Tag-Archive for » democracy «

Monday, September 21st, 2009 | Author:

I came across this story and video (do NOT skip the video, which features the poem “Beat! Beat! Drums!”, t-shirts with Whitman in slouch hat, a bad rendition of “I Kissed a Girl,” people spouting such hate it will give you shivers, and the weirdest dancing religious prostester I’ve seen in a long time) about a protest at Walt Whitman School in Bethesda last April and the counter-protest staged by students and teachers.  Here’s what one protester says to sum it up:

“Walt Whitman is a f*g who died years ago and obviously has been worshiped to the degree that he has a school named after him.”

My friends, this, too, is Whitman under our bootsoles.

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Monday, September 07th, 2009 | Author:

I’ve been thinking about our discussion in class last week where some people were suspicious of Whitman on the grounds that he says everyone is equal but then clearly elevates himself as prophet or model (see self-reviews for his own discussion of this, by the way).  I have had this same reaction to Whitman many times.  But the nagging thought for me is that we might be punishing him for embracing democracy and equality— that is, we do not necessarily condemn other poets and writers, who at their essence, if they publish in any way, assert that they too have something to teach us or bear a particular and special word/insight (don’t give me that they write for themselves alone but seek readership.  BS).   We condemn Whitman because he asserts this baldly even as he says we are all the same.  So what don’t we like?

  • That he admits the poetic-prophetic role blatantly? (If so, who else will we write off as just egotistical?  It’s a long list.)
  • That he does so while preaching democracy?  (But doesn’t democracy have leaders and spokespeople that are, ideally, representative? Is that a hierarchy or a decent division of labor based on natural abilities and interests? And would it be better to embrace hierarchy, judgment, and inequality in order to establish or justify his elevation as a poet?  (See T.S. Eliot, a poet I adore, but please.)
  • Is there something about the I of Whitman, the insistence of a lyric voice in poem that, despite his repeated assertions otherwise, is obviously epic in scope and reach, that makes the poetic-prophetic seem like egotism instead of inspiration?
Tuesday, September 01st, 2009 | Author:

Those of you who have suffered through other courses and projects with me know that one of my enduring obsessions is the dialogic and poetry.  Dialogic can mean admitting or representing more than one or many voices, but a much richer definition would insist that it is more fundamentally an ethical encounter with the other (voice, being, world view, mind…), an openness to and responsibility for the other, who/which also brings the same to me.  Theorists of ethics and literature think, among other things, about ways that this ethical relation is represented in AND produced by a piece of literature, whether in the characters of a text or in the reader’s relationship to the textual other.  For years Whitman, especially in “Song of Myself,”  has been one of the most confounding figures for me to think about through this lens, and some of you in your blog posts for 9/1 are also struggling with it (e.g., Sam P, Jessica, Ben, Meghan, Erin— you guys really have me thinking).  To wit (NOT twit), how can Whitman be, in my students’ words, messianic, prophetic, Biblical, authoritative, self-inflating but also have a relationship with the reader that is intimate, empowering, like a lover, inviting journey and witness, democratic, inclusive?  The latter Whitman (note to self: decide if this is part of the womanly Whitman I am seeking and if I am coding authoritative as masculine) emerges tenderly in the prose writing from the Civil War that we will be reading in a month or so.  But “Song of Myself” captures its ambivalence and contradiction in its very title, since it proclaims itself as a monologue, but really only if we can see the speaker as collective, a nation, both transcendent and painstakingly positioned (a kosmos, for god’s sake).  When he fetches us “flush” with himself, is that making us equals, or demanding that we march lockstep? 

Whitman describes his words as “omniverous”  and says that the poet is “not one of the chorus.”  His voice is “orotund, sweeping, and final” (one of my favorite lines, but not exactly dialogic).  My students in the past have found his inclusion of the slave, the weeping widow, and others to be not inclusive but appropriative.  What do we do with one of the most splendid passages of Song, “Through me many long dumb voices” (50-51), which announces that the poet  and his text will ethically include and represent the oppressed other, but does so only by insisting on his/its own power (“Voices indecent by me clarified and transfigured”)?  (Sam P, you’re right on the money in seeing the slippage at these moments).

I don’t want to end by saying he contradicts himself.  I want better clarity on this plaguing issue this semester.  But for today I will throw in one more piece, some ethical literary theory that Erin and others are approaching already, and that is the function of the “you” address in Whitman.  A critic I really admire, William Waters, writes about the lyric “you” in his work, saying that it is a pronoun which “tends to hail; it calls everyone and everything by their inmost name. . . . One can read unidentified ‘I’ or ‘she’ with comparatively small concern, but the summons of unidentified ‘you’ restlessly tugs at us, begging identification” (1996, 130).  Waters’ choice of the term “identification” is deliberate—not only do we wish to ascertain an identity for the “you,” but we may ourselves identify with it.  The reader may feel that she, as Waters writes, “(implausible as it may be) . . . is the poem’s intended addressee.”   When Whitman repeatedly, in quiet confidences and throbbing insistences, addresses “you” (who, me? you talkin’ to me, old man?), I feel called out, or called in, or called over.  

Whitman’s poem offers a vision of democracy, of poetry, of nature, of the divine, of love, of war, and more.  And since the dialogic must be reciprocal, then, if we are actively addressed by the poem by the you address, if we ourselves want to be ethical, answerable readers,  we must consider what Waters asks: “How will we stand?” (130)


Waters, William. 1996.  “Answerable Aesthetics: Reading ‘You’ in Rilke.”  Comparative Literature 48.2 (Spring): 128-149.

Sunday, August 23rd, 2009 | Author:

When Whitman says, “I contain multitudes,” or even, “I contradict myself,” he seems happy about the multiple identities that he occupies.  I’ve been thinking about his imagined occupation of these many selves; for me and many other people I know, living in different roles (for me, primarily professor and mother) can be less harmonious and more schizophrenic.  Tonight, on the final night of summer break, though, I’m amazed at the way my personal, professional, and national contexts seem to have aligned this year– and how much Whitman has been arguably present in all three.  The professional immersion in Whitman, counting down to the grand opening of Digital Whitman on August 25 and including our visits to Brooklyn and Camden,  has been intense; Jim Groom said this weekend, “You really can’t help but fall in love with Whitman,” unwittingly echoing something that Whitman himself once said about Lincoln: “I love the man personally.”   Nationally, we are celebrating the bicentennial of Lincoln’s birth, so Ford’s Theater, where Whitman’s young lover watched Lincoln die, has reopened, and I’ve seen the American History Museum’s special exhibit on Lincoln (the hat he wore to Ford’s Theater, the cloth that draped his coffin, the masks worn by the assassination plotters when they were hanged, Mary’s purple dress…).  Obama’s inauguration in this same year, and strong attachment to Lincoln, the president who probably freed the First Lady’s ancestors, resonates deeply as well.  Personally, my son’s mania for American history has carried us to a Lincoln impersonator at the Kennedy Center, to Harper’s Ferry where John Brown attempted his raid (and close to where he was hung while John Wilkes Booth looked on), to Yorktown and to Appomattox, where we stood in the parlor where Lee surrendered to Grant and began the process of reuniting the nation Whitman loved.  I’ve been to Montpelier and thought about slavery, freedom, democracy, and the individual.   Here in Fredericksburg, I live on ground saturated by the blood of Union soldiers, walking distance from the Rappahannock River that 10,000 slaves from nearby counties crossed to reach the Union army and become not slaves but “contraband,” a river Whitman would have seen every day during his December days at the Union “hospital” at the Lacy House.  There are more examples to list, but, in summary, in a powerful alignment of my selves, I feel like I have spent 2009 thus far seriously grappling, personally, professionally, and as a citizen, with the foundational principles of the nation Whitman loved, with the evil that split it in two and the people, places, and events of 1861-1865, those terrible years of reckoning, with race and legacy and region, with rhetoric and poetry–in short, with Whitman.  “Walt Whitman!  Walt Whitman!” said my son back in June.  “Why is everything about Walt Whitman?”  Good question.

Tuesday, July 14th, 2009 | Author:

This summer has found me thinking a lot more about the basic concept of our course: Whitman and place.  “Place” to me is emerging not just as the streets of Fredericksburg and DC, though that is powerful, but also as a place in time or history–where is Whitman now, here?  My ideas about it are fluid and exist more as a series of juxtaposed experiences and images, which I will call paratactic catalogue rather than jumbled thoughts.  On the Fourth and Fifth, these elements were part of my catalogue:

a parade moves through the streets of Fredericksburg, where George Washington walked and his mother Mary lived, where George Washington Whitman would have marched uphill (determined? afraid? moving between the staggering Union survivors in retreat?) and come back down (marching? dragging? on a stretcher?–exhausted, defeated, wounded, through the blood of thousands dead in a day);

my family and others march behind an election banner for our neighbor, the Commonwealth Attorney for the city: La Bravia Jenkins, an African American woman;

the cluster of African American friends, family, and supporters for La Bravia are the only people of color I see in the parade, which is a collection of children on decorated bikes, babies in strollers and wagons, the cow from Chik-fil-a, one clown;

my son walks in the parade wearing a paper George Washington mask and a tricorn hat, above his red-and-white Obama 2008 t-shirt, calling “Happy Independence Day!” to the people on the sidewalks;

I mull over the fact that the parade is called The Heritage Parade;

at the dunking booth for the Fredericksburg street festival, my son waits nearly an hour for the editor of the local paper to get in so he can pitch the balls and dunk him in chilly water for the conservative viewpoints he spouts from the editorial page;

at Montpelier, the home of James Madison, Architect of the Constitution, which sits about 50 minutes south of Fredericksburg and was used for a winter encampment of Confederate soldiers in 1863 when Whitman was two hours north in DC, we read about Madison’s death in the words of his literate “man-servant,” who reports that just before he died, Madison told his niece it was “nothing but a change of mind”;

in the basement of the home, the cellars, storage rooms to which Dolley Madison kept the keys, and indoor kitchens, which are not on the guided tour, we see the first names of 120 slaves written in cursive letters on transparent plastic informational signs throughout the rooms, their ghostly naming floating behind facts and dates;

we read that one of Madison’s slaves accompanied him to Philadelphia, where he listened to Madison, a man always well prepared for his debates, defend freedom and basic rights for all human beings and then challenged his master about slavery; Madison admired his thinking and could not deny his point, so he wrote to his father that the slave would not be fit for plantation life again and might incite unrest among the other slaves; after the Congress he was sold in Pennsylvania, a state where he might earn his freedom after seven years of servitude;

we find that one of Madison’s oldest and longest serving slaves was named Moses; my partner says, “Ironic”;

we cross wet grass barefoot to see some headstones partially hidden by trees, and find they are for race horses because the Montpelier estate houses a stable for retired thoroughbred racers, which was established by the enormously wealthy DuPont family that purchased the house and land several years after Dolley’s death in poverty;

the slave cemetary we walk to has no headstones at all, just indentations in the earth where the soil has given way to rotting coffins– about five visible though there must be 100; the sign shows a photo of the indentations filled with snow, which increases their visibility;

we see that Dolley Madison lived long enough to be photographed, her likeness hanging next to her husband’s oil painting in a small gallery;

a fraction of a letter handwritten by Madison is also on display, having been found by historic preservationists in a mouse nest inside the walls of Montpelier in the last ten years and later authenticated by experts.

History/heritage/legacy/preservation/tradition.  Race.  Economy.  Politics.  War.  Literacy/language.  My Whitman Catalogue for Independence Day.

Thursday, June 25th, 2009 | Author:

For me, the real highlights of our Camden trip were of course the graveyard and house visits.  What I can’t shake about the house on what used to be Mickle Street is the juxtaposition of signifiers: home of Walt Whitman, inspired, experimental communicator, Civil War nurse, poet-philosopher of democracy and national optimist    +     the broadened, relatively gutted street on which his house now sits    +    the renaming of that street for Martin Luther King, Jr., probably our most effective and iconic national leader on race ever who, like Whitman, dreamed of a better future for a nation he believed in    +    the hulking county jail directly across from Whitman’s house    +     the fact we learned that women stand on the median in the middle of MLK boulevard and communicate with their loved ones inside the jail with an invented sign language    +    the Whitman House guide Dick’s comment that at first an observer might think those women “just got religion or something”    +    the national statistics about the incarceration of African American men.  We heard that the jail might be torn down and the prisoners moved elsewhere because the building is crumbling around them.  We heard that there are finally concrete plans to make a visitor center and park beside the Whitman House in what is now a vacant lot if money really comes through this time.  We heard that after 9-11, a woman in Europe sent her letter of condolence for the United States to Whitman House.  We saw a sign pinned to a tree by the Whitman House facing the jail that said, “Love you.  Miss you.”

The threads, at a minimum:  freedom and limitation/slavery/imprisonment, inspiration, poverty,  inventive language and necessary communications, race, hope and despair, the American Dream, future of the nation, the city, war/violence. . .

This will have me thinking for a long time.

Walt Whitmans House

Whitman House in center

View of the Jail from the WW House