Although Neo-Pragmatist scholars have long considered Walt Whitman an intellectual and literary forebear to William James and the American Pragmatic tradition, James believed Whitman to be a far more problematic thinker than has been acknowledged. Haunting much of James's writings, and The Varieties of Religious Experience (1902) in particular, is a Whitman who is less a figure for emulation than an embodiment of a particular kind of metaphysical excess, at once unworldly and effeminate. In characterizing Whitman as a paragon of an untrustworthy ““healthy-mindedness”” and a ““queer”” idealism that he wished to excise from his own Transcendental inheritance, James developed a gendered critique of the ““sky-blue”” optimism he recognized as the peculiar legacy of the poet, a critique that took into account Whitman's roots in Hegelian and Emersonian thought as well as the well-publicized homoeroticism of his life and work. Ambivalent about the sexual and moral ““indifferentism”” that he believed accompanied Whitman's ““sky-blue”” acceptance of evil and death, James then traced Whitman's influence——both implicitly and explicitly——through the writings of the leading gay Whitmanites of his era, including the ““mystics”” John Addington Symonds and Edward Carpenter. Thus, in the war for the American soul——a war that James waged on the battlefields of metaphysics, religion, and gender identity as well as within his own person——the father of Pragmatism turned a ““feminine”” and ““unnatural”” Whitman into his chief foil and his main adversary; Whitman became the standard against which his own ““manly”” beliefs and methodologies, particularly with respect to religious experience, were defined.
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