WebQuest: Walt Whitman and the Space and Place of Transcendentalism

Overview: In this WebQuest, you will explore not only Walt Whitman’s poetry but also his expansive view of American geography. You’ll consider the connections between this “poetics of space and place” and its connection to Transcendentalism.

Step 1: Review your basic understanding of Walt Whitman.
Read this quick overview from the Library of Congress. Skim this history of the development of Leaves of Grass

Step 2: Read the Whitman texts in the following order (and manner!).
Look at the image of Whitman that appears at the front of the 1855 edition of Leaves of Grass. Read “Preface to Leaves of Grass (1855 edition, click on link and just read the preface). Read “Song of Myself” (the 1882 version is the “correct” version – please read this one).

Now look at Ralph Waldo Emerson’s response to this volume by an unknown poet. Read his letter to Walt Whitman. Based on this encouraging response, Whitman published Leaves of Grass again in 1856, this time introducing the volume with an open letter to Ralph Waldo Emerson
Read “Crossing Brooklyn Ferry.” 
Read “I Sing the Body Electric.”

Step 3: Visit the University of Virginia's Walt Whitman Hypertext Archive.
Travel to the home page of the site. Read (or skim) this more extensive biography of Whitman. Look at some of the nineteenth-century reviews of Leaves of Grass. Look at all the known photographs of Walt Whitman (and be prepared to see a bit “too much information” about old Walt!). Look at manuscript drafts of “Song of Myself.”

Listen to Walt Whitman read “America.”

Step 4: Now explore the ways in which Whitman moved from his city to the larger American landscape.
From the “Geographical Imagination in Whitman and Dickinson” project, read the following pieces:
“American Panoramas in ‘Song of Myself’”
“Incarnation: Whitman's Body Politic”
“Manifest Destiny and Expansion in the Americas”

Step 5: Read chapter 4 from Hannah Hinchman’s A Trail Through Leaves: The Journal as a Path to Place.

Journal Prompts
As always, at least one of your journal entries this week should be in response to the WebQuest. Here are some possible prompts to get you started on that task (but you aren’t limited to these starting points!).

Journal Prompt #1: Try writing a poem a la Walt Whitman. Start with “I am the poet of XXX” or “I sing the XXX electric,” or “I celebrate myself, and sing myself and XXX” or “John Doe, a cosmos, of [place name] the son/daughter.” Or choose any passage from Whitman’s poetry (or prose), and use it as a springboard to a journal entry or poem or drawing.

Journal Prompt #2: On your own commute to or from your daily life (whatever form that takes), think about your own experience of “crossing Brooklyn ferry.” Even if your commute is simply a walk from your residence hall to Knutti Hall, think about the people you encounter, the sights and sounds you experience, the ways in which you are alive in those moments. How does reflecting on your own “commute” help you to better understand what Whitman was thinking about during his daily travel?

Journal Prompt #3: In “Preface to Leaves of Grass,” Whitman says that the United States is the world’s greatest poem. What do you think he means by this statement? Find a passage in “Song of Myself” that reflects this idea. Copy and paste the statement into your journal – and then show how this passage reflects Whitman’s commitment to transcribing the world’s greatest poem.

Essay Topic
In your essay, you should explore Whitman’s interest in space and place and how Whitman uses this focus on place to emphasize the need for the American writer to focus on America. You can focus just on New York City, just on the larger American landscape, or on the concept of American geography as a whole. Be sure to discuss how this emphasis reflects his interest in Transcendentalism.

“American Transcendentalism: An Online Travel Guide” was produced by students in ENGL 446, American Transcendentalism, and ENGL 447, American Literature and the Prominence of Place: A Travel Practicum. These courses were team-taught in the Department of English at Shepherd College (now Shepherd University), Shepherdstown, West Virginia, in Spring 2002 by Dr. Patricia Dwyer and Dr. Linda Tate. For more information on the course and the web project, visit “About This Site.” © 2003 Linda Tate.