life itself must regulate the focus of 
his attention- whether that attention is directed upon art, or 
nature, or society, or salvation. And a man's life itself con- 
tinues, even now, to be a topic of lively and relevant concern. 

It is perhaps appropriate to say something at this point about 
the period in which this study of Thoreau and Whitman is being 


Conclusion 91 

presented. It is a period which, from some viewpoints, appears 
to be marked by a reviving religious enthusiasm among intel- 
lectuals-many of whom are at the same time persons of a de- 
cidedly esthetic bent. It is perhaps for this very reason that 
Thoreau and Whitman are particularly instructive to us now: 
they suggest some valid relations between currently popular 
views of what can only be called religion (views similar to 
those entertained by these earlier writers) and the highly so- 
phisticated art theories and art forms that surround our daily 
lives- and to which many of both the older and the newer ver- 
sions of these religious views correspond. Indeed, even as 
Thoreau and Whitman have served us once in advancing from 
predominately religious considerations to predominately es- 
thetic ones, they may now serve us again in suggesting the way 
back to establishing once more a desirable if not a necessary 
balance in our esthetic considerations between spiritual and 
formal concerns. It is just such a balance as this that these 
two writers never ceased to recommend-a balance, however, 
which we have not always chosen to consider important in our 
excitement with the prospect of applying particular materials 
and particular forms to our art. 

We must never allow ourselves to forget, in this connection, 
that as estheticians Thoreau and Whitman were deeply con- 
cerned with salvation, and particularly with the role which art 
can play in contributing to it. It is important to remember, at 
the same time, that these writers concerned themselves with 
salvation in what amounts to a combination of both religious 
and secular (of both spiritual and worldly) senses. Thoreau, it 
will be remembered, was as deeply concerned as Cotton 
Mather ever was with the salvation of his soul, but unlike 
Mather he was concerned with saving his soul here, in this 
life, by way of living poetically the life of the true commun- 
icant in nature. Whitman, for his part, was concerned with 
salvation not only here, not only for himself as poet, not only 
for the individual democratic citizen, but for the whole nation, 
the entire hemisphere, the entire world, and, if possible, for 
all times to come. 

Particularly in regarding Whitman's scheme of salvation, it 
is important to emphasize his concern with proposing an ade- 
quate art for democracy. Indeed, despite its difficult expres- 

92 Thoreau and Whitman 

sion, we get from Whitman one of the best descriptions of that 
spiritual democracy which is prerequisite to a healthy, lasting 
democratic society (as well as to an appropriately democratic 
art-expression) that has yet been uttered by a poet- theorist. As 
a theorist Whitman advances a step beyond Thoreau 1 s scheme 
of salvation for the individual self, suggesting that salvation is 
a social as well as a religious and an individual matter. In so 
doing he posits, for one thing, a new democratic conception of 
the heroic attitude. It is with reference to his crucial ideas of 
the hero and of the attitude appropriate to the hero that Whit- 
man is most commonly and perhaps most grievously misunder- 
stood. This is so, in part, because Whitman, whether as poet 
or as theorist, is a difficult writer. Particularly in regarding 
Whitman 1 s prose statements of his theory, readers have tended 
to assume merely because the statements are difficult to un- 
derstand-because they are full of high level abstractions often 
left undefined- that these statements must necessarily be mean- 
ingless. This simply is not so. 

There is no denying that Whitman is a difficult writer, but 
he is so for good and sufficient reasons. His theorizing is more 
difficult than Thoreau 1 s only in part because of the turgidity of 
Whitman 1 s prose. In many ways Whitman 1 s ideas themselves 
are more difficult than Thoreau 1 s, partly because they are 
more abstruse, partly because they are less familiar, and 
partly because they are more comprehensive. Whitman not 
only concerned himself, as did Thoreau, with living the indi- 
vidual life as poem, but he concerned himself also with such 
matters as the nature of the ideal man f s conception of self. He 
was concerned with the ideal social and religious conditions, 
with the ideal art and the ideal artists to produce such art, that 
are necessary to the full realization and maintenance of his 
scheme of salvation, which was more comprehensive than 
Thoreau 1 s- namely, with the realization of a truly democratic 
society. In proposing to reform society rather than to escape 
from its restrictions, Whitman took on a lot of responsibility, 
and in his theory took on a large measure of difficulty, that 
Thoreau avoided. 

As has been suggested, Whitman tends both in his theory and 
in his art forms to be more difficult than Thoreau partly be- 
cause he is less conventional. The old learning can be applied 

Conclusion 93 

to Thoreau; he translates; his tropes are recognizable as such; 
he can be measured with conventional instruments-albeit such 
measurement requires both caution and wit. Whitman, as in 
stating his theory fte tells us, has set out to be a poet that can- 
not be measured against a conventional scale; he posits a hero 
that is essentially unapproachable by way of conventional per- 
spectives; his epic is not epic, his elegy is not elegiac in 
grossly conventional ways; his prosody, like his conception 
of the hero, is steadfastly nonfeudal, nonmedieval, insofar, 
indeed, as Whitman has been able to make it consistently so. 

Although, as had been suggested, the esthetics of Thoreau 
and Whitman appear to be quite different, at least at the level 
of surface consideration, they have a great deal fundamentally 
in common. And it is precisely because they do have a great 
deal in common despite differences in emphasis and scope that 
these theories deserve to be studied together. Indeed, study of 
the one man's esthetic tends to inform study of the other's. 
Thus, even though Thoreau is more conventionally approachable 
as a theorist than Whitman, he is in some ways more radical 
in his attitudes. This is not the kind of thing a person is likely 
to discover without first comparing the two men's theories in 
considerable detail. By the same token, Thoreau' s discussions 
regarding economy and the importance, practically, of achiev- 
ing salvation here tend to inform Whitman's own discussions of 
the meanings he assigns to "prudence" and "soul. " 

Although the relations between Whitman's ideas and Emer- 
son's have come to be taken pretty much for granted, similar 
kinds of relationships between Whitman's ideas and Thoreau' s 
have not been given much attention. This book is designed to 
help fill in with some additional detail that larger scheme of 
relationships which it has been suggested do exist between the 
esthetic theories of those of our major writer-theorists who 
participated in what has been labeled the American Renais- 


Chapter One (pp. 3-9) 

1. Henry David Thoreau, Journal, ed. Bradford Torrey (14 vols. ; 
Boston: Houghton Miff lin Co., 1906), I, 240. The separately numbered 
Journal comprises volumes VII-XX of The Writings of Henry David 
Thoreau. Thus Vol. I of the Journal is Vol. VII of the Writings. 

2. Ibid., V, 4. 

3. Ibid., I, 464. 

4. Ibid., I, 51. 

5. Ibid., Ill, 157. 

6. Ibid., DC, 214. 

7. Thoreau, The Writings of Henry David Thoreau, ed. Bradford 
Torrey (20 vols. ; Boston: Houghton Miff lin Co., 1906), I, 310 (A Week 
on the Concord and Merrimac Rivers). 

8. Journal, IV, 126. 

9. Ibid., IV, 80. 

10. Writings, II, 81 (Walden). 

11. Ibid., VI, 213-14 (Familiar Letters). My italics. 

12. Ibid., I, 310 (A Week . . .). 

13. Ibid., II, 9 (Walden). 

14. Ibid., II, 79. 

15. Ibid., II, 35. 

16. Journal, in, 241. 

17. Writings, H, 101 (Walden). 

18. Journal, V, 446. 

19. Writings, H, 34 (Walden). 

20. Ibid., II, 31. 

21. Ibid., II, 77. 

22. Ibid., II, 36. 

23. Ibid., II, 29. 

24. 7&*d., II, 76-77. 


96 Notes 

25. Ibid., II, 57. 

26. Journal, ID, 271-72. 

27. Ibid., II, 193. 

28. Ibid., I, 306. 

29. Writings, II, 21 (Walden). 

30. Ibid. 

31. Journal, VII, 221. 

32. Writings, VI, 161 (Familiar Letters). 

33. Journal, V, 411. 

34. Ibid., V, 410. 

35. 7&zY/., V, 412. 

36. Journal, DC, 246-47. 

37. Ibid., I, 368. 

38. Writings, II, 16 (Wa/rfew>. 

39. Ibid., II, 57. 

40. Writings, VI, 259 (Familiar Letters). 

Chapter Two (pp. 10-18) 

1. Henry David Thoreau, Journal, ed. Bradford Torrey (14 vols. ; 
Boston: Houghton Mifflin Co., 1906), IV, 415. 

2. Ibid., DC, 205. 

3. Ibid., V, 506. 

4. Ibid., X, 252. 

5. Ibid. , DC, 336. 

6. Ibid., DC, 209. 

7. Ibid. , DC, 208. 

8. Ibid. , X, 363-64. 

9. Ibid. , VI, 294. 

10. Ibid. , X, 127. 

11. Ibid., IV, 422. 

12. Ralph Waldo Emerson, The Journals of Ralph Waldo Emerson, 
1820-1876, ed. Edward Waldo Emerson and Waldo Emerson Forbes 
(10 vols. ; Boston: Houghton Mifflin Co., 1909-14), I, 313. 

13. Thoreau, The Writings of Henry David Thoreau, ed. Bradford 
Torrey (20 vols. ; Boston: Houghton Mifflin Co., 1906), I, 350 (A Week 
on the Concord and Merritnac Rivers). 

14. Ibid. 

15. Emerson, Journals, VI, 370-71. 

16. Thoreau, Journal, VIII, 44. 

17. Emerson, Journals, HI, 474. 

18. Thoreau, Journal, IV, 351. 

19. Ibid.,V, 135. 

20. Ibid., Kill, 168-69. 

21. Ibid., IV, 174. 

22. Ibid., IV, 470. 

23. Ibid., V, 4. 

Notes 97 

24. Tbid., XIV, 117. 

25. Ibid., Xin, 141. 

26. Ibid. , X, 294. 

27. Ibid. t XI, 285-86. 

28. Lee Marten Nash, Ecology in the Writings of Henry David Tho- 
reau, Master 1 s thesis (No. 7065), University of Washington, 1951, 
p. 81. 

29. Journal, HI, 257. 

30. Ibid., Ill, 281. 

31. Nash, Ecology in the Writings of Henry David Thoreau, p. 18. 

32. Journal, XIV, 119. 

33. Ibid. 

34. Philip and Kathryn Whitford, in their article, 'Thoreau: Pioneer 
Ecologist and Conservationist, " have concluded in this regard: "The 
lack of statistical analysis, which is the quality which a modern ecolo- 
gist would criticize first, was a lack shared by all biological sciences 
in Thoreau* s day. It is probably this lack that has caused Thoreau to be 
accepted slowly as a scientist, for, though his work was done before 
1862, most of it was not known until the Journals were published in 1906, 
and by that time the concept of science had undergone the radical changes 
which brought increasing emphasis upon statistical analysis. . . . " 
Scientific Monthly, Vol. 73 (Nov., 1951), 291-96. 

35. Journal, XII, 28. 

36. Ibid., X, 164-65. 

37. Ibid., IV, 236. 

38. Ibid. 

39. Ibid. 

40. Writings, V, 131 (Excursions and Poems). 

41. Ibid. 

42. Journal, IX, 490. 

43. Ibid., X, 69. 

44. Ibid., IX, 121. 

Chapter Three (pp. 19-27) 

1. Henry David Thoreau, Journal, ed. Bradford Torrey (14 vols. ; 
Boston: Houghton Miff lin Co., 1906), III, 401. 

2. Ralph Waldo Emerson, The Journals of Ralph Waldo Emerson, 
1820-1876, ed. Edward Waldo Emerson and Waldo Emerson Forbes 
(10 vols. ; Boston: Houghton Miffhn Co., 1909-14), DC, 546. 

3. Ibid., VI, 124. 

4. Thoreau, Journal, III, 119. 

5. Thoreau, The Writings of Henry David Thoreau, ed. Bradford 
Torrey (20 vols. ; Boston: Houghton Mifflin Co., 1906), I, 350 (A Week 
on the Concord and Merrimac Rivers). 

6. Journal, III, 99. 

7. Ibid., Ill, 368. 

98 Notes 

8. Writings, I, 363 (A Week . . .). 

9. Journal, I, 328. 

10. Ibid., I, 450-51. 

11. Ibid., IV, 158. 

12. Ibid. 

13. Ibid., IV, 239. 

14. Ibid., XI, 153. 

15. #/., m, 311. 

16. Ibid., H, 83. 

17. Ibid., m, 232. 

18. Ibid., X, 344. 

19. Writings, I, 365 (A 

20. Journal, n, 469. 

21. Writings, I, 400 fA 

22. F. 0. Mathiessen,Aw^cawflew07Ssawce (New York: Oxford Uni- 
versity Press, 1941), p. 133. 

23. Journal, I, 240. 

24. Writings, I, 365 (A Week . . .). 

25. Journal, X, 239-40. 

26. Ibid., X, 159. 

27. Writings, V, 125 ("Natural History of Massachusetts"). 

28. Charles R. Metzger, Emerson and Greenough (Berkeley and Los 
Angeles: University of California Press, 1954), pp. 39-43. 

29. Journal, I, 92. 

30. Ibid., in, 324. 

31. Ibid., I, 360. 

32. Ibid., VH, 504. 

33. Ibid., I, 271. 

34. Ibid. , V, 368. 

35. Ibid. , VIII, 109-10. 

36. Ibid., XI, 37. 

37. Ibid., XI, 96. 

38. Ibid., V, 322. 

39. Ibid., VIE, 44-45. 

40. Ibid., XI, 285. 

41. Ibid. 

42. TfczW., H, 166. 

43. Ibid., I, 145. 

44. Ibid., VI, 56. 

45. 7&*W., I, 308. 

46. Ibid.,X, 80. 

47. Ibid., I, 271. 

48. Ibid. ,1, 367-68. 

49. 7&*W., I, 167. 

50. Ibid. 

51. Ibid., I, 343. 

Notes 99 

52. Ibid., I, 275. 

53. Ibid., XI, 296. 

54. Writings, VI, 94 (Familiar Letters). 

55. Journal, I, 153. Compare this statement with the discussion of 
Whitman and Hegel, pp. 78-79. 

56. Ibid., V, 135. 

57. Ibid., DC, 121. 

Chapter Four (pp. 28-38) 

1. Henry David Thoreau, Journal, ed. Bradford Torrey (14 vols. ; 
Boston: Houghton Miff lin Co., 1906), VIII, 464. 

2. Ibid., VII, 461. 

3. The Writings of Henry David Thoreau, ed. Bradford Torrey (20 
vols. ; Boston: Houghton Mifflin Co. , 1906), II, 64-65 (Walden). Emerson 
had reported a similar sentiment of Greenough: "In the old Egyptian, and 
in the middle age architecture he [Greenough], sees only 'cost to the con- 
stituency, ' prodigious toil of prostrate humanity. M The Journals of Ralph 
Waldo Emerson, 1820-1876, ed. Edward Waldo Emerson and Waldo Em- 
erson Forbes (19 vols. ; Boston: Houghton Mifflin Co. , 1909-14), VIII, 320. 

4. Thoreau, Journal, IV, 153. 

5. Ibid., IV, 152. 

6. Horatio Greenough, Form and Function, Remarks on Art by 
Horatio Greenough, ed. Harold A. Small (Berkeley and Los Angeles: 
University of California Press, 1947), pp. 20-21. 

7. Writings,, II, 51 (Walden). 

8. Ibid. 

9. Ibid., II, 39. 

10. Ibid., II, 37. 

11. Journal, III, 240-41. 

12. Writings, V, 100 (Excursions). 

13. Ibid. 

14. Writings, IV, 28-29 (Cape Cod). 

15. Ibid. 

16. Journal, I, 361. 

17. F. O. Mathiessen, American Renaissance (New York, Oxford 
University Press, 1941), p. 153. 

18. Greenough died December 18, 1852. 

19. Journal, III, 181-83. 

20. Ibid., Ill, 183. 

21. Greenough, Form and Function, pp. 60-61. 

22. Journal, XI, 227. 

23. Greenough, Form and Function, p. 59. 

24. Ibid. 

25. Journal, V, 525-26. 

26. Ibid., HI, 183. 

27. Greenough, Form and Function, p. 74. 

100 Notes 

28. Ibid., pp. 80-81. 

29. Ibid., p. 58. 

30. Ibid., p. 122. 

31. Ibid., pp. 80-81. 

32. Both Thoreau and Greenough preceded Wright in their concern 
with the nature and functions of buildmg materials: Greenough in com- 
plaining of the friable sandstone used in Washington, Thoreau in studying 
not only the habitat but the structural uses of trees. See also Whitman's 
references to cast iron and glass in his An American Primer, ed. Hor- 
ace L. Traubel (Boston: Small, Maynardand Co., 1904), p. 8. 

33. Journal, n, 278-79. 

34. Writings, n, 74 (Widen). 

35. Journal, I, 367. 

36. Ibid., VI, 137. 

37. Writings, H, 51-52 (Walden). 

38. Ibid. 

39. Ibid. 

40. Greenough, Form and Function, p. 71. 

41. Writings, II, 51. A resolution of the conflict which Thoreau saw 
between his desire to improve the individual's life and Greenough' s de- 
sire to improve architecture can be seen in Frank Lloyd Wright's asser- 
tion that good architecture can influence the life of the indweller as well 
as reflect it. 

42. Ralph Waldo Emerson, "The Poet, " Essays by Ralph Waldo Emer- 
son, Second Series (Boston: Houghton Mifflin Co., 1903), p. 37. 

Chapter Five (pp. 39-46) 

1. Walt Whitman, The Complete Writings of Walt Whitman, ed. 
Richard Maurice Bucke, Thomas B. Harned, and Horace L. Traubel 
(Paumanok Edition, 10 vols. ; New York: G. P. Putnam's Sons, 1902), 
V, 270 (Prose Works, II, "Notes Leftover"). The separately numbered 
Prose Works comprises volumes IV -X of The Complete Writings of Walt 
Whitman. Thus Vol. II of the Prose Works is Vol. V of The Complete 

2. Ibid., V, 265. 

3. That Whitman was profoundly influenced by Pietist religious 
thought is suggested by the references in his prose writings to his mater- 
nal grandmother's being a Quaker, to his mention of being taken as a child 
by his father to hear Elias Hicks preach, by his several references to 
George Fox and to Hicks (especially the thirty pages of notes for a pro- 
posed biography of Hicks), Complete Writings, Vol. VI, as well as the em- 
ployment in his poetry of Quaker ideas and terminology: e. g. , the "Idea 
of God being male and female" (see Emory Holloway, "Walt Whitman 
and the Shakers, " Colophon, February, 1933) and his "constant use of 
Quaker terminology, such as First Day, Fifth Month, and other forms 
of plain and direct speech of historic Quakerism" (see Howard W. Hintz, 

Notes 101 

"The Quakerism of Walt Whitman, "Modern American Vistas [New York: 
The Dryden Press, 1940], p. 456). 

4. Emerson had observed, for example, that "the Unitarian preacher 
who sees that his Orthodox hearer may with reason complain that the 
preaching is not serious, is by that admission judged. . . . But when 
a man speaks from deeper convictions than any party faith, when he 
declares the simple truth, he finds his relation to the Calvinist or Meth- 
odist or Infidel at once changed in the most agreeable manner. He is of 
their faith, says each. It is really a spiritual power which stopped the 
mouths of the regular priests in the presence of the fervent First Quaker 
and his friends. If the dead-alive never learned it before that they do 
not speak with authority from the highest, they learn it then, when a 
commissioned man comes, who speaks because he cannot hold back the 
message that is in his heart. " The Journals of Ralph Waldo Emerson, 
1820-1876, ed. Edward Waldo Emerson and Waldo Emerson Forbes 
(10 vols. ; Boston: Houghton Mifflin Co., 1909-14), I, 313. 

5. Writings, V, 191 ("Collect"). 

6. Ibid., V, 182 ("Preface of 1855 to Leaves of Grass 1 '). 

7. Ibid., IX, 151. 

8. Ibid. , IV, 183 ("Specimen Days"). 

9. "It seems indeed, " wrote Whitman, "as if peace and nutriment 
from heaven subtly filter into me as I slowly hobble down these country 
lanes and across fields, in the good air-as I sit here in solitude with 
Nature-open, voiceless, mystic, far removed yet palpable eloquent 
Nature. I merge myself into the scene, in the perfect day. "7&&/.,IV, 182. 

10. Ralph Waldo Emerson, The Complete Works of Ralph Waldo 
Emerson, ed. Edward Waldo Emerson (Concord Edition, 12 vols. ; Bos- 
ton: Houghton Mifflin Co., ca. 1903-21), I, 335. 

11. Writings, VI, 259-61 ("November Boughs"). 

12. Ibid., V, 133-34. 

13. Of metaphysics Whitman announced: "The culmination and fruit 
of literary artistic expression, and its final field of pleasure for the 
human soul, are in metaphysics, including the mysteries of the spiritual 
world, the soul itself, and the question of the immortal continuation of 
identity." Ibid., V, 136 n. ('Democratic Vistas"). 

14. Of Nature, however, Whitman was careful to assert in super- 
addition to his concept of soul: "As by what we now partially call Nature 
is intended at most, only what is entertainable by the physical con- 
science, the sense of matter, and of good animal health-on these it 
must be distinctly accumulated, incorporated, that man, comprehending 
these, has, in towering superaddition, the moral and spiritual con- 
sciences. ..." Ibid., V, 135. 

15. Ibid., IV, 307. 

16. Ibid., V, 104. 

17. Ibid., VI, 259. 

102 Notes 

18. Ibid., VI, 261. 

19. Ibid., V, 281. 

20. Ibid., V, 174. 

21. Ibid., V, 105. 

22. Ibid., V, 104-5. 

23. Ibid., V, 105. My italics. 

24. Whitman's derivation of insight as well as sanction from com- 
munion with soul ranks him as a communicant on a level with Emer- 
son and Greenough, who got insight as principle deriving from com- 
munion with nature, and with Thoreau, who got it as ecological per- 
spective deriving also from nature. 

25. Writings, V, 140. My italics. 

26. Md., V, 77. 

27. Ibid., V, 132-33. My italics. 

28. Ibid., V, 131. 

Chapter Six (pp. 47-56) 

1. Walt Whitman, The Complete Writings of Walt Whitman, ed. 
Richard Maurice Bucke, Thomas B. Harned, and Horace L. Traubel 
(Paumanok Edition, 10 vols. ; New York: G. P. Putnam's Sons, 1902), V, 
43 (Prose Works, H, "Specimen Days")- "The question of Nature, largely 
considered, " added Whitman, "involves the question of the esthetic, the 
emotional, and the religious-and involves happiness. A fitly born and 
bred race, growing up in right conditions of out-door as much as in- door 
harmony, activity and development, would probably from and in these 
conditions, find it enough merely to #t>e-and would in their relations to 
the sky, air, water, trees, &c., discover and achieve happiness." Ibid., 
V, 134 ("Collect"). 

2. "Not Nature alone is great, " he said, "in her fields of freedom 
and the open air, in her storms ... the mountains, forests, seas- 
but in the artificial, the work of man too is equally great-in the pro- 
fusion of teeming humanity- in these ingenuities, streets, goods, houses, 
ships. ..." Ibid.,V, 64. 

S.Ibid., V, 287. 

4. Ibid. , V, 49. 

5. Ibid., V, 297. 

6. Ibid. 

7. Ibid., V, 125. 

8. Ibid. , V, 68. 

9. &id.,V, 77. 

10. Ibid., V, 69-70. In this sense, said Whitman, the spiritual idea 
of "Democracy too is law, and of the strictest, amplest kind ... it 
is the superior law, not alone that of physical force, the body, which, 
adding to, it supersedes with that of the spirit. Law is the unshakable 
order of the universe forever; and the law over all, the law of laws, is 
the law of successions; that the superior law [i. e. , democracy], in time, 

Notes 103 

gradually supplanting and overwhelming the inferior one. " Ibid. , V, 79. 

11. Ibid., V, 102. 

12. Ibid., V, 97. 

13. Ibid., V, 80. 

14. Ibid., V, 69. 

15. Ibid., V, 112-13. 

16. H. S. Canby, an exception, states in his article, "Thoreau and 
Whitman in Democracy, " that "Thoreau was a spiritual economist, 
Whitman a spiritual sociologist. . . . When it came to the progress of 
American society in the years before the Civil War, in which material 
and moral issues were inextricably mingled, both men had their feet 
solidly on the ground. " The Saturday Review of Literature, Vol. XXIV, 
No. 8, July 19, 1941. 

17. Writings, V, 99. 

18. Ibid., V, 285. 


43. "I submit, " said Whitman, "that the fruition of democracy, on 
aught like a grand scale, resides altogether in the future. " Ibid. , V, 92. 

44. Ibid. , V, 59. 

45. Ibid. , V, 288. 

46. Ibid., V, 202. 

47. Ibid., V, 53-54. 

48. Ibid. , V, 54. 

















v ? 


















































104 Notes 

Chapter Seven (pp. 57-65) 

1. Cf. the following with Whitman's reference to Carlyle on page 57: 
"I was at first roused to much anger and abuse by this essay 'Shooting 
Niagara 1 from Mr. Carlyle, so insulting to the theory of America- but 
happening to think afterwards how I had more than once been in the like 
mood, during which his essay was evidently cast, and seen persons and 
things in the same light ... I have since read it again, not only as a 
study, expressing as it does certain judgments from the highest feudal 
point of view, but have read it with respect as coming from an earnest 
soul, and as contributing certain sharp-cutting metallic grains, which, 
if not gold or silver, may be good, hard, honest iron. " Walt Whitman, 
The Complete Writings of Walt Whitman, ed. Richard Maurice Bucke, 
Thomas B. Harned, and Horace L. Traubel (Paumanok Edition, 10 vols. ; 
New York: G. P. Putnam's Sons, 1902), V, 71 n. 

2. Ibid., V, 163. 

3. Ibid., V, 175. 


Ibid. 9 
Ibid. , 
Ibid. , 
Ibid. , 

V, 81. 
V, 175. 
V, 167. 
V, 98. 
DC, 9. 

V, 132. 
VII, 9. 
V, 202. 

14. Thus, of Darwin Whitman said: "The world of erudition, both 
moral and physical, cannot but be eventually better'd and broaden'd 
in its speculations, from the advent of Darwinism. Nevertheless, the 
problem of origins, human and other, is not the least whit nearer its 
solution. " Ibid., V, 279. 

15. Ibid., V, 190. 

16. Ibid. The extent to which Whitman entered into science is sug- 
gested by Mrs. Alice Lovelace Cooke's article, "Whitman's Indebtedness 
to the Scientific Thought of His Day, "The University of Texas Bulletin, 
Studies in English, No. 14, July, 1934, pp. 86-115. 

17. Writings, V, 99. 

18. "He who does great deeds, " said Whitman, "does them from his 
innate sensitiveness to moral beauty. -all great rebels and innovators, 
exhibit the highest phase of the artistic spirit. The painter, sculptor, 
the poet, express heroic beauty better in description; but the others 
are heroic beauty, the best belov'd of art." Ibid. , VI, 88. 

19. Ibid., V, 171. 

20. Ibid., DC, 30. 

21. "Judah lives, " said Whitman, "and Greece immortal lives, in a 
couple of poems. "Ibid., V, 55. 

Notes 105 


Ibid. , 




































Ibid. , 



















36. Ibid. Even as Thoreau, Whitman saw the life of the prudent man 
as poem: "Love the earth and sun and the animals, despise riches, give 
alms to every one that asks, stand up for the stupid and crazy, devote 
your income and labor to others, hate tyrants, argue not concerning 
God, have patience and indulgence toward the people, take off your hat 
to nothing known or unknown, or to any man or number of men ... re- 
examine all you have been told in school or church or in any book, and 
dismiss whatever insults your own soul; and your very flesh shall be a 
great poem, and have the richest fluency, not only in its words, but in 
the silent lines of its lips and face, and between the lashes of your eyes, 
and in every motion and joint of your body. " Ibid. , V, 166. 

37. Ibid.,V, 169. 

38. "Has any one fancied, " said Whitman, that "he could sit at last 
under some due authority, and rest satisfied with explanations, and re- 
alize, and be content and full? To no such terminus does the greatest 
poet bring-he brings neither cessation nor shelter'd fatness and ease. 
The touch of him, like Nature, tells in action." Ibid. , V, 182. 

39. Ibid., V, 170. 

40. Ibid., DC, 10. 

41. Ibid., V, 222. 

42. Ibid., V, 165-66. 

43. Ibid., V, 165. 

44. Ibid., V, 216. 

45. Ibid., VI, 279. 

46. Ibid., IV, 307. 

47. Ibid., V, 171. 

48. Ibid. , V, 169. 

Chapter Eight (pp. 66-82) 

1. Walt Whitman, With Walt Whitman in Camden, Vol. I, ed. Horace 
L. Traubel (Boston: Small, Maynardand Co., 1906), 100. 

2. Whitman, The Complete Writings of Walt Whitman, ed. Richard 

106 Notes 

Maurice Bucke, Thomas B. Harned, and Horace L. Traubel (Paumanok 
Edition, 10 vols.: G. P. Putnam's Sons, 1902), IE, 64. 

3. Ibid. , DC, 10. 

4. Whitman, Leaves of Grass, ed. Emory Holloway (New York: 
Doubleday and Company, 1948.), p. 373. 

5. Writings, V, 139. 

6. Whitman, With Walt Whitman in Camden, Vol. n, ed. Horace L. 
Traubel (New York: D. Appleton and Co., 1908), 26. 

7. Writings, III, 46. "A perfect user of words, " said Whitman, 
"uses things. . . ."Whitman, An American Primer, ed. Horace L. 
Traubel (Boston: Small, Maynard and Co., 1904), p. 14. 

8. Writings, V, 138. 

9. Ibid., V, 138-39. 

10. Ibid., V, 177. 

11. Cf. Professor Matthiessen's discussion, American Renaissance 
(New York: Oxford University Press, 1941), p. 606. 

12. Writings, V, 98. 

13. Ibid., Ill, 45-46. 

14. Ibid., V, 66. 

15. Whitman, With Walt Whitman in Camden, Vol. IV, ed. Sculley 
Bradley (Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 1953), 121. 

16. Ibid. 

17. Ibid., IV, 4. 

18. Writings, V, 139. 

19. Ibid., V, 218. 

20. Ibid., V, 139. 

21. Ibid., Ill, 65. 

22. Ibid., Ill, 47. 

23. These six passages are located in Whitman 1 s works as follows: 
Writings, V, 135, "high literary and esthetic composition"; Ibid., V, 138, 
"the poet, the esthetic worker in any field"; Ibid. , V, 288, "the sane, 
eternal moral and spiritual-esthetic attributes";^ American Primer, p. 
34, "Names are a test of the esthetic and of spirituality"; Writings, V, 
205, "esthetik worthy the present condition"; Ibid. , in, 65, denial of 
his poetic performance "as aiming mainly toward art or aestheticism. " 

24. A New English Dictionary, ed. Sir James Augustus Murray (20 
vols. ; Oxford: The Clarendon Press, 1888-1929). 

25. Writings, V, 138. 

26. Ibid., V, 288. 

27. Ibid. , V, 205. My italics. That others beside Whitman were con- 
cerned with the term esthetic is suggested by Elizabeth Palmer Pea- 
body's article on "The Word f Aesthetic 1 " in the single issue of her 
Aesthetic Pipers (Boston: The Editor, 1849), p. 4. She observed at the 
end of her article that "the word aesthetic is difficult of definition, be- 
cause it is the watchword of a whole revolution in criticism. Like Whig 
and Tory, it is the standard of a party; it marks the progress of an idea. 

Notes 107 

It is as a watchword we use it, to designate, in our department, that 
phase of human progress which subordinates the individual to the gen- 
eral, that he may re-appear on a higher plan[e] of individuality." 

28. A New English Dictionary. 

29. Writings, V, 170. 

30. Ibid., V, 177. 

31. Ibid., V, 203. 

32. Ibid. t IX, 3. 

33. Ibid., Ill, 54. 

34. Ibid., in, 65. 

35. Ibid., V, 203. My italics. 

36. Ibid., V, 126. My italics. 

37. "Song of the Answerer, " Leaves of Grass, p. 143. 

38. Writings, V, 203. 

39. Ibid., V, 166. 

40. Ibid. , V, 170. Note the various opposite meanings of the word 
simple: it can mean stupid or candid, crude or efficient, primitive or 
urbane . 

41. Writings, V, 177. 

42. Ibid., V, 166. 

43. Ibid. 

44. An American Primer, p. 2. 

45. Writings, V, 168. 

46. G. R. G. Mure, An Introduction to Hegel (Oxford: The Clarendon 
Press, 1940), p. 136. 

47. Writings, V, 141. 

48. "Did you suppose, " said Whitman, "there could only be one Su- 
preme? We affirm that there can be unnumbered Supremes, and that 
one does not countervail another any more than one eyesight counter- 
vails another. ..." Writings, V, 172. 

49. Ibid., DC, 3. 

50. Ibid. 

51. Ibid., V, 202. 

52. Ibid., V, 148. 

53. Ibid., Ill, 58. 

Chapter Nine (pp. 83-89) 

1. Walt Whitman, The Complete Writings of Walt Whitman, ed. 
Richard Maurice Bucke, Thomas B. Harned, and Horace L. Traubel 
(Paumanok Edition; New York: G. P. Putnam's Sons, 1902), X, 24. 

2. Whitman, An American Primer, ed. Horace L. Traubel (Boston; 
Small, Maynard and Co. , 1904), p. 28. 

3. Writings, V, 295. 

4. Ibid., V, 57. 

5. Ibid. 

6. Whitman, The Gathering of the Forces, ed. Cleveland Rodgers and 

108 Notes 

John Black (New York: G. P. Putnam's Sons, 1902), H, 94. 

7. Ibid., H, 91. 

8. Ibid., II, 95. 

9. Whitman, / Sit and Look Out, ed. Emory Holloway and Vernolian 
Schwartz (New York: Columbia University Press, 1932), p. 128. 

10. Ibid. 

11. Ibid., p. 129. 

12. Ibid. 

13. Ibid. Speaking with reference to the uses of new architectural 
materials as bearing even upon the words, the materials of poetry, 
Whitman announced: M If iron architecture comes in vogue, as it seems 
to be coming, words are wanted to stand for all about iron architecture 
. . . those blocks of buildings, seven stories high, with light strong 
facades, and girders that will not crumble a mite in a thousand years. " 
An American Primer, p. 8. 

14. Writings, V, 176. 

15. Whitman, "Wicked Architecture, " Walt Whitman, Complete Po- 
etry and Selected Prose and Letters, ed. Emory Holloway (New York: 
Columbia University Press, 1938), p. 607. 

16. Ibid. 

17. Ibid. 

18. Ibid. 

19. Ibid., p. 608. 

20. Ibid., p. 611. 

21. Ibid., p. 612. 

22. Ibid. 

23. Whitman, Uncollected Poetry and Prose of Walt Whitman, ed. 
Emory Holloway (New York: Columbia University Press, 1921), II, 253. 

24. I Sit and Look Out, p. 145. 

25. Ibid. 

26. Ibid. 


Canby, Henry Seidel. "Thoreau and Whitman on Democracy, " The 
Saturday Review of Literature, 24:8, July 19, 1941. 

Cooke, Alice Lovelace. "Whitman's Indebtedness to the Scientific 
Thought of His Day, " The University of Texas Bulletin, Studies in 
English, No. 14, July, 1934, pp. 86-115. 

Emerson, Ralph Waldo. The Complete Works of Ralph Waldo Emerson, 
ed. Edward Waldo Emerson. 12 vols. Concord Edition. Boston: Hough - 
ton Mifflin Co., ca. 1903-21. 

. Essays by Ralph Waldo Emerson, Second Series. Boston: 

Houghton Mifflin Co., 1903. 

. The Journals of Ralph Waldo Emerson, 1820-1876, ed. Edward 

Waldo Emerson and Waldo Emerson Forbes. 10 vols. Boston: Hough- 
ton Mifflin Co. , 1909-14. 

. Nature Addresses and Lectures by Ralph Waldo Emerson, ed. 

Edward Waldo Emerson. Boston: Houghton Mifflin Co. , 1930. 

. Ralph Waldo Emerson: Representative Selections, ed. Frederic 

I. Carpenter. New York: American Book Company, 1934. 

Greenough, Horatio. Form and Function, Remarks on Art by Horatio 
Greenough, ed. Harold A. Small. Berkeley and Los Angeles: Uni- 
versity of California Press, 1947. 

Harding, Walter Roy. A Thoreau Handbook. New York: New York Uni- 
versity Press, 1959. 

Hintz, Howard, Grebanier Hintz, and D. N. Bernard, eds. Modern 
American Vistas. New York: The Dryden Press, 1940. 

Holloway, Emory. "Walt Whitman and the Shakers, " Colophon, Febru- 
ary, 1933. 

Matthiessen, F. O. American Renaissance. New York: Oxford Univer- 
sity Press, 1941. 

Metzger, Charles R. Emerson and Greenough. Berkeley and Los Ange- 
les: University of California Press, 1954. 


110 Bibliography 

Mure, G. R. G. An Introduction to Hegel. Oxford: The Clarendon Press, 

Nash, Lee Marten. Ecology in the Writings of Henry David Thoreau. 
Master's thesis, No. 7065, University of Washington, 1951. 

Peabody, Elizabeth Palmer, ed. Aesthetic Papers. Boston: The Editor, 

Thoreau, Henry David. Correspondence, ed. Walter Harding and Carl 
Bode. New York: New York University Press, 1958. 

. The Writings of Henry David Thoreau, ed. Bradford Torrey. 

20vols. Journal, vols. 7-20. Boston: Hough ton Miff lin Co., 1906. 

Whitford, Philip and Kathryn. "Thoreau: Pioneer Ecologist and Con- 
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Whitman, Walt. An American Primer, ed. Horace L. Traubel. Boston: 
Small, Maynard and Co. , 1904. 

. The Complete Writings of Walt Whitman, ed. Richard Maurice 

Bucke, Thomas B. Harned, and Horace L. Traubel. 10 vols. Pau- 
manok Edition. New York: G. P. Putnam T s Sons, 1902. 

. The Gathering of the Forces, ed. Cleveland Rodgers and John 

Black. Vol. II. New York: G. P. Putnam's Sons, 1920. 

. / Sit and Look Out, ed. Emory Holloway and Vernolian Schwartz. 

New York: Columbia University Press, 1932. 

. Leaves of Grass, ed. Emory Holloway. New York: Doubleday and 

Company, 1948. 

. UncdLlected Poetry and Prose of Walt Whitman, ed. Emory Hol- 
loway. New York: Columbia University Press, 1921. 

. Walt Whitman: Complete Poetry and Selected Prose and Letters, 

ed. Emory Holloway. London: The Nonesuch Press, 1938. 

T . With Walt Whitman in Camden, ed. Horace Traubel. Vol.1, 

Boston: Small, Maynard and Co. , 1906. Vol. 2, New York: D. Appleton 
and Co., 1908. Vol. 3, New York: Mitchell Kennerly, 1914. 

. With Walt Whitman in Camden, ed. Sculley Bradley. Vol.4, 

Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 1953. 


Architecture: nature's, the toad- 
stool, 28; monumental, Pyramids 
of Egypt, 28, 99; ornament in, 31, 
33, 35, 36, 72; naval, 31, 86; 
"Wicked Architecture, " 86-89 
domestic: in Canada, 30; at 
Cambridge port, 31; at Kaater- 
skill Falls, 31; in New York, 
86, 87; tenement houses, 88; 
low- cost housing in Brooklyn, 
88, 89 

public: the Astor House, 84; 
Grace Church, 84; Crystal 
Palace, 85; New York Custom- 
House, 85 

Art: nature as highest, 21; Tho- 
reau's view of, 25-27; life as 
art, 26; as self -regulating, 66, 
67; both factual and spiritual, 67, 
68; lesson of nature, 68; art for 
art's sake, 69-70; as expression, 
72; functions of art forms, 76 
Authority, 49, 105 

Baudelaire, Charles, 70 
Baumgarten, Alexander G. , 71 
Being, 73, 74. See also Identity, 

Business: Whitman on American, 54 

Carlyle, Thomas, 104 
Contemplative fallacy, 22 
Culture, 52, 53, 54 

Darwin, Charles, 104 
Definition: Whitman on, 71 

Eakins, Thomas, 68, 81 

Emerson, Ralph Waldo: his expan- 
sive strategy, 8; on genius, 12, 
13; his concept of unity, 22, 75, 
76; description of the poet, 38; 
Whitman on, 39; his esthetics 
influenced by religion, 42; on 
architecture, 84; mentioned, 31, 32, 34 

Enthusiasm, 21, 44 

Esthetics, Whitman's. See Whit- 
man, Walt 

Function: form and function, 34, 75, 
76; character as record of func- 
tion, 37 ; the several functions of 
art forms, 76; words follow, 77; 
functions of building materials, 
100, 108. See also Purport 

Functionalism, 35 

Genius : Thoreau on, 12, 13; Em- 
erson on, 12, 13, 59; as divine 




literatus, 59; poet's use of his, 

Greenough, Horatio: compared 
with Thoreau and Emerson, 3, 5; 
agreement with Thoreau, 28, 29; 
Thoreau 1 s objections to, 31-38; 
compared with Whitman, 42, 77, 
83, 84, 85, 86, 89 

Hegel, G. W. F., 78-79, 82 
Hero; culture -hero, 55; as divine 
literatus, 57 ; as full-sized man, 
57 ; as theologian, 57 ; the heroic 
person, 59; as independent thinker, 
59; self as hero, 80 
Hicks, Elias: and the inner light, 
43; Whitman's proposed biogra- 
phy of, 100; mentioned 41, 42 

Identity: 64, 73, 74, 80, 82. See 

also Soul 

Imaginative faculty, 67 
Imaginative works, 81 

Kingsley, Charles, Canon, 48 

Law: freedom under, 48, 49, 102 
Linnaeus: on flowers, 23 

Machine: machine-made pails, 32; 
Greenough* s view of, 33; labor- 
saving machines, 54 

Machinery, 32 

Manufacture, 33 

Mather, Cotton, 91 

Myth, 19 

Nature: true order of, 16; econ- 
omy of, 23; supply and demand, 
24; richness of, 26; variety and 
freedom lessons of, 48; identity 
and Being lessons of, 68 

Observation: as looking, 20; as 
seeing, 20; subjective, 20; 

Philosopher: simplicity of, 8, 26; 
defined, 9; the true philosopher, 
19, 20 

Pietism: the Inner Light, 40; in- 
fluence of Quakerism on Whitman, 
40, 100- 1 ; communion with con- 
science, 41; Shakers, 44, 100. 
See also Soul 

Poem: the true poem, 20, 21; im- 
portance of, 60, 104; nature as; 
67; life as, 69, 105 

Poesis: as communion, 63; as 
prophecy, 63, 69; as expression, 
64, 65, 69 

Poet: the true poet, 20-21; ac- 
cepted notion of a poet, 61; can- 
dor and generosity of the great- 
est poets, 61, 62; qualities of the 
great poet, 61, 62, 63, 64; pos- 
itive and expansive strategies, 
62; his prudence, 62; his subjects, 
63; as prophet, 63, 64 

Poetry: as emotion, 64; addressed 
to the soul, 64, 81 

Protestantism: Whitman and Uni- 
tarians, 40; a radical Protestant 
continuum, 41; esthetic Protes- 
tantism, 42; Unitarianism of 
Boston, 43 

Prudence : Whitman on, 62, 63 

Puritanism: Whitman on, 58 

Purport: Whitman's, 74, 75. See 
also Function 

Quakerism: See Pietism 

Ruskin, John: Seven Lamps of 
Architecture, 9 

Salvation: Thoreau 1 s view of, 4; 
Thoreau' s view compared with 
Whitman's, 47 

Science: Thoreau on, 13-17 ; As- 
sociation for Advancement of, 
14; astronomy, 14; taxonomy, 
15; ecology, 15, 16, 97; ecology 
as communion, 16; scientists 
attitude toward God, 16; scien- 
tist's rule of objectivity, 16, 17; 
the Baconian system, 17; the 
true man of science, 17 ; science 
and myth, 19; Whitman on, 59 



Simplicity: in art, 72; in Emer- 
son's concept of unity, 76; in 
identity of "full-sized man, " 77; 
opposed meanings of, 107 

Soul: and conscience, 41, 43; 
Whitman's concept of, 43-46, 49, 
50, 79; and the universal, 49; 
America's lack of, 52; prudence 
of, 62; and Ego, 64; and Being, 
73, 74 

Style: paradoxical style of true 
art, 26; metaphor, 36, 37; orna- 
ments, 72, 77; words of true 
poem, 74; rhetoric, 78; words as 
things, 85, 106 

Superstitions, 20 

Synthesis, 79, 80, 81. See also 

Taine, Hippolyte, 66, 67 

Theology: Whitman's more splen- 
did, 58, 59 

Thoreau, Henry David: as Protes- 
tant communicant, 3; compared 
with Emerson and Greenough, 3- 
5; as Yankee, 5; his criticism of 
society, 5-7; his strict business 
habits, 7; his restrictive strat- 
egy, 8; on simplicity, 8, 9; on 
salvation, 11, 91, 92; on genius, 
12, 13; on science, 13-17; on 
myth, 19; his comparison of poet 
with naturalist and philosopher, 
20; his concept of unity, 22; his 
approach to beauty, 24; his 
rustic bias, 25; his view of art, 
25-27; on richness, true wealth, 
26; his agreement with Green- 
ough, 28, 29; on American naval 
architecture, 31; his criticism of 
Greenough, 31-38; compared 
with Whitman, 47, 48 

Unity: Thoreau' s conception of, 22; 
Whitman's view of, 72-78; in 
Whitman's poetry, 80, 81 

Whitman, Walt: as disciple of Em- 
erson, 39; as Protestant com- 

pared with Emerson and Tho- 
reau, 40-42; as esthetician com- 
pared with Emerson, Greenough, 
Thoreau, 42, 43; his major em- 
phasis upon soul, 43-46, 49-50; 
his view of salvation compared 
with Thoreau' s, 47, 48, 91, 92; 
his criticism of society, 51, 52; 
his view of culture, 52-55; his 
expansive strategy, 57, 58, 71; 
his view of hero, 57-59, 92, 93; 
his criticism of Puritanism, 58; 
his divine literatus compared 
with genius, 59; on the power of 
literature, 60; his view of the 
poet, 61-65; on prudence, 62, 
63; as esthetic Protestant, 66- 
69; on the problem of the artist, 
68, 69; his criticism of art for 
art's sake, 69; his uses of the 
words esthetic, esthetik, aes- 
theticism, 71, 72, 106; his views 
of unity and simplicity, 72-76; on 
growth analogy, 75; his view of 
the organic principle compared 
with views of Emerson, Green- 
nough, Thoreau, 75, 76; his 
views of unity compared with 
those of Emerson, Greenough, 
Thoreau, 76-82; on synthesis, 
79, 80, 81 
Wright, Frank Lloyd, 85-86, 100