Book Review

Lacy On Stacy’s Walt Whitman’s Multitudes: Labor Reform and Persona in Whitman’s Journalism and the First Leaves of Grass, 1840-1855

Review of Jason Stacy’s Walt Whitman’s Multitudes: Labor Reform and Persona in Whitman’s Journalism and the First Leaves of Grass, 1840-1855 (New York: Peter Lang, 2008). ISBN-13: 978-1-4331-0153-3 (hardcover). 168 pages.

Review by Tim Lacy
Visiting Assistant University Historian, University of Illinois at Chicago

Whitman the Educator-Intellectual

Between the covers of Walt Whitman’s Multitudes, Jason Stacy analyzes three stages of thinking and writing in Whitman’s career. His shorthand for those stages—as they chronologically occurred in Whitman’s life—are the “Schoolmaster,” the “Editor,” and the “Bard.” These distinct yet linked personas provide an arc of consistency to Whitman’s thought; they make Stacy’s story an abbreviated intellectual biography of Whitman. The real topic of Stacy’s book, however, is education. This includes Whitman’s own formation, as well as his formal and informal roles as an educator through the aforementioned personas. By integrating these topics, Walt Whitman’s Multitudes successfully conveys the diversity and unity in his approach to teaching the multitudes about America. Whitman becomes a lens for examining the social virtues and vices of the Antebellum Era.

Thinking about the goals, content, and methods of education comes naturally to Stacy. He is an Assistant Professor of U.S. History and Social Science Pedagogy at Southern Illinois University Edwardsville. Prior to SIUE, he taught in Illinois public schools for ten years. I am happy to add that I have known Jason for many years. We were graduate school colleagues at Loyola University Chicago.

This study is not by any means a full biography of Whitman. We see only one half of Whitman’s life and work in Multitudes. The book’s subtitle indicates that the 1840-1855 period is covered, but the first few chapters also touch on the 1820s and 30s. …

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4 Thoughts on this Post

  1. Hi Tim:

    Thanks for the review.

    Just to let Peter Lang off the hook, I made the decision to end the study with the first _Leaves of Grass_ (1855). There have been many good books that analyze the transformations of _Leaves_ between 1855 and 1860 (and through the other many editions). I think Reynolds’ _Walt Whitman’s America: A Cultural Biography_ (Knopf, 1995) and Loving’s _Walt Whitman: The Measure of HIs Song_ (Univ. of California, 1999) might be good examples of the kind of the intelletual/cultural biography you are talking about.

    However, the ideological and rhetorical connections between Whitman’s journalism and poetry, especially in regards to artisan republicanism, have been generally overlooked; hopefully my book helps fill this hole in the literature. After 1855, Whitman was largely out of the newspaper editing business (and later editions of _Leaves_ reflect sensibilities other than a journalist’s).

    In my forthcoming introduction to the 150th anniversary edition of Whitman’s 1860 _Leaves of Grass_ (Univ. of Iowa, 2010), I trace the changes in Whitman’s first, second, and third editions as a way to illustrate his attempt to write a new American bible to save the nation from civil war, so I guess in a way I fulfilled your hope that I continue my narrative of Whitman’s many _Leaves_.

    Wishing you the best,


  2. Jason,

    First, thanks for commenting!

    I appreciate your admission on the book’s length and ending. But I really did feel letdown (in a good way) as a reader that you weren’t going further. Why? Because your paradigm for Whitman’s personas seemed to be paying dividends. I was proverbial putty in your hands.

    In a last-minute addition to the review, in a footnote, I acknowledged that Reynolds may have already done the contextual analysis I called for on the Jacksonian Era. For your work, however, my desire for more (both early and at the end) was a testament to the fact that you had built a fine edifice for more evaluation of Whitman qua intellectual. With that, will you indulge us on how Multitudes differs or intersects with Reynolds’ work? Did he neglect Whitman’s journalism endeavors? If so, that seems a major omission. I apologize if this has been covered in other venues or reviews of your book.

    Again, my requests for more in no way diminish your work. Multitudes seems to be the perfect introductory text for anyone looking to understand Whitman’s intellectual trajectory. I was happy to both read and review the book.

    – TL

  3. Hi Tim:

    Thanks for your thoughtful response.

    To answer your question: as I mentioned in the introduction, most Whitman scholars have treated WW’s journalism as (at best) a primer for the poetry. These are very good books on Whitman’s poetic trajectory that give short shrift to the journalism. This might be appropriate if Whitman’s poetry represented a radical break with his work as a hack journalist.

    However, it’s generally assumed that the “bard” in the first (and subsequent) _Leaves_ was a persona that WW constructed out of the cultural and intellectual discourses around him. I have argued that Whitman’s persona-making begins well before most scholars have assumed: in his journalism between 1840 and 1848.

    The last two chapters, as you know, analyze the seven years between 1848 and 1855 and the slow transformation in print of the Editor into the Bard. My final chapter on the first edition of _Leaves_ illustrates this transformation by uncovering the journalistic undertones in the first edition and takes the reader to the point where the scholarly literature becomes very strong on Whitman’s bard persona and the many editions of _Leaves_ (1855-1892).

    In this light, the journalism becomes an essential foreground to the famous bard persona that Whitman only fine tuned after 1855.



  4. I agree with Jason Stacy that Whitman’s journalism may have been under-appreciated. What I have found over many years is a tendency for the eyes of modern critics to glaze over when confronted with the facade of stereotypical Victorian sentiment. The result is an inability to appreciate subtext, which sometimes runs deep. In addition, time and again, critics have cited Whitman’s published opinions on behalf of some newspaper as if they were his own, when of course that’s not what a journalist–in his day or ours–is paid to do.

    The most startling discovery I ever made in this area concerns Whitman’s utterly disarming April, 1842 essay “Life and Love.” First glance aside, this is a radical announcement of the theologically-based love themes that would appear so many years later in the Leaves. It marks Whitman’s first attempt to encode Elias Hicks’s epochal “Let Brotherly Love Continue” sermon into prose. More precisely, into nonfiction; because it appears co-incident with his fictional jeremiad against his day’s version of ex-gay therapy in “Bervance,” and his theological blessing for same-sex love in “The Child and the Profligate.”

    These multi-media attempts to communicate represent some mysterious encounter which must have occured during his time in the Quaker stronghold of Flushing/Whitestone in 1840-1841. I have called them the “single-cell embryo which would in time become Leaves of Grass.” — Mitchell Santine Gould

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