Mickle Street Review Issue 17/18: Walt Whitman and Place


Canyons, Cowboys, and Cash: Walt Whitman’s American West
Tom Farley Rutgers University-Camden 

When Walt Whitman traveled to the Western states in 1879 he made notebook entries of his observations that later appeared in Specimen Days. The West was a locus of images for Whitman that reflected the tropes of rusticity, adhesiveness, and the promise of American exceptionalism that are found in Leaves of Grass. His avidity for naturalness of setting, speech, and manners was gratified by the look of the west and by the types of people he observed there. His belief in the exceptional character and destiny of the United States was reinforced by the ambitious men and women he saw who would build the shining American future.

Whitman’s affinity for nature is apparent on almost every page of his Specimen Days entries about the west. He finds in the topography of the west visual confirmation of his conviction that the west and the country as a whole were virgin lands of boundless grandeur. He also felt that the west was the very spirit of Leaves of Grass, as he told the St. Louis Post-Dispatch in an interview:

I have come now a couple thousand miles, and the greatest thing to me in this Western country is the realization of my ‘Leaves of Grass’. It tickles me hugely to find how thoroughly it and I have been in rapport. How my poems have defined them. I have really had their spirit in every page without knowing. I had made Western people talk to me, but I never knew how thoroughly a Western man I was until now.  (Eitner 84-85) 

The West was the ideal objective correlative for his poetry, a geographical manifestation of his artistic vision. American writers like James Fennimore Cooper, Washington Irving, and William Cullen Bryant had been firing Americans’ imaginations about the west for years before Whitman came on the scene, but Whitman set the iconography of the west and the energies that were released by Western expansion to the task of celebrating not only Americans, but mankind in general, the Kosmos. Ironically, though, the western elements in Whitman’s work also emphasized his sense of American exceptionalism; as he wrote in a Specimen Days entry titled “Art Features”:

Talk, I say again, of going to Europe, of visiting the ruins of feudal castles, or Coliseum remains, or kings’ palaces—when you can come here.  (Whitman 882) 

Whitman’s notes on the western landscape pointed out the dramatic topography of mountains, canyons, and streams. On viewing the Platte cañon he noted the “wonders, beauty, savage power of the scene―the wild stream of water” (879). He likened the Rocky Mountains to “the vertebra or back bone of our hemisphere” (881), and described the “never-absent peculiar streams―the snows of inaccessible upper areas melting and running down through the gorges continually” (883). The prairies made an even stronger impression on Whitman. In Specimen Days he says that “they impress me most,” appearing to him as “that vast Something, stretching out on its own unbounded scale, unconfined” (877). The great plains as a whole he perceived as “calm, pensive, boundless, landscape” and “profounder than anything at sea” (877-88).

The application of some of the theoretical apparatus of humanistic geography elucidates Whitman’s response to the prairies. The dominant visual element of the prairie, open space, connotes freedom and the absence of physical constraint (Tuan 52). It is a body-centered awareness; a sense of spaciousness or crowdedness is a physical response (34). The morphology of the prairie mirrors the body-centered awareness that Whitman celebrates over and over in Leaves of Grass. Moreover, open space is a symbol of freedom, a frequently recurring motif in Leaves of Grass; in one passage he even imagines soaring west over the mountains in his limitlessness:

My ties and ballasts leave me . . . . I travel . . . . I sail . .  . . my elbows rest

in the sea-gaps, 
I skirt the sierras . . . . my palms cover continents, 
I am afoot with my vision.  (59) 

Open space further signifies the interplay between space and time: A view toward the horizon is a view into the future, a prospect, meaning both something presented to the eye and something expected. The space/time iconography of the prairie mirrors the space time meditations in such poems as “Crossing Brooklyn Ferry,” where Whitman, on viewing “the hundreds and hundreds that cross,” imagines a similar crowd crossing “from shore to shore years hence,” and “Starting from Paumanok,” in which he envisions the “countless masses” “projected through time.”

  Evocative of infinite space and infinite time, the prairie was a geographical correlative of Whitman’s vision of the limitless American genius. In Space and Place, geographer Yi-Fu Tuan maintains that “space becomes place when we become familiar with it and endow it with value” (6). The prairie for Whitman was a dreamscape, the topographical equivalent of the nebulous time and space of Leaves of Grass. The absence of coordinates that gives Leaves of Grass a dreamlike quality is also a salient feature of the great plains. The uncontainable, panoramic breadth of the prairie serves as a topographical analogue of his cri de coeur: “Unscrew the locks from the doors! Unscrew the doors themselves from their jambs!”           

            Whitman’s enthusiasm for the natural environment of the west was accompanied by a belief that commerce and industry were needed to bring prosperity to the West and to the country as a whole:

It seems to me that our work at present is to lay the foundations of a great nation in products, in agriculture, in commerce, in networks of intercommunication, and in all that relates to the comforts of vast masses of men and families.  (891)

The apparent contradiction in extolling the natural environment and prospective industry is less incredible when one considers that Whitman’s west was a symbolic landscape. In a symbolic landscape, nature and industry need not be antagonists. (The “heartland,” for example, is a symbolic landscape, an apotheosized self-conception of American community, inscribed with idealized qualities of American-ness.)

            In the 1820s and 1830s landscapes of wildness and grandeur began to be invested with special significance because they were regarded as places where great forces of nature could be appreciated, where humans could commune with God and “feel the unity of Divine purpose and human insignificance.” The west began to be seen as a spiritually ennobling place for those who experienced it, a notion that evolved into an ideology that “fused European Romanticism and American homespun into a justification of a continental imperialism” (Cosgrove 186).

            The romanticization of the wilderness reinforced a way of viewing nature as a landscape (we see this beginning in the 15th century as a result of the transition from feudalism to capitalism). As a result of this transition, land became private property with exchange value; in the feudal system it had only use value (62). The “idea of landscape” is a mode of perception characterized  by viewing space from a privileged subject position that renders the observed space an object, and the lived experience of its inhabitants as invisible and unrepresented.  Whitman’s interaction with the West was characterized by this idea of landscape. His brief sojourn in the West did not permit an intimate familiarity with the details of living there; his role was that of a tourist, albeit a tourist who seeks to corroborate that the images he created in Leaves of Grass correspond to the actuality of the West.

            The act of recording visual impressions is itself a manifestation of the “idea of landscape.” All of the Specimen Days entries that describe a visual element of the western mise en scene are of this kind. Humanistic geographer Denis Cosgrove elaborates on this concept in Social Formation and Symbolic Landscape, and geographer Derek Gregory outlines a related theory that elaborates on ideas about the ideological and cultural determinates of observation and the primacy of the visual metaphor. Cosgrove locates the “idea of landscape” within a series of historical processes from the Renaissance to the modern era that led to the commodification of experience and space. Gregory challenges the idea of objective observation, which he calls “world as exhibition,” and argues for the contingency of any point of view and the need to include marginalized groups. He also elaborates upon Heidegger’s concept of ”ocularcentrism,” in which the phenomenon of “enframing” imposes an interpretation on the observed scene and reduces it to a technology for the realization of a separate objective. By subjecting the observed scene to a Procrustean mechanism of adaptation to a predetermined ideology, “ocularcentrism”  forestalls a process by which the object of observation can reveal itself.  

            Descriptions of the natural elements of the west in Specimen Days are informed by such conventions of seeing. The commodification and objectification of space inherent in the “idea of landscape” are evident in Whitman’s comparison of a landscape element to a work of fine art as in the following passage: “a typical Rocky Mountain cañon . . . awakes . . . those grandest and subtlest emotions in the human soul, that all the marble temples and sculptures from Phideas to Thorwaldsen  . . . never can (880). Whitman’s description of a “bridge by moonlight” exemplifies Gregory’s “world as exhibition.”: “It is indeed a structure of perfection and beauty unsurpassable, and I never tire of it . . . and the view, up or down, wonderfully clear, in the moonlight” (895). The description betrays a process by which a complex totality is staged for individual appraisal by culling incommensurate elements, such as the lived experience of the inhabitants, in the interest of composition and culturally determined estimations of quality. By “enframing” the scene and subordinating its actuality to the project of reifying it into an aesthetic artifact, the description illustrates how Whitman’s vision of the West was not informed by a process by which the region revealed itself, but instead was the result of subordinating the multivalence of the West to the project of configuring it as the objective correlative of that vision.

            Appreciations of the terrain of the west and the robust enterprise he saw there shape most of his notebook entries. Whitman also noted with approval the physicality and sensuality of the western men he encountered, entries that echo the hymns to the beauty of the male body in Leaves of Grass. In those entries he expresses an appreciation for the cowboys, miners, farmers and woodsmen whose demeanor and appearance of unaffected  masculinity he celebrates throughout his opus.

            In the Specimen Days entry composed in Denver, Whitman exclaims, “The best was the men, three-fourths of them large, able, calm, alert, American. And cash!” (883). In a later entry Whitman recorded his impression of cowboys:

the cow-boys (“cow-punchers”) to me a strangely interesting class, bright-eyed as hawks, with their swarthy complexions and their broad-brimm’d hats—apparently always on horseback, with loose arms slightly raised and swinging as they ride.  (887)

His description of them recalls the poetic appreciation for the western man that he hadwritten many years before:

The prairie-grass dividing—its own odor breathing,
I demand of it the spiritual corresponding,
Demand the most copious and close companionship of men,
Demand the blades to rise of words, acts, beings,
Those of the open atmosphere, coarse, sunlit, fresh, nutritious,
Those that go their won gait, erect, stepping with freedom and
      command—leading, not following,
Those with a never-quell’d audacity—those with sweet and lusty flesh,
      clear of taint, choice and chary of its love-power,
Those that look carelessly in the faces of the Presidents and Governors, as
      to say, Who are you?
Those of earth-born passion, simple, never constrained, never obedient,
Those of inland America.

If the western landscape reflected back to Whitman his belief in the grandeur of America, and its ambitious pioneers foreshadowed its potential to become a vibrant and populous commercial and technological region, the cowboys and miners of the west were beau ideals of his conception of American manliness, “roughs” like him: “Disorderly fleshy and sensual . . . . eating drinking and breeding” (50).  As he expressed further in Leaves of Grass

I am enamoured of growing outdoors, 
Of men that live among cattle or taste of the ocean or woods, 
Of the builders and steerers of ships, of the wielders of axes
           and mauls, of the drivers of horses, 
I can eat and sleep with them week in and week out.  (38)

The west was not an incidental place for Whitman even though he spent little time there. It loomed large in his imagination and, as he recognized, its spirit realized the spirit that infuses Leaves of Grass. His self-identification with the West was not a sustained attitude, of course; it was situational―he was promoting himself, boosting his reputation on that western swing. This is not to say, though, that he did not firmly believe he was a man of the West at the time. The west as physical location may not have been a strong influence on Whitman; the West as a rhetorical construct was, though, because it was composed of the material upon which he created his persona, and did not include in its conceptual composition any elements that would be incongruous with his myth. In the west, Whitman encountered a place that privileged the same phenomena that he did when he composed and published Leaves of Grass.

Works Cited

Cosgrove, Denis E. Social Formation and Symbolic Landscape. Madison: U of Wisconsin P., 1984.

Eitner, Walter H. Walt Whitman’s Western Jaunt. Lawrence: Regents P of Kansas, 1981.

Hubbard, Phil, Rob Kitchin, and Gill Valentine eds. Key Thinkers on Space and Place. London: Sage, 2004.

Tuan, Yi-Fu. Space and Place: The Perspective of Experience. Minneapolis: U of Minneapolis P., 1977.

Mickle Street Review Issue 17/18: Walt Whitman and Place