First Advisor

Paul Giles

Date of Publication


Document Type


Degree Name

Master of Arts (M.A.) in English




Walt Whitman (1819-1892). Leaves of grass, Walt Whitman (1819-1892) -- Political and social views



Physical Description

1 online resource (3, 119 p.)


The purpose of this thesis is to organize and examine Walt Whitman's poetic representations and discussions of laborers and labor issues in order to argue that form a distinct "poetics" of labor in Leaves of Grass. This poetics of labor reveals that Whitman was attempting to enlarge the audience for American poetry by representing American society at work in poetry. Whitman also used labor as a poetic subject in order to justify the work of the poet in that society. In this sense, Whitman's poetics of labor is comprised of numerous demonstrations of his argument for the labor of poetry because the representation of America at work is contained within the work of the poet. The organization of this thesis rests upon a distinction between the work of the hands and the work of the mind. This distinction resonates in nineteenth century American literature, and it is especially important to debates about the status of the writer in a working democratic society. This question figures prominently in the works of Emerson and Thoreau, and a central issue for both of them is whether or not the writer should participate in the work of the hands. Whitman engages in this debate as well, and argues that the poet can participate in all kinds of work through poetic representation. He participates by representing workers in poetry, and in Whitman's argument the poet then becomes a representative of those workers. A central premise of this thesis is that Whitman's poetry of labor demonstrates an attempt to ensure that America works according to Whitman's interpretation of democracy. This is most apparent in poems where he directly addresses his working audience, and those addresses reveal a specific ideology behind Whitman's poetics of labor. That is, Whitman attempts to level the implicit hierarchical organization of different kinds of work. For instance, in such poems as "Song for Occupations" and "Song of the Broad-Axe," Whitman engages in a conversation with manual laborers in an effort to acknowledge their value and significance to the democratic process. As he celebrates their contribution, he also associates his own work with them, and argues for the · usefulness of such poetry to that process as well. In such poems as "When I Heard the Learn'd Astronomer'' and "To A Historian," Whitman addresses those who labor with the mind in order to include them in the dialogue, and also to argue that the majority of that work needs to be revised because its claim for authority perpetuates hierarchical distinctions. Whitman offers poetry as a solution, and argues that it is central to democracy because it "completes" all labor by fusing the work of the community with the work of shaping individual identity that comes from reading and writing poetry. This thesis draws upon New Historicist methodologies and approaches to Whitman in order to reconstruct the significance of labor in Whitman's poetics. The poetry which directly addresses laborers and labor issues in Leaves of Grass forms the basis of the argument, but Whitman's relevant prose is considered in detail as well. In particular, Democratic Vistas is examined for its claims that the "work" of poetry is itself incomplete. "Work" is used here to refer both to the aesthetic object and the effort involved in reading it. In other words, Whitman argues that the work of poetry, like the work of democracy, is a continuous, recursive process.


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