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The Thought of Him I Love: Mystical Drifts in Whitman's Leaves of Grass

Abstract

In 1860, Walt Whitman released what he called the “new American Bible.” This claim scandalized American readers of the day though, since then, much more than the small circle of intellectuals has recognized its importance. The 1860 edition of Leaves of Grass was also the first edition (of seven) in which he claimed to inaugurate a new religion. The centerpiece of this new religion was the mystical experience in which poet and reader embarked together. Through printed text, poet and reader, individual and cosmos, citizen and the democratic would unify. Or, at least, the poet would lead the reader through a mystical journey that may or may not have a destination. The character of this journey changes, like Leaves of Grass itself, from edition to edition. This thesis traces the unstable and multifaceted character of this mysticism with a special emphasis on its blossoming as a mysticism of death.

In doing so, it will hopefully complicate an often overlooked facet of Leaves of Grass and vindicate Whitman’s status as a mystic which has been a subject of both debate and embarrassment for Whitman scholars. Many have shied away from applying the “mystic” label. A brief outline of the appearances of mysticism of Leaves of Grass followed by a tracing of its roots constitutes the introduction. Then, a chapter on Whitman’s more egotistical mysticism focuses on the dynamics within the self. Following this is a chapter on Whitman’s expansive mystical role and the final chapter identifies death as the ultimate mystical transfer and explains the reasoning behind this bold claim.

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