#6 Whitman Wednesday: To A Historian

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I’m still making my way through the first section of Leaves of Grass, “Inscriptions.” The next poem is called “To a Historian.”

To a Historian

  You who celebrate bygones,
  Who have explored the outward, the surfaces of the races, the life
      that has exhibited itself,
  Who have treated of man as the creature of politics, aggregates,
      rulers and priests,
  I, habitan of the Alleghanies, treating of him as he is in himself
      in his own rights,
  Pressing the pulse of the life that has seldom exhibited itself,
      (the great pride of man in himself,)
  Chanter of Personality, outlining what is yet to be,
  I project the history of the future.

To be honest, I don’t have much to say about this poem. It seems like Whitman is telling his contemporaries who are obsessed with looking backwards and to the previous Golden Eras of culture (maybe the Roman Empire and the Renaissance, you know, the typical eras that art historians are obsessed with), that he is looking forward instead. Whitman seems to have adopted a sort of Jesus/Messiah-esque ego in writing this book. He is prophesying the future of American literature and establishing himself at the helm of this new era. I’m not sure if I would get along with him in “real life,” I think his ego would get in the way!

I looked up the Alleghanies, because it wasn’t a term that I was familiar with. I found out this is actually referring to the Allegheny Mountain Range, which is part of the Appalachians. These mountains run from Pennsylvania, through Maryland, and into the Virginias.


Photo Courtesy of The Land Report

As far as I can tell, Whitman was never truly a “habitan of the Alleghanies.” Instead, he was born in Long Island, New York, and bounced around the New York area, and briefly lived in Washington, before settling in New Jersey. His childhood home in Huntington Station is a historic site that is open to the public. The house was built by his father around 1819. I might have to make a trip out to see this site later this year!

walt whitman house.jpg

Photo Courtesy of NY State Parks


As always, I invite you to join me. I would love to hear your thoughts in the comments below or send me a link to your own #WhitmanWednesday posts and I’ll share them as well! Are you just tuning in? You’re in luck – since this is only the sixth poem, it’s really easy to catch up on Whitman Wednesday posts!

15 thoughts on “#6 Whitman Wednesday: To A Historian

  1. What can I say, I’ve always preferred Emily Dickinson to Whitman. I agree with you that Whitman saw himself as ushering in a new poetry that celebrates the NEW America–and what an ego!

    I do have my favorite poems, A Noiseless Patient Spider is at the top of the list. So maybe I can keep up with your Whitman posts (and all others as well 🙂 )and get re-introduced to a great poet.

    Thank you for a well thought post.

    • I just looked up “A Noiseless Patient Spider” as I’ve never heard of it before. I’m curious, what makes this one of your favorites?

      Yes, I am a pretty big fan of Emily Dickinson as well! I’m already daydreaming about which other poets I can explore weekly when I’ve finished “Leaves of Grass,” but at this rate I’ll be stuck with Walt for years! Maybe I can outsource some of these poems to you, so I don’t have to write about all of them 🙂

      PS, I thought of you while I was reading The Bridge of San Luis Rey, have you gotten around to reading it yet?

      • Uh oh, I found my copy at the beginning of summer and then started and then stopped and then lost the book, then found it…I haven’t read it. sigh.

        A Noiseless Patient Spider is one of those poems that touched my heart when I was a young English major. It resonated with my own desire to connect with the world beyond.

        So well composed, it is perfection of language. Whitman captures the quietness of creation, of a determined effort, of a desire to connect, and he does it with the simple image of a spider weaving its web. It’s beautiful.
        Did you like it?

        • Haha, well you’ll have to let me know if you end up reading it! I’d love to hear your thoughts.

          Your analysis of A Noiseless Patient Spider is so lovely, and I’m so embarrassed of my own attempts to parse poetry here in comparison. Yes, I enjoyed the poem but think I like it even more now having read your thoughts on it. I’ll have to quote you when I get to this poem in the book!

  2. I’m not a huge Whitman fan myself (I tend to gravitate towards older literature), but this seems like such a fun and interesting project. I did enjoy reading the parts of Leaves of Grass that I went over in some English courses.

    • I’m not sure if I’m a huge Whitman fan myself — haha! Leaves of Grass is just something that I’ve always thought I should eventually read, and what better way to do this than to embark on a long but un-intimidating project? Maybe you can recommend some older poetry for me to read next?

      • For poetry I mostly like the Romantics (doesn’t everyone?), but my main focus is actually on the medieval period. Where technically just about everything fictional is written in poetry, but for some reason no one ever approaches it as poetry. :p

        • Oh wow, I don’t know anything about the medieval period! I’ll have to ask you for some tips on where to start, just as soon as I get through some of my current reading projects!

  3. I see a form of Buddhism or Taoism in WW’s poetry. At least that perspective on the universe helps me get closer to the heart of his work. And often the voice is a persona, not WW himself speaking.

    • Yes, I agree — that’s definitely something to keep in mind while reading through Whitman. He had a much different understanding of the universe than I do! Thank you for the thoughtful comment.

    • I, too, see Whitman as you do, as exclaiming himself as an individual, with experiences in the course of history. His approach is more humble, as he sees himself as a conduit of something cosmic. With the newfound freedom that was established in the New World, he feels that the individual can now be heard. It’s the voice of a cosmic persona, one that cherishes all men.

  4. Pingback: #21: Starting from Paumanok | Like Bears to Honey

  5. I was just reading this poem, and I see this is a long-dead thread on it. I did not interpret Whitman as so egotistical as a couple of you did. I interpreted his overall approach to writing as the product of a collective consciousness, a tool of a spiritual power. Though he speaks as an individual, he believes himself as speaking the language of all individuals. In this particular poem “To a Historian,” he is somewhat chastising the historian for ignoring the experience of the individuals of the period, seeing humanity in the aggregate. Whitman believes (I believe) that New World liberates human beings as individuals, an epoch in which individual experience is valued. He is the voice of one such individual, but it’s an individual in humility, one swept up in destiny.

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