Walt Whitman's Native Representations

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Cambridge University Press, May 28, 1997 - Literary Criticism - 194 pages
Moving through Whitman's career four times from four different perspectives, this book investigates several major American cultural developments that occurred during Whitman's lifetime - the development of American dictionaries, the growth of baseball, the evolution of American Indian policy, the development of photography and photographic portraits - and tracks the ways these cultural actions became essential components of Whitman's innovative poetics. Resisting the usual critical temptation to present a totalized, one-dimensional Whitman, this study views him instead as multiple and contradictory, a gatherer of discordant tones and clashing approaches from a variety of surprising cultural arenas. From Webster's and Worcester's continually expanding dictionaries, Whitman learned about the possibilities of an unbounded and infinitely absorptive language, out of which a new kind of expansive poetics could emerge. He saw in baseball the inception of a national sport, one that had a rhythm, movement, and ethos distinctively American, and in it he sensed the presence of the democratic crowds and camaraderie that he would celebrate in his poetry. From the time of the Great Removal when he was a boy on through to the massacre at Wounded Knee just before his death, Whitman saw in American Indians an autochthonous otherness that he tried to absorb even as it vanished under the imperialistic hand of his expanding nation. And in photography, he found the technological counterpart of his poetics of wholeness and inclusiveness, offering the possibility of turning the world and his life into an endless series of cluttered representations. In such cultural activities, Whitman found not his poeticsubjects so much as his poetic tools and techniques. These cultural actions taught him how to make native representations.

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