Substantial Words: Walt Whitman and the Power of Names

  • Carla Billitteri
Part of the Modern and Contemporary Poetry and Poetics book series (MPCC)


A self-described student of language, who thought of his poetry as “a language experiment,” “an attempt to give the spirit, the body, the man, new words, new potentialities of speech,” Walt Whitman contemplated writing his own dictionary and remained a lifelong collector of words and idiomatic expressions (cited in Traubel, An American Primer, n.p.). Living in a time when the question of a national language was at the center of lively political debates and was generally regarded as a critical ground for contrasting assessments of the social and political life of the country, Whitman unhesitantly put his linguistic interests in the service of his nationalism and of his democratic political beliefs and presented himself as an advocate of American language, both in the forms it had inherited from England and in the new cosmopolitan forms it was taking under the shaping impact of cresting waves of immigration. Whitman’s meshing of language studies, political activism, and poetic pronouncements, his acute awareness of the role of the poet as public intellectual, have been the topic of extensive scholarly debate for over half a century, and my discussion of Whitman’s poetics in this chapter is greatly indebted to that work. My own approach has the specific aim of uncovering the Cratylic design of Whitman’s project, his plan to transform American English into a language of names organically linked to their designata, a foundational language that would help to consolidate the nation’s cultural identity and assist in the furthering of its political mandate.


Language Theory Idiomatic Expression Mere Description Iron Iron American Language 
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© Carla Billitteri 2009

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  • Carla Billitteri

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