Published online by Cambridge University Press: 30 July 2009
We have thought of whitman as an urban poet for so long-noticing how integral his Manhattan is to the imagery of Leaves of Grass – that we have lost sight of the deeper structure of urban popular culture lying behind the poem. As Remy G. Saisselin has recently argued, the city in the nineteenth century transformed the eye of the observer, and new kinds of urban spaces and entertainments—like the arcade, the panorama, and the department store—were created to satisfy a growing population of consumers. Saisselin affirms, moreover, that an unprecedented variety of aesthetic observer evolved along with these changes in urban experience: No longer was he “the man of taste in contemplation before a picture or a landscape. … He was the flaneur in the modern city.” And he associates this new observer with the photographer, whose urban gaze was also ubiquitous, surveying urban types and spaces. Saisselin is speaking here primarily of the European city, of Paris especially, but his observations are valuable in considering anew the sources of Whitman's art, for they point to a relationship between poetry and the urban milieu that has been generally overlooked. More specifically, they lead us to see the invention of Leaves of Grass as a way of organizing and perceiving reality that was new in the arts of the nineteenth century, yet one that was rooted in the popular urban culture of the time.
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