Just another Looking for Whitman weblog

Archive for November, 2009


Check out this sample PA paper ballot…particularly the first candidate for County Commissioner!!

Brian for November 17

Concerning Whitman’s “A Backward Glance O’er Travel’d Roads” and two giants of American literature: Walt Whitman [of course] and Edgar Allan Poe.

At one point in the “Backward Glance” essay, Whitman talks about Edgar Poe’s poetry and prose. Of Poe’s poetry, Whitman admits he is “not an admirer,” but appreciates the “melodious expressions…of human morbidity.” This is not the first time Whitman talks about Poe: Whitman had an entry in the Specimen Days cluster dated the first day of 1880 titled “Edgar Poe’s Significance.”

Bliss Perry, the great literary scholar and Harvard professor [and editor of The Atlantic Monthly from 1899-1909] who was only a generation younger than Whitman, had a chapter in his book, The American Spirit in Literature, called “Poe and Whitman” [Chapter VIII]. In this chapter, Perry writes about Poe’s theory of verse: “The aim of poetry…is not truth but pleasure. Poetry should be brief, indefinite, and musical. Its chief instrument is sound. A certain quaintness or grotesqueness of tone is a means for satisfying the thirst for supernal beauty. Hence the musical lyric is to Poe the only true type of poetry; a long poem does not exist.”

Whitman is talking about precisely this theory when he continues in “Backward Glance,” “But I was repaid in Poe’s prose by the idea that…there can be no such thing as a long poem. The same thought had been haunting my mind before, but Poe’s argument, though short, work’d the sum out and proved it to me.” Earlier in this entry, as well as in the Specimen Days writing on Poe, Whitman gave Poe a sort of hesitating praise for his poetry. But focusing on Poe’s [non-short story] prose writings, Whitman finds he has more in common with Poe than he previously thought. [A slight aside: I think it’s funny, considering that for Poe a poem cannot be longer than a musical lyric, that some of Whitman’s “long poems” could be justified as poems under this system because of such genre-defining names as “Song of Myself” or (individually, for example) “I Sing the Body Electric”].

Curiously, Bliss Perry does not specifically cite these telling words from Whitman while comparing and contrasting the writers and their respective styles, but this thought of Whitman’s doubtlessly belongs alongside Perry’s argument that the two share such artistic compulsions as “egotism,” “a Romantic temperament” and unconventional literary genius.

Still, even Perry is firm in asserting the striking differences between the two [if you must know what those are, feel free to check out Bliss Perry’s book – now in the public domain], differences that stand regardless of any advertising by contemporary sellers…

About at close as Poe & Whitman are going to get.

About at close as Poe & Whitman are going to get.

Brian for Nov 10

Topic: “Election Day, November, 1884” from the Sands at Seventy cluster in Appendix A of Leaves of Grass.

Summary: In this poem, Whitman considers all the most striking natural scenes and beauty in America, but determines none of these could be called the “powerfulest scene and show”; instead, he argues that he would name “America’s choosing day” as the most powerful scene, as it is the ultimate display of the hemisphere’s humanity. Whitman even references [using italics] “the still small voice” – the way the Holy Spirit is referred to in Christianity – meaning that voting on election day is the spirit of America and Americans: It represents everything America is about.

In referring to the “choosing day,” he is not talking about the yearly elections [sorry, New Jersey, your gubernatorial election would not have counted!], but about the presidential elections.

Whitman is not interested in characters or personalities, but in the actual “act itself” of voting.

Funny enough, though Whitman is enamored of the way America gets to “choose” its President, there were still many groups of people without voting rights: Women [who made up more than half the country] could not vote, and minorities [particularly African-Americans] were prevented by voting by “Jim Crow” laws as well as left unprotected when the Supreme Court declared Civil Rights Acts passed previously “unconstitutional” [and these were the most obvious groups left out. So although Whitman appreciates the idea of citizens choosing their own head of state, the state of suffrage was a far cry from what we would now deem acceptable.

Now, though Whitman was more interested in the act of voting than “in the chosen,” I’m going to take a look at who was involved…after all, Whitman dates the entry the presidential election of 1884.

The presidential election of 1884 was a showdown between Democrat Grover Cleveland – Governor of New York, and Republican James G. Blaine – Senator from Maine and former Speaker of the House. It was an event that featured excessive mudslinging [sound familiar]. Cleveland won the popular vote by only just over 25,000 votes…but the election was much closer than that: Though Cleveland won the electoral vote 219-182, this was only due to Cleveland winning New York’s 36 electoral votes. Now even though Cleveland was the governor of New York, he won the state by only 1,047 votes, but in doing so became the first Democrat elected president since James Buchanan in 1856.

Here I present the candidates:

Grover Cleveland, who fathered a child out of wedlock?!?! No?!?!

Grover Cleveland, who fathered a child out of wedlock?!?! No?!?!

James G. Blaine, who sells his votes to big businesses and is anti-Catholic?!?!

James G. Blaine, who sells his votes to big businesses and is anti-Catholic?!?!

Now [and this is the really fun part], let me state that the incumbent President was Chester A. Arthur, who was interested in reelection. He was, simply, not renominated by the Republican Party. In fact, Arthur is the last sitting President to submit his name for renomination and not receive the nomination.

Here is a picture of a young Chester A. Arthur [aged 29-30ish], who looks suspiciously like Casey Affleck [aged 29-30ish]:

A young Chester A. Arthur, 22 years from becoming President

A young Chester A. Arthur, 22 years from becoming President

Chester A. Arthur today?!?!?  No, Casey Affleck!

Chester A. Arthur today?!?!? No, Casey Affleck!

Brian for Nov 3

This post concerns Whitman’s “Passage to India” from the Songs of Parting cluster in Leaves of Grass.

Quick history lesson: During the time of Whitman’s writing, present-day India as well as many surrounding areas were ruled by British colonial rule known as “British Raj” – a period that lasted from 1858-1947. The Viceroy of India from 1864 until the beginning of 1869 was Sir John Lawrence, a baron from north Ireland. The Viceroy from mid-January 1869 until the beginning of 1872 was Lord Mayo [Richard Bourke] from Dublin.

Now, although the title of this poem is “Passage to India,” the central location of events Whitman is commemorating – the creation of the Suez Canal – took place in Egypt. The Suez Canal was created to connect the Mediterranean Sea to the Red Sea.

Suez Canal as seen from space

Suez Canal as seen from space

The completion of the Suez Canal took place in November of 1869 [and it is upon this occasion that Whitman composes], though construction began 10 years earlier. Whitman’s general enthusiasm is not a sentiment limited to himself; in fact, the opening of the canal was “the cause of international celebration and was attended by royalty from all over the world.”

Suez Canal at the beginning

Suez Canal at the beginning

This early postcard depicts a steamer at Port Said, which was the entrance of the Suez Canal along the Mediterranean. The steamer would eventually reach Suez, where it would exit into the Red Sea.

The central sentiment of Whitman in “Passage to India” is the expressed hope for a unity of people of all races and places – [editor’s note: Whitman here returns to his old “Brotherhood (and Sisterhood in this case) of Humanity” theme, one which he had briefly abandoned to focus on America and national unity].

Now, there are a couple potential ironies that I couldn’t help but consider related to Whitman’s poem:

First, Whitman’s celebration of a “passage to India” is ironic because the British Empire, in charge of India at the time, was fiercely opposed to the construction of the Suez Canal [allegedly because of the use of forced labor to build it]. So, at the time Whitman is celebrating the new passage to India, “India” was not celebrating it.

Second, again, India is under British rule at this time. So as far away as India may be from America [the other end of the world], Whitman is still essentially talking about connecting geographically to more English-speaking parts of the world. This may in Whitman’s mind help facilitate his envisioned brotherhood of humanity [if English is spoken all over the world, it’ll be easier for us all to connect, right?], but it also seems convenient for a white English-speaking┬ámale to celebrate the connecting of two empires headed up by white English-speaking males.

I won’t hold these potential hangups against Whitman: As he had previously expressed a longing and desire for a brotherhood of humanity, I’m willing to give him the benefit of a doubt here. He likely simply saw the celebration as the perfect occasion to echo his vision for the world.

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