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Date of this Version

April 2006

Comments

Published in A Companion to Walt Whitman, edited By Donald D. Kummings. Blackwell Publishing, Malden, MA, 2006, pp. 233–256. Copyright © 2006 by Blackwell Publishing Ltd. Used by permission. http://www.blackwellpublishing.com/

Abstract

Scholarship that traces connections between Whitman and so-called “subliterary” forms is valuable, as it makes us more competent readers, better equipped to navigate the allusive terrain of Whitman’s writing and to assess Whitman’s achievements in historical context. This essay will, in part, contribute to the growing “inventory” of Whitman’s affinities with currently devalued literary and social forms. In addition, though, I will attempt to redress the problem of anachronism that exists in current scholarship on Whitman and popular culture, exploring his literary career in the context of contemporaneous nineteenth-century understandings of culture. Lawrence Levine has pointed out that to define popular culture “aesthetically rather than literally,” as has become customary, is to “obscure the dynamic complexity of American culture in the nineteenth century” (Levine 1988: 31). He and others have demonstrated that rigid boundaries between elite and nonelite entertainment simply did not exist until around the turn of the twentieth century. Furthermore, when applied in the realm of human activity prior to the mid-nineteenth century, “culture” almost always denoted nurturance – a metaphorical extension of its original reference to agricultural husbandry. Only later was it commonly used to mean either “aesthetic sophistication” or “a way of life,” its most usual senses today (Williams 1976: 80). Richard Teichgraeber has observed that the word was ambiguous and unstable in nineteenth-century America, but that at least until after the Civil War, “culture for most Americans” meant “individual self-development or self-construction,” and thus “remained roughly synonymous with ‘self-culture’ . . .” (Teichgraeber 1999: 11, 13).