Om Containing Multitudes: Walt Whitman and
Walt Whitman burst onto the literary stage raring for a fight with his transatlantic forebears. With the unmetered and unrhymed long lines of Leaves of Grass, he blithely forsook the old models declaring that poems distilled from other poems will probably pass away. In a self-authored but unsigned review of the inaugural 1855 edition, Whitman boasted that its influence-free author makes no allusions to books or writers; their spirits do not seem to have touched him. There was more than a hint here of a party- crashers bravado or a new-comers anxiety about being perceived as derivative. But the giants of British literature were too well established in America to be toppled by Whitmans patronizing that wonderful little island, he called England-or his frequent assertions that Old World literature was non grata on American soil. As Gary Schmidgall demonstrates, the American bards manuscripts, letters, prose criticism, and private conversations all reveal that Whitmans negotiation with the literary big fellows across the Atlantic was much more nuanced and contradictory than might be supposed. His hostile posture also changed over the decades as the gymnastic rebel transformed into Good Gray Poet, though even late in life he could still crow that his masterwork Leaves of Grass is an iconoclasm, it starts out to shatter the idols of porcelain. Containing Multitudes explores Whitmans often uneasy embrace of five members of the British literary pantheon: Shakespeare, Milton, Burns, Blake, and Wordsworth (five others are treated more briefly: Scott, Carlyle, Tennyson, Wilde, and Swinburne). It also considers how the arcs of their creative careers are often similar to the arc of Whitmans own fifty years of poem-making. Finally, it seeks to illuminate the sometimes striking affinities between the views of these authors and Whitman on human nature and society. Though he was loath to admit it, these authors anticipated much that we now see as quintessentially Whitmanic.