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Whitman's Individualism Reflected American Loneliness, Wilder Says


American's distrust of art and tradition--in fact the American refusal to grow up--is reflected in Walt Whitman's poetry, Thornton Wilder said last night. He delivered the last of the Charles Eliot Norton lectures before a capacity crowd in New Lecture Hall.

This self-conscious individualism has of American literature, Wilder explained. Poets like Whitman, Thoreau, and Emily Dickinson have tried too hard for spontaneous art, and often neglected the calculation necessary for great poetry.

Wilder added, however, that this very abstraction is America's hope for a great body of literature. "The author must tell what be knows," he said, "and not concern himself with the repercussions."

Abstraction vs. Tradition

Abstraction in America, Wilder said, is in sharp contrast to the strong tradition of Europe. "Everything is in front of us," he went on, "While it is somehow under the European. We do not really believe in the cultural past."

At the age of 36, according to Wilder, the dam broke inside of Whitman, and he found his self-assurance.

A "prodigious eloquence" was the result, an eloquence stranger since at the age of 25, he had "not a grain of natural talent."

Wandering Bard

It was then that Whitman took on the "image of the wandering bard," which he followed conscientiously for the rest of his life. Wilder remarked with a smile that one could feel comfortable reading Whitman only when wearing long beard. "Whitman is the basis for his own flamboyant poetry," he said.

Wilder commented that Whitman's intense desire to intrude himself into his poetry was one reaction to the American loneliness. "He had a longing to roll, rock and reel with humanity."

This was the fourth and last in Wilder's series of lectures on American Poetry.

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