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But sternly disregarding, shutting our eyes to the glow and grandeur of the general superficial effect, coming down to what is of the only real importance, Personalities, and examining minutely, we question, we ask, Are there, indeed, men here worthy the name?

I haven’t come across this usage before. Why does the writer use capitalisation with a common word and with the verb after a comma?

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    I think this is Too Localised. Note that a couple of sentences later, Whitman apparently wrote Are there arts worthy freedom {sic} and a rich people?. Maybe he was just having an "off day". Commented Oct 19, 2012 at 20:14
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    It is singularly ridiculous that this excellent question is going to be closed. How is this "not a real question"? @FumbleFingers Simply because there's an error elsewhere in the document doesn't mean that this usage is too localised (as Jay's answer and the comments attached to it will attest). Commented Oct 20, 2012 at 8:46
  • @coleopterist: I didn't say it's "not a real question" - I said it's "too localised" (though I might have chosen "off topic"). I don't disagree with Jay's answer, but I think this is something of a one-off context, and it's Lit Crit anyway. Commented Oct 20, 2012 at 11:07
  • @FumbleFingers Two others have marked this as "not a real question". Commented Oct 20, 2012 at 13:19
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    How is it "too localized"? One sees this in many works of literature. Even if this was a unique case, surely the fair answer is to say, "Don't make too much of it, the writer is doing something very unusual for this one particular case", then to close the question as unworthy of an answer.
    – Jay
    Commented Oct 22, 2012 at 13:37

2 Answers 2

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He capitalizes "Personalities" for emphasis.

He capitalizes "Are" because it is the beginning of a quoted sentence. He omits the quotation marks but still capitalizes the first word of the sentence. (I sometimes do this myself when I have many short quotes, as all the quote marks can clutter up the text. Now I have a recognized authority to justify it.)

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  • Yes, these are both pretty standard 19th century uses. The quotes are very often omitted when it is the writer's question or statement or whatever rather than a quotation from someone else. Commented Oct 19, 2012 at 18:38
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    @StoneyB Word processing and hypertext make us all masters of italics and boldface in ways that our Forebearers had to forswear. Try 18th century authors for serious dose of mid-sentence capitalization.
    – bib
    Commented Oct 19, 2012 at 19:01
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    @bib Boldface indeed is a product of putting typographical tools into the hands of people who don't know how to use them; the pre-PC equivalent was in manuscript one or more underscores. But the use of italics for emphasis or distinction goes back to at least the beginning of the 17th century. Commented Oct 19, 2012 at 22:11
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Re Personalities: What they said - but even more so.
He says he is about to tell us essentially 'What is the only thing that really matters', and then he tells us. Here the single word 'Personalities' carries the weight of a whole sentence. In the one word he is effectively saying - "The only thing of real importance is 'Personalities' ". To not capitalise it is to risk the reader mentally 'rushing on' past the 'sentence condensed into a word', and then having to retrace their mental footsteps to understand his point.

Whitman is master enough of the language that he could easily have expressed himself far more clearly. Often enough his style is to use a degree of obfuscation, to not let the reader forget his degree of erudition and to put things in such a manner that the putting is, if not of as great import as the content, at least a significant part of what he hopes you will notice. When one achieves a certain level of acceptance such constructs are seen as masterly, impressive, and 'deep'. Lesser mortals, especially 21st century ones, attempting such complex styles are more likely to be seem simply as pretentious.

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