whitman and imperialism

— it’s such a difficult negotiation between content/form, praise/critique, present/past, inclusion/exclusion —

coming from a country that is still a u.s. colonial possession, i have difficulty reading whitman — im trying to express this difficulty in an essay im writing examining 2 of whitmans poems: “Passage to India” and “Salut au Monde.” Passage to India is a sickening glorification of US imperialism (he even compares the building of the transcontinental railroad to the building of the Suez canal — so even though ive argued in class that whitman engages in a decolonial project, he still glorifies the imperialism of the british empire). On the other hand, “salut au monde” is a strangely beautiful poem of his deep, global humanism (which i will argue is different than his transcendental idealism). I read “salut” and consider it an integral part of whitman’s anti-imperial project. he contains multitudes (and i think Song of Myself enact both strands of Pride (U.S. exceptionalism and imperialism) and Sympathy (global humanism and anti-imperialism), the “soul twain” i referenced in class. as rebecca suggested, it seems important to hold these differing positions in regard.

Also, I was struck by Karen’s phrase “atmosphere of a work or author” — it brought me back to whitman and the now oft-quoted essay of his:

“The word i myself put primarily for the description of [Leaves of Grass] as they stand at last, is the word Suggestiveness. I round and finish little, if anything; and could not, consistently with my scheme. The reader will always have his or her part to do, just as much as i have had mine. I see less to state or display any theme or thought, and more to bring you, reader, into the atmosphere of the theme or thought — there to pursue your own flight.”

clearly that is what he has done to us. seems to inform his idea of indirection as well… it reminds me of Mallarme and Dickinson(Suggestiveness), O’hara (“I round and finish little”) — and, strangely, Hejinian. Here is a quote from her essay “The Rejection of Closure”:

“The ‘open text’ by definition, is open to the world and particularly to the reader. It invites participation, rejects the authority of the writer over the reader and thus, by analogy, the authority implicit in other (social, economic, cultural) heirarchies. It speaks for writing that is generative rather than directive. The writer relinquishes total control and challenges authority as a principle adn control as a motive. The ‘open text’ often emphasizes or foregrounds process, either the process of the original composition or of subsequent compositions by readers, and thus resists the cultural tendencies that seek to identify and fix material, turn it into a product; that is, it resists reduction.”

doesn’t it sound like she is describing Leaves of Grass? perhaps we can read whitman as foregrounding language poetry? that seems provocative….hmmm….can we say whitman wrote long lines not to materialize u.s. imperialism (as Yepez suggests) but to create an “open text” in order to reject “the authority implicit” in imperialism?


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