Whitman, Slavery, and the Emergence of Leaves of Grass

By (author) Martin Klammer

Paperback - £24.95

Publication date:

15 April 1997

Length of book:

192 pages


Penn State University Press

ISBN-13: 9780271024998

Although the significance of Walt Whitman's thinking about African Americans and slavery to his poetry has been largely ignored by Whitman scholars, Martin Klammer argues that Leaves of Grass is a major text dealing with race relations in the mid-nineteenth century. Through a close historical analysis, Klammer reveals how the evolution of Whitman's attitudes—from pro-slavery to "Free Soilism" to a deep sympathy for slaves—parallels and inspires his emergence as a poet from the beginning of his career through the 1855 edition. The issue of slavery continually influenced Whitman's work, culminating in 1854 when public reaction to two national developments on the slavery question—the passage of the Kansas-Nebraska Act and the case of the fugitive slave Anthony Burns—suddenly created an audience more receptive to Whitman's views and compelled him to revise and publish the poems known as Leaves of Grass. At the heart of these poems is a radically new and sympathetic view of African Americans and of their significance to Whitman's vision of a multiracial, egalitarian society. While previous critics have described Whitman's puzzling, seemingly contradictory views on slavery, no other study has so thoroughly investigated Whitman and the question of slavery, nor understood the importance of slavery to Whitman's development as a poet.

“The originality of Klammer’s work lies in his bold argument that Whitman’s actual emergence as a great, original, innovative poet owed a great deal to his political thinking about the slavery question. This book argues convincingly that Whitman’s attitude toward African Americans passed through several phases that were closely related to the key political developments of the day relating to slavery. I have no doubt that it will mark a new phase in our understanding of Whitman’s attitudes towards African Americans.”

—M. Wynn Thomas, University of Wales at Swansea