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


Walt Whitman and the Prairies
Ed Folsom The University of Iowa

Walt Whitman, like many Americans who lived in the East during the mid-nineteenth century, was a prairie wanna-be.  “I am called a Western man,” he proudly claimed in 1879; “Although born in New York, I am in sympathy and preference Western--better fitted for the Mississippi Valley.” [1] Throughout his career, the prairies struck him as the emblematic heart of democratic America, and he was convinced they would produce not only the nation’s physical nutriment, but eventually its art, its capital city, and its essential character: “the prairie States,” he said, “will be the theater of our great future.” [2]  

From the time he got his first glimpse of the prairies, in the winter and spring of 1848 on his way to and from New Orleans (when he rode the steamer Prairie Bird up the Illinois River [PW 607]), he incorporated them into his writing in key ways.  Through the 1850s, 60s, and 70s, he continued to form impressions of the prairies as he clipped and saved newspaper and journal articles about the midwestern states, saw paintings of the prairies, and no doubt viewed his friend Alexander Gardner’s prairie photographs.  Gardner, whom Whitman described as “mightily my friend” and “a real artist,” [3] took these photos in 1867 to document and provide support for the continuing westward expansion of the Kansas Pacific Railroad.  Exhibited back East in 1868, the series was published in 1869 as Across the Continent on the Kansas Pacific Railroad. [4]  

These visual and verbal representations of the prairies set the stage for Whitman’s second and last trip to the prairies, in 1879, when he was able to test those representations against an extended encounter with the massive reality of the midwestern landscape.  Traveling across Indiana, Illinois, and Missouri, he then retraced Gardner’s journey, riding the Kansas Pacific all the way from Kansas City to Denver and then proudly tracking his journey in red and blue lines on a Missouri Pacific map (at the same time tracing out his New Orleans journey and his other more local journeys to create a visual sense of having occupied vast areas of the continent, even though he was away from the East coast for only about six months during his first sixty years). [5] During and just after his Western trip he wrote powerful evocations of the landscape he traveled through, and he articulated some of the first possibilities for a powerful prairie art. 

At this time, he became so convinced that the prairies were the geographic soul of the nation that he even began to discover prairie roots in his Long Island childhood; in his autobiography, written soon after his return from the prairies, he described the Hempstead plains he grew up near as “quite prairie-like, open uninhabited” (PW 11), and a few years later he was recalling “the flat plains of the middle of Long Island . . . with their prairie-like vistas” (PW 629).  If he couldn’t claim a prairie nativity, he could at least re-prairie the narrative of his own childhood.  During the last years of his life, he kept embellishing and extending his brief journey across the prairies, at one point (according to an interviewer) recomposing his life as a veritable son of the prairie:  “I have spent . . . much of my life on the prairies . . . and some of the poems I wrote there if left out of my works would be like omission of an eye from the human face.  I am compelled to admit that my Western experiences are behind all my life work.” [6]

Some of his manuscript notes suggest that Whitman thought about altering his work to reflect his newfound infatuation with the prairies.  He once toyed with the idea of compiling a “Western Edition” of his poetry, in which he would dedicate a poem to each Western state (along with a “Poem of corn and meat”); he considered titles like “Prairie Psalms, “Prairie Spaces, “Prairie Babes, and (playing on the fact that “air” is literally the heart of the word “prairie”) “Prairie Airs.” [7]   Like many of Whitman’s proposed projects, this one never materialized, but the prairies nonetheless came to function for him as an emblematic landscape, and he loved to sound the prairie names in his poetry: “Chants of the prairies, / Chants of the long-running Mississippi, . . . / Chants of Ohio, Indiana, Illinois, Iowa, Wisconsin and Minnesota, / Chants going forth from the centre from Kansas. . . .” [8]    In this essay I would like to suggest the resonance of the prairies for Whitman, and I would like to look in some detail at three of his seldom-discussed prairie-poems: “The Prairie-Grass Dividing,” “The Prairie States,” and “A Prairie Sunset.”




Let’s start with Whitman’s title: Leaves of Grass.  My undergraduates often have trouble construing that title to refer to anything but a lawn, and they sometimes talk about Whitman’s key image of grass as if he had been imagining a flawless Chemlawned expanse of bright green cut blades, thus evoking democracy as a unified plot of nearly identical individuals forming a uniformly colored oneness in which all the weeds and nonconforming grasses have been eradicated.  But Whitman’s conception of the evolving American democracy was, of course, more rugged and variegated and more interesting than a suburban lawn.  His book, after all, was not Blades of Grass or Spears of Grass: he once told Traubel about how his friends had “kicked against” his title, insisting that “spears” was the correct word, but Whitman insisted that “Spears of Grass would not have been the same to me. . . . I stuck to leaves, leaves, leaves, until it was able to take care of itself” (WWC 1:186).  The grasses he loved and celebrated were the tougher, sturdier ones.  His eyes and his pen were more drawn to varieties like calamus and mullein and pokeweed--and to the prairie grasses that were never far from his mind’s eye.  Consonant with the then-familiar definitions of grass, Whitman’s grass was the kind with leaves, usually broad leaves and firm long stems, what Whitman thought of as “manly” grasses.  And on the prairies, he was intrigued with the idea that the replacement of prairie grass with wheat and corn was finally an affirmation of the transmogrifying power of prairie grass, wild grass evolving into domesticated but still vast and powerful cereal grass.  One way or another, the prairies, he believed, would remain America’s vast grassland: “ever the far-spreading prairies, cover’d with grass and corn” (LG 333). 

Whitman turned to grass when he was searching for the natural trope for his characteristic of camaraderie.  One of Whitman’s most fervently held ideals, of course, was a political and affectional bond of man for man, a bond crucial, he believed, for democracy to flourish in a capitalistic society--a new kind of intense camaraderie among men that would temper intense competition between men.  His faith was that such manly love would modulate greed in an increasingly wealthy and competitive society.  His poems exploring this homoerotic camaraderie were gathered in a cluster he decided to entitle “Calamus,” named after what he called the “large and aromatic grass [with] spears about three feet high [that grows] all over the Northern and Middle States.”  He invested these “biggest & hardiest kind of spears of grass” with “their fresh, aquatic, pungent bouquet” [9] and their “thick bulby root [that] stretches out . . . like the fingers spread” (WWC 9:38) with the symbolic burden of signalling “the development, identification, and general prevalence of that fervid comradeship” (PW 414).  Whitman’s image of the phallic calamus grass has become a focus of many recent discussions of Whitman’s sexuality. 

Just as he turned to the calamus grass as the symbol in his own northeastern area of the nation, though, he sought equivalent images deriving from the other two sections of the country: from the South, he chose the live oak with moss, and toyed with using that as his title image.  And from the West, from the emerging prairie states, he took the prairie-grass.  But if the Southern and Northern tokens of manly love suggested marginality and isolation--the calamus grass that grows by the “margins of pond waters” (LG 112) and the oak that stands “all alone” and is a “curious token” of “manly love” (LG 126-127)--the prairie grass was his near-ecstatic image of the future: tall manly grass not at the margins, but covering the land from horizon to horizon.  One of the poems in the 1860 “Calamus” cluster—eventually called “The Prairie-Grass Dividing”--explicates the image, as Whitman’s poetic persona imagines himself as a kind of proleptic John Wayne man of the West, striding through the prairie, parting the waves of grass, inhaling America’s future, and exhaling a string of adjectives that absorbed the prairie into a new democratic speech, a new democratic way of behaving, a new democratic way of being:

The prairie-grass dividing, its special 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 own gait, erect, stepping with freedom and command, leading not following,

Those with a never-quelld audacity, those with sweet and lusty flesh clear of taint,

Those that look carelessly in the faces of Presidents and governors, as to say Who are you?

Those of earth-born passion, simple, never constraind, never obedient,

Those of inland America.  (LG 129)

The poet breathes in the “special odor” of the prairie air and then sings out one of his “Prairie Airs.”  He would praise no art, he said, “Till it has well inhaled . . . the western prairie-scent, / And fully exudes it again” (LG 393).  As the vast representative prairie republic grew, Whitman believed, the new American character would grow like the grass.  The politicians Whitman admired tended to be from the prairies, like the prairie presidents, Lincoln and Grant, who represented for him the casual and common democratic future, who were what Whitman called “vast-spread, average men,” combining, like the prairies, the real and the ideal: “their foregrounds of character altogether practical and real, yet . . .  with finest backgrounds of the ideal” (PW 208).  “No wonder,” he wrote, “the Prairies have given the Nation its two leading modern typical men, Lincoln and Grant” (PW 344).  Lincoln, he said, had a “certain sort of out-door or prairie stamp” (PW 603) in his character.  And, praising Grant on his return from his world tour in 1879, Whitman celebrated the impression Grant gave, as he “walk’d with kings,” that “Those prairie sovereigns of the West, Kansas, Missouri, Illinois, / Ohio’s, Indiana’s millions, comrades, farmers, soldiers, all to the front” were also invisibly walking with him, claiming their place of equality next to the most powerful, “justified” (LG 485).  What Grant had was “vast-spread,” as common as the prairie grass.  In the 1846 Webster’s Dictionary of the American Language, the dictionary Whitman followed religiously, “prairies” are defined as “flat or rolling.”  So, too, are Whitman’s poems and his ideal democracy: America’s history, for Whitman, was a kind of accelerating flattening, a turning of high discrimination and hierarchy into a “vast-spread” equality, not erasing distinction and variety, but putting variety on a level plain.  It is not surprising, then, that late in his life he began to think of Leaves of Grass as a wild prairie that future American readers would eventually turn into sustenance for the nation’s future: he told some guests from Illinois in 1889 that “I think my poems are like your West—crude, uncultured, wild in spots; but as the years go by, and they are turned over and over, as your prairies are, I believe they will produce bountiful crops!” [10]

So, in another 1860 poem that he eventually entitled “Night on the Prairies,” Whitman imagines himself walking the prairies alone at night, looking up into the big sky and experiencing for the first time the vastness of the universe (“I was thinking this globe enough till there sprang out so noiseless around me myriads of other globes”), contemplating how small his own life is, and thus how he must respect as his equals all the lives that came before him, that exist now, that will come after him:

I henceforth no more ignore them than I ignore my own life, 

Or the lives of the earth arrived as far as mine, or waiting to arrive. 

Here he can “absorb immortality and peace” and learn not to fear but rather to “admire death.”  The prairie night literally enlarges his thoughts, his sympathies, and his horizons: “Now while the great thoughts of space and eternity fill me I will measure myself by them.”  The prairies are where he imagines coming to shake loose old assumptions, to “test propositions,” and the result is a flattening of hierarchy, a democratization of space and time revealed to him by the immense prairie night.  As he revised this poem over the years, he added “wearied emigrants” as his companions on the prairie (“The wearied emigrants sleep, wrapt in their blankets”), emphasizing the prairies as the landscape of mixing, the composting soil out of which a new variegated America was emerging (LG 452).   

The tallgrass prairie was therefore Whitman’s long-sought natural analogue for American democracy.  Earthbound and joined by an intricate root and seeding system, the prairie grasses, in endless close proximity, at once dug down and reached skyward: they were the perfect emblem of Whitman’s odd mix of transcendentalism and descendentalism, his desire to mate the soul and the body, to experience God through the five senses.  The prairies were about earth and sky--that’s all they were about--and the grasses were the living things that most fully penetrated both: they were ruggedly rooted in the soil and slenderly waving in the air.  The prairies, then, were a “strange mixture of delicacy and power,” “of real and ideal” (PW 223).  Prairies were for Whitman the landscape of democracy, flat and rolling, the very earthform of nondiscrimination.  America’s “Democratic spirit,” he believed, would require “the strong air of prairie” (PW 468).




It is not surprising, then, that on the rare occasions when Whitman projects a “paradise”--a word that did not sit comfortably in his working democratic vocabulary, in his discourse of celebrating the fullness and joy of life in the present--it is in reference to the prairies.  It was on the prairies, Whitman wrote in his notes, where “every thing is on a grander scale, with broader sweeps and contrasts--paradises--deserts” (NUPM 1958).  And in his 1860 “Enfans d’Adam” cluster (later “Children of Adam”), he includes a poem that views the United States as a kind of new Eden:

“In the new garden, in all the parts, / In cities now, modern, I wander,” the poet writes, as time and place collapse into “Paradise, the Mannahatta, the prairies,” all merging into “Days, places, indifferent—though various, the same” (LGV 362).  You can hear as Whitman’s ear picks up the tonal echoes--the alliteration and rhyme--of the two words, “paradise” and “prairies,” almost conflating them into a “prairiedise,” [11] the vast democratic landscape at the heart of America: “Democracy most of all affiliates with the open air, he said, and it “must either be fibred, vitalized, by regular contact with out-door light and air and growths, farm-scenes, animals, fields, trees, birds, sun-warmth and free skies, or it will certainly dwindle and pale.”  The fields and farm-scenes and free-skies of the prairies came for him to be what he called the “health-element and beauty-element” that “really underlie the whole politics, sanity, religion and art of the New World” (PW 294-295). 

Again and again, he would find on the prairies the “strange mixture . . . of real and ideal” (PW 223); thus the prairies inspired prayer, and in the prairie soil Whitman found America’s soul. “Vital to any aspiring Nationality,” said Whitman, was “its autochthonic song,” its “born poetic expression, coming from its own soil and soul” (PW 667).  When he sought to join East to West, he used the imagery of the music of the Atlantic Ocean “wafted inland” to prairie soil (“Overtures sent to the solid out of the liquid, / Fusion of ocean and land”), but as the music reaches the prairies, the soil translates into “soul”: the music “strains for the Soul of the Prairies” (LG 618-619).  This was how rhyme worked for Whitman--not an arbitrary convention of echoing sounds, but a metonymic conflation of words that confirmed the merging of body and spirit, of solid and liquid, of earth and heaven: soil and soul, prairie and prayer.

We come closest to Whitman’s prairiedise in a brief poem, “The Prairie States,” that was written right after his trip across the prairies in 1879 and was placed as the final poem in “Autumn Rivulets.” The title phrase, “Prairie States,” is rhymed in the fifth line by “paradise,” two cretic feet (prair-ie-states / par-a-dise) echoing each other and giving Whitman his guiding trope of the prairies as the “newer garden”:

A newer garden of creation, no primal solitude,

Dense, joyous, modern, populous millions, cities and farms,

With iron interlaced, composite, tied, many in one,

By all the world contributed--freedom’s and law’s and thrift’s society,

The crown and teeming paradise, so far, of time’s accumulations,

To justify the past.  (LG 402)

Like many of Whitman’s poems, the syntax here is extremely slippery, leading us one way only to veer off another.  It is his prairie style--flat and rolling--where it’s easy to get lost, because the conventional landmarks (the syntactical pathways we are accustomed to) are absent, replaced by a waving field of adjectives.  Whitman is usually quick to give us a subject but loath to give us a verb, thus leaving us to wander in a clutter of adjectives, prepositional phrases, and dead verbs frozen into infinitives or gerunds.  We can feel in the very syntax of this poem the effects of culmination: the “newer garden” is never predicated; it is simply there, the end result of contributions and actions, but no longer the actor, now simply a static monument “to justify the past.”  The poem itself is a sentence fragment: jagged, jarring, itself the composite, rather than the cohesion, of lots of separate linguistic parts.  It is inspired by what Whitman called the “Muse of the Prairies,” a muse who dismisses “the literary” (with all its hierarchies of taste and tradition) and calls instead for “free play” that will allow the poet enough freedom from restriction to “comprehend the size of the whole People” (PW 520). 

The first line of the poem evokes Eden only to replace it with the present: these prairies form a “newer garden of creation,” distinguished from the original by increased population.  Unlike the “primal solitude” of the first paradise, this “modern” one is “teeming” and “dense,” with “populous millions.”  This populous prairie is a stunning contrast to the first appearance of the prairies in Whitman’s poetry.  He had glimpsed the eastern edges of the tallgrass prairie on his 1848 trip to New Orleans, and he had gained impressions then of a vast area devoid of human occupation; his impressions worked their way into the poem that would become “Song of Myself” in 1855:

Where the sun-down shadows lengthen over the limitless and lonesome prairie,

Where the herds of buffalo make a crawling spread of the square miles far and near. . .  (LG 63)

With an alliterative flourish, Whitman turns the prairies “limitless and lonesome,” even while populating them with countless buffalo carpeting the landscape.  (In his early 1850s notebook, in which he wrote the originating lines of “Song of Myself,” Whitman employed the image of the buffalo on the prairie as the very sign of the vast, absorptive, democratic self that he was portraying in that poem: “He drinks up quickly all terms, all languages, and meanings.  To his curbless and bottomless powers, they be like ponds of rain water to the migrating herds of buffalo, who make the earth miles square look like a creeping spread--See! he has only passed this way, and they are drained dry” [NUPM 125].)

But twenty-five years later, the “populous millions” that Whitman projected onto the prairies became people instead of buffalo.  The animals are not even mentioned in “The Prairie States,” and the multitudes are now “interlaced” with iron, not only the iron of the railroads that in the twenty years prior to this poem were linking prairie cities and farms in an increasingly tight web of connections (Whitman celebrated how trains had been “launch’d o’er the prairies wide” [LG 472]), but also the iron and steel of wire fences, especially barbed wire, the manufactured equivalent of the thorny hedges in the natural garden.  Iron inventions divided and linked the farms of the prairies and made possible civilization in the open lands of America’s emerging West.  Sales of barbed wire were exploding in the 1870s, and the enclosing of farmer’s fields in these decades, turning a rancher’s frontier into a farmer’s domain, prompted Whitman to resurrect the word “paradise,” which etymologically means “walled garden” or “enclosed park.”  Whitman, who often reminded himself to track every word to its etymological origins (“get in the habit of tracing words to their root-meanings”), [12] knew that paradise on the prairies was emerging because fences were creating enclosed fertile farms, countless democratic walled gardens, and were allowing for population growth.  Paradise, etymologically and historically, was not found in pristine nature but in the interplay between humans and the natural world, between East and West, between iron and prairie, between “law” and “freedom,” a “composite” of elements, a garden to which “all the world contributed.” “As I cross’d Missouri State,” he wrote during his 1879 trip, “I thought my eyes had never looked on scenes of greater pastoral beauty.  For over two hundred miles successive rolling prairies, agriculturally perfect” (PW 206). 

So Whitman wanted his poems to urge on prairie progress: “[A]ll over the prairies,” Whitman wrote, “I will make inseparable cities, with their arms about each other’s necks” (LG 610).  The population growth in the West was not just peopling increasing numbers of fenced-in farms but was developing robust cities too.  It is no surprise that this quintessentially urban poet would project “cities and farms” on the prairies and that he would visit and assess the emerging prairie and plains cities.  It is striking that Whitman, whose travels were not frequent, still managed to see nine of the ten most populous cities in the U.S. during his era, seventeen of the top twenty, and twenty-one of the top thirty, including the Midwestern cities of Chicago, Cleveland, Detroit, Milwaukee, Indianapolis, Kansas City, and St. Louis.  The prairies were not just turning into farms but into new “inseparable cities” where camaraderie as thick as the prairie grass would develop and thrive.  It remains for someone to analyze Whitman’s attitudes toward all these cities: why, for example, when he’s in St. Louis for three months, he spends “many hours” loafing on the new Eads Bridge over the Mississippi, commenting “I don’t believe there can be a grander thing of the kind on earth” (Barrus, 189), while he would famously ignore the Brooklyn Bridge joining his own beloved Brooklyn and Manhattan.  Something was essentially different about progress on the prairies.     

It is noteworthy that in his manuscript notes for “The Prairie States,” Whitman emphasized that the poem was written “for the Irish famine” (LG 402n).  In 1879 there had been another bad potato harvest in Ireland, raising the spectre of the 1840s famine: Whitman projected his prairie-state paradise as vast enough to absorb the teeming masses of immigrants who would, like the interlaced iron, be woven into this new composite and dynamic garden, a garden that would include teeming cities of the “handsome, healthy, full-sized race of men” (PW 229n) that he was confident America was forging in the West.  Whitman’s Eden was the result of history, not the cause of it, the current culmination instead of the past inception.  Instead of a linear history beginning with the expulsion from the garden and proceeding through the apocalypse, Whitman offers an alternative circular history, from one garden to a newer one, from an earthly paradise lost to an earthly paradise regained, built out of and onto the failures of the past.  His new garden remained firmly planted in history--Whitman would always prefer the promise of earthly progress to the promise of perfection in the afterlife: “I shall certainly withdraw from Heaven--for the soul prefers freedom in the prairie” (NUPM 64). 

This new paradise would be “thrift’s society,” marked by healthy and vigorous growth brought on by careful management, free and lawful.  Whitman’s unlikely phrase--“thrift’s society”--has a very different resonance for us today, in the era of thrift stores, than it did in Whitman’s time.  “Thrift” and “thrive” are etymological twins, and “thrift” means “prosperous.”  It connotes a prosperity brought about by careful oversight: Whitman’s intention is to signal that this new society on the prairies would be the dividend of the careful investment “of time’s accumulations”: the payoff would be a justification of the past, a revelation of the horrors of history all finally culminating in this “composite” paradise--a union of individual and distinctive parts, a union “composed,” not “natural.”  This paradise is the “crown” of history “so far”; Whitman would always hedge his evocations of paradise by allowing for further evolution.  But, for now, the “crown” was a new society governed by no “crown” except the mark of honor it created for itself: regal crowns have been replaced by the sign of a “teeming” sovereignty, those millions of “prairie sovereigns” he celebrated in his poem to Grant, all authority invested in the “composite” many instead of the chosen few.  It was the best society “so far,” even as it was still “so far” to the ultimate realization of democracy. 

Perfection’s other name, after all, was “democracy”--a word, Whitman said, “the real gist of which still sleeps, quite unawaken’d, notwithstanding the resonance and the many angry tempests out of which its syllables have come, from pen or tongue.  It is a great word, whose history, I suppose, remains unwritten, because that history has yet to be enacted” (PW 2:393).  Whitman had the word “democracy,” so he hardly needed paradise.  And democracy’s “vast-spread” crown, its flourishing, was going to happen--Whitman was convinced--on the prairies, because the tensed forces creating the true American character, the revolutionary democracy that would redefine human experience, were interacting most fertilely on the prairies: “The main social, political, spine-character of the States will probably run along the Ohio, Missouri and Mississippi rivers, and west and north of them, including Canada,” he wrote in Democratic Vistas.  “Those regions . . . will compact and settle the traits of America, with all the old retain’d, but more expanded, grafted on newer, hardier, purely native stock.  A giant growth, composite from the rest, getting their contribution, absorbing it, to make it more illustrious” (PW 385).




Such beliefs lie behind another late evocation of the prairie that Whitman wrote in 1888, a poem called “A Prairie Sunset,” which powerfully anticipates the paintings of Keith Jacobshagen and other prairie artists who specialize in broad horizontal canvases of prairie landscapes in the evening.  Whitman sensed a new art emerging from America’s contact with the prairies, which, he said, “seem to me to afford new lights and shades, . . . nowhere else such perspectives, such transparent lilacs and grays.”  Prophesying the emergence of a new genre of prairie art, he said he could “conceive of some superior landscape painter, some fine colorist, after sketching awhile out here, discarding all his previous work . . . as muddy, raw and artificial” (PW 214).  “A Prairie Sunset” is a poem that grows out of Whitman’s intense reactions to the sunsets he saw on his 1879 trip west, when he wrote in his notebook of “the indescribable sentiment of lessening light on this plains, and the far circles of the horizon” (NUPM 1033).  There was something hugely encircling and spiritually uniting about the prairies for Whitman, and that quality seemed most apparent to him in the hovering moments between day and night.  As he traveled across “the Plains. . .--plains--plains--plains,” he noted in his journal “three beautiful sunsets--over an hour each time” (NUPM 1039), and his poem conflates them into one magnificent emblem:

Shot gold, maroon and violet, dazzling silver, emerald, fawn,

The Earth’s whole amplitude and Nature’s multiform power consign’d for once to colors;

The light, the general air possess’d by them--colors till now unknown,

No limit, confine--not the Western sky alone--the high meridian--North, South, all,

Pure luminous color fighting the silent shadows to the last. (LG 530-531)

With its initial and concluding martial imagery echoing the now-distant Civil War, this poem projects the prairie sky as the one dome large enough to unify America’s old divisions, to contain enough diversity in its amplitude of color to overcome old sectional confines and divisions, to overarch “North” and “South” and pull them with the West into a new “all”--with previously unknown myriad new luminous colors balancing between and mediating the blue and the gray, daylight and dusk, sun and shadow, creating the possibility of unified “American Democracy,” “in its myriad personalities,” the “free skies” of the prairie the last hope for preventing the “dwindling and paling” that Whitman feared would befall the nation like a shadow if the “Nature-element” ceased to be central to American culture.  The nation had been saved once, he believed, because the prairie West had sent its brave, democratic sons to decide the conflict between North and South in favor of union: “I saw--out of the land of the prairies,” he writes in one poem, the “plenteous offspring” with “their trusty rifles on the shoulders” come “to the rescue” (LG 294).  Whitman’s composite Union soldier was a nameless “tan-faced prairie-boy” (LG 320)--simple, taciturn, as natural as the sun and the prairie that formed him. 

When Whitman wrote this prairie-sunset poem in Camden, New Jersey, however, nearly twenty-five years after the Civil War, his imagination still holding the afterglow of one of the sunsets he had experienced on the prairie nearly a decade earlier, he worried about what had become of the country that so many prairie-boys had given their lives to preserve.  Could the prairies save the nation once again by calling it back to its nature-based democratic ideals?  He continued to believe that the “Prairie States” were “the real America” (Corr 3: 169), and his charged multi-colored sunset is offered as a nervous symbol of hope.  In the poem, the twilight moment hovers there forever in an unpredicated syntactical fragment, just as in his mind that sunset symphony would hold its final note eternally.  Even the seeming redundancy of Whitman’s phrase, “The earth’s whole amplitude,” subtly reveals his spiritualization of the landscape: we can hear the “s” at the end of “earth’s” joining with the “whole” to yield the aural pun: “earth’s soul.”  Once again, in the soil’s soul, in the amplitude of the prairies, Whitman finds America’s culminating spirit projected into the sky’s multitude of colors: “The earth’s whole [earth’s soul], amplitude.”  But it was precisely the question of the nation’s amplitude that now bothered Whitman; changing conditions in the country and on the prairies made him question the direction America was headed. 

Just how multi-colored, for example, was the new prairiedise in Whitman’s mind?  Did this unifying sunset join black, red, and white, the three races in America whose destinies were at this time also being worked out on the prairies?  At this stage of his life, Whitman was relatively silent about American Indians and African Americans: in his postbellum thinking, the prairies would meld North and South and the varieties of white immigrants far more efficiently than they would hybridize America across the races.  But Whitman was not oblivious to the issue, and he even occasionally expressed a muted hope that the prairies might in some contingent way include all the races. 

His 1879 trip west coincided with the migration of the Exodusters, former slaves moving into the open spaces of Kansas.  In his notebooks, Whitman copied out part of a New York Tribune newspaper article that recorded the movement, and Whitman’s summary presents the migration in terms that equates the black settlers with the buffalo and the insects whose presence on the prairies was as inconvenient to the new white farmers as the presence of Indians.  All three perceived pests had been, of course, the object of major eradication efforts in the years just prior to Whitman’s journey.  In the year Whitman headed out to the prairies, the grasshoppers that had ravaged crops in the 1870s were again under control, and the buffalo that had carpeted the prairies were already virtually decimated, following a decade in which, every day, as many as 200,000 of their hides were sold at auction.  In this context, the newspaper article’s evocation of the black migration as a new stampede and a new swarm on the prairie suggests a kind of racist joke, the freedmen cast as the new buffalo or new grasshoppers, arriving to re-pest the plains: “The slaves are stampeding at a great rate from Western Missouri--swarm across the line in droves taking wagons, horses cattle, & one sort of truck & another. . . .  In three weeks in April, 300 ran away from Lafayette county alone; they went to Kansas” (NUPM 1021).  More than fifteen years after emancipation, Whitman, following the Tribune article, was still inscribing these African Americans as runaway slaves. [13]  

Yet he could also see that this new black migration had a significance and power that transcended his own discomfort with the phenomenon, and he recorded the desire that the Exodusters be included in the emerging new prairie art: “Sometimes they make a real procession (would be mighty good for an artist to paint)” (NUPM 1021).  Whitman’s genius was often his ability to rise above his own prejudices and see that events he found troublesome were, at some level, carrying on the democratic revolution, developing democracy in ways even he could not conceive of: the threatening black “swarm,” from another angle, became a hopeful democratic “procession.”

And what about American Indians?  Whitman’s trip west also coincided with the end of America’s bloodiest encounters with native peoples.  Custer’s last stand was three years previous, and Chief Joseph had surrendered just two years before; except for a few remnants, free and independent native cultures were gone.  From the perspective of America’s indigenous peoples, the prairie sunsets were now indicative of something far different than peaceful assimilation of difference, as the familiar cultural emblem of the Indian heading into the sunset suggested.  But for Whitman, a kind of assimilation of native peoples nonetheless was a reality on the prairies, where Indian place-names dominated, unlike in the East (where European and classical names had, to Whitman’s dismay, overtaken the new world and smothered the native under the imported).  Whitman loved native names and lobbied his whole life to restore them in the East, and he celebrated the increased frequency of such names as America headed west:

What name a State, river, sea, mountain, wood, prairie, has--is no indifferent matter.--All aboriginal names sound good.  I was asking for something savage and luxuriant, and behold here are the aboriginal names.  I see how they are being preserved.  They are honest words--they give the true length, breadth, depth.  They all fit.  Mississippi!--the word winds with chutes--it rolls a stream three thousand miles long. [14]

The land of the Mississippi valley, then, was the land of native names, and, if the Indians were themselves vanishing as a presence, Whitman always insisted that at least their names could be widely absorbed into the American language, allowing the United States to embed the aboriginal in the very fabric of its nomenclature.  But, as he traveled the prairies in 1879, native names were just about the only signs of Indians that he could find.  Although news reports of his trip indicate that Whitman briefly saw two small bands of Indians (Eitner 44), his notebooks record but one sighting: observing a band of Potawatomis watering their horses, he writes only this: “The squad of Indians at Topeka” (NUPM 1039).  He notes with admiration a “Wapalingua Chief [who] died 2 years ago 116 years of age a brave blind Indian never spoke English” (NUPM 1039); Wapalingua was one last example of the wise old natives white America had learned to love, Indians with nothing left to see, with no words Americans could understand, having outlived their time.  So, with only remnants of native cultures left, Whitman put his absorptive faith in words, noting with satisfaction the names of the small towns in Kansas that he passes by: “Tongahocksa . . . Eagle Tail after a chief.”  And by the time he gets to Mirage, in eastern Colorado, he can only manage a feeble joke, suggesting just how quickly what had been the native reality on these prairies was now reality no more: “Mirage see mirages” (NUPM 1040).  The sun had already set on the Indians, and in the charged American prairie sunset of Whitman’s poem, their color is nowhere to be seen. 

The mirror-companion poem to “A Prairie Sunset” is another short poem Whitman published in the same year, this one called “Yonnondio,” an Iroquois term that Whitman understood to mean “lament for the aborigines” (LG 524).  Once again, as he had done with the Exodusters, Whitman perceives the non-white inhabitants of the prairies to exist in “swarms”: “I see swarms of stalwart chieftains, medicine-men, and warriors, / As flitting by like clouds of ghosts, they pass and are gone in the twilight” (LG 524).  This is the same prairie sunset, but now, instead of suggesting the amplitude of America’s future, it signals the end of the American past of native cultures.  The “populous,” “iron interlaced” “newer garden” of “cities and farms” in “The Prairie States,” in this reminiscent twilight, all fade as the prairies go blank:

Yonnondio! Yonnondio!--unlimn’d they disappear;

To-day gives place, and fades--the cities, farms, factories fade;

A muffled sonorous sound, a wailing word is borne through the air for a moment,

Then blank and gone and still, and utterly lost.  (LG 524)

Once again, as with the black prairie settlers, Whitman’s concern is that there is “No picture, poem, statement, passing them to the future,” and so “unlimn’d they disappear,” without a line in the evolving poem of America, “utterly lost.”  Whitman’s small poem is an attempt to give the aborigines a line, to utter their loss so that they won’t be “utterly lost.”  It is an odd and unresolved cultural moment for Whitman, a tensed “twilight,” as the swarms of Indians fade at the very moment that the swarms of blacks appear.  For Whitman, finally and tragically, neither group was of clear significance for the American prairie future, yet he believed both deserved a painting or poem that would include them in the record of the evolving national narrative.




On his trip west, the people who fascinated Whitman more than the Indians or the Exodusters were the cowboys: “to me a strangely interesting class, bright-eyed as hawks, with their swarthy complexions and their broad-brimm’d hats.”  These swarthy men were Whitman’s “tan-faced prairie boys” grown up.  He loved the way they were “always on horseback, with loose arms slightly raised and swinging as they ride” (PW 219).  Strong and independent, yet part of a close-knit male fellowship, they were the human manifestation of the prairie grass, the living proof that his dreamed-of democratic camaraderie on the plains was taking form.  And it was the cowboys, finally, that he remained interested in to the end of his life.  He must even have been oddly comforted by one negative reviewer’s parodic characterization of Whitman in an 1881 review: “American he is, of the ruder and more barbaric type, a prairie cow boy in a buffalo robe.” [15]

Let’s conclude, then, by turning to a cold New Jersey February night in 1889, three years before Whitman’s death, when he talked, as he often did, of the West and of cowboys, greeting an emissary of sorts, a man named William Salter who had been born in Iowa, where his father had settled forty-three years earlier.  Whitman was astounded and commented on how “remarkable” it was to hear of anyone “born in Iowa forty years ago.”  Whitman’s friend Horace Traubel was struck by the poet’s look as he gazed at this forty-year-old native Iowan: he “looked at Salter as if he was a curio.  It amused us all.” [16]   Whitman was struck by the very thought that the country had come to a point where he could now be meeting a middle-aged adult who had been born on the prairies: the nation was accumulating its history quickly. 

Their talk that night kept returning to the West, and Whitman proudly claimed he was “a brevet Missourian: I reckon I’m a Westerner in spirit.”  As so often happened when the prairies were the subject, the conversation turned to an artist, this time Thomas Eakins, the painter and photographer who had been a frequent visitor of late to Whitman’s home to paint his portrait and photograph him.  What interested Whitman this night about Eakins was the source of his vitality, the experiences that generated his distinctive American art:  Salter, the Iowan, had just spoken of a German student who had gone off into the prairies and had quickly “grown from a shriveled-up sick man into an athlete.”  Whitman knew the truth of such tales and promptly told the version he had recently heard:  “Eakins did that: he went right among the cowboys: herded: built up miraculously just in the same way.”  Traubel then asked Whitman, “Don’t you suppose this episode helped to make Eakins the painter he is?”  And Whitman answered, “Undoubtedly: it must have done much towards giving him or confirming his theory of painting: he has a sort of cowboy bronco method: he could not have got that wholly or even mainly in the studios of Paris--he needed the converting, confirming, uncompromising touch of the plains” (WWC 135). 

This was Whitman’s version of paradise on the prairies: “the converting, confirming, uncompromising touch of the plains” for him was a kind of tough rejuvenating force, and he defined American art literally and figuratively as that material produced far west of the “studios of Paris”--material touched by the plains, art that would need to be broken like a cowboy broke a bronco, taming the unarticulated and unformed wildness into the barely articulated and uncomfortably harnessed.  The spirit of the prairies, in other words, was just what America needed to develop its own original style, to free itself from debilitating European models; he despaired of the “certain snobbishness” that still infected art in America: “Instead of the storm beats, the wind blowing, the savage throat, the ecstasy and abandon of the prairie, . . . we have always a polite person amid a well-dressed assembly, in a parlor, talking about Plutarch, Astronomy, good behavior, the impropriety of laughing &c and evidently dominated by the English” (NUPM 5:1726).  Whitman saw his own unorthodox poetry as prairie-work, even though it was written in the East, and he believed his true readers would be Westerners: “I depend on being realized, long hence, where the fat prairies spread, and thence to Oregon and California inclusive. . . .  I am the bard of the future” (LG 636).

For Whitman, then, America’s hope was in the converting and confirming that were going on in the group of rough and raw but very promising prairie states, what he called “this favor’d central area . . . [which] seems fated to be the home both of what I would call America’s distinctive ideas and distinctive realities” (PW 208).  More than Yosemite or Yellowstone, more than Niagara Falls, Whitman said when recalling his one major continental trip, the prairies were “what most impress’d me, and will longest remain with me.  Even their simplest statistics are sublime” (PW 221).  And his dream was to see “these Prairies, the great Plains, and the valley of the Mississippi . . . fused in the alembic of a perfect poem . . . entirely western, fresh and limitless--altogether our own, without a trace or taste of Europe’s soil, reminiscence, technical letter or spirit” (PW 219).  This “land of ten million virgin farms” would soon, Whitman believed, boast “a hundred millions of people,” and it would call forth an army of new poets, “Minstrels latent on the prairies” (LG 232): it had already become for him “America’s Characteristic Landscape” (PW 220).  In some of his most inflated diction, he would even confer on the prairies mythic significance, making them the very emblem of “Fecund America,” casting them as a fertile democratic goddess uniting the nation and absorbing its diversity:

Thou Prairie Dame that sittest in the middle, and lookest out upon thy world, and lookest East, and

lookest West,

Dispensatress, that by a word givest a thousand miles, a million farms, and missest nothing,

Thou all-acceptress--thou hospitable, (thou only art hospitable as God is hospitable.) (LG 360)  

So, back in 1846 when Iowa asked for statehood, Whitman promptly endorsed the move in an editorial in the Brooklyn Daily Eagle (June 10, 1846), applauding Iowa’s unique constitution which extended the meaning of a responsible democracy, and concluding his endorsement with an affirmation that Iowa was in fact the sign of the future, refining and perfecting American democracy, adding a distinctly American flavor as the country marched westward across the prairie: “The west is striding on ahead of us, like a giant!” [17]   Out West, Whitman believed, the “friendly and flowing” (LG 73) new natives were busy breaking up the wilderness into fertile farms and breaking down the Eastern conventions and pacts and constitutions into more democratic ways of governing and behaving: out West, everything was more malleable, up for grabs, broncos that would resist breaking but which could eventually be ridden by the tough and brave.  Each newly broken bronco, though, eventually lost its fierce resistance and became tamed, so the paradise kept slipping west, leaving behind it a continually renovated East.  This moving line of tense and defining encounter became for the historian Frederick Jackson Turner in 1893 the site of the frontier. [18]   Paradise was always somewhere, and it was somewhere now: it’s just that, in nineteenth-century America, that somewhere was an always-changing site, as the country kept moving into the “entirely unpenetrated” “vast national tracts” of the “Western Geography” (NUPM 1947). 

If “Democracy” was a word Americans were literally growing into, they were growing into it westwardly, and it was sometimes dispiriting for Whitman to discover how quickly the Western experimentation gave way to Eastern conventionality.  He had worried in 1879 when he saw “the women of the prairie cities,” “’intellectual’ and fashionable, but dyspeptic-looking and generally doll-like,” whose “ambition evidently is to copy their eastern sisters” (PW 225-226).  He worried about how many small-minded Methodist ministers seemed to come back east from the prairies, carrying puritanical notions with them as if puritanism itself was what the prairies were about.  For a good part of Whitman’s writing life, the prairies looked as if they would last as the site of conversion and confirmation, but he also knew and feared that the East traveled West far more efficiently than the West traveled East.  And that, finally, would be the battle of the prairie sunset--as the “pure luminous color” of prairie possibilities fought “the silent shadows” of conventionality and imitation always creeping in from the East (LG 531).  American Indians seemed to be disappearing into the shadows, just as African Americans were emerging from the shadows.  As Whitman died, he left us on the prairies at sunset, in a tensed and unresolved cultural twilight.


An earlier version of this essay, “Walt Whitman’s Prairie Paradise,” was published in Robert F. Sayre, ed., Recovering the Prairie (Madison: University of Wisconsin Press, 1999), 47-60.

[1] Quoted in Walter H. Eitner, Walt Whitman’s Western Jaunt (Lawrence: Regents Press of Kansas, 1981), 20.  Hereafter abbreviated as Eitner.

[2] Walt Whitman, Prose Works 1892, 2 vols., ed. Floyd Stovall  (New York: New York University Press, 1963-1964), 224n.  Hereafter abbreviated as PW.

[3] Horace Traubel, With Walt Whitman in Camden: November 1, 1888-January 20, 1889 (New York: Mitchell Kennerley, 1912), 346.  Whitman comments frequently and always favorably about Gardner in this volume and in other volumes of Traubel’s With Walt Whitman.  Gardner photographed Whitman several times during the Civil War, and the poet preferred Gardner’s portraits above all others.  Whitman also claimed that Gardner was a great fan of Leaves of Grass: “He went strong for Leaves of Grass--believed in it, fought for it. . . .  Gardner was large, strong--a man with a big head full of ideas” (234).  With Walt Whitman in Camden appears in nine volumes, published from 1912 to 1996 by different publishers; abbreviated in this essay as WWC.

[4] See Susan Danly, “Across the Continent,” in Brooks Johnson, ed., An Enduring Interest: The Photographs of Alexander Gardner (Norfolk: Chrysler Museum, 1991), 84-95.

[5] The most complete description of Whitman’s 1879 trip can be found in Eitner, including a detailed itinerary and contemporary photographs of places Whitman visited.  While Whitman’s own written descriptions of his trip make it seem he made the journey alone, he in fact traveled as part of a group of five (the others were newspapermen from Pennsylvania).  The official trip lasted from September 10 to September 27, 1879, but after his traveling partners went back East, Whitman remained in St. Louis for over three months (until January 4, 1880), visiting his brother Thomas Jefferson Whitman. Whitman’s map is reproduced in Clara Barrus, Whitman and Burroughs: Comrades (Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1931), following p. 188, and in Herbert Harlakenden Gilchrist, ed., Anne Gilchrist: Her Life and Writings (London: T. Fisher Unwin, 1887), facing p. 253. 

[6] W[illiam] H[osea] B[allou], “Talks with Noted Men / Walt Whitman in His Modest Home in Camden,” Chicago Tribune (June 12, 1886), 10:3-4; reprinted in Gary Scharnhorst, “Rediscovered Nineteenth-Century Whitman Articles,” Walt Whitman Quarterly Review 19 (Winter/Spring 2002), 185. 

[7] Walt Whitman, Notebooks and Unpublished Prose Manuscripts, 6 vols., ed. Edward F. Grier (New York: New York University Press, 1984), 1348, 1373.  Abbreviated as NUPM. 

[8] Walt Whitman, Leaves of Grass: Comprehensive Reader’s Edition, ed. Harold W. Blodgett and Sculley Bradley (New York: New York University Press, 1965), 17.  Abbreviated as LG. 

[9] Walt Whitman, The Correspondence, 6 vols., ed. Edwin Haviland Miller (New York: New York University Press, 1961-1977), 1: 347.  Abbreviated as Corr. 

[10] William Hawley Smith, “A Visit with Walt Whitman,” The Conservator 20 (November 1909), 136. 

[11] I coin the word “prairiedise” here to suggest the way that Whitman juxtaposed “prairie” and “paradise” in his writings.  When he used the word “paradise,” it was seldom far from “prairies,” as in “Time, Paradise, the Mannahatta, the prairies” (LG 594).

[12] Walt Whitman, Daybooks and Notebooks, 3 vols., ed. William White (New York: New York University Press, 1977), 725.  Abbreviated as DBN. 

[13] The Tribune article is also listed and quoted in Charles I. Glicksburg, ed., Walt Whitman and the Civil War (Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 1933), 188. 

[14] Walt Whitman, An American Primer, ed. Horace Traubel (1904; rpt. Duluth: Holy Cow! Press, 1987), 17-18. 

[15] “Walt Whitman’s Poems,” Literary World 12 (November 19, 1881), in Kenneth M. Price, ed., Walt Whitman: The Contemporary Reviews (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1996), 226.  Early commentators on Whitman’s work often evoked the prairies while criticizing him; Sidney Lanier, for example, mocked Whitman’s poetics, saying that “his argument seems to be that because a prairie is wide therefore debauchery is admirable” (DBN 101n). 

[16] Horace Traubel, With Walt Whitman in Camden: January 21 to April 7, 1889 (Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 1953), 135.  Abbreviated as WWC. 

[17] Whitman always saw the prairie-men as physical giants, taking huge strides; for example, he described Union soldiers emerging from the prairie states “with large steps crossing the prairies out of Illinois and Indiana” (LG 282).

[18] Frederick Jackson Turner, The Significance of the Frontier in American History (1893; rpt. New York: Ungar, 1963).

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