Critical Inquiry 1 (4):707-718 (1975)

In the year 1855, American Literature made two experiments. The first, quite a minor one, the blending of finished music with sing-song and Red Indian folklore, was undertaken by a considerable poet and a fine scholar, Longfellow. The name of it, Hiawatha. I suppose it succeeded, as far as the expectations of the writer and of his readers went. Nowadays, I suppose it lingers on in the memory of childhood and survives him. Now the other is, of course, Leaves of Grass. Leaves of Grass is a major experiment. In fact, I think I can safely venture to say that Leaves of Grass is one of the most important events in the history of literature. If I speak of it as an experiment, perhaps you will think that I am implying a profanation, a desecration, and a blasphemy, since, when we speak of experiments in literature, we generally think of unsuccessful ones. For example, when we speak of experimental literature, well, we think of works that we do our best to admire and that somehow defeat us because, after all, the word "experiment" is a polite word. Well, in the case of Leaves of Grass the experiment succeeded so splendidly that we think it could never have failed. Somehow when something goes right - and that hardly ever happens in literature - we think it somehow inevitable. We think that Leaves of Grass lay there, lay unsuspected there, ready for anybody to discover and write it down
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DOI 10.1086/447810
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