Revisiting Walt Whitman

On the Occasion of his 200th Birthday

by Winfried Herget (Volume editor)
©2019 Edited Collection 356 Pages


The collection of essays explores the transnational and intermedial (music, visual arts, digital media) legacy of Walt Whitman. It provides examples of his influence as well as suggestive parallels in contemporary poetry and thought. One common concern is the question of Whitman’s understanding of democracy and its consequences for poetry and art. Revisiting Whitman has no revisionist agenda. Nor is it nearly celebratory: it also shows tensions and ambivalences in the oeuvre of "The Good Gray Poet."

Table Of Contents

  • Cover
  • Title
  • Copyright
  • About the author(s)/editor(s)
  • About the book
  • This eBook can be cited
  • Table of Contents
  • Introduction (Winfried Herget)
  • Matthew Aucoin’s Opera Crossing (2015): Reinventing Walt Whitman for the Twenty-First Century (Nassim Winnie Balestrini)
  • Walt Whitman in Music: Cosmos, Eros, Mourning (Lawrence Kramer)
  • Walt Whitman and Ernst Ludwig Kirchner: The Hieroglyphics of Expression (Margit Peterfy)
  • Whitman and Everything: Playing with the Poetics of Scale (Sascha Pöhlmann)
  • Saluting Lumumba: The Global Whitman Network and Intermedia (Walter Grünzweig)
  • Oceanic Poetics: Walt Whitman across Pacific Currents (Iris-Aya Laemmerhirt)
  • Life Writing and Diversity: Walt Whitman’s Song of Myself (Alfred Hornung)
  • Visions of a Democratic Poetry: Tocqueville – Emerson – Whitman (Winfried Herget)
  • Walt Whitman: Metonymy, Contingency, and the Democracy of it All (Thomas Claviez)
  • “Songs” and “Inventories”: Democratic Literature, the 19th-Century Data Imaginary, and the Narrative Liminality of the Poetic Catalog (Sebastian M. Herrmann)
  • “The priest departs, the divine literatus comes”: Walt Whitman and Pragmatism (Ulf Schulenberg)
  • Through the Philosopher’s Lens: Whitman and Martha Nussbaum (Elisabeth Hecker-Bretschneider)
  • Military Medicine, Emotional Healing and a Reborn Community in Memoranda During the War (Marek Paryz)
  • On the Poetics of Creative Supremacy: Walt Whitman’s “Manly Health and Training” (Dustin Breitenwischer)
  • Walt Whitman’s Antagonistic Inheritors: Ezra Pound, Hart Crane and William Carlos Williams (Heinz Ickstadt)
  • Whitman in the Engine Room: MacKnight Black’s American Futurism (Stefan Schöberlein)
  • ‘I, Too, Sing America’: Whitmanian Democratic Community in Langston Hughes (Sabine Kim)
  • From First Person, Singular to Second Person, Plural: Walt Whitman’s and Ralph Ellison’s Visions of Democracy (Lars Kiesel)
  • List of Contributors
  • Series index

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Winfried Herget


Walt Whitman’s work is well documented and accessible. In recent years, the digital Walt Whitman Archive, edited by Ed Folsom and Kenneth M. Price, has provided valuable resources for further research. The Walt Whitman Quarterly Review (formerly Walt Whitman Review) regularly publishes annotated bibliographies of current research, criticism and interpretations. American Literary Scholarship devotes a separate chapter to Walt Whitman and Emily Dickinson, critically reviewing studies which appeared within the year. Scholarly journals offer summary reviews of books and articles on Whitman and his work, such as William Vance’s “What They’re Saying about Whitman.”

Quality print media also play a role in keeping “The Good Gray Poet” in public memory. Appreciative essays bear titles like “An American Genius,” “All-American Bard,” “Walt Whitman: 173 and Well” and “Whitman’s Revolution.” Alfred Kazin’s review of David S. Reynold’s Walt Whitman’s America bears the subtitle “A life of Walt Whitman, who soaked up the culture all around him and turned it into art.”

The collection of essays presented in Revisiting Walt Whitman hopes to show that at 200 Walt Whitman is alive and well – and living in his poetry. His life and work still engage readers and scholars on a transnational level. The contributors range from those well-known in the American Studies/Whitman community (Walter Grünzweig, Alfred Hornung, Heinz Ickstadt, Lawrence Kramer) to younger scholars and doctoral candidates. Most of them work at German and European universities. The Whitman legacy is traced not so much as a matter of direct influence but rather in exploring suggestive parallels and in creative responses to Whitman’s oeuvre by later poets and in intermedial transformations. New perspectives open up by referring to frames of reference hitherto unnoticed. A common concern is the question of Whitman’s understanding of democracy and its consequences for poetry and art.

The volume begins with one of the most recent and intermedial responses to Walt Whitman in Matthew Aucoin’s opera Crossing (2015). Nassim Balestrini demonstrates how Whitman’s Civil War experience as a volunteer male nurse reveals a tension between the external warfare and the internal conflicts of his idealized vision of America and his self-doubts. The libretto questions the notion of heroism, memory and the function of art. Lawrence Kramer surveys Whitman’s legacy in music; among the more than thousand compositions inspired ← 7 | 8 → by Whitman’s poetry he singles out three types: those which relate to mysticism, those which reflect the uninhibited eroticism, and those which express mourning, especially for the victims of war – an aspect Balestrini also finds thematized in Aucoin. Margit Peterfy calls attention to a different intermedial relationship by comparing Whitman’s concept of the hieroglyph and the German expressionist Ernst Ludwig Kirchner’s use of this idea for his theory of drawing. For the 19th-century American poet and the 20th-century expressionist painter the hieroglyph is a bridge between the textual and the visual, “a specific metaphor to illuminate the expressive quality of their semiotic encodings of words (Whitman) and images (Kirchner).” Sascha Pöhlmann identifies yet another intermedial parallel. He analyzes Whitman’s use of catalogs and synecdoche in Song of Myself to describe a poetics of scale and then shows how the same poetics is applied in the video game Everything (2017) by David OReilly. Both works share an ambition to be inclusive and want to convey a sense of universal connectedness. Pöhlmann traces the way Whitman’s poetics are adapted and expanded as a ludics of scale in the video game.

The legacy of Walt Whitman as inspiring creative responses transnationally and transmedially is also discovered by Walter Grünzweig in the wood relief “Love, Peace and Work” of the Swedish sculptor Bror Hjorth which shows Whitman next to Jesus Christ and Socrates (see also the cover of the present volume) and includes lines of the Swedish translation of Whitman’s poem “The Base of All Metaphysics.” The relief was commissioned by the Workers’ Educational Association (ABF) for its building in Stockholm in the 1960s; in 1995 the Swedish post office issued two stamps with Hjorth’s relief. Iris-Aya Laemmerhirt suggests that Whitman’s work motivated Hawaiian poet and activist Jamaica Heolimeleikalani Osorio to enter a critical transnational poetic dialog to celebrate her Hawaiian identity.

Whitman’s impact on 20th-century American literature is further explored in four contributions. Heinz Ickstadt takes up echoes of Whitman in the American modernist poetry of Ezra Pound, Hart Crane (“The Bridge”) and William Carlos Williams, who in their own ways acknowledge Whitman’s presence as ancestral master antagonistically, accepting his legacy while rejecting it. Stefan Schöberlein introduces the almost forgotten modernist poet MacKnight Black (1896–1931) and his 1929 book Machinery. As a democratic socialist and a futurist, Black is interpreted as speaking back to Whitman’s fascination with automation. Sabine Kim returns to Langston Hughes, whom she finds neglected by the New Critics. She reads the Harlem Renaissance poet as fulfilling Whitman’s mission of radical democracy within the historical context of the 1920s. She suggests to see Whitman as part of an African American genealogy of socially engaged poets. Lars Kiesel speaks of an elective affinity of Ralph Ellison and Walt Whitman. Analyzing three ← 8 | 9 → chapters of Invisible Man, he shows parallel visions of democracy, particularly of individuality and multi-ethnicity, prefigured in the 19th-century poet and the 20th-century late modernist novelist.

Different frames of reference serve Thomas Claviez, Alfred Hornung, Winfried Herget, Sebastian Herrmann, Ulf Schulenberg, Elisabeth Hecker-Bretschneider and Marek Paryz. Claviez engages Aristotle, Roman Jakobson, David Lodge and especially Jacques Rancière to elucidate the connection between the form of Whitman’s poetry and democracy. Hornung situates Whitman’s work in the context of the autobiographical mode of the American Renaissance to argue that Whitman’s Song of Myself supersedes authors like Emerson, Thoreau, Hawthorne and Melville by introducing a multimedia form of autobiography that prefigures the genre of life writing at the turn of the 21st century. Herget examines the suggestive parallels in Tocqueville’s, Emerson’s and Whitman’s visions of a democratic poetry based on their assumption that democratic societies require specific forms of artistic expression. He proposes three categories to identify democratic poetry: inclusion, transgression and hybridity. Sebastian Herrmann focuses on Whitman’s poetic catalogs in the historical context of the emergence of a “data imaginary” in 19th-century American culture and posits their compatibility as symbolic forms in a democratic literature. Schulenberg considers Whitman in the context of American pragmatism as represented by William James and John Dewey. He confutes Richard Rorty’s interpretation of Whitman as a secular poet. Elisabeth Hecker-Bretschneider shows how Whitman’s notion of praxis and plurality is present in contemporary ethics in the works of Martha Nussbaum, especially her Poetic Justice, the essay “Democratic Desire: Walt Whitman” and Political Emotions: Why Love Matters for Justice (2013). Paryz reads Whitman’s Memoranda During the War to illustrate that the poet’s service as a male nurse was a matter of personal involvement which recognized the individuality of wounded soldiers and helped them reconnect with the world after the war.

Revisiting Whitman has no revisionist agenda. Nor is it merely celebratory. A number of contributions also address tensions and ambivalences in the oeuvre of “The Good Gray Poet.” Inclusion and democracy are repeatedly problematized. Both thematically and formally, inclusion figures prominently in the essays by Herget, Hornung and Pöhlmann. Its limits in regard of ethnic diversity and race are especially highlighted by Dustin Breitenwischer, who contends that Whitman’s long lost self-help guide “Manly Health and Training” (1858) exposes Whitman’s essential racism by relying on the idea that the body of the healthy white male will guarantee that Americans will become, as Whitman puts it, “a superb race of men”. ← 9 | 10 →

The consequences for the form of an inclusive poetry are considered in the interpretations of Whitman’s lists and catalogs by Claviez, Herrmann, Pöhlmann and, in general, by Herget. Intermedial approaches are offered by Balestrini, Peterfy, Hornung, Kramer and Pöhlmann.

Whitman’s understanding of democracy remains a continuous challenge to critics who discern a change from radical egalitarianism before the Civil War to a more conservative, idealist and utopian tendency post-bellum. Claviez offers “contingency” as a concept that may help to come to terms with Whitman’s political ethics and the ensuing aesthetic. Analyzing Democratic Vistas, it becomes increasingly clear that Whitman’s chief concern is not the political process that aims for a form of governance balancing conflicting interests, but rather the achievement of a communal mental disposition and attitude fusing all by brotherly love. That such an egalitarian solidarity can propel its own political momentum is demonstrated by Whitman’s reception on the (primarily social democratic) left, as registered in the essays by Schöberlein, Grünzweig and Herget. In a similar way, Whitman inspired the pursuit of identity politics in minority and post-colonial groups, be it African-Americans (Kim, Kiesel) or even Hawaiians (Laemmerhirt). In American literary history Whitman was reluctantly received by major high modernists. Herget sketches some socio-cultural explanations for this development. In more detail, Heinz Ickstadt takes a differentiating look at the “antagonistic reception” by Ezra Pound, Hart Crane and William Carlos Williams. He comes to the conclusion that these poets accepted Whitman’s legacy while rejecting it. How multi-layered and diverse Whitman’s theoretical underpinnings are, comes to the fore in those essays that relate him to historical and philosophical contexts. Ralph Waldo Emerson remains a point of departure; Hornung and Herget use him as a contrastive foil. Modes of mysticism are acknowledged by Kramer and Herget, but the latter stresses Whitman’s Epicurean materialism. Schulenberg elaborates on the affinities to American pragmatism while the significance of praxis is discussed by Paryz, Hecker-Bretschneider and Kramer. These essays can be considered as contributions to the ethical turn in the humanities affording Whitman a relevant position in the ongoing universal struggle for plurality and moral integrity.

To come full circle in this summary introduction, which started with recent intermedial transformations, by its very aesthetic Whitman’s oeuvre is destined to present plurality multi-medially, not only on the printed page, but also in music, painting, and the digital media. Whitman’s appeal to the younger generation seems thus assured.

The present collection would not have been possible without the support of several people. First and foremost, I wish to thank Katharina Beinroth who, with ← 10 | 11 → the help of Katharina Gerhardt, served as a competent and efficient copy editor and liaison to the authors. My thanks also go to the contributors and their commitment. I also gratefully acknowledge Walter Grünzweig’s initiative to provide the picture for the book cover. I appreciate Michael Rücker’s suggestions and the financial aid by the Obama Institute. Finally, I wish to express my heartfelt gratitude to Besijana Aliu and Katharina Weygold, whose dedication and serenity were invaluable.

Works Cited

American Literary Scholarship: An Annual. Duke University Press.

Ehrenpreis, Irvin. “All-American Bard.” The New York Review, April 2, 1981, pp. 10–14.

Kazin, Alfred. “Song of Himself.” The New York Times Book Review, May 14, 1995, pp. 3, 25.

McCarthy, Colman. “Walt Whitman: 173 and Well.” International Herald Tribune, March 27, 1992, p. 7.

O’Brien, Geoffrey. “Whitman’s Revolution.” The New York Review, October 19, 1995, pp. 23–27.

The Walt Whitman Archive. Edited by Ed Folsom and Kenneth M. Price. whitmanarchive.org/.

Vance, William. “What They’re Saying about Whitman.” Raritan, vol. 16, no. 4, Spring 1997, pp. 127–151.

Vendler, Helen. “An American Genius.” The New York Times Book Review, November 9, 1980, pp. 1, 28.

Walt Whitman Quarterly Review. The University of Iowa.

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Nassim Winnie Balestrini

Matthew Aucoin’s Opera Crossing (2015): Reinventing Walt Whitman for the Twenty-First Century

Abstract: The plot of Matthew Aucoin’s Crossing: An Opera (2015) focuses on the final phase of Walt Whitman’s voluntary service as a male nurse during the Civil War (1861–1865). While the libretto presents fictional interactions between the poet and the hospital inmates, the US-American librettist-composer makes liberal and nuanced use of Whitman’s poems and Civil War memoirs. Through the depiction of various acts of crossing boundaries, the libretto juxtaposes Whitman’s idealized vision of a wholesome American nation with the poet’s self-doubts as to his ability to practice what he preaches and to fulfill his mission as a poet that loves and is loved in equal measure and within the moral compass of his worldview. While the opera’s Whitman ultimately triumphs over adversity, the libretto’s suspenseful intertwining of internal and external warfare explores various perspectives on heroism, historiography, and the purposes of art. At the same time, the opera libretto transcends the temporal context of the Civil War by including a vision of future wars through which to re-interpret Whitman’s idealism. In light of post-9/11 controversies about public mourning and memorialization practices, Aucoin’s work demonstrates the danger of selective perception and empathy as a self-serving confirmation of one’s own moral integrity.

Countless composers have set Walt Whitman’s poems to music, but operas about the poet are scarce. This raises the general question as to what could make a poet attractive as subject matter for librettists and composers: could it be a poet’s public persona, thrilling life story, unusual circumstances of artistic creation, or complex reception history? In a 2006 book chapter, Kathy Rugoff cites Robert Strassburg’s Congo Square, a 1998 opera about “the young Whitman in New Orleans,” as the only operatic work on the poet; she then surmises that the dearth of Whitman operas may be rooted in the “plot-driven” (270) focus of the genre. Contrary to this argument, dramatists and other theater artists have been producing – for instance – myriad plays, performances, and a smattering of operas about Emily Dickinson, although her life story does not particularly lend itself to any “plot-driven” genre unless an artist were to develop a conflict-based and thus exciting dramatic arch by fictionalizing the rampant myths about the poet’s life and psyche. Whitman’s life story, in itself, offers much more material for suspenseful plots than Dickinson’s. Furthermore, Rugoff’s reading does not account for the fact that numerous character-focused operas exist, particularly those that depict ← 13 | 14 → historical figures. Her reading rather implies her doubts as to whether an opera about a character’s inner world will offer opportunities for dramatic performance comparable to surprising turns and twists in an action-filled work.

Even though poets’ lives as the stuff of opera libretti have, understandably, been eclipsed by their poetic works as the inspiration for Lieder, the tide may be turning as American composers have increasingly been transforming cultural-historical subject matter and have been receiving commissions to write such works. Furthermore, Whitman’s poetry invites dramatization in the sense that, as Stephen Railton argues, numerous poems imply a communicative situation, which turns the texts into implicit performances (7). In this vein, Railton claims that “‘Song of Myself’ is not a poem about ‘what happened’; instead, the poem itself, like any performance, is what is happening as it is being read” (9). The step from poems that feature a thinly veiled semi-autobiographical lyrical I to an opera that merges Whitman’s poems with reflections on selfhood is not a large one.

Crossing: An Opera was commissioned by the American Repertory Theatre (A.R.T.) at Harvard University, where it premiered on May 29, 2015. The librettist-composer Matthew Aucoin (b. 1990) conducted, and Diane Paulus (b. 1966) – who is the Terrie and Bradley Bloom Artistic Director of the American Repertory Theater and who was one of Aucoin’s instructors at Harvard – directed this first production. The two-act opera (with a prologue and ten musical numbers in the first act and eleven musical numbers and a final chorus in the second act) features the solo roles of Walt Whitman (baritone), John Wormley (tenor), Freddie Stowers (bass), Messenger (soprano), and an ensemble of six tenors and six basses. The first production received positive reviews in, for instance, the New York Times, the New Yorker, and WBUR’s ARTery (see Tommasini; Dimock; Siegel). Remarkably, the full opera was revived at the Brooklyn Academy of Music in October 2017.

The title of Aucoin’s libretto, which alludes to “Crossing Brooklyn Ferry” – one of Whitman’s best-known poems – hinges upon multiple acts of traversing boundaries. Focused on Whitman’s service as a volunteer in military hospitals during the Civil War, the libretto explores possible limits of the poet’s dedication to his cause of regarding ‘America’ as an all-encompassing macrocosmic world which he loves and appreciates in its diverse entirety. At the same time, the conflict situations in the plot address geographical and emotional boundaries created by the Civil War as well as the thresholds between life and death, the present and the future. Whitman’s own sense of having transgressed a boundary within his charitable service by letting himself be seduced by a young soldier first triggers intense self-doubt regarding his role as a poet and as a father figure. This internal struggle subsequently prepares him emotionally to forgive another person’s ← 14 | 15 → failing: when the older man realizes that his one-night lover tried to commit an act of sabotage that endangered the lives of everyone in the Union hospital, Whitman manages to transform his initial ire into acceptance and platonic love. He thus feels united and at peace with the younger man, based on their shared human fallibility, their physical and emotional vulnerability, and their desire to appreciate life. The ending of the opera confirms Whitman’s worldview based on each individual’s organic oneness with creation as his supreme ‘American’ ideal. Aucoin’s libretto, thus, merges external and internal warfare into a suspense- and emotion-driven plot which, instead of simply paying homage to Whitman as an iconic figure in American literary and cultural history, rather imagines him as a conflicted idealist who experiences inner turmoil. The two-act structure organizes the multiplicity of ‘crossings’ into a plot driven by dramatic irony and by the parallels and variations which link the second act to the first act. This structure, then, allows the opera to reflect not only on Whitman but also on the Civil War as part of humanity’s history of wars, on questions of what should or should not be remembered, and on the potential nexus of artistic endeavor and social concern.

Crossings: North and South, Love and Death

The libretto incorporates passages taken from or inspired by Whitman’s poems (most prominently, “Crossing Brooklyn Ferry,” “O Captain! My Captain!,” and “When Lilacs Last in the Dooryard Bloom’d” but also “The Sleepers” and others) and from works by Federico Garcia Lorca, Wallace Stevens, and Dante (Aucoin, “Crossing” 2). The opening line of the prologue, “What is it, then, between us?” introduces the operatic Whitman’s central question. In the words of the librettist-composer:


ISBN (Hardcover)
Publication date
2019 (March)
Democratic Poetry Inclusiveness Intermediality Transnational Studies American Studies Creative Response
Berlin, Bern, Bruxelles, New York, Oxford, Warszawa, Wien, 2019. 352 pp., 2 fig. col., 4 fig. b/w

Biographical notes

Winfried Herget (Volume editor)

Winfried Herget has been professor of American Studies at Johannes Gutenberg-Universität since 1978. From 1968-1970 and 1981-1982 he was a fellow and visiting professor at Harvard University. His research interests include colonial American culture, political culture and rhetoric, religion and politics, American-German relations and modern American novel and drama.


Title: Revisiting Walt Whitman