Date of this Version
Walt Whitman Quarterly Review 31 (2014), 69-97.
George Eliot and Walt Whitman, two of the most influential writers of the nineteenth century, are rarely discussed in relation to one another. They did not correspond, nor did either writer ever cross the Atlantic. There may have been several degrees of separation between Eliot and Whitman personally, but even from a distance, the two writers influenced each other’s careers. There has been some misconception that Eliot disdained and discounted Whitman. This essay seeks to refute that assumption by examining the context in which Eliot appeared to reject him. Perhaps more significantly, this essay breaks new critical ground by attributing a second review of Whitman’s 1855 Leaves of Grass to George Eliot.
This study examines statements Eliot and Whitman made about one another, and considers the interrelationships of the people they knew in order to demonstrate that Eliot and her domestic partner George Henry Lewes played significant roles in Whitman’s British reception. This new information about their mutual friendships and avenues of promotion supplements several foundational studies of Whitman’s British or European reception undertaken by Clara Barrus, Harold Blodgett, Eve Kosofsky Sedgwick, M. Wynn Thomas, Joann P. Krieg, Betsy Erkkila, and Michael Robertson. These scholars have traced Whitman’s network of supporters across the Atlantic without noticing that Eliot and Lewes were members of the relatively small circle of influential British intellectuals that embraced and promoted Whitman in Britain early in his career. Finally, this essay posits several reasons why, after initially endorsing Whitman in 1856, Eliot appeared to withdraw her support in 1876. We see in her changing response to Whitman an example of how Eliot responded to the pressures of nineteenth-century sexual politics and her own celebrity status by self-censoring and coding sexuality, particularly same-sex desire, in her fiction, which extends scholarship by Nancy Henry, Kathleen McCormack, Laura Callanan, and Dennis S. Gouws, among others.