Groupe de Recherches Anglo-Américaines de Tours

Editor-in-chief Trevor Harris

Book Review Editor Molly O'Brien Castro

(Literature, Civilization, Cultural Studies, Gender Studies, Linguistics)
GRAAT: Pronounce [greit]
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GRAAT: Getting to the bone
A peer-reviewed journal of Anglophone Studies


John E. Seery (ed.), A Political Companion to Walt Whitman (Lexington: University of Kentucky Press, 2011). $40, 373 pages, ISBN 978-0-8131-2654-8—Eric Athenot, Université François Rabelais, Tours.

Whitman and democracy often—too often, perhaps—read like interchangeable terms in much scholarly criticism. This political system, as is well known, was for Whitman forever about to be realised. In his polemical essay Democratic Vistas, published in 1871 in response to Carlyle’s Shooting Niagara, a scathing dismissal of universal male suffrage in America, Whitman noted with a bitterness not totally devoid of hope that American democracy, almost one century after it had seen the light of day, was still in “its embryo condition”. In the poetry, democracy is viewed as a vehicle for modernity and vice versa. From the first edition of Leaves of Grass, where the persona “give[s] the sign of democracy”, to the final volume, opening with a poem celebrating “the word Democratic” and “The Modern Man”, Whitman exhibited a life-long desire to accommodate democracy within his literary work. His thinking on poetry’s relationship to politics evolved over time. In the 1860 edition, the “Calamus” cluster figuratively delineated his dream of the adhesive “love of comrades”, while the post-Civil War editions came to voice an increasing awareness of a widening gap between the poet’s earlier enthusiastic embrace of American democracy and the capitalist course the country was irretrievably taking.

To modern-day readers, accustomed as they are to hear politicians on all sides twist the word to serve their own partisan ends, the assimilation of the term “democracy” by and with Whitman often proves problematic at best. European scholars particularly, rightly or wrongly, do not generally take to this aspect of Whitman as readily as their American counterparts. The impact of literature on public life was fervently theorised in the 1970s and 1980s by Left-Bank intellectuals of all persuasions. But in the last two decades, due to a change in cultural habits, reading has, on this side of the Atlantic too, been thrust back to a more private sphere, when it has not degenerated into a mere classroom activity (perhaps, unknown to many educators, the place par excellence where books acquire their full political status). American literary scholars, (cf. Betsy Erkkila’s 1989 Whitman the Political Poet, Stephen John Mack’s 2002 The Pragmatic Whitman, up to Steven B. Hermann’s 2010 Walt Whitman: Shamanism, Spiritual Democracy, and the World Soul) have repeatedly engaged this problem. On the other hand, political theorists and philosophers, Richard Rorty and George Kateb among them, have repeatedly turned to Whitman as a major provider of democratic inspiration.

Kateb’s seminal 1990 article, “Walt Whitman and the Culture of Democracy”, is the first text reprinted in A Political Companion to Walt Whitman, a collection of thirteen articles by political-science scholars teaching in American and British academic institutions. The book is organised along three axes—“Part I. Individuality and Connectedness, Part II. City life and Bodily Place, Part III. Death and Citizenship”. The volume is part of The Political Companions to Great American Authors series, whose objective is to discuss American political thought through and from the standpoint of American literature, defined as “one of the greatest repositories of the nation’s political thought and teachings” [vii]. The series editor over-confidently concludes that “American literature is ineluctably political—shaped by democracy as much as it has in turn shaped democracy”. One of the collection’s most illuminating texts, in this regard, happens to be the preface written by John Seery, in which he tries to understand why Whitman’s discourse on democracy has not met with the kind of success granted to Thoreau’s or Emerson’s political pronouncements. Perhaps, he concedes, this is because Whitman’s ”overtures toward democracy” often err on the side of the “hopelessly quaint" [5]. But, most importantly, he hints, this may result from Whitman’s project, as indeed the present reviewer believes, being essentially literary: “Whitman doesn’t simply show and tell, he also attempts to do” [8].

Most of the twelve texts following Kateb’s opening article are responses to that seminal piece presenting Whitman not only as “a great philosopher of democracy”, but as perhaps “the greatest” [19]. The present reviewer’s stunned reaction to this sweeping pronouncement seems to have been shared by quite a few of the contributors, who, American academic politics oblige, rarely express reservations in a frontal way but nevertheless frequently and forcefully contradict Kateb’s stratospheric reading of Whitman. The author of these lines must confess himself to be hardly conversant with contemporary political philosophies, and to taking up this volume with a mixture of trepidation and excitement. Familiar with some literary jargon, his main fear was to fail to penetrate the basic notions of political science and ethics. It so happens that the ideas under consideration and the words used by the contributors remain easily understandable by the man in the street, or, for that matter, the literary scholar. This not only makes the volume extremely pleasant to read, but it also regrettably deprives it of the kind of angle a literary scholar such as the writer of these lines might precisely want to get from people more conversant than he is with basic political philosophy, the roots of American democracy, and so forth. In this respect, he must confess to being more than a little disappointed. Most articles, paradoxically, read like run-of-the-mill examples of literary scholarship and the most relevant and interesting, for that matter, happen to be those, unlike Kateb’s precisely, demonstrating some degree of familiarity with literary scholarship on the poet. A second remark will be that most of the essays deal with Whitman’s poetry, i.e., that part of his production in which, to use Seery’s above-quoted words, he does rather than expounds politics. Rare are the texts engaging Whitman’s more programmatic writings, such as Democratic Vistas or his prefaces. What is even stranger is how very few pages are devoted to “Calamus”, Whitman’s only overtly politically-inspired section in all of Leaves of Grass, in which the erotic features as a fundamental aspect of his camerado-bound adhesiveness.

I would suggest that this bespeaks a certain—unconscious?—unease at the true nature of Whitman’s political writings. The contributors who write the most cogently—and the least fuzzily—about Whitman seem to agree about the primordially aesthetic nature of his approach to democracy. Thus, Nancy L. Rosenblum expresses the view that “the adhesive power that Whitman sets at work in readers of his poetry and in American thought is distinctly aesthetic, and the object of attraction is a peculiarly poetic vision of America” [55]. Jason Frank asserts that “[t]he central problem, as Whitman understood it, was that democracy had not yet found its aesthetic expression, and so there was a tragic disconnection between formal democratic institutions and a culture still invested in forms of feudal hierarchy” [162]. Morton Schoolman writes a very penetrating piece on Democratic Vistas—the final one in the volume!—and quotes from the poetry after offering a coherent reading of Whitman’s pamphlet. This leads him to argue that “[i]f an aesthetic orientation to the world is to immunize it against injurious treatment, it must be based on the dual understandings that the world is both unknown and meaningful. Whitman’s worlds are fathomless though meaningful” [330].

This volume, for all the reservations that have just been expressed, will prove most valuable to any one willing to probe Whitman’s relationship to the possibilities of democracy—to use Matthiessen’s phrase. A few contributors raise serious questions as to how practical Whitman’s political theorising was. “Whitman was indifferent to political institutions because he took their existence as a given” Peter Augustine Lawler reminds us [248]. As to the actual workings of American democracy, the same notes that “[t]he sympathetic cosmopolis that America intends to be […] doesn’t seem to have room for the personal greatness and political contests that Whitman celebrates elsewhere” [264]. He insists on the vagueness of Whitman’s adhesive democracy: “Whitman […] was too critical of the democracy he could actually see, because his idea of its perfectibility was too vague and contradictory to be credible” [270].

To a non-American scholar, it remains to be seen what makes US democracy so exceptional today—as it undoubtedly was for much of the nineteenth century—and why a poet’s musings on his country’s political construct should be given so much consideration. Most contributors depart from the late Richard Rorty’s irenic view of Whitman as putting into practice “the conditions of a future democratic condition” (in Kennan Ferguson’s words). Whitman’s thought on many topics may have been progressive by nineteenth-century standards, but as some contributors note here, they may strike a twenty-first-century sensibility as being slightly fuzzy. His controversial stance on slavery, in this respect, draws contradictory comments from his readers: “Whitman was more concerned about preventing the spread of slavery than about getting rid of it”, notes Cristina Beltrán [67], while Martha C. Nussbaum is of the somewhat untenable opinion that “racial hatred is the central problem to which Whitman’s new conception of love is addressed” [97]. What A Political Companion to Walt Whitman brings out most forcefully is how viscerally Whitman cared about the possibilities that he imagined only his country offered. What may be lacking, though, is a consideration of Whitman’s preoccupation with politics as a strategy to erect Leaves of Grass as “the great psalm of the Republic” and how he tried—and failed—to invent a language that would enable American citizens to use an idiom emancipated from “feudal” British English. But this book is so rich in contrasting and thought-provoking approaches to Whitman’s concern with democracy that it should be required reading to any one interested in the topic.

© 2011 Eric Athenot & GRAAT










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