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On March 27, 1892, newspapers across the United States were filled with obituaries of a man whose controversial work had critically accompanied American society for the last half century: Walt Whitman. Though once generally considered a literary hack and even a pornographer, in death, all was forgiven. Accompanied in many cases by drawings of an old, wise-looking figure with a long beard and flowing hair, these obituaries chronicle the preliminary endpoint of Whitman's startling transformation from outcast and lustrous provocateur to the very embodiment of the sentimental. In a phrase echoed from Portland and Texas to Maine and Louisiana, newspapers attested the poet died "calmly and peacefully, like a child asleep" ("The Distinguished Dead," The Daily Picayune). "He gave it cheerfully," a Chicago paper attests, and the very moment "his soul took flight" ("Walt Whitman Dead," The Daily Inter Ocean) the man as much as his work, had already turned into a symbol in the eyes of the American nation. How are we to account for this change in sentiment? Is this just a case of a literary public "catching up" to genius--or is there more to the affective strategies of the poet that enabled such a metamorphosis? (1)

Indeed, this issue takes us back to the very beginnings of Whitman's life as a poet: Halfway through his epic 1855 "Song of Myself" (Leaves of Grass) and immediately after introducing readers to his name (his book's cover and title page mention no author), Walt Whitman casts himself as "one of the roughs" (1855, 29). He is certainly "no sentimentalist" he assures us (29). Many more recent readers tend to agree, often praising Whitman's bold free verse, explicit sexuality, radical politics, and inclusionary embrace of many issues (and persons) considered taboo. Still, Whitman's own assessment glosses over an aspect of his oeuvre also ignored by many of today's critics: the Whitman who exclaims "tears! tears! tears!" (1871, 82), celebrates sentimental motherhood (1860, 213) as well as lovers with "red-flush'd cheeks" (1871, 18), and laces his catalogues of America with images of familial bliss, bucolic farm life, and tearful farewells. Even in his arguably more radical early editions of Leaves of Grass, many nineteenth-century reviewers point out a closeness of Whitman's poetics to the popular, effusive literature often associated with Hawthorne's infamous "mob of scribbling women" (Baym 1999, 21). One review, for instance, quotes Whitman's denial of sentimentalism and exclaims "Yet, he is a sentimentalist!" ("Our Book" 1856), while another writes that the author of Leaves must have been "possessed of the soul of a sentimental donkey that had died of disappointed love" (Griswold 1855) in order to produce such peculiar poetics.

While Whitman's sexual queerness (see Coviello 2013), occasional cross-dressing (cf. Myerson 1991, 338), and personal preferences for sentimental art (be it in literature or music) have become established truths in analyses of Whitman, a certain "anxiety about sentimentality" (Kete 1998, 626) experienced by the poet himself still lingers in discussions of his work. In an eagerness to defend Whitman's genius against his critics, scholars of the poet have at times cultivated a blind-spot for the sentimental similar to the one feminist intellectuals have been arguing against for almost half a century. Even one of Whitman's most popular pieces, his elegy to Lincoln titled "O Captain! My Captain!," has largely been ignored in English speaking academia due to its sentimentality (see Eiselein 1998)--with the majority of the very limited scholarship on the piece produced outside the United States. (2) The following pages seek to break from this trend and facilitate a discussion of Whitman's hoary sentimentalisms by avoiding the odd analytical dichotomy that has crystalized over the years. The goal of this essay is to neither "expose" Whitman as a peddler of schmaltzy populisms, nor to negate (or overlook) the sentimental side of his work. Instead, it argues for a re-reading of sentimental affect in Whitman's oeuvre as a conscious, poetic, and political strategy that goes beyond traditional misreadings of this literary mode as wooden, trite, or uncreative. (3) In doing so, I hope to shed light not on Whitman's faults as a poet (or on his virtues to recuperate him from such), but to instead lay out how and to what end he engaged with the sentimental, what this mode of writing brought to Leaves of Grass, and how the poet reconfigured and expanded it throughout his life as a writer. While such a meso-level analysis of sorts can perhaps seem like a rather broad frame for a single essay, it is exactly this fluidity of the sentimental in Whitman that makes such an approach necessary: there is not "one sentimentalism" in Whitman but a multitude of varying affective-poetical responses to the changing societal and political climate the poet engaged with. The following pages thus hope to make this overarching strategy of the "good Grey" visible and, in bringing together some of the scholarship that exists on sentimental moments in Whitman, open up his oeuvre to larger discussions of sentimentalism in the nineteenth century. Pursuing the sentimental in Whitman's work in its various incarnations, I respond to the (largely unanswered) question Mary Louise Kete poses to Whitman scholars: "To what degree... is the grand American expression' [that] produce[s] the 'language of resistance' and the 'dialect of common sense' (4) synonymous with what can also be called sentimentality?" (1998, 626).

Instead of discussing sentimentalism "as such," this essay thus focuses on its political valence for Leaves of Grass. For Whitman, I suggest, the sentimental was a crucial component of his egalitarian vision of society: embraced for creating a sense of "comradeship" and belonging but rejected for its tendencies to homogenize and exclude. As such, Whitman's conscious use of a sentimental voice cannot be arrested in a simple either-or-binary but must be approached as a fluid concept--a contradictory "multitude" in its own right that never quite settles but constantly negotiates the potentials and pitfalls of its own sentimental tactics. This essay will therefore trace the attempts in Leaves at writing communities into being through the sentimental--a process that echoes and influences the poet's shifting allegiances with the US nation. Beginning with the sentimental impetus of Whitman's pre-Leaves writings and following it through the major editions of Leaves of Grass--from the first edition to the Civil War and finally the "Deathbed Edition"--, we see the poet indulge the reformist politics of conservative sentimentalism in the 1840s and early 1850s, struggle with its moralistic and exclusionary underside in some of the key moments of the first edition of Leaves, reinvigorate his hope for the sentimental to preempt and, later, mend the horrors of war, and finally settle on a familial sentimentalism that, while at times reactionary, also relishes in a radical belief in futurity. (5)

With a recent turn to affect in the interdisciplinary humanities, a number of scholars have been rethinking the intersections of emotion, embodiedness, and art. Criticism on the sentimental helped prompt many of these questions, and a turn to Whitman--this often contradictory symbol of American nationalism, sexual subversiveness, and radical politics--can serve to not only unsettle some of the gendered assumptions about this mode, but broaden our understanding of the spectrum of affective strategies that feed into it. Once disregarded as "too feminine," chatty, and a sign of inferior artistry (Tompkins 1985, 124), the features, limits, and possibilities inherent to this style of writing are now cited in a wider array of texts--leading some to claim that "by the end of the nineteenth-century" the central issue is no longer "'What is sentimentality?' but... 'what isn't?'" (Bauer 2000, 255). Volumes like Sentimental Men (1999) or Sentimentalism in Nineteenth-Century America (2013) have furthered conversation on the role of sentimental literary strategies in works long believed to be free of such "faults"--namely those by the white, male authors of the American Renaissance that F.O. Matthiessen canonized precisely by distinguishing their work from sentimental writing. (6) Perhaps because the taint of cliche continues to cling to the sentimental, its (re-)discovery in the works of Herman Melville, Nathaniel Hawthorne, and--last but not least--Whitman, has been somewhat slow. In public discourse as well as in scholarly debates, Matthiessen-esque depictions still often prevail. Popular portrayals of these writers as rugged, rebellious, ManTn-Nature figures abound (see, for example, Jewell and Price 2006, 345-53), and despite critical rejections of the canon, curriculum formation and scholarship still generally embrace the male authors of the American Renaissance primarily as heralds of early, avant-garde modernism, reducing their frequently intense entanglement in nineteenth-century popular culture to neglectable byproducts of their times.

In recent years, more critics have begun to take Whitman seriously both as a lover of sentimental culture (such as parlor songs or the books of Fanny Fern) and as a successful writer of sentimental fiction himself (Blalock 2013; Hendler 1999; Kete 1998). Indeed, Whitman's pre-Leaves writings, such as Franklin Evans (1842) or "Death in the School Room" (1841), thoroughly engage in the sentimental politics of what Harriet Beecher Stowe calls "feeling right" (7) to argue for social reform (temperance, educational reform, etc.). These pieces--Whitman later called them his "sentimental bits" (1892b, 195)--had a lasting impact on specific aspects of his poetry (see, for example, Bradford 2013; Jamison 2007). Still, overarching analyses on Whitman and sentimentalism--especially on the Whitman of Leaves of Grass--are remarkably scarce. This is perhaps due to some of the vagueness that still surrounds the term itself.

Although the "extreme slipperiness of the concept sentimental" (Baym 1998, 336) has been much attested, certain staples which mark sentimental writing as a mode do exist. Janet Todd argues that the core of sentimental literature is "the arousal of pathos through conventional situations, stock familial characters and rhetorical devices" (1986, 2). And indeed, Whitman's early writings seem to fit rather perfectly into this description. His short pieces from the 1840s are "highly didactic" (Kete 1998, 626), littered with apostrophe ("Reader!" Whitman 1967, 183), and adhere to classic tropes of sentimental narratives that Chapman and Hendler list: "the dying child; the destruction of families by death, slavery and poverty, and intemperance; and the unnecessary suffering of marginalized figures" (1999, 9). "Most of the stories Whitman contributed," Blalock and Gray thus observe, "are sentimental tales or didactic stories that contain moral lessons" (2017). Highly gendered and in popular opinion often tied to the domestic sphere (Chapman and Hendler 1999, 3), the sentimental creates feelings of community, moral righteousness, and belonging through affective storytelling, often deemed emotionally excessive. Naomi Greyser therefore calls sentimentalism an "engendered and embedded knowledge claim" that, on a very physical level, cultivates "for subjects a sense of being in touch with each other" (2007, 277).

In the context of literature and book culture, this sense of physical communion between reader and author (see Silverman 2012), creates imagined affective communities held together by shared assumptions over appropriate emotional responses to specific events or objects--and a strong normative stance on what can be deemed morally "right" or "wrong." Affect--or in nineteenth-century parlance: "sympathy"--forms the basis for these persuasive tactics. "I feel what you feel," the sentimental text seems to say, and this shared emotive state blurs the boundaries between writer and reader, text and reality, self and other. Whether this blurring is ultimately an imperial act that necessitates and prescribes a high degree of homogeneity between humans (and hence often envisions white norm-bodies) or whether the very transgressive act of emotion shared across different bodies is in itself politically laudable, perhaps revolutionary, is still the crux underlying much of the scholarly debate on sentimental literature. (8)

With its notions of shared ethos, sentimentalism is thus not only generally concerned with moral reform, it also finds itself in a constant (yet frequently implicit) dialogue with politics, and often tends to "bind persons to the nation through a universalist rhetoric" (Berlant 1998, 636). In excluding elements of structural violence (racism, gender inequality, poverty, etc.) and instead focusing on the moral righteousness of individual actors, the sentimental shows an uneasy tendency to commodify suffering, especially of socially marginal figures, for consumption by a white middle-class readership. Blind to its own exclusiveness, the sentimental is a double-edged sword, on the one hand pointing out injustices and creating public outrage over them, and on the other morally upholding the social processes that produced these moral wrongs in the first place.

As Whitman struggled against the moralistic confinements of the genre and carefully negotiated and transgressed its exclusionary underside, he again and again turned toward sentimentalism to conceive an affective communion with his readership (9) and domesticate notions of otherness that would otherwise have been "hard to swallow" for a broad mid-nineteenth-century readership. As a mode of emotional persuasion, sentimentalism allowed Whitman to appealingly articulate issues at the very core of his innovative, poetic-political program: equality, sexual love, the nation, and semi-socialist politics. As such, the sentimental vector of Leaves of Grass and Whitman's other literary ventures shifted with the changing aims of his writings: From helping him didactically argue for societal reform and call sympathetic attention to the injustices underlying the American imagination, to first invoking the United States as a utopia of lovers and, then, ultimately embracing the nation as a unified (queer) "family" (see Coviello 2013), Whitman's engagement with the sentimental undergoes dramatic shifts throughout his literary life.


The story of a young beggar in the 1842 Franklin Evans might serve as an example of Whitman's early sentimentalism. Following the poor boy home, the narrator tells us: "instead of wanting the pennies to buy bread, he wished to purchase liquor--and for his mother!" (Whitman 1967, 91). Finding the mother's house in a condition akin to a "negro hovel" (92), the narrator helps the dying alcoholic assemble her small children for a last prayer. After uttering "Forgive us--" (94), she dies with "her last prayer smothered in its utterance, and her immortal part starting from its now useless tabernacle, to waft itself on the journey for the Strange Land" (94). By invoking through its negativity the idea of wholesome domesticity, imagined as readily available to most of the readers (a loving mother caring for her helpless, young children), and proceeding to turn it on its head (a young child having to provide for a drunk, bedridden mother), Whitman evokes pity for the small family. By clearly identifying the culprit (liquor!), Whitman then articulates a "reformist urge" in his audience, arguably encouraging readers to "extend the chain of sympathetic identification into the real world" (Hendler 1999, 130). Advertising for temperance through this vivid (or sensationalist) image of death, decay, and motherly love, Whitman brings his reader "in touch" with the "inebriate," arguing not against her humanity but for alleviating her suffering through empathetic identification and moral instruction. Whitman's sympathy, here, moves to heal a way of living he identifies as in need of fixing. "By displacing a democratic model that values diversity with a familial model that seeks to elide it," Elizabeth Barnes has argued, "sentimental literature subordinates democratic politics to a politics of affinity... and thereby reinforces homogeneity" (1997, 4). Against the "negro hovel" of the drunkard's broken home and family, the author emphasizes the promise of white, domestic happiness as a universally attainable mode of living and a unifying standard.

Still, Whitman creates a vexed affective bond: In Franklin Evans' reformist vision, readers share a community with the poor, the disenfranchised, and the sick--and while "feeling right" here might largely elicit pity and charity, it also drops some ghostly hints at the very limits of affective reformism. Lauren Berlant has argued that the societal change that is proposed by the sentimental is largely based on "structural adaptations whose justice the sentimentalist... can already affectively pre-experience" (2008, 146). With his early fiction, Whitman might move us to "take the pledge" and abstain from alcohol (as the narrator of Franklin Evans urges us to do)--but can we really "pre-experience" a society whose various, structural deficits (poverty, urban squalor, misogyny, etc.) are resolved by such measures? Even for seemingly obvious cases like corporal punishment we can sense a certain uneasiness in Whitman over the practical "adaptations" his sentimental work proposes.

In "Death in the School-Room," for example, the former teacher Whitman even directly interjects his own authorial voice to guide his readers into appropriately sympathetic responses--but at the same time seems unsure how, specifically, his sentimental demands could become reality. After, for instance, introducing his readers to a cruel schoolteacher who will end up flogging the corpse of a student mistaken as disobedient, his narrator inserts a telling parenthesis:
(Happily a worthier and more philosophical system is proving to men
that schools can be better govern'd than by lashes and tears and sighs.
We are waxing toward that consummation when one of the old-fashion'd
school-masters, with his cowhide, his heavy birch-rod, and his many
ingenious methods of child-torture, will be gazed upon as a scorn'd
memento of an ignorant, cruel, and exploded doctrine. May propitious
gales speed that day!) (Whitman 1892b, 342)

While this "worthier and more philosophical system" is never defined in any way, it is placed in clear moral opposition to the "ignorant, cruel, and exploded doctrine" that the school teacher is following. Employing binary moralisms (happy/cruel, philosophical/ignorant, etc.) with highly affective images ("child-torture"), Whitman places educational reform in a familiar progress-narrative that can look back in hindsight at the school teacher as a "scorn'd memento"--although he is clearly a thing of the present. Here, Whitman employs the trope of nation as boat and calls on "propitious gales" to bring about change--but while the problem is easily identified, solutions remain enigmatic. What is this "worthier and more philosophical system" and how can one possibly attain it? In a country that is still upheld by "ignorant" and "cruel" practice, only a flight into a sort of predetermined, progressivist futurity can save Whitman's beliefs in a just and "worthier" community. He himself seems unsure at this point what such a society might look like: The noticable "gap between private feelings and public action" that Amy Schrager Lang posits as a hallmark of the sentimental mode (1986, 34) is a core issue that Whitman's early writings seem unable or unwilling to address yet.

As Stephanie M. Blalock (2013) has shown, Whitman's early stories such as "Death in the School-Room" (around one-hundred reprints in newspapers), "A Legend of Life and Love" (seventy-one reprints), or "The Tomb-Blossoms" (twenty-five reprints), were some of Whitman's most successful publications. His temperance novel Franklin Evans arguably remained the only "bestseller" of his lifetime (Downey, in Whitman 1967, 7). Full of tear-jerking scenes of dying children and women, exploited youths, crying mothers, and abusive drunkards, these fictions granted Whitman the popular success his Leaves achieved, in large, only posthumously. Indeed, Franklin Evans was even advertised as authored by "a Popular American Author" (Whitman 1967, 16)--a title the "American bard" Whitman desperately tried to reclaim in his later writings. With a pre-Leaves Whitman so thoroughly entrenched in the sentimental mode, one might wonder whether the poet's renowned and radical break with norms and decorum in his 1855 Leaves of Grass led him to abandon the sentimental tradition all together. Was this later Whitman, indeed, "no sentimentalist"?

The poet who embraced the "word en masse" (Whitman 1855, 28) and saw himself "commensurate with a people" (IV) certainly knew how popular this style could be. Indeed, in Franklin Evans Whitman had already made a gesture very similar to his populist exclamation in "Song of Myself." In the temperance novel's preface, the author lets us know he is "not writing for the critics, but for THE PEOPLE" (36) and even claims the story "will not abound... with... sentimental remarks" (35). The disavowal of sentimentalism in Leaves is clarified by the pledge immediately following it to be "no Stander above men and women or apart from them" (29). With sentimental writing apparently identified as insufficiently inclusive for his poetical project, Whitman nonetheless does not abandon the mode, but rather sets out to reform and augment its emotional appeal. What this "anxiety about sentimentality" (Kete 1998, 626) coupled with the author's egalitarian pathos might hint at, then, is not a total departure from sentimental persuasion but a growing realization of its problematic moral foundations that seem caught up with the American bourgeois family and domestic, heteronormative bliss--all of which the metropolitan poet appears to have felt were inadequate for his increasingly queer lifestyle. If, as Ann Douglas hyperbolized it, sentimentalism is indeed "political sense... gone rancid" (1977, 254), Whitman was beginning to notice a stench.


As the poet formulated his radically new literary project, the sentimental seems to have continued to play a foundational role for his literary endeavors. Between 1853 and 1854, he was contemplating what his later work should look like. At this point, everything seemed up for grabs: "Novel?--Work of some sort? A Play?" (quoted in Miller 2010, 17). In a poetry draft from the same period, Whitman (already very much using his later, communitarian voice) imagines what this major new piece of his--Leaves of Grass--might sound like:
Poem--a perfect school,
gymnastic, moral, mental and
sentimental,--in which
magnificent men are formed
--old persons come just as
much as youth--gymnastics,
physiology, music, swimming bath
--large saloons adorned with
pictures and sculpture--great ideas
not taught in sermons but imbibed
as health is imbibed--
--love--love of woman--all manly exercises
--riding, rowing--the greatest persons
come--the president comes and
the governors come--political economy
--the American idea in all its
amplitude and comprehensiveness--
--grounds, gardens, flowers, grains--
cabinets--old history taught--(Whitman 1853-1854)

While this draft at first appears to sketch a poem about a school, it ultimately turns into poem-as-school. The text envisions America as a community of feeling shaped by "love" and the "sentimental" as well as by more classical forms of schooling like gymnastics or the arts. Instead of conflict and partisanship in the times of the Fugitive Slave Act (passed in 1850), we see Whitman envisioning "love--love of woman--all manly exercises" coming together in "amplitude and comprehensiveness." Indeed, the poet's political pedagogy comes quite close to what Berlant accuses sentimentalism of: it naturalizes the idea of the nation by promoting "collective group memberships... in a flowing and intimate world" (1998, 636). But instead of sentimental figures meant to represent the "moral good" of American society--pious wives, noble orphans, humble priests--, Whitman sketches much broader, archetypally paired roles (young, old, man, woman) that strive to unite where the sentimental tends to differentiate and judge. In this early sketch Whitman can already imagine a radically egalitarian society--a society where "feeling right" overcomes the bounds of gender, age, and social status. Free-verse Whitman takes a position quite different from his earlier temperance reform in which he moralized and modeled affective comportment from an authorial site "above men and women or apart from them" (Whitman 1855, 29). In the expression "just as much as" ("old persons come / just as much as youth"), we can already hear a poet with a vaster sense of inclusiveness than even this romanticized, early sketch of a Utopian America can absorb.

Whitman's prose preface to Leaves two to three years later terms the "United States themselves... essentially the greatest poem" (Whitman 1855, 3), blending communitarian utopia with a romantic, national vision. "The Sleepers," with its even more sentimental rendition, pronounces that "The diverse shall be no less diverse, but they shall flow and unite. ... they unite now. / The sleepers... flow hand in hand over the whole earth from east to west as they lie unclothed; / The Asiatic and African are hand in hand..." (76). Grasping the poetic potential of the communal promise inherent to the sentimental--a promise usually barely veiling a deep-seated bourgeois exclusiveness--Whitman sets out to radically enrich its weft to weave a more complex tapestry of lived experience in the United States. As Whitman's poetry deepens its queer rendering of American-ness, it radicalizes sentiment to evoke unity without uniformity. In "The Sleepers," for instance, Whitman articulates this vision of difference-within-coherence in the equalizing dreamscape of sleep. Literally stripped from all insignia of social status, these naked figures form a community of emotive bodies, holding hands but retaining markers of biological, personal difference--a difference that informs and upholds this communitarian vision instead of having to be sacrificed for the white marble bodies that usually accompany idealized images of democracy--even in his own, earlier "school"-poem draft. At least this is what the few actual readers of this handcrafted object might have encountered in it.

The somewhat strange, ornamented object, then, that is the 1855 edition of Leaves of Grass would have effused a certain sentimental aura for the potential book buyer of the mid-nineteenth-century even before being opened (see Figure 1). With a visual proximity both to Fern Leaves from Fanny's Port-Folio (see Winwar 1945)--a collection of short pieces of sentimental prose--and popular keepsake albums (see Bradford 2013), it set out to elicit a very different range of affects from the person holding it than, for instance, Ralph Waldo Emerson's plain, brown Representative Men (1850). Originally intended to be a "handsome little book... for the pocket" (Traubel 1915, 175)--to be embraced and held close--and explicitly wanting to be "absorbl[ed]... affectionately" by the country (Whitman 1855, xii), as Whitman states in its prose preface, the book object itself already imagines an emotional bond with its readers. Even in its not quite "pocket-size[d]" rendition, it is an affective token, exuding an air of intimacy that, as Adam Bradford states, "grew out of the sentimental literary practices" of popular nineteenth-century US culture (2013, 142). In mirroring the look of gift books (heavily ornamented albums for keeping valued memoranda, paper clippings, and quotes), Whitman's "pocket" book is also an invitation of sorts that, as Bradford hints at, encourages its owner to actively partake in constructing it, effectively turning it into what Paddy Scannell calls a "for-anyone-as-someone" object (2014, 32). It is a heartfelt gift from the author to each individual reader that in its bestowal calls them both into being: Instead of an author writing a book for someone specific (as: a woman's book, a children's book, etc.), writer and reader discover each other on equal grounds in Leaves of Grass. The abstracted sentimental gesture of this object is relational, not prescriptive. Whitman's folio is an interactive, emotionally charged "thing" that promises to transcend what many think of as a reader-writer divide.

As a text as well as an object, Leaves of Grass is full of such twists on sentimental tokens--small, everyday items charged with affective meaning in a tradition of heartfelt gifting but whose sentimental grasp has been extended significantly. The most famous is of course the sentimental image of "grass" singled out by the 1856 reviewer ("Our Book Table"). Given to Whitman by a curious "child," the poet's grass is valued as a "scented gift and remembrancer" (Whitman 1855, 16). Such gifts come from the heart: "What I give, I give out of myself," the poet states (44), echoing his "Little Jane" from the 1840s, who, dying (and thereby curing her brother from his vicious intemperance), "bestow'd a little gift upon each of her kindred, as a remembrancer when she should be dead and buried in the grave" (Whitman 1982, 370). Coupled with aphoristic style of address ("What I assume, you shall assume"), the handful of grass becomes a sign of communion and shared memory, creating a sympathetic bond between child, narrator, and reader that establishes the feeling of closeness that Whitman's Leaves relies on and disseminates. And indeed, while a comprehensive reader reception study of Whitman's Leaves is still outstanding, much seems to hint at reciprocity. This image of an elaborately framed daguerreotype (see Figure 2), for instance, shows an upper-class woman cradling the second edition (1856) of Leaves of Grass, signaling her membership in the poet's affective, egalitarian public. (10) Whereas "Little Jane" was an appeal to temperance advocates and school reformers, Leaves fuses a number of vaguely defined democratic policies inscribed into the book-object (gender equality, abolition of slavery and capital punishment, etc.) into a common way of "feeling" under the big tent of a shared, affective experience of a just community.

Still, before getting to the heart of Leaves, the potential (sentimentally inclined) reader had to flip past the somewhat odd introduction to the author of the book. When opening Leaves of Grass, this reader is greeted by a daguerreotype of Whitman dressed as "one of the roughs," looking ahead provocatively with his head cocked (see Figure 1). While this seems widely removed from a (feminine) sentimental tradition--we might imagine, instead, young girls in flowing white dresses, jolly boys, and more flowery imagery--it does resonate with what Jason Stacy refers to as the "republican hero." In line with popular "hagiographical histories" that convey the upright character of apolitical figure through affective anecdote, Whitman's "bard persona drew from contemporary discourses around the idea of a republican hero" (2010, 215). Stacy exemplifies this masculin(ist) vein within the sentimental via the following passage of the poem later titled "The Sleepers":
Now of the old war-days.. the defeat at Brooklyn;

Washington stands inside the lines... he stands on the entrenched hills
amid a crowd of officers,

His face is cold and damp.... he cannot repress the weeping drops....
he lifts the glass perpetually to his eyes.... the color is blanched
from his cheeks, (Whitman 1855, 73)

General Washington's role as a "republican hero" is here not attained through political action but by feeling right--through honest sentiment even in defeat. As Stacy puts it: "the reader is there with Washington and knows his heart first hand" (2010, 221). The 1855 edition of Leaves gives many such "sentimental hagiographies," like Whitman's mother giving "remembrance and fondness" to a "red squaw" (1855, 75), an "old artillerist" retelling the siege of the Alamo (40), or a "Yankee phantom" weeping over the loss of republican morals (89). (11) Still, the sentimental in Whitman's first edition of Leaves goes far beyond merely fusing classically "feminine" and "masculine" iterations of it.

Betsy Erkkila sees in the text of this edition "an attempt to manage the disintegrative forces of both democracy and technology in the nineteenth century" (1996, 4) and argues that in order to sustain a unifying approach, Whitman "had to silence the fact of radical contradiction in the founding fathers, in the American marketplace, and at the very heart of democracy itself" (21). Even a cursory look at the text, however, shows how hard it is to find such a "silencing" in the 1855 edition. Without knowledge of Hegel, whose dialectics Whitman later referenced to argue for societal progress as a synthesis of contradictions (Erkkila 1996, 248), the sentimental mode aided Whitman in defending what he thought of as the "American idea in all its amplitude and comprehensiveness" (1853-1854) by referencing a community of feeling that stands above and beyond divisive politics. In this sense, he seems to perform what Berlant calls the "juxta-political" stance of sentimental fictions: Whitman "denigrate[s]... politics on behalf of saving the political" (2008, 146)--but in the sense that he disavows the single-issue politics of his earlier writings for a more comprehensive, egalitarian project. In Leaves, the "call of the slave is one with the master's call" (Whitman 1855, 76), while Whitman celebrates a similitude in feeling. Such a union of slave and master is indeed radical as it fundamentally equalizes both actors through the inherent worthiness of each person's individual experience regardless of position, though it is also troublesome in its tendencies to naturalize differences that are the result of structural, political violence. Even so, this union never seems to relish the "unanxious general social membership" that Berlant observes in Stowe and like writers (2008, 145). Instead it is defined by social wrongs--wrongs not silenced or denigrated to easily fixable obstacles, but presented as the very core of the American experience. The sentimental aids Whitman in this endeavor by both allowing him to focus on the issue of slavery primarily as a matter of bodily violence (and thereby working within the sentimental)--while at the same time consciously frustrating a public schooled in such writings by disappointing any expectation of genre-typical moral instructions or guidelines so often imposed by a narrator.

The radical Leaves of Grass, for all its indebtedness to the sentimentalisms of its times, does not read as if it were written by a Fanny Fern or a Harriet Beecher Stowe (though the former was quite sympathetic to the book). (12) Leaves refuses to retreat to a moralist high ground from which to pronounce pity and judgement; instead it emphasizes the problematic politics that tend to get naturalized--"obfuscated" as Douglas puts it (1977, 254)--by many established sentimental writers. (13) Whitman's sentimentalism is not theirs. Neither mere "leftovers" from his literary past nor (unsuccessful) sales-tricks, the affective strategies of Leaves of Grass develop the sentimental mode for a wider poetic public than a wealthy, middle-class audience. "We might think of the 1855 edition," Michael Millner proposes, "as a series of interventions into emblematically sentimental moments" (2002, 41). While Millner only glosses over this specific edition (his focus lies with the 1860's "Calamus'-cluster), he aptly frames Whitman's strategy in the first edition of Leaves. Glancing at Whitman's page, we can literally see what these "interventions" look like:
The married and unmarried children ride home to their thanksgiving

The pilot seizes the king-pin, he heaves down with a strong arm,

The mate stands braced in the whaleboat, lance and harpoon are ready,

The duck-shooter walks by silent and cautious stretches,

The deacons are ordained with crossed hands at the altar,

The spinning-girl retreats and advances to the hum of the big wheel,

The farmer stops by the bars of a Sunday and looks at the oats and rye,

The lunatic is carried at last to the asylum a confirmed case,

He will never sleep any more as he did in the cot in his mother's

The quadroon girl is sold at the stand. ... the drunkard nods by the
barroom stove,

The machinist rolls up his sleeves. ... the policeman travels his beat.
... the gatekeeper marks who pass (Whitman 1855, 21)

In one of the earliest "catalogues" so characteristic for Leaves, Whitman uses many of the "stock familial characters" of sentimentalism (Todd 1986, 2), but carefully disallows what Berlant describes as the "individual acts of identification" essential to the genre's conservative undercurrent (1998, 636). Here, there is no room for greedily consuming an individual tragedy. Condensed to the extreme, positive and negative "stock characters" as well as elements of everyday realism form a list of essential cultural tropes in the American popular imagination, with negative icons constantly interrupting images of "the good life."

After leading its 1855 readers to visualize the outdoorsy joys of rural life (a thanksgiving ride, hunting, farming), for instance, the poem turns towards a sleepless "lunatic" who would be better off in his "mother's bedroom." Rarely allowing for moments of repose, these long lists create an almost rhythmic image of the United States through its sentimental promises and disappointments. Without the narrative anchor of having clear-cut causes and solutions already provided by a coherent, moralistic storyline for these moments of suffering, this barrage of stock figures is deeply unsettling. If it asks readers to identify with the nation, it certainly does not "blind" those who take up the book to what this entails. If readers want "deacons... ordained with crossed hands at the altar," they will also have to face "the quadroon girl... sold at the stand." In these catalogues, there is rarely any time to reflect or pronounce judgment--life just marches on, regardless: "the machinist rolls up his sleeves. ... the policeman travels his beat. ... the gate-keeper marks who pass." "Feeling right" is certainly complicated here. It urges its readers to dive into the often painful experience of being a member of the US nation reimagined as an affective, comprehensive community--but at the same time that it emphasizes belonging, Leaves of Grass also refuses guidance and foregrounds ongoing legacies of violence and ignorance.

An even more visible "intervention" is Whitman's famous celebration of bodily sensations that include "voices of sexes and lusts" that were formerly "veiled" by false notions of morality (Whitman 1855, 29). Indeed, Whitman informs us that one of the reasons why he is "no sentimentalist" is because in having abandoned moralistic attitudes, he is "no more modest than immodest" (29) and is instead reframing sex, as Marianne Noble has argued, as "genuine human contact" (2010; see also Coviello 2001). The "standard interpretation," Millner reminds us,
understands [Whitman' sexual politics] as a sort of amped-up
sentimental politics; the sexual, like the sentimental, serv[ing] as a
relay between intimacy and abstractedness, embodiment and universality,
the individual and the nation, the private and the public. (Millner
2002, 38) (14)

Vastly expanding the emotive archive of main-stream sentimentalism--so far mostly confined to benevolence, pity, fear, charity, love and outrage (and, some would argue, repressed sexual pleasure, see Noble 2000)--Whitman invites his readers to experience a wide array of physical sensations hitherto deemed taboo or even criminal. While he summons suffering black bodies as "other" to confront slavery's evils (in his famous "haunted slave" passage, for instance), Whitman is careful to channel these sexual "voices" predominantly through his own poetically expanded body. In communion with the poet, we experience his emotions not through acts of intrusion but following his explicit invitation. Feeling right--now meaning so much more--through the bardic poet is not commodification but follows the logic of a mutually pleasurable sexual encounter. Whitman is upfront about his own pleasures in these moments. "Is this then a touch?," he asks us, seemingly well-aware of readers' fingers following his excessive lines across the page, "quivering [him] to a new identity" (1855, 32). Whitman's celebration of union through the sexual, earthly nature of readerly and writerly embodiedness inhabits division and strife as shared signifiers of these sentiments and passions. This move certainly follows a "corporeal-political logic of sentimental identification and abstraction," as Millner argues (2002, 44), but its broad inclusiveness and resistance to reformism and prescriptive moralism moves it beyond the narrow horizon of many sentimental tropes. Whitman does not appeal to the sexual to "solve" the problem of politics (indeed, the sexual seems at the core of these issues) but emphasizes a shared, lustrous experience within politics and division. Sentiment for him effloresces politics as lived readerly experience precisely through dwelling with difference. In a time where much of the political discourse relied on the binary oppositions--good/evil, God/Satan, just/criminal, etc.--that Whitman struggled to overcome in his move away from moralizing, reformist prose to a more inclusive, communitarian form of sentimentalism, this is a more daring endeavor than many have accounted for.

In the early editions of Leaves of Grass, Whitman develops the reformist and normative sentimentalism of Franklin Evans into the radical, communitarian affect of a "Song of Myself": its extensive reach, its gentle gestures of a cherished America, its contradictory inclusiveness employ the sentimental to diversify requirements for membership in "America" as a community of feeling, even as the United States appears as a poetically coherent, often exclusionary, polity. While the reality Whitman observed on a daily basis in the streets of New York still clashed with his hopes for the human race, the promise of a "worthier" system of philosophy that his sentimental short fiction could never quite channel, he now finds embodied--en masse--in a boundless, affective public: a unity without conformity formed around a radically democratic sense of belonging. But like the times it was born into, Leaves found itself having to adapt further.


In the 1860 edition of Leaves of Grass, many critics see a "turn towards the privacy of love" in Whitman under the signs of a looming Civil War (Erkkila 1996, 152). Especially in the "Calamus"-cluster, still vibrating strongly with the "stock language" of male sentimental affection, Millner observes a "shunning of abstraction" (2002, 20, 43) that has Whitman remaining in the realm of individual experience instead of upscaling sentiment to the sphere of the nation. Given the personal accounts of falling in and out of love detailed here, this appears to be a logical conclusion. Still, keeping in mind that most of these private moments were part of a largely autobiographical manuscript poem titled "Live Oak, With Moss" (Helms 1992), which was then broken up by Whitman and reordered throughout this part of Leaves to avoid such an individualistic reading, this analysis seems limited. Indeed, the poet made sure to couple these moments in "Calamus" with some of his most utopic, city-upon-the-hill fantasies--like the following:
I DREAMED in a dream, I saw a city invincible to the attacks of the
whole of the rest of the earth,

I dreamed that was the new City of Friends,

Nothing was greater there than the quality of robust love--it led the

It was seen every hour in the actions of the men of that city,

And in all their looks and words. (Whitman 1860, 374)

Echoing his early "perfect school"-draft, moments like this one read as a conscious attempt to lift Whitman's personal emotional crisis to the level of the broader, national community. Refusing to surrender his private story, the poet nonetheless offers up its emotional intensity for the "sentimental identification" of his readership (Millner 2002, 44). In light of this effort, it seems problematic to read "Calamus"--even with all its dark, brooding moments--as a Whitman "seced[ing] from the democratic en masse" (Erkkila 1996, 154). Indeed, the whole 1860 edition seems intently focused on national unity through love. Often referred to as Whitman's "bible of Democracy" (158), this edition is not only more pragmatically political but also sees Whitman embrace the role of a more serious, grown-up poet. Instead of a full-body image of the poet as a young "rough," we now get a head-only portrait of a well-groomed author and "thou" and "thee" begin superabounding in this text. This version of Whitman's persona needed its own sentimental pathos--and it found it in the figure of the Mature Bard.

As the grey-bearded, unifying voice for America, Whitman now needed an "origin story" of sorts--and he supplied it with "Reminiscence" (Later: "Out of the Cradle Endlessly Rocking"). A highly sentimentalized account of a boyhood awakening to poetry triggered by the tragic songs of a "he-bird" for his vanished "she-bird," the poem puts "tears" at the center of poetics. Actually voicing the words of the bird ("O throat! O throbbing heart! O all--and I singing uselessly all the night" [1860, 274]), Whitman as "a curious boy" observes:
Yes, when the stars glistened,
All night long, on the prong of a moss-scallop'd stake,
Down, almost amid the slapping waves,
Sat the lone singer, wonderful, causing tears. (Whitman 1860, 271)

Triggered by the exhaustively sentimental song of the bird (there are thirty-seven exclamations of "O"), boy-Whitman experiences an epiphany:
To the boy's Soul's questions sullenly timing--some
drowned secret hissing,
To the outsetting bard of love (Whitman 1860, 275)

Returning to his early vision of poetry as sentimental schooling, Whitman here reaffirms that "magnificent men are formed," indeed, by "love--love of woman--all manly exercises" (1853-1854). The throes of lost love--detailed so vividly in "Calamus"--are, then, not a move away from the nation and toward the particular, but in itself the core of a new poetry that would unite America. Moving from the individual to the whole, Whitman's ability to be "by these tears a little boy again" (270) frames the "Calamus"-experience as a rediscovery of "love" as conciliatory, noble force. This love and affection is not (just) rosy sentiment, however: even love lost affirms its potential to create communities around it. With around 315 total instances of the word "love" in this edition of Leaves (adjusted for total word count, this is a sixty-three percent increase over the 1855 edition (15) and about a tenth of the number of times he uses the word "and"), Whitman's take on sentimental love in all its forms emerges as one of its defining features. (16) This is after all, he tells us in his introductory "Proto-Leaf," the Leaves of the "greatness of Love and Democracy--and the greatness of Religion" (13).

What this quasi-religious vision of "Love and Democracy" could look like, Whitman shows us in the beginning of his "Enfans d'Adam"-cluster, often read (in a gross oversimplification) as a heterosexual counterpart to a homosexual "Calamus":
TO the garden, the world, anew ascending,
Potent mates, daughters, sons, preluding,
The love, the life of their bodies, meaning and being,
Curious, here behold my resurrection, after slumber,
The revolving cycles, in their wide sweep, having brought me again,
Amorous, mature--all beautiful to me--all wondrous,
My limbs, and the quivering fire that ever plays
through them, for reasons, most wondrous;
Existing, I peer and penetrate still,
Content with the present--content with the past,
By my side, or back of me, Eve following,
Or in front, and I following her just the same. (Whitman 1860, 287)

Wrought in Biblical metaphors, Whitman's sexual love (his "feeling right") inaugurates a paradisiacal national community--a "return to Paradise" (308)--that in Leaves for the first time seems to normativize a certain set of behaviors and affects. The Whitman that embraced "multitudes" now seems to focus predominantly on generative, sexual love as a model for American unity. Sex has become "feeling's higher truth" (Berlant 2008, 146) and sexual union has come to suggest national union. At the same time, this union is overtly physical while religious, queer while procreative, and communal while national. This phase of the sentimental in Whitman is still far removed from his early reformism--that is, from proposing "structural adaptations whose justice the sentimentalist... can already affectively pre-experience" (146). However, this procreative-theistic moment seems to suffer from comparable limitations that, for instance, Whitman already struggled against in "Death in the School-Room" as he again seems to defer any form of societal change to a heaven-like, distant futurity and leaves us only few hints as to how it could be attained. What we are left with are vague notions of the "progress of Souls... along the grand roads of the universe" (Whitman 1860, 326). Indeed, the 1860 edition is where the word "progress" really enters Whitman's vocabulary to quickly become a defining feature of its poetical argument. (17) Still, Whitman's take on "love thy neighbor" (or thy "passing stranger"), coupled with a hope in gradual change, did not bring union. A few months after the publication of his "American bible," the Civil War broke out, prompting the poet to retreat from his role as a writer and even consider abandoning Leaves all together.


After searching for his brother George in the hospitals of Civil War Washington D.C., Whitman had found his calling for the wartime. Walking through endless rows of wounded soldiers, the poet--by now, though in his forties, with long white hair and beard (see Figure 3)--decided to spend the conflict years caring for the injured, conversing with them, and bringing gifts. His literary rendering of this time would be titled Drum-Taps, initially a separate book but ultimately integrated as a cluster into a new edition of Leaves in 1867.

Elegiac in tone, Drum-Taps is perhaps Whitman's most overtly sentimental publication since 1854. With figures of grieving mothers appearing on nearly every other page and "tearful parting[s]" at its heart (Whitman 1865, 6), the slim book serves as a prime example of a nineteenth-century mourning culture deeply entrenched in the sentimental. In one of his most popular poems from the book, "Come Up From the Fields Father"--many readers wrote Whitman about the piece--the poet envisions a family receiving the news of their son's death on the battlefield. It closes:
Alas, poor boy, he will never be better, (nor may-be
needs to be better, that brave and simple soul;)
While they stand at home at the door, he is dead already;
The only son is dead.
But the mother needs to be better;
She, with thin form, presently drest in black;
By day her meals untouch'd--then at night fitfully sleeping, often
In the midnight waking, weeping, longing with one deep longing,
O that she might withdraw unnoticed--silent from life, escape and
To follow, to seek, to be with her dear dead son. (Whitman 1865, 40)

In Drum-Taps, the Civil War is not defined by specific battles, victories or defeats--as readers, we are often unsure what side of the war is depicted (18)--but by "poor boy[s]" (32) dying too soon, "sisters' [and] mothers' tears" (24), and the singing of songs. Robert Arbour has argued that Whitman was "drawing directly from the conventions of sentimental song" (2013, 164) popular with the soldiers he visited in the hospitals. Whitman at this point in his writings embraces a sentimental, nationalist mode that he had struggled against, pushed aside and reimagined throughout his writing of Leaves. Drum-Taps at times even seems to return to the heavy-handed strategies of his early fictions. (19) By excluding the politics of the war and instead focusing on scenes of universal suffering, the poet argues for the war as a baptismal event, turning the fallen "boys" into sacrifices for the nation. Their deaths, to Whitman, echo the sacrifices of the Revolutionary War that he also invokes in Drum-Taps:
Rank after rank falls, while over them silently droops the flag,
Baptized that day in many a young man's bloody wounds,
In death, defeat, and sisters', mothers' tears. (Whitman 1865, 24)

By comparing the Civil War to the struggle for independence and thereby reframing it as the site of implicitly white suffering (see Parkinson 2016) in service of the nation state, Whitman is now casting aside black bondage as the anguish of "others" beyond his affective reach, relegating emancipation to a less-then-central factor of the war. Not surprisingly, the service of the United States Colored Troops regiments is entirely absent in Drum-Taps and abolition is at best hinted at (in "Ethiopia Saluting the Colors"). In an attempt to remain inclusive, Whitman's vision seems to discover conflicting ways of renewing his hope for national unity--and chooses to reaffirm a white vision of a "national family" coming together after filial conflict over the cause of black liberation and equal rights.

Consequently, one of the major sacrificial deaths that Whitman records in his Civil War-era writings turns out to be Abraham Lincoln, the central figure of his most successful poem. Almost immediately anthologized (see Eiselein 1998), Whitman's elegy to the president, "O Captain! My Captain!" (published in an add-in booklet to Drum-Taps and ultimately included in Leaves), remains the poet's most widely recognized piece. "Conventional" in form and revisiting the "nation as boat" metaphor that Whitman employed in "Death in the School-Room," the poem's simple rhymes made for recitation make "O Captain!" Whitman's ultimate "public poem for a mass audience" (Eiselein 1998)--never mind that Whitman (and many scholars) would express regret over it. (20) While the first stanza depicts Lincoln as the "captain" of the metaphorical ship, the realization of the president's death in stanza two elevates him to a "dear father" of the "swaying mass" that is the United States. (21) In death, Lincoln is transubstantiated into a messianic figure. Whitman's sentimental rendering of the president's "fall" follows the sacrificial imagery of the crucifixion, with the speaker cradling the cold-lipped Lincoln in his arms as Mary cradled Jesus after his deposition (see, for example, Correggio's famous 1525 painting of the scene). With Lincoln's death, the sins of America are absolved into a religio-sentimental, national family (cf. Barnes):
My captain does not answer, his lips are pale and still;
My father does not feel my arm, he has no pulse nor will:
But the ship, the ship is anchor'd safe, its voyage closed and done;
From fearful trip, the victor ship, comes in with object won:
Exult, O shores, and ring, O bells!
But I, with silent tread,
Walk the spot my captain lies,
Fallen cold and dead. (Whitman 1865, 13)

In the midst of Drum-Taps' nationalist scenes of mourning, another figure emerges that defined Whitman's poetry and public persona until his death (and beyond): The Wound-Dresser. "An old man bending" (31), the poet now imagines himself spreading his love in a motherly, caring fashion, domesticating the wild sexuality of his earlier writings (though never excluding it from Leaves). Although Whitman was never actually "bearing the bandages, water and sponge" (32) himself during his time in Washington, D.C., his new poetic persona sets out to "pacify with soothing hand" and receives "many a soldier's kiss" in return (34). Here, poetic and biographical "healing" of the nation blur and fuse. What was once an "en masse" of shared, contradictory lustriousness and then a community of lovers is now an elegiac family With bodies becoming wounds, lovers have turned to sons. (That, along the way, some of Whitman's most enamored depictions of male-male affection have sidestepped rampant homophobic commentary--from the late nineteenth century to today--is certainly a remarkable aspect of the poet's skillful use of the sentimental pathos of war.)

Defining Whitman's perception transatlantically, the image of the caring, bearded sage quickly became a shorthand for Whitman and his poetry, sparking a still thriving cult of sentimental keepsakes referencing the poet, often called Whitmaniana. Frequently echoing William Douglas O'Connor's 1866 "vindication" titled The Good Gray Poet, which reminded America how "faithfully, and with a mother's love, Whitman tended" the wounded in their parents' stead (43), the poet is reimagined as the sentimental grandfather figure that he is still widely known as today:
Rich light an artist would have chosen, lay upon his uncovered head,
majestic, large, Homeric, and set upon his strong shoulders with the
grandeur of ancient sculpture. ... The flowing hair and fleecy beard,
both very gray, and tempering with a look of age the youthful aspect of
one who is but forty-five; the simplicity and purity of his dress,
cheap and plain, but spotless, from snowy falling collar to burnished
boot, and exhaling faint fragrance; the whole form surrounded with
manliness as with a nimbus, and breathing, in its perfect health and
vigor, the august charm of the strong. (O'Connor 1866, 4)

With an aura of age and wisdom surrounding the poet once deemed pornographic, transforming him into a symbol of saint-like purity and refinement, Whitman's work becomes even more self-referential, reveling in the persona of the "good grey poet" and the wise imparter of ancient truths--the poet himself turning into the embodiment of the sentimentally bound American nation. Still, by now shifting more and more toward poems on death, parting, and self-reflection, Whitman's reach moves from the nation he lives in toward posterity. What was once a poetic intervention into the moralisms, injustices, and complacencies of his times, soon becomes a discussion about his legacy with generations to come. It is now "future-founding poetry" (Pohlmann 2015).


The so-called "deathbed" edition of Leaves of Grass, a publication hastily assembled in 1891-1892 out of an earlier edition, was to be the poet's definitive final work. The ultimate poem in the book and one of the last Whitman composed is "Good-bye my Fancy." Echoing his earlier playful loafing with his soul in the 1855 edition, the poet addresses in a final close embrace a "you" that could be either his creative energy (a spiritual "fancy") or the reader:
GOOD-BYE my Fancy!
Farewell dear mate, dear love!
I'm going away, I know not where,
Now for my last--let me look back a moment;
The slower fainter ticking of the clock is in me,
Exit, nightfall, and soon the heart-thud stopping.
Long indeed have we lived, slept, filter'd, become really blended into
Then if we die we die together, (yes, we'll remain one,)
If we go anywhere we'll go together to meet what happens,
Good-bye--and hail! my Fancy. (Whitman 1892a, 422)

Whitman's reader once again becomes his confidant and object of affection. All this while, the good grey poet informs us, Leaves has been a sentimental love affair, with reader and poet now finally "really blended into one." Full of stock images for emotion ("heart thud," "ticking of the clock," etc.), Whitman collapses a scene of sentimental parting full of repeated good-byes and affectionate addresses ("my fancy," "dear mate, dear love!") into an image of spiritual union in death. Still, this scene does more than summon a sentimentalized vision of the ultimate end of both poet and book--rather, it radically turns Whitman's creative project over to the reader. The narrator's heartfelt plea to future generations to "usher" him "to the true songs" artfully oscillates between the spiritual-conservative connotations of reading as exegesis and the more progressive notions of what Emerson called "creative reading" (1870, 51). The egalitarian poetics of Leaves of Grass opens his life's work to his broad readership to rework, rethink, and rearticulate his poetic community. Whitman's ultimate affective gesture, even as it powerfully addresses and intimately draws in his reader, remains hard to pin down as its sentimentalism articulates its radical politics through the conservatism of his grey and motherly persona and speaks the progressive through the sentimental. The poet's affective nation, then, is less a present creature of imperfect, everyday politics and strife and more a Utopian futurity that perhaps cannot be attained, but is nonetheless worth striving for.

For Whitman, 1892 marked the act of dying into his work, with this edition serving as his living will and testament. As such, it is no wonder that the text includes detailed instructions on how Leaves is to appear in the future. Laden with the spirit of the now-departing poet-saint, every future edition is to be "a copy and facsimile" (Whitman 1892a, 1). Authorized by a copy of the poet's signature and adorned with his image, the deathbed edition is truly, as Whitman had already informed us in 1860, "no book, / Who touches this touches a man" (382). A parting gift coupled with an invitation to future generations to carry on his songs, Whitman bequeaths his Leaves directly to his reader:
Nor houses nor lands, nor tokens of gems or gold for my friends,
Yet certain remembrances of the war for you, and after you,
And little souvenirs of camps and soldiers, with my love,
I bind together and bequeath in this bundle of songs. (Whitman 1892a,

As an object, carefully crafted in manual, artisan labor ("bundle of songs"), Whitman's book becomes the physical embodiment of epitaph and mourning. His last publication is not a mere text, but a sentimental token that immortalizes the national poet's dying body, a "remembrancer" in line with post-mortem photography or death masks (see Sanchez-Eppler 1999; Kete 2000). Sanctified by the poet's last breath, this corpus is imbued with meaning as a cherished and sentimental object and memento of a person's life, not solely as lines on a page. Bradford calls the 1855 Leaves a "death-defying cryptext," but his description applies best to this edition, which is indeed "a talisman, medium, and repository not only to house a literary corpus but to 'enliven' that corpus in the reader's 'presence,' ensuring a perpetual connection and communication between them" (2013, 158). Do not fear, Whitman seems to say: while he might be dead, the community of feeling he created will live on in whoever chooses to engage with his corporeal afterlife that is the deathbed edition. Whitman's sentimentalism, this seemingly obsolete mode of emotive appeal, has now acquired time-travel capabilities. It has the dead speak to the future from an impossible present.

Commenting on Whitman's testamentary instructions at the beginning of the 1891-92 Leaves to print the book, from now on, in "facsimile," Joseph A. Dane argues--in an expression of utter disregard of a nineteenth-century culture deemed too "feminine"--that such a measure
reproduce[s] not Whitman's radical poem, but rather the most banal of
Whitman's contemporary conventions--the typeface instantly recognizable
as late nineteenth century, for many of us, more reminiscent of the
revoltingly sentimental and moralistic texts associated with the
tongue-clucking admonitions of our grandmothers. (Dane 2011, 197)

Trying to separate the poet from the popular culture of his time--and thereby a radical, masculine "rough" from the "tongue-clucking," motherly poet-saint--Dane buys into narratives of original genius and also gives us an apt example of how, more than one hundred and twenty years after his death, a certain "anxiety about sentimentality" (Kete 1998, 626) still surrounds Whitman's work. I have suggested that the sentimental was not a mere stylistic convention but a defining feature of Whitman's poetic-political program--the element that conveyed and bore his radical vision of spiritual union without uniformity, egalitarianism without moralism, and belonging without normativity. The sentimental emerged at the core of his early literary work in the form of sensationalized suffering, and entered Leaves of Grass as one of his main poetical antagonists--a mode of affective persuasion embraced for its ability to produce communities of feeling but struggled against for its tendencies to ignore fundamental injustices and reinstate reactionary moralisms.

As a political aesthetics, Whitman's sentimentalisms followed the poet's shifting attitudes toward the US nation. From an early sexual embrace of certain American multitudes to his proposal for a Utopian republic of love, to ultimately returning to himself as sentimental father-mother of a nostalgically lyricized country, Whitman crafted Leaves and his public authorial persona both against and within the sentimental voices of his times. To brand Whitman's critical work with the sentimental as a defect, a cultural taint to be expunged by criticism, is to envision him as an elitist avant-garde, rather than a poet of the democratic "en masse." Truthfully, he was both of those things, and his uses of sentiment were precisely about his attempts to pivot between poetic refinement and public influence, a struggle that many mid-century writers faced in the era of the professionalization of authorship (see Jackson 2008). I would suggest that his struggles with sentiment support Whitman's continued force in popular culture today--for instance, appearing in popular TV shows like The Simpsons or Breaking Bad--and thereby extending his affective bond to people globally. Dealing in inspirational quotes and tokens via hand-crafted "remembrancers," internet memes, shirts, or calendar quotes, contemporary sentimental culture has embraced Whitman--especially his affective side. On Etsy and the like, Whitman is preserved and purchasable, keeping up "perpetual connection and communication" (Bradford 2013, 158) with his readership. Himself as sentimental a token as his words (see Higgins 2006), the poet who longed to be in everyone's "pocket" (Traubel 1915, 175), is now covering "ribb'd breast[s]" (Whitman 1892a, 100), adorning "cock'd hats" (202) and dangling from "necks" (99) (see Figure 4) as never before. Whitman's nation of feeling, this odd sentimental creature that defies time and space, seems indeed destined to stick around.


(1) I would like to thank Naomi Greyser for her continued support, feedback, and encouragement. Heartfelt thanks are also due to Ed Folsom and Arianna Rigon.

(2) See the online bibliography on the Walt Whitman Archive for the key phrase, "O Captain! My Captain!" (available on: An exception is Helen Hennessy Vendler (2000).

(3) While much of the more recent literary scholarship has parted with the outright dismissal of sentimentalism so typical for academic work published in or before the early 1980s, it still seems to linger behind the relative scarcity of the term in scholarship on male-authored works--with the occasional "mere sentimentalism"-phrase still appearing at times. Specifically in regard to "Whitman scholarship, the apparent negation of the sentimental as an important, perhaps central, element of his post-1855 oeuvre appears to be connected to a strand of academic narratives about his life that still adheres Whitman's own myth-making project. Especially the notion of a radical break in Whitman's writing between his early fiction (Franklin Evans and, as we now know, Jack Engle) and Leaves of Grass is crucial here. Folsom and Price, for instance, exemplify this notion by observing that "no one could have guessed that this middle-aged writer of sensationalistic fiction and sentimental verse" could today be considered "America's greatest and most revolutionary poet" (2005, 19). While certainly correct (who would have guessed?), this statement also throws out the baby with the bathwater by specifically naming the sentimental as fundamentally at odds with the Whitman that would become canonical. And there is certainly more than a little sting to the use of these adjectives here--with both positioned as something intuitively antithetical to the idea of "greatness," they certainly read like synonyms for "hackneyed" and "artless."

(4) Quotes from the 1892b Complete Prose Works (25).

(5) It has become somewhat of a consensus in Whitman scholarship to treat the 1855, the 1860, and the 1891-92 editions as the three major iterations of Leaves, since they nicely reflect the major milestones in Whitman's poetic strategies and author-personas, as well as constitute some of the most significant additions and changes in the history of the book. Although the last edition is largely identical to the 1881 edition, it is often cited preferably to the 1881 edition in deference to Whitman's own testamentary instructions and established reading practices (i.e., focusing on the "last," hence "most complete," version produced by the author). This essay follows this trend mostly because it allows for a more compact discussion of Whitman's late-life persona and sentimental aura of death--but all readings here apply equally to the 1881 edition. Drum-Taps, ultimately included in later editions of Leaves, is discussed at the time of his first appearance as a separate book for the sake of the chronological coherence of the argument presented. While this essay thus focuses on Leaves of Grass and Whitman's fictions that fed--in one way or another--into Leaves, Whitman's prose writings seem equally ripe for an analysis of their sentimental strategies: be it Whitman's Specimen Days with its imagery of old age and notions of gathering and collecting precious objects (specimens) or his Memoranda During the War, which echoes the disavowals of sentimentalism in Franklin Evans and Leaves and has rightly been described by Peter Coviello as nonetheless verging "closely on the kind of 'sentimentalism' [Whitman] both disparaged and flirted with throughout his work" (2004, i).

(6) Matthiessen's almost seven hundred page opus relegates one of the major literary successes of the nineteenth century, Uncle Tom's Cabin, to a few side notes as a representative of "minor" literature, with Hawthorne being "our one major author in fiction yet to have come out of New England"--especially when contrasted to female writers from the region such as Stowe, Sarah Orne Jewett, or Mary Wilkins Freeman (1941, 229).

(7) "What can any individual do? Of that, every individual can judge. There is one thing that every individual can do,--they can see to it that they feel right" (Stowe 2010, 404).

(8) Critics like Ann Douglas or Elizabeth Barnes seem to firmly settle on the former positions, while Tompkins, Kete, and Greyser favor the latter. The critical apparatus of Lauren Berlant's work is to me one of the more useful ways to enlist this contested core of the sentimental for literary analysis--especially for an author like Walt Whitman, who seems so eerily aware of these very tendencies. Sidestepping these debates over the ultimate political valence of the sentimental for a moment, this essay follows a basic definition of sentimentalism that can be gleaned from them: The sentimental is a literary mode that hopes to elicit emotive responses in its readers through a highly evocative style and apostrophic narrative strategies on the assumption that said responses create a powerful moral-affective state shared between reader, writer, and protagonist(s); from this position it pleads against certain societal institutions and practices while it reinforces, naturalizes, and legitimizes others. Sentimental moments in narrative and poetry are hence differentiated from the mere mention of emotionality. They are a sort of amped-up empathetic impetus aimed at transposing the reader into the emotive state of a protagonist with the goal of eliciting a specific, morally "correct" response. Instead of the complexities involved in empathy--of attempting to understand an Other in all his/her complexity--sentimentalism is highly normative and generally tends to simplify complex political and societal problems to single issues that can clearly be identified as "feeling wrong" and corrected through morally righteous behavior. The gaps between self and other, feeling and action, are thus blurred and often structurally negated in the sentimental, leaving it open to the charge of mere sensationalism and consumerism.

(9) On this aspect of author-reader communion see Gillian Silverman's Bodies & Books (2012) and Ezra Greenspan's Walt Whitman and the American Reader (1990).

(10) See also the numerous, often extensive fan letters to Whitman published on the Walt Whitman Archive that often relish in an experience of closeness to the poet regardless of never having met him in person.

(11) See also Erkkila (1996, 64-67).

(12) Sarah Payson Parton, who was writing under the pen name Fanny Fern, considered Whitman and his work "delicious" and authored positive reviews of Leaves (White 1961).

(13) Of course, as a white man and a self-fashioned provocateur, Whitman was certainly allowed (and allowed himself) more room to transcend the gendered public-private (i.e., political-sentimental) divide--a strategy that likely would have ill-fitted female authors striving to intervene into the heart of a white, conservative US culture and lobby on behalf of a specific societal reform movement (abolitionism, temperance, etc.). Whereas Whitman's explicit use of sexuality, for instance, largely caused him mild annoyances and, in most cases, ridicule (and perhaps some free press), one can only imagine the outrage over a female writer like Stowe detailing oral sex or masturbation in one of her works. On the more nuanced politics of Stowe, see Tompkins's essay "Sentimental Power" (1985), the edited collection The Stowe Debate (Lowance, Westbrook, and De Prospo 1994), and the respective chapter in Kevin Pelletier's Apocalyptic Sentimentalism (2015, 97-119).

(14) This notion seems to speak to Douglas's famous claim that "Sentimentalism is a cluster of ostensibly private feelings which always attains public and conspicuous expression. Privacy functions in the rituals of sentimentalism only for the sake of titillation, as a convention to be violated" (1977, 254). Whitman's frequent rehearsals of public-private confessionals--"I might not tell everybody, but I will tell you" (1855, 25)--immediately come to mind here.

(15) The 1860 version, though looking much thicker, actually has only around twice as many words as the 1855 edition (around eighty-eight thousand compared to about forty-four thousand in 1855)--an effect largely due to the different page format and the exclusion of Whitman's typographically more dense prose preface.

(16) With the term "sentimental love," I follow Wendy S. Jones who defines it as "virtuous passion" (2005, 189) and a compound ideal of companionship and morally--not merely romantically or sexually--justified, physio-spiritual attraction. A work contemporary to Whitman's time thus refers to sentimental love also as "refined love" (Greene 1875, 9). This sentimental notion of love--as a noble feeling that sympathetically binds one partner to the other, allows oneself to blend with and cross over into the other, and reinforces fundamentally conservative norms of monogamous, life-long (procreative) companionships through "feeling right"--is perhaps the most enduring contribution of the nineteenth century to the present day. Sentimental love is today so engrained in Western societies and naturalized as "true love" that it is barely even recognized as a historical development.

(17) Before that, "progress" was only to be found in the prose preface of the 1855 edition and in talking about the "slow progress" of the settlement of the western states in the 1856 Leaves.

(18) "Was one side so brave? the other was equally brave" (Whitman 1865, 31).

(19) Leslie Jamison seems to have picked up on this move, as well, arguing regarding Drum-Taps that the use of violence characteristic of Whitman's early fictions "becomes an important catalyst for the embodied empathy that charged "Whitman's poetry with such sympathetic force" (2007, 21).

(20) Whitman, late in his life, was irritated by the comparative success of "O Captain!" to the main body of his poetic work. Talking to his disciple Horace Traubel, he said: "I'm honest when I say, damn My Captain... I'm almost sorry I ever wrote the poem" (Traubel 1915, 304).

(21) Vendler explains the sentimental outburst that is "O Captain," arguing that "Whitman has chosen to speak now as a sailor-boy" and thereby "[silenced] his own idiosyncratic voice" to create a "designedly democratic and populist poem" (2000, 6).


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STEFAN SCHOBERLEIN is a doctoral candidate in English at the University of Iowa, a research assistant with the Walt Whitman Archive, and the managing editor of the Walt Whitman Quarterly Review. His scholarship related to Whitman has appeared in WWQR, American Literature, American Literary Realism, the Chicago Review, as well as the South Central Review. Stefan's translation of Whitman's Jack Engle into German was published in 2017.
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Author:Schoberlein, Stefan
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Date:Jun 22, 2018

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