Document Type


Date of Degree

Summer 2015

Access Restrictions

Access restricted until 08/31/2020

Degree Name

PhD (Doctor of Philosophy)

Degree In


First Advisor

Folsom, Ed

First Committee Member

Glass, Loren

Second Committee Member

Diffley, Kathleen

Third Committee Member

Grünzweig, Walter

Fourth Committee Member

Stecopoulos, Harilaos

Fifth Committee Member

Sauder, Michael


This dissertation recasts the history of sociology in the United States by focusing on one the discipline’s most surprising and neglected sources: the poetry of Walt Whitman (1819 -1892). Tracing the period in intellectual history—from, roughly, the end of the U.S. Civil War to the country’s entry into World War II—in which sociology emerged from a confluence of reform movements and cohered in the university, I seek to demonstrate how the recirculation of Whitman’s Leaves of Grass across some of the founding texts of social science in the United States helped furnish the conceptual vocabulary for a compassionate, impartial and distinctively “American” sociology. The first half of the project situates the development of Whitman’s poetry in the discursive milieu of nineteenth-century “Social Science”—the movement of intellectuals and activists that applied philosophical ideals to Gilded Age “social problems.” I argue that Walt Whitman engaged and merged the terms and images of social science into his poetry, helping to transform and ferry its rhetoric into concepts then imbibed by modern social theorists.

The latter half of the thesis turns to an examination of the poet’s presence in the instituting texts of academic sociology. Fusing the comparative methods of the “history of ideas” with more recent trends in reception theory and book studies, I survey documents from a range of Progressive Era institutions. Plotting interpretations of Leaves of Grass by some of the nation’s earliest social scientists—including Daniel Brinton, Edward A. Ross, Robert Park, Ruth Benedict and Howard Odum—across an array of monographs, lectures, letters, journal articles and protest speeches, I consider the deployment of Whitman against the then-forming backgrounds of cultural anthropology, social control theory and the sociology of race in the early twentieth century. In the end, my project aims to reassemble the literary foundation of American culture’s “sociological imagination” by using Whitman’s presence at its matrix as a case study.


Anthropology, History of the Social Sciences, Intellectual History, Social Movements, Sociology, Walt Whitman


ix, 241 pages


Includes bibliographical references.


Copyright © 2015 Timothy David Robbins

Available for download on Monday, August 31, 2020