‘He is America,’ Ezra Pound observed of Walt Whitman. ‘His crudity is an exceeding great stench, but it is America.’ Never frightened of being called crude, Whitman would have appreciated the comment; and, as Jerome Loving shows, he would have liked being identified with America because that was his aim – to speak as a representative American and turn the New World into words. Whitman certainly had this aim after the day in 1842 when he attended a lecture given by Ralph Waldo Emerson, in which Emerson prophesied the imminent arrival of an American Homer to celebrate ‘the barbarism and materialism of the times’.
‘America is a poem in our eyes,’ Emerson declaimed. ‘Its ample geography dazzles the imagination, and it will not wait long for metres.’ Whitman saw himself as the fulfilment of that prophecy – he was the man, he felt, with the courage needed to capture the ‘ample geography’ of the country, in lines as bold and wild as its landscape – and in the Preface to the first (1855) edition of his Leaves of Grass he deliberately echoed Emerson. ‘The United States themselves are essentially the greatest poem,’ he wrote, thereby alerting the reader to what he was trying to do: to invent a poetic form founded on raw experiment, and a line that swung as freely as the individual voice. Loving patiently catalogues how Whitman came to create this form and line. The influences were many, from Italian opera to the insistent repetitions of the King James Bible, but the essential factor, his book shows, was Whitman’s sense of himself: for him, poetry was a passionate gesture of identification with his native land.