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The War on WordsSlavery, Race, and Free Speech in American Literature$
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Michael T. Gilmore

Print publication date: 2010

Print ISBN-13: 9780226294131

Published to Chicago Scholarship Online: February 2013

DOI: 10.7208/chicago/9780226294155.001.0001

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Whitman: From Sayer-Doer to Sayer-Copyist

Whitman: From Sayer-Doer to Sayer-Copyist

Chapter:
(p.140) Whitman: From Sayer-Doer to Sayer-Copyist
Source:
The War on Words
Author(s):

Michael T. Gilmore

Publisher:
University of Chicago Press
DOI:10.7208/chicago/9780226294155.003.0008

Free soil, free speech, free verse: though Leaves of Grass appeared under the shadow of the Kansas-Nebraska Act, it was the legislation that returned Lincoln to politics and Thoreau to public polemic. This chapter reviews Walt Whitman's poetic masterpiece and the battle over free speech, which was a key ingredient in the making of the 1855 edition of Leaves of Grass. A reawakened belief in the might of words informs Whitman's outpouring, which simultaneously prophesies and brings into textual being its vision of an egalitarian republic. But despite the imaginative inclusiveness of 1855, Whitman, no abolitionist, harbored misgivings about agitation that ultimately resurfaced, and his conception of song as action did not outlast the Civil War. His ideological retreat—he evolved into a foe of black rights and a supporter of Andrew Johnson—played itself out on the level of language, subtly in Leaves of Grass, more obviously in prose pieces written during and after Reconstruction.

Keywords:   Walt Whitman, Free soil, free speech, free verse, Leaves of Grass, Kansas-Nebraska Act, black rights

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