Interviews and Reminiscences

About this Item

Title: Walt Whitman: His Ideas About the Future of American Literature

Creator: Anonymous

Date: October 17, 1879

Whitman Archive ID: med.00531

Source: St. Louis Post-Dispatch 17 October 1879: 2. Our transcription is based on a photocopy of a microfilm copy of an original issue. For a description of the editorial rationale behind our treatment of the interviews, see our statement of editorial policy.

Contributors to digital file: Brett Barney and Shea Montgomerey

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His Ideas About the Future of Amer-
ican Literature.


The Religion and the Politics of
the New Nation.


Some Original Thoughts from a Most
Original Thinker.


Walt Whitman, the poet, is visiting his brother at 2316 Pine street, in this city, resting after his trip to Kansas, and recovering from an attack of sickness. Mr. Whitman is a very remarkable looking man. His long, snow-white hair flows down and mingles with his fleecy beard, giving him a venerable expression, which his grave eyes and well-marked features confirm. Whitman impresses one at once as being a sage, and his thoughtful, original speech confirms the idea.

A POST-DISPATCH reporter called on the author of "Leaves of Grass" this morning, and after a somewhat desultory conversation abruptly asked him:

"Do you think we are to have a distinctively American literature?"

"It seems to me," said he, "that our work at present, and for a long time to come, is to- lay the materialistic foundations of a great nation, in products, in commerce, in vast networks of intercommunication, and in all that relates to the comforts and supplies of vast masses of men and families, on a very grand scale, and those with freedom of speech and ECCLESIASTICISM. This we have founded and are carrying out on a grander scale than ever hitherto, and it seems to me that those great central States from Ohio to Colorado, and from Lake Superior down to Tennessee, the prairie States, will be the theater of our great future. Ohio, Illinois, Indiana, Missouri, Kansas and Colorado seem to me to be the seat and field of these very ideas. They seem to be carrying them out.

"Materialistic prosperity in all its varied forms and on the grand scale of our times, with those other points that I mentioned, intercommunication and freedom, are first to be attended to. When those have their results and get settled then a literature worthy of us will begin to be defined from our nebulous conditions. Although we have elegant and finished writers, none of them express America or her spirit in any respect whatever."

"What will be the character of the American literature when it does form?"

"Do you know that I have thought of that vaguely often, but have never before been asked the question. It will be something entirely new, entirely different. As we are a new nation with almost a new geography, and a new spirit, the expression of them will have to be new. In form, in combination we shall take THE SAME OLD FONT OF TYPE, but what we set up will never have been set up before. It will be the same old font that Homer and Shakspeare used, but our use will be new.

"Modern poetry and art run to a sweetness and refinement which are really foreign to us; they are not ours. Everywhere as I went through the Rocky Mountains, three weeks ago, especially the Platte Canon, I said to myself, 'Here are my poems, not finished temples, not graceful architecture, but great naturalness and rugged power—primitive nature.'

"My idea of one great feature of future American poetry is the expression of comradeship. That is a main point with me. Then breadth, moderness and consistency with science.

"Poetry, as yet given to us even by our own bards, is essentially feudal and antique. Our greatest man is Emerson. Bryant, I think, has a few pulsations. Whittier is a Puritan poet without unction—without juice. I hardly know what to say about Longfellow. THE BEST PROMISE IN AMERICA of those things is in a certain range of young men that are coming on the stage, that are yet voiceless. They are appearing in the Eastern cities and in the West. They have not yet begun to speak because the magazines and publishing houses are in the hands of the fossils.

"There is a great underlying strata of young men and women who cannot speak because the magazines are in the hands of old fogies like Holland or fops like Howells. They are like water dammed up. They will burst forth some day. They are very American. Emerson is our first man. He is in every way what he should be. He is a rounded, finished man, complete in himself. Our living Bancroft and our dead Ticknor I think first-class men."

"What do you think of Bret Harte?"

"He is smart, facile and witty in the old sense. What a miserable business it is to take out of this great outgrowth of Western character, which is something more heroic than ever the old poets wrote about, to have taken out only a few ruffians and delirium tremens specimens, and made them the representatives of California personality. An artist would have taken the heroic personalities, but Bret Harte and the persons who followed him have taken these characters and made them stand for the whole. I think it is an outrage. He seems to me to have taken Dickens' treatment of the slums of London and transferred it to California.

"I think Tennyson the leading man in modern poetry. Nobody has expressed like Tennyson the blending of the most perfect verbal melody with THE HEART-SICKNESS OF MODERN TIMES.

"He has caught that undertone of ennui in a way that will last while men read. I myself have been ambitious to do something entirely different from that, while I can appreciate him. The whole tendency of poetry has been toward refinement. I have felt that was not worthy of America. Something more vigorous, al fresco, was needed, and then more than all I determined from the beginning to put a whole living man in the expression of a poem, without wincing. I thought the time had come to do so, and I thought America was the place to do it. Curious as it may appear, it had never yet been done. An entire human being physically, emotionally and in his moral and spiritual nature. And also to express what seems to me had been left unexpressed, our own country and our own times. I have come now a couple of thousand miles, and the greatest thing to me in this Western country is the realization of my "Leaves of Grass." It tickles me hugely to find how thoroughly it and I have been in rapport. How my poems have defined them. I have really had their spirit in every page without knowing. I had made Western people talk to me, but I never knew how thoroughly a Western man I was till now."

"And how about religion?"

"I could only say that, as she develops, America will be a thoroughly religious nation. Toleration will grow, and the technique of religion, sectarianism, will more and more give out."


"Politically, as far as I can see, we have established ourselves. The basis has been all right. We have nothing to do de novo. I think the theory and practice of American government, without its National and State governments, are stable. It seems to be established without danger, without end."

"And how about Canada?"

"I think Canada and Cuba and Mexico will gravitate to us. We could take the whole world in if it was for it, which it is not. There is no danger in enlargement. We can take in all the country from the isthmus to the North pole. Instead of endangering us it will only balance us give us a greater area of base.

"Our American greatness and vitality are in the bulk of our people, not in agentry like in the old world. The greatness of our army was in the rank and file, and so with the nation. Other nations had their vitality in a few, a class, but we have it in the bulk of the people. Our leading men are not of much account and never have been, but the average of the people is immense, beyond all history.

"Lincoln seems to me to be our greatest specimen personality. Sometimes I think that in all departments, literature and art included that will be the way our greatness will exhibit itself. We will not have great individuals or great leaders, but a great bulk, unprecedentedly great."


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