Cover image for Looking into Walt Whitman: American Art, 1850–1920 By Ruth L. Bohan

Looking into Walt Whitman

American Art, 1850–1920

Ruth L. Bohan


$84.95 | Hardcover Edition
ISBN: 978-0-271-02702-9

280 pages
7" × 10"
22 color/82 b&w illustrations

Looking into Walt Whitman

American Art, 1850–1920

Ruth L. Bohan

“Bohan demonstrates a far greater and more sustained network of associations linking Whitman with nineteenth-century visual culture than has previously been known. Along with tracing Whitman’s connection to artists and art institutions, Bohan surveys all of the known paintings and sketches done of Whitman during his lifetime.”


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Winner of a 2007 AAUP Book Jacket and Journal Show for Scholarly Illustrated

Why is Walt Whitman’s face as familiar as his poetry? In answering this question, Ruth Bohan tells a story of self-invention and portraiture. Whitman approached successive editions of Leaves of Grass as opportunities to establish close, dynamic links between his poetry and visual representation. Bohan shows as well that Whitman, who sought out friendships with numerous artists, left a legacy absorbed after his death into the fabric of American modernism.

Looking into Walt Whitman provides ample evidence that the poet’s engagement with the visual arts extended beyond photography into painting, printmaking, and sculpture. Through discussion of Whitman’s gradual emergence as an American, democratic, and radical figure, the book opens new ways to assess his impact upon such artists as Thomas Eakins, Joseph Stella, and Marsden Hartley.

Biography, art history, and the history of literature come together in Bohan’s rich, suggestive book. Based on years of research, it presents valuable information about Whitman portraiture; the publishing of his masterpiece, Leaves of Grass; artists’ responses to his transgressive persona; and Robert Coady’s work on The Soil, among other pivotal topics.

The many images, reproduced in color or as duotones, will be of significance both to Whitman specialists and to readers seeking an introduction to Whitman’s role as a poet who vitally shaped both the visual and literary arts of America.

“Bohan demonstrates a far greater and more sustained network of associations linking Whitman with nineteenth-century visual culture than has previously been known. Along with tracing Whitman’s connection to artists and art institutions, Bohan surveys all of the known paintings and sketches done of Whitman during his lifetime.”
“Ruth Bohan’s Looking into Walt Whitman is a deeply researched, well-written, and beautifully illustrated book, including more than 100 color and black-and-white images, some of which have never been published before.”
“Writing in lucid, accessible prose, Bohan provides extended analyses of the multiple connections between Whitman and the visual arts both during his life and in the three decades following his death. In addition to being meticulously researched, the book is beautiful, with glossy pages richly embellished with color and black-and-white illustrations.”

Ruth L. Bohan is Associate Professor of Art and Art History at the University of Missouri–St. Louis.


List of Illustrations



Part 1

Imaging Whitman: The Nineteenth Century

1. The “Gathering of the Forces” in Brooklyn

2. Masks, Identity, and Representation

3. Visual Self-Fashioning and Artistic (Re)Assessment

4. Reception and Representation in the 1880s

5. Thomas Eakins and the “Solitary Singer”

Part 2

Whitman and the Modernists: The Twentieth Century

6. Marsden Hartley’s Masculine Landscapes

7. Robert Coady and The Soil

8. Joseph Stella’s Brooklyn Bridge




I and mine do not convince by arguments, similes, rhymes,

We convince by our presence.

—Walt Whitman, Leaves of Grass

Leaves of Grass, first published in 1855, transformed the art of poetry and the relationship between poet and reader. Whitman charms, seduces, shocks, cajoles, exhorts, and inspires audiences as he takes on his multiple and overlapping roles as poet, performer, and brazen self-promoter, offering in place of “the old smooth prizes . . . rough new prizes” (LG 155). Whitman is “the poet of the Body and . . . the poet of the Soul” (LG 48), “the bard of personality” (LG 22), and “he that walks with the tender and growing night” (LG 49). “I know perfectly well my own egotism” (LG 77), he advises. “I too am not a bit tamed, I too am untranslatable, / I sound my barbaric yawp over the roofs of the world” (LG 89).

Commensurate with Whitman’s refusal to be contained between his hat and his boots was his alertness to the powers of visual representation. He maintained numerous friendships with artists and posed for an impressive number and variety of portraits, including more than a hundred photographs and several dozen drawings, paintings, prints, and sculptures. The noted engraver, author, and political activist William J. Linton was among Whitman’s friends. In the early 1870s, Whitman commissioned Linton to design the provocative wood block portrait that confronts readers of the Centennial edition of Leaves of Grass (see fig. 17). Hatless, his head turned in the direction of the viewer, Whitman appears to deny the flatness of the page and the constructed space of the image. Barely contained by the rectangular boundaries of the frame, the poet leans outward toward his reader and the future. The intensity of his gaze, like the poet himself, will not be denied. In “Out from Behind This Mask,” a poem subtitled “(To Confront a Portrait.),” Whitman contemplates the engraving’s representational strategies, focusing attention on the intricate relationship between the work’s technical qualities and the sense of presence radiating from this “bending rough-cut mask,” this “condensation of the universe,” this “mystic handful wrapt” (LG 381–82). Whitman notes in particular the portrait’s “burin’d eyes, flashing to you to pass to future time,” radiating “[t]o you whoe’er you are—a look.”

Lingering a moment here and now, to you I opposite turn,

As on the road or at some crevice door by chance, or open’d window,

Pausing, inclining, baring my head, you specially I greet,

To draw and clinch your soul for once inseparably with mine,

Then travel travel on.

(LG 382–83)

Here as elsewhere, a crucial aspect of Whitman’s appeal is the almost palpable intimacy with which he engages his reader’s attention. “I dote on myself, there is that lot of me and all so luscious” (LG 54), he exults. At times humble and self-effacing, Whitman can also be pompous, self-absorbed, defiant, overbearing. He is a lover, a guide, a showman, a seer, a prophet—the voice of freedom, democracy, and the common workingman and -woman. “I carry the plenum of proof and every thing else in my face” (LG 55), he asserts. “I am not to be denied, I compel” (LG 74).

Today, 150 years after its first publication, Leaves of Grass remains a landmark of American literary achievement. Whitman, we are taught, rejected European models of poetry to craft a new poetics based in the country’s democratic principles of self-determination. His poetry celebrates the nation by celebrating himself, “Walt Whitman, a kosmos, of Manhattan the son, / Turbulent, fleshy, sensual, eating, drinking and breeding” (LG 52). Native themes, a love of the commonplace, and unprecedented frankness in treating the body and sexuality set his work apart from everything that had come before in American literature. So, too, did the open-ended structure and conversational tone of Leaves of Grass. In place of the elevated diction and intricate rhyme schemes favored by his contemporaries, including William Cullen Bryant and Henry Wadsworth Longfellow, Whitman offered what seemed an exchange between equals. In placing himself at the center of his poetic enterprise, Whitman confounded the long-standing boundaries that separated private from public, divided life from work, and kept the poet apart from (and elevated above) his audience.

Whitman announced his intentions in the Preface to the first edition of Leaves of Grass:

Of all nations the United States with veins full of poetical stuff most need poets and will doubtless have the greatest and use them the greatest. Their Presidents shall not be their common referee so much as their poets shall. . . . [The poet] is the arbiter of the diverse . . . the equalizer of his age and land. (LG 714)

The new poet would be called upon to do far more than simply record the beauty of “dumb real objects.” He would also be expected to indicate for his readers “the path between reality and their souls” (LG 716). “The greatest poet,” Whitman added, “forms the consistence of what is to be from what has been and is” (LG 718). He concluded his essay with a standard for success: “The proof of a poet is that his country absorbs him as affectionately as he has absorbed it” (LG 731).

No one today doubts that Whitman has been absorbed into the fabric of American culture. Such was not always the case, however. In the 1850s, Whitman attracted few readers and even fewer supporters. Bewildered reviewers objected to the structure of Leaves of Grass—it seemed inchoate, overgrown—and to its explicit sexual content. Ralph Waldo Emerson was all but alone in his unqualified praise of Leaves of Grass. In a letter that Whitman later published without his permission, Emerson termed it “the most extraordinary piece of wit and wisdom that America has yet contributed.”

With Emerson’s praise ringing in his ears, Whitman immediately set about revising, rearranging, and adding new poems. The twelve unnamed poems of the first edition grew in time to encompass nearly four hundred poems, the most celebrated of which is the lyric “Song of Myself.” The organic development of the book echoes the organicism of the poems. Whitman issued new editions in 1856 and again in 1860; several more would appear before the “death-bed edition” of 1891–92. After the Civil War, Whitman turned increasingly to prose, publishing Democratic Vistas in 1871 and Specimen Days and Collect and “A Backward Glance O’er Travel’d Roads” the following decade. In all of his writings, regardless of format, Whitman integrates the personal and the philosophical in ways that speak directly to the reader. “Behold,” he announces, “I do not give lectures or a little charity, / When I give I give myself” (LG 73).

Whitman began his slow rise in public standing in the 1860s, stimulated in large part by the hagiographic writings of William Douglas O’Connor, a Washington friend and champion of liberal causes. O’Connor’s pamphlet, The Good Gray Poet: A Vindication (1866), and his short story “The Carpenter” represented Whitman in exalted, quasi-divine terms. This larger-than-life image of the poet would dominate defenses of Whitman’s verse for decades to come. Both John Burroughs’s 1867 biography and William Michael Rossetti’s 1868 publication of selections from Leaves of Grass in England conveyed much the same view of Whitman. In his introduction to the London volume, Rossetti portrayed Whitman as one of the greatest poets in the English language. Two years later, Anne Gilchrist, a member of Rossetti’s circle, informed readers of the Boston Radical that “only a young giant of a nation could produce this kind of greatness, so full of the ardour, the elasticity, the inexhaustible vigour and freshness, the joyousness, the audacity of youth.”

By the 1880s, Whitman attracted larger, more diverse audiences, thanks in no small measure to the efforts of Richard Watson Gilder. Gilder, the editor of Scribner’s and later Century Magazine, commanded considerable cultural authority in post–Civil War America. Publishing new poems and prose pieces by Whitman alongside those of such leading authors as Henry James and Mark Twain, Gilder strengthened Whitman’s standing among the country’s literary elite. Anthologies also began to include Whitman’s verse. (For decades, though, his most frequently anthologized poem was his lament for Lincoln—the atypical, rhyming “O Captain! My Captain!”)

Even as his poetry attracted new readers, Whitman continued to face harsh criticism, much of it directed at the bodily emphasis and explicit sexual content of his verse. Boston’s district attorney, under pressure from the New England Society for the Suppression of Vice, threatened legal action as late as 1882 against Leaves of Grass on the grounds that it violated anti-obscenity statutes. The list of offensive poems was extensive and included “To a Common Prostitute” as well as passages from “Song of Myself” and “I Sing the Body Electric.” Surprisingly, none of the objectionable poems was from the “Calamus” cluster, Whitman’s songs in praise of “comradeship” and “manly attachment.” Nineteenth-century audiences were far more likely to disapprove of Whitman’s explicit treatment of the body and heterosexual love than of the poems’ suggestions of homosexuality. Contemporary customs allowed for and even encouraged open demonstrations of male friendship and affection to an extent unthinkable just a few decades later.

If poems like “When I Heard at the Close of the Day” from the “Calamus” section did not arouse the wrath of the censors, they did attract the attention of a growing international cadre of homosexual readers who identified their sexual feelings in the poems. British author John Addington Symonds repeatedly pressed Whitman to affirm his homoerotic yearnings, something Whitman steadfastly refused to do. By the early twentieth century artists and writers eager to throw off the mantle of gentility and express their homosexuality in their art were increasingly drawn to Whitman as an important precursor and guide.

Whitman spent the last decade of his life, much of it in poor health, surrounded by a group of loyal admirers who endeavored to secure lasting fame for the poet. Horace Traubel filled notebooks with his daily conversations with Whitman and edited The Conservator, a journal devoted to promoting Whitman and his writings within the context of the Ethical Culture movement. With assistance from Richard Maurice Bucke, Thomas Harned, Burroughs, and others, Traubel founded the Walt Whitman Fellowship International, which soon had branches in a number of American cities, including New York, Philadelphia, and Boston. After Whitman’s death in 1892, his followers inundated American readers with dozens of publications that extolled Whitman’s poetic genius, nobility, humanity, and capacity for spiritual illumination. The ten-volume Complete Writings of Walt Whitman appeared in 1902, followed by the first three volumes of Traubel’s With Walt Whitman in Camden (1906–96), the record of his conversations with the poet that eventually filled nine volumes, and Bucke’s Cosmic Consciousness (1901), which championed Whitman as the “best, most perfect, example the world has so far had of the Cosmic Sense.”

Stimulated by the writings of Traubel, Bucke, and others, the audience for Whitman’s verse expanded dramatically in the first turbulent decades of the twentieth century. Socialists, anarchists, and freethinkers from Emma Goldman and Floyd Dell to Abbott Leonard, John Spargo, and John Reed found a source for their personal and political activism in Whitman’s radical egalitarianism. Modern artists, writers, architects, dancers, composers, and critics also acknowledged Whitman’s authenticating presence in their development of new modes of self-expression. American modernism, Alan Trachtenberg has argued, “shaped itself at least in part as a diverse collective response to Whitman’s call, an answer to the Answerer.” In an arena dominated (particularly in the pre–Armory Show years) by European artists and art theories, Whitman became a catalyst for a modernism grounded in American cultural experience. A generation revolting against the heritage of its predecessors—yet at the same time in search of its own cultural and artistic footing—found in Whitman a unique combination of change and rootedness. “My call is the call of battle,” he had exclaimed. “I nourish active rebellion” (LG 158).

Anarchist poet Adolf Wolff voiced the sentiments of many in his generation when he hailed Whitman’s verse as

A clarion-call to freedom,

A gesture of revolt,

. . . . . . . .

A declaration of the right of all

To live, to love, to dare and to do.

Modernists as diverse as Marsden Hartley, John Sloan, Joseph Stella, William Carlos Williams, Robert Coady, Alfred Kreymborg, Isadora Duncan, Charles Ives, Louis Sullivan, Frank Lloyd Wright, Sadakichi Hartmann, Benjamin De Casseres, and Van Wyck Brooks took up Whitman’s charge. The poet’s endorsement of the entire spectrum of human experience—from the mystical to the mundane—as well as his glorification of the body and sexuality and, above all, his faith in the potential of an “unfettered” self emboldened and inspired this first generation of American modernists to defy the old certainties in art as in life.

The modernists’ intense embrace of Whitman as a vital progenitor was what first caught my attention when I commenced this study more than a decade ago. I set out to explore Whitman’s reception within the expansive network of artists, writers, critics, and gallery owners active in New York City during the first two decades of the twentieth century. As I delved more deeply into the creative interchanges between Whitman and his modernist sympathizers, I became increasingly aware of Whitman’s involvement with the artists and artistic practices of his own century. Initially, I focused on Whitman’s relationship with Thomas Eakins, but soon I was probing further into Whitman’s past. If Whitman connected his verse to his person, he also related his poetry to the vivifying potential of visual representations. Artists responded with their own visual constructions of the poet, many of them subject to Whitman’s searching critique. I eventually found that my research had broadened, that I was mapping not so much a pattern of influences as the shifting landscape of Whitman’s involvement with American visual culture across nearly three-quarters of a century.

In “Song of the Open Road,” a favorite among Whitman’s modernist supporters, the poet ordained himself “loos’d of limits and imaginary lines” (LG 151). In the same spirit, this study collapses traditional disciplinary boundaries to evaluate the dynamic reciprocity between Whitman and American visual culture. My investigation starts with the “long foreground,” the preparatory years leading up to the publication of the first edition of Leaves of Grass, and concludes with the outpouring of support for Whitman that accompanied the centennial of his birth. During this seventy-year period, Whitman functioned both as a powerful agent of change and as the object upon and through which artists focused their evolving perceptions of the self, masculinity, the body, and the very nature of art.

Whitman was not alone among American writers in forging significant alliances with artists and the visual arts. Recent monographs examine similar interartistic connections among authors as diverse as Herman Melville, Wallace Stevens, Marianne Moore, William Carlos Williams, Gertrude Stein, and others. Still, the intimacy and self-representational nature of his writings make Whitman’s case special. Whitman would have his readers believe that Leaves of Grass is not a book but “a Person, a human being (myself, in the latter half of the Nineteenth Century, in America )” (LG 573–74). Whitman is far more than the constructor of poems. He is a force, a compulsion: “I teach straying from me, yet who can stray from me? / I follow you whoever you are from the present hour, / My words itch at your ears till you understand them” (LG 85). This powerful sensory presence goes a long way toward explaining why Whitman has attracted the attention of a continuous stream of artists espousing a diverse range of cultural and artistic beliefs. These encounters constitute one of the richest but least understood of Whitman’s prodigious legacies.

In American Renaissance (1941), his classic study of “art and expression in the age of Emerson and Whitman,” F. O. Matthiessen identified a number of provocative links between Whitman and the art of his contemporaries. The most pervasive was a fundamental commitment to the democratic spirit and unpretentious reality of everyday life—what Matthiessen termed “concrete observation.” In the more than sixty years since the appearance of American Renaissance, only a handful of scholars have attempted to expand and refine Matthiessen’s judgments. The most perceptive have examined Whitman’s interest in and mobilization of the new medium of photography. Whitman’s importance for the arts of painting, sculpture, printmaking, and architecture has received significantly less attention, perhaps because historians have been intimidated by the scale and complexity of Whitman’s legacy.

My book pushes back the frontiers of Whitman studies while focusing attention on the shifting dynamics that transformed the relationship between literature and the pictorial arts in the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. I locate Whitman’s interactions with American visual culture within the changing circumstances of his life, the evolving character of his verse, and developments within the American art community. Above all, I recover the many ways in which Whitman and the expansive persona of his verse infused American visual culture during a period of intense social and artistic change. Combining biography, cultural history, and art history, my book examines Whitman as an active participant in American visual culture both as an object of the artist’s gaze and as an “agent provocateur” of the avant-garde. I probe the intersections between the biographical Whitman, the constructed persona of the verse, and the Whitman reinvented by artists spanning the visual spectrum from traditionalists like Charles Hine and Edwin Forbes to progressive individualists like Thomas Eakins and Robert Coady.

Investigations into the creative interplay between the verbal and visual arts have increased significantly in recent years, spurred on by the theoretical writings of scholars such as Wendy Steiner and W. J. T. Mitchell and by the cross-disciplinary perspectives of Cultural Studies. Mitchell’s concept of the “imagetext” is helpful insofar as it provides a model not of “influence” but rather of a composite or synthetic work in which image and text coalesce. With this organic model in hand, I illuminate the image-text relationship in the many portraits and caricatures made of Whitman from life as well as in a host of other works, ranging from the landscapes of Marsden Hartley to the urban abstractions of Joseph Stella.

All too often, scholarly investigations of Whitman’s interest in photography have obscured his enthusiasm for the more traditional arts. Discussions of Whitman’s interest in photography have repeatedly stressed the democratic nature of that medium (and hence Whitman’s attraction to it). Some have constructed an elitist, retrograde view of painting to bolster, in part, the association between this quintessentially modern poet and the new medium of photography. Swayed by the panoramic sweep of Whitman’s verse, studies probing his relationship to the arts of painting and sculpture have tended to identify a range of vaguely defined “Whitmanesque” qualities in the work of a broad array of artists without sound, corroborating evidence. My study provides a much-needed corrective to such ahistorical and acontextual approaches—and an enlarged understanding of Whitman’s place in history. For coherence (and because the material linking Whitman with the pictorial arts is more than sufficient for a book), this study refrains from any discussion of Whitman’s importance for architecture and confines itself to the arts of painting, sculpture, and printmaking.

The first five chapters focus on the nineteenth century. Here, little-known aspects of Whitman’s biography illuminate the poet’s substantial interactions with artists and American visual culture from his early days as a Brooklyn journalist until his death at age seventy-two in Camden, New Jersey. While I cover some of the ground analyzed by David S. Reynolds in his massive Walt Whitman’s America (1995), I go beyond Reynolds and other biographers to bring to the fore previously overlooked material—including, for example, Whitman’s and Bryant’s shared involvement in midcentury systems of art patronage—and to extend the discussion of Whitman’s associations with artists well beyond the decade of the 1850s. I situate Whitman’s early enthusiasm for the visual arts within the context of the Horatian tradition, which classified painting and poetry as “sister arts” rooted in the imagination and in human achievements and emotions. Whitman’s friendships with artists and involvement with organizations like the Brooklyn Art Union compelled him to plumb the shifting persona of his verse visually as well as verbally. Beginning with the 1855 edition of Leaves of Grass and continuing through many of the book’s later editions, Whitman paired his verse with carefully fashioned and judiciously placed portraits of himself. I investigate how these portraits mediate the dynamic interface of the poet, his audience, and the poetic text.

Few have documented and assessed Whitman’s interactions with artists during the last fifteen years of his life. Following a series of debilitating strokes that deprived him of much of his physical strength, he played host to a number of mostly younger artists who reinvigorated his commitment to nurturing a visual counterpart to his poetic achievements—to nurturing, that is, a Walt Whitman in paint or clay. Two of his most loyal followers were the sculptor, lay preacher, editor, and writer Sidney H. Morse and Herbert Gilchrist, the London-trained painter and son of Anne Gilchrist. Together with John White Alexander, whose ennobled portrait of the poet became the most widely reproduced of Whitman’s many painted likenesses in the years after his death, these artists devoted considerable energy to drawing, painting, and sculpting Whitman’s likeness. By the late 1880s, Whitman’s Mickle Street residence bustled with the lively give-and-take of an artist’s workshop.

Thomas Eakins is at once the best known and the most provocative of the artists to ally himself with Whitman during his last years. I center my investigation of Eakins’s relationship with Whitman on two paintings: Eakins’s half-length portrait of the poet, begun in 1887, and The Concert Singer of 1890–92. These paintings frame their five-year friendship and celebrate their shared passion for the expressive powers of the human voice. While the ostensible focus of The Concert Singer is Weda Cook, a singer and friend of both Whitman and Eakins, the painting is primarily about the poet and his verse. Whitman had first glimpsed the possibility of expressing qualities of his verse without recourse to his person while pondering works by the Barbizon painter Jean-François Millet, in whose spiritually resonant scenes of rural life he felt a kinship with his own spiritual and nationalist objectives. Eakins’s painting, in forgoing conventional notions of referentiality, inaugurates a dynamic new dimension in the creative interplay involving Whitman and visual modes of representation.

In the last three chapters, I examine the ways in which Whitman offered the first generation of modernist artists a “usable past.” The protean nature of Whitman’s verse, together with its powerful theme of self-discovery, struck a responsive chord among artists eager to assert their independence from social, cultural, and artistic norms. I pay close attention to the modes of transmission that carried the poet’s ideas outward to a new generation of readers. Several members of the poet’s own coterie moved within modernist circles. Hartley, Kreymborg, and Alfred Stieglitz were all personally acquainted with Traubel; Hartley was also a friend of William Sloane Kennedy, Whitman’s ally and the author of several books on the poet, and enjoyed a passing acquaintance with Pete Doyle, the Washington streetcar driver who may have been Whitman’s lover. Traubel was equally well known through his poems and extensive writings about Whitman, some of which were published in the modernist journal Glebe. These intergenerational ties strengthened Whitman’s reception within the modernist community. Indeed, perhaps as a result of such connections, early-twentieth-century American modernists proved to be among Whitman’s staunchest supporters and most creative visual interpreters.

While Whitman’s impact was felt internationally, I concentrate on its American manifestations. I focus in particular on the work of Marsden Hartley, Robert Coady, and Joseph Stella. Together their efforts represent a broad cross section of the thematic, stylistic, and conceptual bases of modernism. My book recovers the amalgam of personal and inherited systems of belief—what Hans Robert Jauss has termed the viewer’s “horizon of expectations” —with which these artists constructed their individual and collective responses to Whitman. I make no distinction here between the mythic Whitman and the historical creator of the verse.

Hartley enjoyed the strongest and most direct link to Whitman of any artist of his generation. I assess his sexual, spiritual, and musical engagements with Whitman’s poetry as filtered through his associations with Traubel and an aging group of Whitman loyalists. Where Jonathan Weinberg and others have written extensively on the element of homoerotic desire in Hartley’s figural art and in his abstract homages to the German officer Karl von Freyburg, I shift the focus to an earlier period of his career and to his landscape paintings. Those early landscapes, the basis of his inaugural exhibit at Stieglitz’s 291 gallery, offer a disguised narrative of Whitman’s “manly comradeship.”

More urban and populist themes characterize Coady’s short-lived journal, The Soil (1916–17). Unlike other “little magazines” of the period, including the better-known Seven Arts, The Soil functions less as a conventional journal and more as a composite work of art. Coady celebrates Whitman’s championship of vernacular and popular traditions. The bard’s democratic idealism and enthusiasm for the broadest range of American cultural experience stimulated The Soil’s attempts to level artistic hierarchies and its excursions into the arenas of technology, mass entertainment, and the cinema.

My final chapter examines Stella’s immigrant identification with Whitman and America. A native of Italy, Stella symbolized his commitment to Whitman’s cosmic internationalism in the landmark structure of the Brooklyn Bridge, the monumental successor to the poet’s beloved Brooklyn ferry. Stella forged important connections with an active network of Whitman supporters on both sides of the Atlantic. Like his painting, he, too, was a bridge. I map Stella’s struggle to meld his Italian heritage with Whitman’s vision of a spiritually enriched and globally integrated world order.

In death as in life, Whitman resisted fixed interpretation. In an address before the Philosophical Union in 1911, George Santayana attributed Whitman’s appeal in part to his willingness “to express, not the polite and conventional American mind, but the spirit and inarticulate principles that animate the community.” He further proposed that Whitman’s “work, for the very reason that it is so rudimentary, contains a beginning, or rather many beginnings.” Certainly the discussion that follows bears out Santayana’s assertion. In the decades after the first publication of Leaves of Grass, an astonishing number of artists—conservatives, moderates, and radicals alike, the known and the unknown among them—absorbed Whitman into the very fiber of their art. In recovering their stories, this study begins the daunting but exciting task of exposing the myriad new beginnings Whitman fostered across seventy years of American visual culture.

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