When American literature was established as a disciplinary field, shortly after World War II, foundational critics used Walt Whitman’s Leaves of Grass as an example of a typically American work. However, for the last few decades, Whitman studies have been increasingly focused on the ways in which Whitman’s work and ideas interact with a variety of literary traditions. Surprisingly, the Pacific region has so far received very little attention, despite the fact that circles of fervent Whitman admirers are known to have existed in Australia and New Zealand during the late nineteenth/early twentieth-century period. This thesis aims to address this oversight by placing Whitman’s works and ideas in conversation with those of a selection of late nineteenth/early twentieth-century Australian intellectuals as well as one Whitmanite from New Zealand.
I argue that even though he had no knowledge of Whitman’s work, Charles Harpur, Australia’s self-proclaimed “first native poet,” holds a somewhat similar position in his country’s literary tradition. In order to substantiate my claim, I compare the two poets’ perspectives on key issues such as democracy, national literature and the role of the poet. The few available works dealing with Whitman and Australia invariably conclude that Bernard O’Dowd has the most legitimate claim to the title of Australia’s Whitman because of the existence of direct connections. However, I aim to highlight the discrepancy between O’Dowd’s competent reading of Leaves of Grass and his surprising decision to deploy an elevated and archaic style which contradicts Whitman’s vernacular, forward-looking and experimental poetic vision. While O’Dowd was the most active Australian Whitmanite, the interest in Whitman around the turn of the century was significantly broader. After exploring the parallels between Whitman and Francis Adams, the argument brings together four notable critical perspectives on Whitman from William Gay, John Le Gay Brereton, H. M. Green and New Zealand collector W. H. Trimble to illustrate that democracy was the thread which united the Antipodean Whitmanites and that the appreciation of Whitman’s work in Australia and New Zealand at the turn of the century depended on whether critics recognized the existence of an essential link between Whitman’s formal experimentations and his commitment to democratic values.
Ultimately, this thesis seeks to demonstrate, first, that a more flexible approach to comparative literature enables the discovery of links between Whitman and Australia earlier than is usually acknowledged and, second, that while the readings of Whitman’s work developed in Australia during the period under examination were mostly conventional, the fact that they coincided with debates around key issues such as socialism, Federation, democracy and the shape and function of poetry in the modern world makes the Australian interest in Whitman noteworthy and deserving of more attention than it has received to date.