A central theme of the Preface to the 1855
Leaves of Grass is the necessity for Americans to create
their own literature--and the necessity of a poet who will lead
and encourage others. What are other characteristics of this poet?
How does Whitman imagine himself as taking that role? What in his
early experience explicitly prepared him for this role? Emily Dickinson
wrote no formal "Preface" to her works, but she offered Thomas Wentworth
Higginson some clues about her notions of poetry in her letter
to him and even mentions Whitman. Based on your readings of
these works, how do Whitman and Dickinson differ on their ideas
of the role of a poet?
Emerson noted in his letter
to Whitman that he greeted Whitman "at the beginning of a great
career, which yet must have had a long foreground somewhere." How
does Whitman suggest the contours of such a foreground in the Preface
to Leaves of Grass? What examples of reading, life experience,
and education does Whitman suggest? What does he suggest about his
background in his open letter to Emerson
published at the end of the 1856 edition of Leaves of Grass?
In what ways does Higginson offer realistic advice to "young contributors"
in his essay
for the Atlantic? Do you agree with one
critical commentary that this is a "hard-bitten" essay about
the literary marketplace? Why or why not? How valuable do you think
the advice finally was to Dickinson?
Dickinson indicates in her second
letter to Higginson something of her "foreground." What hints
does she give of her education, reading, and life experiences? What
specific annotations might you make to this letter to guide other
in understanding Dickinson's background?
Whitman had a long career as a journalist before he published Leaves
of Grass in 1855. Take one or two of the periodicals listed
in the timeline and find out about them.
Develop a profile of the periodical you choose: Where and when it
published? What was the purpose of the periodical? Can you learn
anything about the circulation? Who were the contributors? What
was Whitman's role in the publication?
What periodicals were routinely available and read in the Dickinson
household? What titles does Dickinson mention in her letters to
Sue and others available in the Dickinson
Archive? What comments and observations does Dickinson make
about published writers? What conclusions can you draw about her
reading and how it influenced her development as a poet?
Read through the contemporary reviews of Leaves of Grass
available in the Reviews
section of the Walt
Whitman Electronic Archive. What observations to various reviewers
make about the nature of Whitman's preparation to be a poet? What
assumptions do the reviewers make about a poet? About poetry? About
What do Dickinson's early letters to her brother and to her friends
available in the Dickinson
Electronic Archive reveal about her reading, her observations
about her culture, her perceptions of nature, and her travel? What
opinions, assumptions, biases, and wit can you detect? In what ways
do you think Dickinson is working out materials for her poetry?
Several scholars have suggested that Dickinson's early letters were
an integral part of her self-education. What evidence can you find
to support this claim?
What conclusions can you draw about examining the foregrounds of
Whitman and Dickinson? Based on your research, how useful is to
know about the early experiences, education, and reading of these
two poets? What suggestions can you make for further research and
questions for others to pursue?
What conclusions can you draw about the relationships between Whitman
and Emerson, Dickinson and
Higginson? How important were these relationships to the two
younger poets? What were the similarities and differences in the