American Poetry in the Age of Whitman and Dickinson

The Best of the Rest

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tuckermanBack when Whitman was out of fashion and Dickinson had not yet achieved full recognition, scholars divided their attention more evenly among the poets. Yvor Winters wrote a monograph on Edwin Arlington Robinson, and he passionately championed Jones Very and Frederick Goddard Tuckerman. A Winters student, N. Scott Momaday, edited Tuckerman’s Complete Poems for Oxford and Charles Anderson edited Sidney Lanier before writing his fine book on Dickinson. Whitman specialists existed, but they shared the field with biographers of Longfellow and Whittier. Decades before he helped edit the variorum Leaves of Grass, Sculley Bradley worked on George Henry Boker. In 1930, Yale published a critical study of Fitz-Greene Halleck; there would be no other for the rest of the century.[1]

For us, with Whitman and Dickinson, the question is not “These two also?”but “Who else, if anyone?” After 1970, the “if” became a very steep slope, though individual poets had their advocates. Melville’s poetic reputation held steady and even grew while the Fireside Poets slipped into obscurity (I’m old enough to remember engraved pictures of Bryant et al. in my classroom). Scholars did pay the first serious attention then to African American and women’s poetry from the nineteenth century, but the work was looked at in isolation, or as distinct from other poetries of the same time, so that no full picture of the century’s literary cultures came into focus. This began to change in the last half-decade, with long essays by Barbara Packer and Shira Wolosky in the new Cambridge History of American Literature (2004) and important monographs by Mary Loeffelholz (From School to Salon, 2004), Angela Sorby (Schoolroom Poets, 2005), and Joan Shelley Rubin (Songs of Ourselves, 2007), to cite only those that reappraised the whole period. More specialized studies by Paula Bernat Bennett (Poets in the Public Sphere, 2003), Janet Gray (Race and Time, 2004), Eliza Richards (Gender and the Poetics of Reception in Poe’s Circle, 2004), and Christoph Irmscher (Longfellow Redux, 2006) also deserve mention. All of which has made possible a new answer to the question: “Who, after Whitman and Dickinson, should we read and enjoy and remember and study?” Or to put it more colloquially: Who are the best of the rest?

The question, at bottom, belongs to the common reader, not the scholar, since scholars can study work without judging it aesthetically, indeed without, seemingly, enjoying it very much. This is not meant as a rebuke, though I do think the scholarship would prosper if attention was paid here and there — in sentences if not whole paragraphs or pages — to the pleasures of a work as well as its meaning and place in history.

If anyone splits the difference between the common reader and the scholar, it’s the teacher. What a teacher brings into a classroom, especially an undergraduate classroom, has to, by definition, serve the interests of both parties. It must be of scholarly benefit, but it must also spark a student’s interest in acquiring that benefit. When a student asks, as he or she inevitably will, “Why the hell am I reading this crap?” (and it’s a question that gets asked about the greatest writers), the teacher has to have an answer. “Because it’s important historically” is a very lame one, hardly better than “because I say so.” Which is why I try to bring texts I actually like into the classroom, however partial that liking may be, however circumscribed by faults.

All of which is a roundabout way of saying that “the best of the rest” is a curricular problem as well as a problem of critical judgment. “Who should we teach, after Whitman and Dickinson?”

One way to answer, not necessarily the best, is to look at the newest teaching anthologies. The best known of these is probably the Norton Anthology of American Literature, the 7th edition of which includes 15 poets from the nineteenth century, Whitman and Dickinson excepted, spread out across four volumes (out of five total).[2] The entire century is too broad a terrain, perhaps; one could define the era more stringently, focusing only on the years when Whitman and Dickinson were active, say the 1840s through the 1880s. But the fact is, we judge the poets who came before and after Whitman and Dickinson in light of what those two wrote, so why not take the entire century as terrain? Besides which, the anthology does not include very much from the earlier or later decades, so why not count all of it?

Here, in any event, is what the Norton gives, divided by volume:

Volume A (Beginnings to 1820)

  • Philip Freneau (1752-1832) (2 of the 7 poems come from the nineteenth century)
  • Sarah Wentworth Morton (1759-1846) (2 poems)
  • Sarah Josepha Hale (1788-1879) (1 poem)

Volume B (1820-1865)

  • Lydia Howard Huntley Sigourney (1791-1865) (13 poems)
  • William Cullen Bryant (1794-1878) (4 poems)
  • Ralph Waldo Emerson (18093-1882) (5 poems + 4 mottoes to the essays)
  • Henry Wadsworth Longfellow (1807-1882) (8 poems, 1 of them an excerpt from Evangeline)
  • John Greenleaf Whittier (1807-1892) (3 poems, 1 of them Snow-Bound)
  • Edgar Allan Poe (1809-1849) (8 poems)
  • Herman Melville (1819-1891) (10 poems)
  • Frances Ellen Watkins Harper (1825-1911) (6 poems)

Volume C (1865-1914)

  • Emma Lazarus (1849-1887) (3 poems)
  • Stephen Crane (1871-1900) (an excerpt from War Is Kind)
  • Paul Laurence Dunbar (1872-1906) (6 poems)

Volume D (1914-1945)[3]

  • Edwin Arlington Robinson (1869-1935) (2 of the 4 poems come from the nineteenth century)

Judged on page counts alone, the third best poet of the century would have to be, according to the Norton, Whittier or Sigourney, though Emerson, Poe, and Melville might be said to suffer because their selections are scanted to make space for the prose.

Obviously, some significant names are missing. Two Winters favorites, Very and Tuckerman, are absent, and so is one of the major Fireside Poets, Oliver Wendell Holmes, Sr. No trace either of Lanier, whose collected works earned ten volumes from John Hopkins in the 1940s, or of such recently resuscitated figures as Sarah Piatt, judged by Bennett to be the strongest woman poet of the era after Dickinson, or George Moses Horton, the first black poet to publish a book in the South.

I share some of these judgments; Very and Holmes don’t speak to me. And I recognize that the inclusions and exclusions reflect the way the period is taught more than any judgment of an individual poet’s worth. The Norton is far too vast a book (or rather, series of books) for cover-to-cover reading, and yet its purpose is not the preservation of a canon, but rather the presentation of material sufficient for the carving out of a thousand teachers’ syllabi. The book is assembled with an eye toward those syllabi, and those syllabi are assembled with an eye toward the limits and possibilities of a ten- to fifteen-week course. So in asking the question “Who else, after Whitman and Dickinson?” of the Norton, one should remember that the answer of any one teacher will take into account the parallel question, “What’s missing from this syllabus?” After Whitman and Dickinson, the poets must serve a theme, not the other way around. Whittier’s magnificent Snow-Bound serves the theme of domesticity quite handsomely, while “The Hunters of Men” and “Ichabod!” serve the theme of slavery. No one who loves Whittier prefers “The Hunters of Men” to “Barbara Frietchie,” but the editors of the Norton certainly know their business: I suspect they are right that one is more likely to make a syllabus than the other. As I said, teaching splits the difference between the common reader and the scholar. That means compromise.[4]

Of the Norton‘s fifteen poets, six seem to me to be credible candidates for the title of third greatest of the century: Emerson, Longfellow, Poe, Melville, Crane, and Dunbar. Freneau and Robinson are also great, but the argument for their greatness requires that we also look at their achievements in the eighteenth and twentieth centuries. I admire Sigourney, Bryant, Whittier, and Lazarus, and I’m fond of individual poems by Morton, Hale, and Harper, but I would rank them a notch below. In fact, I would rank Emerson and Poe a notch below too, as poets that is, but I recognize that they have powerful advocates so I’ll give them their due.

If I drew up my own list of candidates for no. 3 it would have to include at least three poets left out of the Norton: Tuckerman and Sarah Piatt, already mentioned, and Fitz-Greene Halleck (who contributes something missing with all the others: humor). Longfellow, Melville, Crane, and Dunbar would also be there. Which makes for seven poets plus Whitman and Dickinson. So that the next question becomes (as we slide from literary inquiry into party game): “Who else in the top ten?” All answers subject to revision at the drop of a hat…

1 [Back to text] A fine one did appear in 2000 from Wisconsin, John W. M. Hallock’s The American Byron: Homosexuality and the Fall of Fitz-Greene Halleck. The Tuckerman I mention here, by the way, is not the same one that inspired Poe to coin the phrase “school of quietude.”  The good Tuckerman is a favorite of several so-called experimental poets, most notably Gerrit Lansing and Kenneth Irby.

2 [Back to text] Nineteenth-century poetry takes up less than a tenth of the volumes in which Whitman and Dickinson appear, about 240 pages (out of 2600) in Volume B and 100 pages (out of 1200) in Volume C. Note that the Whitman and Dickinson material in Volume C, 75 pages, is duplicated from the 140 pages given over to those two poets in Volume B, which makes the page total for poetry for the two volumes together something like 265 out of 2800 (a mere 125 pages for poets other than Whitman and Dickinson). To put this in further perspective: the 265 pages for poetry equal about 60% of the pages given over to Nathaniel Hawthorne and Mark Twain, which means that the entire genre of poetry scarcely measures up in importance when set beside the work of two major fiction writers.

3 [Back to text] There are, in addition, 23 pages of poetry (corridos, Ghost Dance songs, chants) that are not credited to individual authors, though the names of major translators of the period do appear (i.e., Washington Matthews, Frances Dunsmore, James Mooney).

4 [Back to text] The newest edition of the Heath (which I don’t own: the table of contents is online) includes more poets and looks to be stronger generally on poetry, which is in keeping with past editions. Here, however, the service to a theme is even more pronounced, with the “Sheaf of Poetry by Late-Nineteenth-Century American Women” (9 figures including Sarah Piatt — but not Lazarus) presenting extraordinary work even as it distorts the overall picture of the post-bellum era. Robinson is absent, and with him the blighted Symbolist generation of Trumbull Stickney and William Vaughn Moody, not to mention Lanier and Edwin Markham; Dunbar, Crane, and Alexander Posey are all that’s left. The Heath, I’ll grant, is gutsier than the Norton, using subdivisions that clarify and muddle in equal measure, but adding some welcome names and works. I do miss Snow-Bound, though.


One Response

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  1. nice to see a good word for “Snow-Bound”…


    June 10, 2009 at 11:25 am

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