The Italian writer Cesare Pavese wrote his thesis on Walt Whitman at the University of Turin in 1930. He subsequently revised the text for publication (drawing in part on input from Benedetto Croce, one of the best-known critics and philosophers in the world at that time). But no publisher was found, and Pavese was forced to reduce his book to a single essay. The long process of sifting may explain why the essay is so good.* Here is an excerpt:
Walt Whitman … sees America and the world only as a function of the poem that will express them in the nineteenth century and, in comparison, nothing else matters…. [He] lived so intently the idea of this mission that, while not saving himself from the obvious failure of such an intention, through it his work was saved from failure. He did not make the primitive poem he dreamed, but the poem of this dream. He did not succeed in the absurdity of creating a poetry appropriate to the democratic and republican world and to the principles of the newly discovered land…but spending his life repeating in various ways this intention, he made of the intention poetry, the poetry of the discovery of a new world in history and of the singing of it. In brief, to spell out the apparent paradox, he made poetry out of making poetry.
* For the story of this sifting see Lawrence G. Smith’s fine new study, Cesare Pavese and America: Life, Love, and Literature (University of Massachusetts Press, 2008). The essay itself appears in Pavese’s American Literature: Essays and Opinions, tr. Edwin Fussell (University of California Press, 1970).