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For Tuesday (3/6)


For our next virtual class – – let’s explore some of the ways that Whitman was “read” and “misread” by his contemporaries and by his contemporary culture.   We’ll never know exactly what Whitman “meant” to his contemporary readers.  However, looking at the reviews will help us to get a sense of how readers made (or didn’t make) sense of Whitman and his odd little book.  And, we might be able to use the reviews to glimpse a bigger picture of how and what the “literary” signified in 1855 –  –  and thus the extent of Whitman’s literary “radicalism.”

First, head over to the nice collection of reviews of the 1855 edition of Leaves of Grass at the Whitman Archive.

Browse through some of the reviews until you find three that strike you as particularly interesting.  Then use these questions to help read the readers:

How does each of these three “read” Whitman?  What do they notice about Leaves of Grass?  What don’t they notice?  What strikes them as most important about Leaves of Grass?  How do they define the importance – – negative or positive – – of Whitman’s volume? Are there any excessive moments – – e.g. over-reaction, over-focus, over-the-top reactions?

Building on these questions, and taking things a little deeper, what do the reviews tell us about the cultural assumptions that were brought to bear on Whitman’s text?  E.g. cultural assumptions about poetry – -what it is, what it isn’t;  cultural assumptions about the Poet – – what a poet is, what a poet isn’t; assumptions about the value and/or uses of poetry.  Do these assumptions seem to differ from or agree with our own?

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