Whitman and the American Studies Tradition



Walt Whitman's poetry has amasses a body of secondary work as large, multitudinous and self-contradictory as the poems with which it deals. Thus, we may best understand Smith's treatment of Whitman as part of a critical tradition - one which has rewritten itself with every subsequent generation of scholars.

The wide parameters within which interpretations of Whitman have taken place, each subtly attempting to undermine those it follows, is due largely to the very complexity that has made Whitman's poetry a favorite and enduring critical object. Virgin Land argues that Whitman's poetry is part of an aesthetic tradition which attached itself to American westward expiation; published years later, Miles Orvell's The Real Thing argues that the poems were part of a reconsideration of the relationship between authenticity and representation - a reconsideration which took place in the aesthetic fall-out following the invention of the photograph. Both arguments hold up in spite of their apparent incompatibility, but each embraces a different Whitman - the one a colonial pastoralist, the other a poetic voice for American technological ingenuity.

The lack of academic consensus will, I hope, become clear though a comparative examination of Smith's argument. The Whitman Smith presents is a relatively simple one, but Whitman's presence in Virgin Land is not diminished in its simplicity; indeed, it is of considerable importance to his argument as a whole. The entire first book of Virgin Land takes its name from Whitman's Passage to India. In addition, Smith is quick to point out that Whitman considered the poem a culmination of his most central theme - that which "lurks in [his] writing... everywhere." (Smith, 50)

It is tempting - along with Smith - to take Whitman at his word, and thereby understand Passage to India as a kind of emblem of his poetic concerns. Indeed we may do so, but not without a fuller understanding of the poem in question. Passage to India is far more complex in its relationship to the westward push than Smith would have us believe, and the bard's emblemisation of it indicates not an unwavering concern with expansive enterprise, but a willingness to use the imagery of expansion, of change, of embrace and connection, as a metaphors for his own great project. In the preface to the first edition of his ever-growing poetic opus, Leaves of Grass (1855), Whitman explained the dynamic as one in which "the United States themselves are essentially the greatest poem," (Whitman, 411) and Leaves of Grass bares a mimetic relation to the country. Like the United States, Whitman's poems and the concerns which he brought to them were always growing. With each edition of Leaves of Grass Whitman annexed new poetic territory, adding poem after poem like so many towns along a frontier of linguistic action. And just as the country would grow far beyond the Mississippi River, the poetic concerns of the Whitman corpus would grow far beyond those of westward expansion.

Far from being an exception to this overflow of poetic concern, Passage to India is its emblem. However taken Smith is with the poem's title, the title cannot contain the exuberant expansion of the poem's attention. Though it begins by celebrating, along with so many nineteenth century entrepreneurs, the hope for a trade rout to the East, it outgrows the vulgar economics of the passage to India, and concludes by celebrating a "Passage to more than India!" (Whitman, 294) - a passage to something unsayble, yet greater than any mere trade route.

In one sense it is exactly that more that this project hopes to articulate - and it is not the first project to entertain such hopes. Innumerable scholars working in the tradition that Smith helped to found have taken up Whitman's poetry, and Passage to India in particular, in attempts to ground their own vision of American cultural history in textual evidence. The problem, of course, is that Whitman's poetic personae were multiplicitous, and his poetry may provide irrefutable evidence for any number of mutually exclusive narrations of the American story.

Alan Trachtenberg's The Incorporation of America (1982), provides one such narration, which will here serve as a counterweight for Smith's. Trachtenberg works closely with Passage to India in what might be a self conscious revision of the chapter which Virgin Land dedicates to it (Trachtenberg, 60-62). In Trachtenberg's reading, the poem is a meditation not on the passage itself, but on the means which made the passage possible - specifically those new technologies which promised, or seemed to promise, more immediate connection between nations and between interior and exterior worlds. The poem has an undeniable fascination with technological devices, but its fascination is not with only those devices which aid in the expansive enterprise; it is with any which convey people or information - the Suez Canal, the "mighty railroads," the "eloquent gentle wires" of the transatlantic cable (Whitman, 288). Whitman, Trachtenberg points out, adores these things because they facilitate, or could facilitate, passages not just to India, but connections between self and world, between reader and text, and between people. Passage to India, if it is about any one thing, is about this: if these new technologies may connect East and West, than they may connect more than East and West. The Passage to more than India could be that most desirable and elusive thing - a Passage to you (Whitman, 294).

Most remarkable in Trachtenberg's analysis is his recognition of Whitman's almost hysterical ambivalence. Where Smith's Whitman is reduced almost to a colonial propagandist, Trachtenberg's is one who's concerns are far more complex, but in their complexity they are confusing even for the poet. In the face of dynamic change, he is unsure of his relationship both to the natural world and to the machines that promise to tame it. Indeed, the opposition of natural and mechanical is itself complicated, destabilized, and made the object of manic uncertainty.

Trachtenberg locates Whitman's ambivalence in his imaginings of the virgin land as an "unloving earth, without a throb to answer ours, / Cold earth, the place of graves." (Whitman, 290) But Trachtenberg misreads this as a total refutation of Smith's simpler reading of the poem. Passage to India is not a poem with an affirmative exterior which harbors "buried doubts and misgivings." (Trachtenberg, 61) It does not rely on such simplistic binary schemes at all. It presents a world in which nature is both living and dead - both alienating and redemptive. Likewise, technology represents the great hope for a future of unity and brotherhood whose real work is already complete when the poem begins (Trachtenberg, 61). Passage to India offers no solutions to such contradictions, but asserts instead that such instability and multiplicity of meaning are the happy results of so rapidly expanding a poetic space as that which it creates - a space which is made possible only by the American empire from which it borrows its aesthetic vocabulary.