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A Political Companion to Walt Whitman

A Political Companion to Walt Whitman

Edited by John E. Seery
Copyright Date: 2011
Pages: 368
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  • Book Info
    A Political Companion to Walt Whitman
    Book Description:

    The works of Walt Whitman have been described as masculine, feminine, postcolonial, homoerotic, urban, organic, unique, and democratic, yet arguments about the extent to which Whitman could or should be considered a political poet have yet to be fully confronted. Some scholars disregard Whitman's understanding of democracy, insisting on separating his personal works from his political works.

    A Political Companion to Walt Whitmanis the first full-length exploration of Whitman's works through the lens of political theory. Editor John E. Seery and a collection of prominent theorists and philosophers uncover the political awareness of Whitman's poetry and prose, analyzing his faith in the potential of individuals, his call for a revolution in literature and political culture, and his belief in the possibility of combining heroic individualism with democratic justice.A Political Companion to Walt Whitmanreaches beyond literature into political theory, revealing the ideology behind Whitman's call for the emergence of American poets of democracy.

    eISBN: 978-0-8131-2655-5
    Subjects: Political Science, Language & Literature

Table of Contents

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  1. Front Matter
    (pp. i-iv)
  2. Table of Contents
    (pp. v-vi)
  3. Series Foreword
    (pp. vii-viii)

    THOSE WHO UNDERTAKE A study of American political thought must attend to the great theorists, philosophers, and essayists. But such a study is incomplete, however, if it neglects American literature, one of the greatest repositories of the nation’s political thought and teachings.

    America’s literature is distinctive because it is, above all, intended for a democratic citizenry. In contrast to eras when an author would aim to inform or influence a select aristocratic audience, in democratic times, public influence and education must resonate with a more expansive, less leisured, and diverse audience to be effective. The great works of America’s literary...

  4. Acknowledgments
    (pp. ix-x)
  5. Introduction: Democratic Vistas Today
    (pp. 1-16)
    John E. Seery

    A POLITICAL COMPANION TO Walt Whitmanis the first volume to bring together political theorists to ponder Walt Whitman as a political writer. Such calculated, if rather belated attention surely behooves explanation.

    The world of secondary literature devoted to the writings of Walt Whitman is already rich, extensive, and impressive. Scholars have scrutinized, it would seem, almost every line and verse of Whitman’s poetry and prose. They have also deftly connected these gems to Whitman’s personal and historical milieu. The sheer volume of such commentary almost overwhelms. The Library of Congress lists thirty edited collections of Whitman scholarship published in...


    • CHAPTER 1 Walt Whitman and the Culture of Democracy
      (pp. 19-46)
      George Kateb

      I THINK THAT WALT WHITMAN is a great philosopher of democracy. Indeed, he may be the greatest. As Thoreau said, Whitman “is apparently the greatest democrat the world has ever seen.”¹ To put it more academically, he is perhaps the greatest philosopher of the culture of democracy. He writes the best phrases and sentences about democracy. By democratic culture, I mean these things especially. First, democratic culture is (or can be) the soil for the creation of new works of high art—great poems and moral writings, in particular. Second, democratic culture is (or is becoming) a particularist stylization of...

    • CHAPTER 2 Strange Attractors: How Individualists Connect to Form Democratic Unity
      (pp. 47-58)
      Nancy L. Rosenblum

      FOR SEVERAL YEARS, GEORGE Kateb has been spinning out a glittering line of thought: Democracy existsforindividualism—our unique and shining selves are democracy’s whole purpose and end, and individualism is the real force preserving democracy. He reiterates the theme of earlier work, that individualists offer the strongest resistance to statism in its various oppressive guises: nationalism, groupism, civic republicanism, and communitarianism. Here, Kateb adds a new, more brilliant thread: Individualists can create democratic unity; individualism itself is the answer to atomism and other, worse forms of pathological disconnection. He takes Walt Whitman as his guide.

      Kateb is not...

    • CHAPTER 3 Mestiza Poetics: Walt Whitman, Barack Obama, and the Question of Union
      (pp. 59-95)
      Cristina Beltrán

      WHEN IT CAME TO identifying with famous antebellum figures, Barack Obama chose early. Declaring his candidacy for the presidency from the steps of the Old State Capitol in Springfield, the junior U.S. senator from Illinois assumed the mantle of one of America’s greatest presidents: Abraham Lincoln. Delivered in Lincoln’s hometown on the weekend of Lincoln’s birthday, Obama’s speech was audacious in its use of analogy and allusion. The candidate described Lincoln as “a tall, gangly, self-made Springfield lawyer” who showed America that “there is power in words.” Invoking Lincoln’s famous “house divided” speech at the start of his announcement,¹ Obama...

    • CHAPTER 4 Democratic Desire: Walt Whitman
      (pp. 96-130)
      Martha C. Nussbaum

      WALT WHITMAN IS A political poet, a poet who holds that poetry has an essential role to play in the life of the American democracy.¹ This is so because the poet knows what it is to see men and women as ends, and to see the boundless and equal worth of each and every one of them:

      He sees eternity in men and women, he does not see men and women as dreams or dots.

      For the great Idea, the idea of perfect and free individuals,

      For that, the bard walks in advance, leader of leaders,

      The attitude of him...

    • CHAPTER 5 The Solar Judgment of Walt Whitman
      (pp. 131-146)
      Jane Bennett

      ACCORDING TO HENRI BERGSON, perceiving is subtractive, an act of screening off: our bodies “allow to pass through them, so to speak, those external influences which are indifferent to them; the others isolated become ‘perceptions’ by their very isolation.”¹ Perception is a “discarding of what has no interest for our needs,” where the “interest” or principle of (de)selection is a pragmatic or action-oriented one.² In short, to be conscious of a percept is to “attain” only to “certain parts and to certain aspects of those parts” of all the “influences” of matter; “consciousness—in regard to external perception—lies in...


    • CHAPTER 6 “Mass Merger”: Whitman and Baudelaire, the Modern Street, and Democratic Culture
      (pp. 149-154)
      Marshall Berman

      WALT WHITMAN AND CHARLES Baudelaire didn’t know each other’s work, and don’t much sound like one another. But they share certain deep preoccupations that were shared by very few other writers in their times. Both addressed their readers in intensely personal and sometimes confessional voices. Both saw poetry as an arena for taking existential risks. Both wrote directly about sex—and got in big trouble for it. In the late twentieth century, some of their readers noticed something else. They anointed both men as “poets of the city” who identified deeply with particular great cities—Baudelaire’s Paris, Whitman’s New York...

    • CHAPTER 7 Promiscuous Citizenship
      (pp. 155-184)
      Jason Frank

      SHORTLY AFTER PUBLISHING THE first edition ofLeaves of Grassin 1855, Whitman wrote several anonymous reviews of his own work. These self-reviews offer important insight into the expressly political motivations or “firstmost purports” animating this most innovative and formally unprecedented of nineteenth-century American literary experiments, particularly when read alongside the preface to the first edition ofLeaves—a remarkable reflection on aesthetic democracy whose core insights would later be elaborated in “Democratic Vistas” (1871). Whitman’s anonymous self-reviews positioned his poetry as a response to the looming crisis of American union. Rather than foreseeing a crisis in formal institutions or...

    • CHAPTER 8 Walt Whitman and the Ethnopoetics of New York
      (pp. 185-219)
      Michael J. Shapiro

      WALT WHITMAN’S INFLUENCE ON generations of artists, writers, and poets in America and throughout the world is undeniable.¹ The lines, imagery, sentiments, and subjects of attention in his poems continue to emerge in novels, poetry, music, and other art forms. The title and much of the imagery and focus of his poem “I Sing the Body Electric,” for example, have migrated into a wide variety of texts, among which are a science fiction story, a Manhattan novel, and an analysis of jazz.² Moreover, his song imagery (his most pervasive figuration) has motivated and energized both musical compositions and literary works....

    • CHAPTER 9 Democratic Manliness
      (pp. 220-242)
      Terrell Carver

      BASED ON AN EXTRAORDINARY poetry that celebrates the workaday world with such intensity and at such length, Walt Whitman has enjoyed a considerable reputation as the poet par excellence of democracy. Indeed, he has been celebrated as a political philosopher, and the “teachings” of his poetry analyzed in that vein.¹ Whitman himself was deeply involved in partisan politics and campaigning journalism, and used his poetry self-consciously to be political and to “do” politics. He also wrote essays and political tracts, and he commented vociferously on the issues of the day, attempting to set an agenda at times. While his views...


    • CHAPTER 10 Whitman as a Political Thinker
      (pp. 245-271)
      Peter Augustine Lawler

      MY TASK IS TO present and assess Whitman as a political thinker. To make my task simpler, I’ve pretty much limited myself to the prose he wrote after the Civil War. That may or may not be his best writing, but it is certainly his most mature thought. I’ve compared him to what Alexis de Tocqueville says in his greatDemocracy in America,but mainly in search of points of agreement and not with the intention of finding Whitman wanting. Whitman shared the concerns of the best of the political thinkers, and he even seems, in many ways, more alike...

    • CHAPTER 11 Whitman, Death, and Democracy
      (pp. 272-295)
      Jack Turner

      ONE OF THE MOST striking moments in Plato’sApologyis when Socrates declares, “To fear death, gentlemen, is no other than to think oneself wise when one is not, to think one knows what one does not know.”¹ Fear of death is intellectually presumptuous; it implies that one knows for certain that death is bad. Yet as limited mortals, we cannot know the nature of death in its entirety, or what—if anything—comes afterward.

      The corollary of Socrates’ startling suggestion is that—by embodying intellectual humility—indifference toward death is wise. But this stance seems astonishingly bloodless. One of...

    • CHAPTER 12 Morbid Democracies: The Bodies Politic of Walt Whitman and Richard Rorty
      (pp. 296-309)
      Kennan Ferguson

      ON JANUARY 30, 2007, Microsoft released its newest computer operating system, dramatically christened “Vista.” The multinational corporation thus simultaneously evoked the grandiosity of Walt Whitman’s expansive embrace of American democratic aspirations, redefined the visual-aesthetic domain where many of the world’s workers spend their greatest amounts of time and attention, and produced new destabilizations in our data, encouraging our computers to crash in new and speedier ways. Microsoft’s near-monopoly on the programs that bring computer hardware to life guaranteed the subsequent spread of Vista over (and within) the vast network of information and knowledge that makes up the machinery of the...

    • CHAPTER 13 Democratic Enlightenment: Whitman and Aesthetic Education
      (pp. 310-339)
      Morton Schoolman

      ROUGHLY TWELVE TOPICS CAN be distinguished in Whitman’sessay Democratic Vistas,all of which he brings to bear on the three questions he struggles with most.¹ What constitutes the uniqueness of democracy in America? What is required for American democracy to develop its unique potential and break with all past societies, their cultures, and the principles on which they are based? How would global history be altered if America’s unique democratic potential were to reach fruition? To appreciate how Whitman’s discussion of these twelve topics answers these questions, special attention should be paid to a structural feature belonging toDemocratic...

  9. Frontispieces from Leaves of Grass

  10. Selected Bibliography
    (pp. 343-352)
  11. List of Contributors
    (pp. 353-356)
  12. Index
    (pp. 357-374)