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Art and argument: The rise of Walt Whitman's rhetorical poetics, 1838--1855

Andrew Charles Higgins, University of Massachusetts Amherst


This dissertation uses the rhetorical theory of Kenneth Burke to illuminate the development of Walt Whitman's rhetorical poetics, in which Whitman sought to transform the reader's identity from one based on static and divisive notions of race, class, region, and gender to a malleable identity based on the actions of the human body. I show how this rhetorical poetics is the product of a number of factors, including the variety of roles poetry played in early nineteenth-century American culture, the economics of the publishing industry, the fragmentation of the two-party system, and nineteenth-century oratorical culture, and that a careful examination of the intersection of Whitman and these factors reveals the development of this rhetorical poetics. I focus on four bodies of evidence: Whitman's pre-Leaves of Grass poetry; the various rhetorical roles poetry played in America from 1820–1850 (roles shaped in large part by changing economic conditions) as exemplified by three poets whom Whitman read and admired, McDonald Clarke, Martin Farquhar Tupper, and Henry Wadsworth Longfellow; Whitman's pre- Leaves of Grass notebooks; and the 1855 edition of Leaves of Grass. Whitman's early poetry reveals a young poet, intensely aware of the variety of roles poetry could play, moving progressively toward a poetry that could combine the communal persona of the ballad with the individual persona of the romantic lyric. In his pre-Leaves of Grass notebooks, written from 1848–1855, we see Whitman struggling to discover a poetics that will replace party politics. Close attention to external references, developments in style and rhetoric, and manuscript evidence reveals both the order of the notebooks and the different purposes for which Whitman used them, and the origin of some of the key themes of Leaves of Grass, including slavery, race, class, the body, and sexuality. Finally, the 1855 text itself is an overtly rhetorical text. While C. Carroll Hollis has shown how Leaves of Grass reflects nineteenth-century oratory at the micro-level, I show how the macro-level also reflects that discourse. Specifically, I show how “Song of Myself” employs theories of rhetorical arrangement described by Aristotle and Hugh Blair.

Subject Area

American literature|Rhetoric|Composition

Recommended Citation

Higgins, Andrew Charles, "Art and argument: The rise of Walt Whitman's rhetorical poetics, 1838--1855" (1999). Doctoral Dissertations Available from Proquest. AAI9950161.