Tia Byer


The following article discusses the material conditions of production surrounding Walt Whitman’s 1855 Leaves of Grass. As a self-published poetry collection, I argue that Whitman uses paratextual features to mirror the text’s thematic rubric. By employing a materialist framework, this article claims that Whitman’s interpretation of America’s retroactive relationship to its democratic founding drives his collection. In depicting the nation as a work in progress, Whitman forces the American reader to revisit, reform and evolve the limited state of democratic power evidenced in his present-day nation. As self-reflexive focalization of the national condition, Leaves of Grass, through its unpretentious material composition, reconstructs the image of the poet as the necessary mediator of America’s unique political conception. Drawing upon Derrida’s synchronic assessment of the Declaration of Independence’s constative and performative structure, as well as Raymond Williams’ championing of the significance of a text’s cultural material context, this article claims that Whitman’s Leaves of Grass is a political project that provides intervention for the democratic failures of America’s founding principles.


Walt Whitman, Materialism, Derrida, proletariat

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