Whitman’s 1855 Leaves of Grass: “Hard Work and Blood”

  • William Dow
Part of the American Literature Readings in the 21st Century book series (ALTC)


No poet matters more to the literary history of class in America than Walt Whitman. Whitman’s registration of lived experience is a juncture of class and his poetry: a picture of an individual subject’s relation to the totality of class structures. As an artisan in the 1840s, the young Whitman was part of the Jacksonian lower-middle class, a class experiencing the nationwide change from an agrarian, artisan existence to an urban market culture.1 Participant in this shifting order, Whitman saw the old master-and-apprentice paradigm being replaced by a seemingly unbridgeable gap between capital and labor, the older ideologies of genteel patriarchy and individual artisanship giving way to a new middle-class (Whig) ideology of competitive individualism. As a response to these changes, the 1855 Leaves of Grass, while championing the cause of individual potential and freedom, holds that labor as opposed to property should be the dominant feature of the social order in which all work, both manual or mental, should be recognized and rewarded equally while fraternal association and apprenticeship should still serve as the structuring principles of society.


Body Electric Class Vision Individual Artisanship Poetic Form AMERICAN Fiction 
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  1. 1.
    See Judith N. Shklar, American Citizenship: The Quest for Inclusion ( Cambridge, MA: Harvard UP, 1991 );Google Scholar
  2. 1.
    Andrew Lawson, “‘Spending for Vast Returns’: Sex, Class, and Commerce in the First Leaves of Grass,” American Literature 75, 2 (June 2003): 335–365;Google Scholar
  3. 1.
    and Jason Stacy, “Containing Multitudes: Whitman, the Working Class, and the Music of Reform,” Popular Culture Review 13, 2 (2002): 137–154.Google Scholar
  4. 2.
    Walt Whitman, Leaves of Grass: The First (1855) Edition, ed. Malcolm Cowley (New York: Viking, 1959), 48. Subsequent references will be cited in the text as Leaves.Google Scholar
  5. 3.
    For the meaning of class consciousness in the nineteenth century, see William H. Sewall, Work and Revolution in France: The Language of Labor from the Old Regime to 1848 (Cambridge: Cambridge UP, 1980), 281–284. Sewall notes, “During the nineteenth century, class was increasingly used to designate groups in relations of superiority and inferiority, as in ‘dominant class,’ ‘bourgeois class,’ or ‘working class.’ But it also continued to be used for social categories of any kind, and workers frequently employed it as a synonym for ‘trade’ or ‘profession.’” (281). Whitman’s ontological and ethical vision in the 1855 Leaves reflects these designations, but Whitman also held that all classes in the production process equally contribute to the nation’s economic and social health. This nonhierarchical, egalitarian vision positions the poet in Leaves as a figure of liminality that fluidly crosses class boundaries and incarnates various class identities and statuses. At the same time, in the 1855 Leaves, Whitman’s poetics, rhetoric, and physical affinities identify most forcefully with the lower–middle class, laborers, and those furthest from the dominant class. In Leaves, Whitman implores us to incarnationally imagine our bodies in the bodies and geographical places of these others: slaves, Native Americans, women, the laboring masses.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  6. 4.
    See David S. Reynolds, Beneath the American Renaissance: The Subversive Imagination in the Age of Emerson and Melville ( Cambridge, MA: Harvard UP, 1989 );Google Scholar
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    Jason Stacy, “Containing Multitudes: Whitman, the Working Class, and the Music of Moderate Reform,” Popular Cultural Review 13, 2 (2002): 137–154;Google Scholar
  8. 4.
    Jerome Loving, “The Political Roots of Leaves of Grass,” 97–120; Richard B. Stott, Workers in the Metropolis: Class Ethnicity, and Youth in Antebellum New York City ( Ithaca, NY: Cornell UP, 1990 );Google Scholar
  9. 4.
    Peter S. Buckley, “Culture, Class, and Place in Antebellum New York,” in Power, Culture, and Place: Essays on New York City, ed. John Mollenkopf (New York: Russell Sage Foundation, 1988 ), 38–42;Google Scholar
  10. 4.
    Andrew Lawson, “‘Spending for Vast Returns’: Sex, Class, and Commerce in the First Leaves of Grass,” American Literature 75, 2 (June 2003): 335–359. Lawson and Buckley provide the most nuanced reading of Whitman’s class locations, doing so without embracing a homogenous working-class consciousness, and in Lawson’s case, carefully tracing Whitman’s anxious adaptations from an agrarian artisanship to an urban market economy.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  11. 5.
    Walt Whitman, “A Backward Glance O’er Travel’d Roads,” in Complete Poetry and Collected Prose, ed. Justin Kaplan (New York: Library of America, 1996), 668; further references to Poetry and Prose will be cited parenthetically in the text as PP.Google Scholar
  12. 6.
    Whitman’s daguerreotype was done by Gabriel Harrison, a Brooklyn daguerreotypist who specialized in portraits of working-class men. See Edwin G. Burrows and Mike Wallace, Gotham: A History of New York City to 1898 ( Oxford: Oxford UP, 1999 ), 705–711.Google Scholar
  13. 7.
    See for example M. Jimmie Killingsworth, Whitman’s Poetry of the Body: Sexuality, Politics, and the Text ( Chapel Hill: Univ. of North Carolina Press, 1989 );Google Scholar
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    Michael Moon, Disseminating Whitman: Revision and Corporeality in “Leaves of Grass” ( Cambridge, MA: Harvard UP, 1991 );Google Scholar
  15. 7.
    Terry Mulcaire, “Publishing Intimacy in Leaves of Grass,” ELH 60 (1993): 471–501;Google Scholar
  16. 7.
    Byrne Fone, Masculine Landscapes: Walt Whitman and the Homoerotic ( Carbondale: Southern Illinois UP, 1992 );Google Scholar
  17. 7.
    Tenny Nathansen, Whitman’s Presence: Body, Voice, and Writing in “Leaves of Grass” ( New York: New York UP, 1992 );Google Scholar
  18. 7.
    and Gary Schmidgall, Walt Whitman: A Gay Life ( New York: Dutton, 1997 ).Google Scholar
  19. 11.
    For the centrality of sexuality to citizenship, the public sphere, and the nation in nineteenth-century America, see Michael Millner, “The Fear Passing the Love of Women: Sodomy and Male Sentimental Citizenship in the Antebellum City,” Arizona Quarterly 58, 2 (Summer 2002): 19–52.Google Scholar
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    See also on this subject, Lauren Berlant and Michael Warner, “Sex in Public,” Critical Inquiry 24 (1998): 547–566.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  21. 15.
    See Jerome Loving, Walt Whitman: The Song of Himself (Berkeley: Univ. of California Press, 1999). The newspapers that Whitman wrote for or edited in the 1840–1850 period include the Aurora; the Evening Tattler; the Statesman; the New York Sun; the New York Mirror; the Brooklyn Evening Star; the New Orleans Daily; the Brooklyn Freeman, and the Brooklyn Daily Times.Google Scholar
  22. 17.
    For a comprehensive argument about narrative form in historical writing and in history, see Hayden White, The Content of the Form: Narrative Discourse and Historical Representations ( Baltimore: Johns Hopkins UP, 1987 ).Google Scholar
  23. 18.
    Sometimes prone to fleeting editorial judgments, in an 1858 editorial for the Brooklyn Daily Times, Whitman wrote, “The most valuable class in any community is the middle class, the men of moderate means living at the rate of a thousand dollars a year or thereabouts,” Walt Whitman, Walt Whitman, I Sit and Look Out: Editorial from the Brooklyn Daily Times, ed. Emory Holloway and Vernolian Schwarz (New York, 1932), 145.Google Scholar

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© William Dow 2009

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  • William Dow

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