William James on Walt Whitman: “He Is Aware Enough of Sin for a Swagger to Be Present in His Indifference Towards It”

William James on Walt Whitman; from The Varieties of Religious Experience (1902):

Walt Whitman owes his importance in literature to the systematic expulsion from his writings of all contractile elements. The only sentiments he allowed himself to express were of the expansive order; and he expressed these in the first person, not as your mere monstrously conceited individual might so express them, but vicariously for all men, so that a passionate and mystic ontological emotion suffuses his words, and ends by persuading the reader that men and women, life and death, and all things are divinely good Whitman is often spoken of as a “pagan.” The word nowadays means sometimes the mere natural animal man without a sense of sin; sometimes it means a Greek or Roman with his own peculiar religious consciousness. In neither of these senses does it fitly define this poet. He is more than your mere animal man who has not tasted of the tree of good and evil. He is aware enough of sin for a swagger to be present in his indifference towards it, a conscious pride in his freedom from flexions and contractions, which your genuine pagan in the first sense of the word would never show

4 thoughts on “William James on Walt Whitman: “He Is Aware Enough of Sin for a Swagger to Be Present in His Indifference Towards It””

  1. It’s sad and somewhat contradictory because Mr W. was able to differiantiate the beautiful and not so venerable but, he certainly had a special way to cohere the physical and spiritual in my perception. Thank you kindly for a closer look into his hungry soul.


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