"Hot little prophets": reading, mysticism, and Walt Whitman's disciples
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While scholarship on Walt Whitman has often dealt with "mysticism" as an important element of his writings and worldview, few critics have acknowledged the importance of Whitman's disciples in the development of the idea of secular comparative mysticism. While critics have often speculated about the religion Whitman attempted to inculcate, they have too often ignored the secularized spirituality that the poet's early readers developed in response to his poems. While critics have postulated that Whitman intended to revolutionize the consciousness of his readers, they have largely ignored the cases where this kind of response demonstrably occurred. "Hot Little Prophets" examines three of Walt Whitman's most enthusiastic early readers and disciples, Anne Gilchrist, Richard Maurice Bucke, and Edward Carpenter. This dissertation shows how these disciples responded to the unprecedented reader-engagement techniques employed in Whitman's Leaves of Grass, and how their readings of that book (and of Whitman himself) provided them with new models of identity, politics, and sexuality, new focuses of desire, and new ways in which to interpret their own lives and experiences. This historicized reader-response approach, informed by a contexualist understanding of mystical experience, provides an opportunity to study how meaning is created through the interaction of Whitman's poems and his readers' expectations, backgrounds, needs, and desires. It also shows how what has come to be called mystical experience occurs in a human context: how it is formed out of a complicated interaction of text and interpretation (sometimes misinterpretation), experience and desire, context and stimulus. The dissertation considers each disciple's education and upbringing, intellectual influences, habits of reading, and early religious attitudes as a foreground to the study of his or her initial reaction to Leaves of Grass. Separate chapters on the three figures investigate the crises of identity, vocation, faith, and sexuality that informed their reactions. Each chapter traces the development of the disciples' understanding of Whitman's poetry over a span of years, focusing especially on the complex role mystical experience played in their interpretation of Whitman and his works.
Richard Maurice Bucke
Marsden, Steven Jay (2004). "Hot little prophets": reading, mysticism, and Walt Whitman's disciples. Doctoral dissertation, Texas A&M University. Texas A&M University. Available electronically from