GREAT GRAY POET OR GREAT GRAY FOOL? QUERIES OF WHITMAN'S LEGACY BY CHRIS ADRIAN, SHERMAN ALEXIE, ANDREA DWORKIN, AND MICHAEL CUNNINGHAM.
Oh, Mr. Whitman... you are everybody's friend [Victoria Woodhullto Walt Whitman in Chris Adrian's Gob's Grief) --Chris Adrian (2001)
In this article, I examine four post-1990 uses of Walt Whitman by US writers that depart from the predominantly appreciative depictions of the poet that are common in American literature. In more conventional treatments, writers call upon Whitman to link their texts with Whitman and his positive associations: his fervent individualism, his democratic inclusiveness, and his faith in the United States' political system and the democratic culture he saw emerging from it. These broadly acceptable characteristics, together with Whitman's wide recognition as an important US figure, combine to make him an appealing element of "the usable past," to borrow Van Wyck Brooks's memorable phrase (1918). Kenneth M. Price's To Walt Whitman, America (2004) discusses how June Jordan, William Heat-Moon, Gloria Naylor, and Langston Hughes utilize Whitman along these lines. Other notable American fiction writers and poets who address or embed Whitman in their work include Ezra Pound, Hart Crane, Maxine Hong Kingston, Julia Alvarez, Jake Adam York, and Natalie Rodriguez, to name just a few. His popularity is also reflected in the list of Whitman references gathered by Ed Folsom and Kenneth Price, who have charted Whitman's "cultural afterlife" by listing his appearances in television, popular music and film, as well as the "schools and bridges... truck stops, apartment complexes, parks" and other locations that "all bear his name" (Folsom and Price 2017). (1) By invoking "everybody" as Whitman's "friend" in the quote I have used as an epigraph, Chris Adrian's fictionalized Victoria Woodhull alludes to Whitman's amenability to this sort of appropriation.
A suspicion of this easy applicability unifies the four Whitman-using texts I will analyze in this article: Adrian's Gob's Grief, Sherman Alexie's "Defending Walt Whitman" (1996), Andrea Dworkin's Mercy (1990), and Michael Cunningham's Specimen Days (2005). Adrian worries about those who claim Whitman as a friend and what they intend for him, stressing Whitman's human frailty rather than assuming or relying on his enduring value. Alexie links Whitman's inclusive sensuality to a negative reading of multiculturalism. In a similar gesture, Dworkin makes Whitman alternately an apologist for and a tool of a misogynist patriarchy. Cunningham poses Whitman as a consistent component of a malignant US culture, not an antidote to it.
In these portrayals, the authors intensify earlier derisive treatments of Whitman, ably traced by Price, Jeffrey Severs, and Elaine Safer. (2) These critics have shown how a number of important mid-century and postmodernist US writers display resentment of Whitman's canonization (if not Whitman himself) often in implicit or allegorical ways. (3) The four works I will focus on operate within and intensify this counter-tradition, though they have been little discussed by Whitman historians and never before grouped together. Adrian, Alexie, Dworkin, and Cunningham make their questions about Whitman's afterlife central to their works. They posit an ultimately cooperative relationship between Whitman and US mainstream culture and the hegemony it reflects or, in Adrian's case, to parody the ongoing belief in Whitman's endless versatility. Equally significant, Alexie, Dworkin, and Cunningham skewer liberal shibboleths often associated with Whitman--his individualism, inclusiveness, and progressive optimism--through their presentation of him. The continuing presence of Whitman in new US contexts troubles these authors, especially when Whitman's ideals seem uncomfortably compatible with a Reaganesque optimism or American exceptionalism. For readers and writers who are largely on a liberal-left spectrum, this dalliance with Whitman reflects a complicated review of priorities and beliefs.
Before turning to these works, however, I would like to highlight examples of what might be called mainstream liberal incorporations of Whitman--ones that call upon the progressive beliefs I've listed above more or less straightforwardly. These appropriations and the political assumptions they depend upon will establish the associations Adrian, Alexie, Dworkin, and Cunningham query.
Works that call upon Whitman often use him to legitimize a character's self-discovery, relying on links with Whitman to align these individualist narratives with recognizable American values. In Gayle Brandeis's Soft Storage (2008), Flan Parker, the novel's protagonist and narrator, turns to Whitman in moments of personal crisis. In the midst of economic and marital struggles, Flan regularly reads Whitman, who stirs strong feelings of erotic desire, empathy, and cross-cultural curiosity in Flan. One such surge leads her to help Sodaba Suleiman, an Afghani neighbor who wears a full-body burka, in spite of Sodaba's inability to speak English, neighborhood-wide suspicion of Muslim immigrants after 9/11 (the book takes place in 2002), and Sodaba's having mistakenly struck Flan's infant daughter with a car. When Flan is unsure of whether she should help Sodaba, who appears in danger of deportation, she turns to Whitman, and "the book opened to the section about the runaway slave," one of the best-known passages in Leaves of Grass. Reading it causes Flan to ask, "How could I read this and not help Sodaba afterward?" (Brandeis 2008, 174). After leaving Sodaba securely hidden with a family friend, the story turns to Flan's pursuit of a new life with her family, propelled by Flan's resurgent confidence.
As Georgiana Banita has suggested, Brandeis uses Whitman to provide a legitimizing framework for Flan's form of individualism. (4 ) Reading Whitman induces Flan to feel intense, norm-breaking desire and empathy that leads her to question her neighborhood's casual racism and behave courageously in helping Sodaba. Ultimately, however--and this is Banita's justified complaint--these behaviors tell us more about the admirable type of liberal American character Flan becomes with Whitman's help, rather than exploring US individualism's relationship to the xenophobia the novel superficially criticizes. Brandeis's Whitman is simply good for Flan, a gift that keeps on giving: her copy of Leaves of Grass turns out to be a second edition, worth ten thousand dollars her family needs. Lest we think Brandeis is undermining Whitman's importance in this last exchange, she includes fourteen pages of Flan's favorite Whitman poems in an appendix.
Brandeis's Whitman is the "courage-teacher" that Allen Ginsberg calls upon in "A Supermarket in California," one who would be dismayed by the suburban conformity that Ginsberg shows Whitman in the 1950s (1996, 59). Her Whitman aligns with the gestures to Whitman in Peter Weir's Dead Poets Society and Maxine Hong Kingston's Tripmaster Monkey: His Fake Book, each of which stress that Whitman is a healthy antidote to conservative American culture. These beliefs are echoed in John Marsh's 2015 book, In Walt We Trust: How a Queer Socialist Poet Can Save America From Itself, which argues that Whitman can help Americans handle the personal and political malaise foisted on them in an atomizing consumer society. Like Soft Storage, these texts see Whitman as a valuable counterpoint to problematic elements of US life.
To cite just one more literary example, consider "Daughters of Invention," a chapter from Julia Alvarez's When the Garcia Girls Lost Their Accents. Protagonist Dominican-American Yolanda chooses irreverent passages from Whitman to quote in a ninth-grade Teacher's Day speech, specifically drawn to the lines "I celebrate myself and sing myself" and "He who most honors my style who learns under it to destroy the teacher" (Alvarez 1992, 139). Her father Carlos worries that the nuns at his daughter's Catholic school will not accept these challenges to authority and rips up the speech. As Kathryn Hume has pointed out, Alvarez also poses Carlos's rage as at least partly generated by his daughter's assimilation into American culture, one where Whitman's irreverence is acceptable (2002, 18). His daughter's speech and her mother's appreciation of it meant that "soon he would be surrounded by a houseful of independent American women" (Alvarez 142). In some ways, he is right: Yolanda's encounter with Whitman allows her to feel that she "finally sounded like [herself] in English" (140), explicitly tying Whitman to a style of self-expression legible in the United States and offering Yolanda entry into American subjectivity Alvarez links Yolanda to the romantically rebellious individualism that defines her as a sympathetic character throughout Garcia Girls--an American identity that does not erase her Dominican roots. The isolation Yolanda feels after her father's actions mark the difficulty of pursuing the selfhood Yolanda locates with Whitman's help, but the obstacles to reaching that identity, rather than that goal itself, seem to be the problem. (5)
We see Yolanda read Whitman for the first time, and he never returns in the book, while Flan reads him constantly and hopes to write about Whitman in graduate school. Their uses, like all uses of Whitman, are different, yet these two texts share the common desire to use Whitman to affirm or represent more seemingly authentic American ways of being than would be available without his example. Deployments of Whitman like those we see in these two texts aim to satisfy the two opposing forces in Christopher Douglass's useful definition of American ideology For Douglass, American ideology is defined by a tension between the nation's ever-changing composition and old themes intended to unify it "such as the American dream, liberty, or self-reliant individualism" (2001, 12). Whitman's unrepentant nonconformity stands for the forces of emergent change, while his status as a literary icon marks his association with consistent US mores. As we have seen, Yolanda finds a way to feel like herself in the United States by linking to Whitman's nonconformity; Flan becomes a better American by relying on her Whitman-licensed morality; both characters somehow also become more authentic selves through their engagement with Whitman. Betty Erkkila has argued that Whitman's poetic persona addresses these productive tensions, positing that a particularly American individualism would lead to a unified nation (1989, 68-92). Whitman's archetypal speaker, the unique "I" who honors and contains multitudes, embodies the sort of individualism that also forms the basis for a community.
Critics of different stripes across the last few decades have taken issue within this Whitmanian gesture. For Peter Erickson, Whitman's inclusiveness can quite easily be seen as appropriating, rather than affirming, other identities (1995, 103-19). Bruce Robbins also makes this criticism, asserting that the Whitman of "Salut A Monde" sounds "just a little like George W. Bush" (2003, 84). (6) For Robbins, the assumption of Whitman's "Salut" speaker that he can unify the world resembles Bush's argument that only American democracy could lead to a better global community. Whitman's unifying gesture--Robbins calls Whitman's speaker "The Includer"--pursues the laudable purpose of breaking down distinctions and hierarchies, but in so doing, he arrogates the power to connect a social body only-through himself (87, 85).
In Thomas Haddox's reading, Whitman's speakers assume a greatness in the nation that is always present in the land itself or in the organization of US politics, beliefs that Haddox equates with American exceptionalism. Haddox finds Whitman comparable to Francis Fukuyama, insofar as Whitman saw the birth of American democracy as "the end of historical teleology" (2004, 16). Haddox and Christina Beltran both find fault with Whitman's emphasis on a unified sense of the United States (or a nation unified by the speaker's recognition), which they argue elides important conflicts and hierarchies which a progressive political program must address (Beltran 2011, 59-95).
In perhaps the most well-known recent political reading of Whitman, Richard Rorty's Achieving Our Country defends Whitman's optimism that American democracy can produce brighter futures. He opposes this patriotic optimism to what he calls the "cultural left" composed of academics and radicals, which considers the US republic as inherently flawed, incapable of overcoming the contradictions and inequalities that structured it. Thinking like Whitman galvanizes the energy necessary for patriotic reform and political progress (Rorty 1998). While sympathizing with the pragmatism in Rorty's position, Kennan Ferguson offers a pointed response to his argument that resonates with the points made by Robbins, Haddox, and Beltran. Rorty's Whitman might be capable of motivating the "dream of a new old Left," but that nostalgic vision is no match for "the continued political and economic dominance of corporations in the United States" or "the other forms of powerful capitalistic mechanisms" that have taken hold in recent decades (Ferguson 2011, 307; emphasis added).
Ferguson's complaint with Rorty's Whitman and the unflattering comparisons made by Robbins and Haddox all rely on a sense that political rhetoric and tactics associated with Whitman look much different in a contemporary context. To give just one reason why, much of the rhetoric of Whitman's individualism is difficult to distinguish from more recent, conservative evocations of that concept. After having studied all of Ronald Reagan's presidential speeches, Daniel Rodgers determined that Reagan relied upon terms like "alive, big-hearted, courageous, daring, dynamic, forward, liberate, progress, robust, reborn, vibrant" (2011, 29) to describe his vision of the United States. These terms could be drawn from a description of Whitman's own sense of American identity, but they emerge in the era Phillip Mirowski calls "everyday neoliberalism": in this new context, the big-hearted and vibrant neoliberal self consistently increases her capacity as a worker or consumer while imagining that she is working toward a more perfect self, one at "natural harmony with the totality of the kosmos," as Mirowski writes, echoing Whitman (2013, 105). (7) Encouraged to understand their productive capacities as equivalent to their worth, neoliberal subjects self-fashion as individuals but with the market's values in mind. The state follows by promising to liberate citizens rather than protect them, so we see the welfare state become the austere one: neoliberal governance focuses less on the state's legal responsibilities to its citizens than on an affective connection between a body of individuals (Chaput 2010, 6). It is at least in part because of these social changes that Michael Warner needs to make this note in an introduction to Whitman's collected poems: "Whitman's individualism [is] unlike the banal consumer individualism of the twentieth century, which he seems not to have anticipated in any way" (2004, xxiv). Warner's caveat implies that Whitman's individualism requires differentiation from its less appealing descendant, as if their rhetorical similarity might prevent an observer from being able to differentiate them.
This context is vital for recognizing the political implications of Whitman's appearance in Adrian's Gob's Grief. Adrian's novel, highly praised but not yet discussed by literary critics, poses Whitman as a victim, misused by a friend with Utopian desires. In this approach, Adrian's treatment of Whitman contrasts with the brief summaries of Whitman uses I have described as conventional--in each of these texts, Whitman is up to the task that is presented to him. Gob's Grief shares with these more conventional liberal treatments a clear affection for Whitman's empathy and commitment to friendship. In context, Woodhull's comment about Whitman's wide circle of friends references Whitman's fondness for Woodhull's ne'er-do-well first husband, with whom Whitman became friends in a Civil War hospital (and whom everyone else dismisses). Two other friendships, however, are closest to the heart of the novel: Whitman befriends a dying soldier named Hank whom he meets in that same Civil War hospital, and after the war, he develops a deep devotion with Gob, Woodhull's mad-scientist son.
The intertwining stories that Adrian includes all revolve around Gob and his overzealous desires. As a boy, Gob failed to join the Civil War with his older brother Tomo after they ran away from their home to enlist. Tomo's quick death fighting for the Union fills Gob with guilt for backing out of his commitment, and his grief drives him to invent a machine to bring the dead back to life. Just as the memory of Tomo haunts Gob, Hank's disembodied voice regularly revisits Whitman after Hank's death. These are just two of several dead characters who speak to their surviving loved ones in the text, all of them invested in the success of Gob's death-destroying machine. Hank's posthumous voice, for instance, guides Whitman to Gob and insists upon the importance of their relationship.
Whitman's experience in the Civil War hospital is the focus of the text's first section, but afterward his function changes: Gob needs Whitman, according to Gob's friend Will Fie, because he hopes that Whitman will "hold a cable in his hand and pass his vital energy along to waken" the machine that will defeat death (Adrian 2000, 187). Whitman is central in Gob's scheme because, as Hank explains, "Nobody loves us [the dead] like you" (100; emphasis original). Three times, Whitman is told by dead or reanimated figures that he is a "kosmos" (89, 94, 98), using Whitman's own term to honor him. Gob tells his anxious wife Macy that Whitman "would articulate the formless grief that saturated the world of the living.... He was a kosmos, Gob said, who had the qualities of every one and every thing. The grief would pass through him but not hurt him" (340-41). Whitman's epithet "kosmos" becomes a common element of the characters' vocabulary, and Gob imagines it to be a literal description of Whitman's ontological state.
Yet Adrian's Whitman needs to be rescued from the burden that comes with these superlatives: Whitman nearly dies after he reluctantly agrees to serve as the machine's engine, proving Gob's estimation incorrect. This overestimation validates Will Fie, one of the novel's moral voices and the figure who saves Whitman from the agony of the machine; throughout the book, he is skeptical of Whitman's significance. Will, generally unpleasant and jealous over Whitman's relation to the Woodhulls, mocks Whitman's claims about himself: "Will had said this whole kosmos business seemed to him a senseless honor and an unearned distinction" and telling the latter than he was "nobody at all... the least important person in all the world" (Adrian 2000, 191, 91). His very disbelief in Whitman's exceptionality is that which allows him to intervene, because he can imagine Whitman's pain.
In Gob's Grief, Whitman is a human called upon to power a machine, one aimed at questionable ends. In doing so, Adrian makes a metaphorical parallel to US culture's continued turning to Whitman, to the idea of his kosmic empathy as a solution to pain and suffering. Adrian's work seems aware of the conventional incorporations of Whitman--that "everybody's friend" line certainly speaks to it--but the trouble seems to be that Whitman ought not or cannot respond to all the claims upon him.
Whitman's misuse in Gob's Grief is paralleled, in some ways, by the Whitman who fits awkwardly on a Native American reservation's basketball court in Sherman Alexie's poem "Defending Walt Whitman." The poem presents Whitman's ecstatic and erotic appreciation of the Indian bodies around him as farcical. For Alexie, the Whitmanian appreciation for marginalized individuals can also fetishize their identities and identity markers. In this characterization we see a critique of Whitman as the "Includer." Like Adrian, Alexie offers a Whitman in the wrong context, but in Alexie's depiction, it's not Whitman who is misused--it is Whitman whose view of others is satirized.
Alexie's Whitman revels in playing basketball and the beautiful bodies of the boys he watches and plays among. Alexie tells us that the sound the ball makes when it "swishes through the net /... causes Whitman to weep because it is so perfect" (1996). Whitman "dreams / of the first jumpshot he will take, the ball arcing clumsily / from his fingers, striking the rim so hard that it sparks." Because Whitman is excited by simply playing, the normal goals of the game don't matter to him. Even in his dreams of playing, he misses the jumpshot he takes. Twice, he has to ask, "What's the score?"
In the first and third stanzas of the poem, the speaker tells us that several of the other players (whom the speaker calls "boys") have been in "the deserts of Kuwait" and "are veterans of foreign wars" (Alexie 1996). In the fifth stanza, we are told that "the Indian boys still wear their military hair cuts," yet "a few have let their hair grow back. It will never be the same as it was before!" The speaker's enthusiasm feels naively celebratory, as it punctuates his observation of the loss of an important cultural marker of the boys' identities. Alexie's speaker also uses exclamation points after two identical statements about the players' skin color--"Everybody is brown!"--which signals that the enthusiasm is jejune.
We can observe the irony at work in these statements and the perspective they represent because the speaker balances them with continuous reminders that the Native American players are marked by a proximity to violence. He calls them "warriors who will never kill" and who waited in Kuwait "for orders to do something." This relation to violence also emerges in the list of associations that occur to Whitman when he smells the basketball: in addition to "leather," "sweat," and "pine tree," Whitman also senses "gunpowder." The addition of this term obviously links back to the other players' experience in Kuwait as well as remaining traces of the historical wars fought on the land and by the tribe that surrounds him.
Nothing in these lines indicates that Whitman notices this history of violence; the exclamation-point punctuated sentences discussed above seem designed to mime Whitman's observations instead. Alexie's list of what Whitman "breathes in" when "holding the ball close to his nose" includes not only the scents mentioned in the last paragraph but more sensual images: "brown skin... / black hair... long drink of warm water" (1996). Whitman luxuriates in these visions and smells, all of them mildly eroticized in this list and throughout the poem. Whitman "dreams of the Indian boy who will defend him / trapping him in the corner, all flailing arms and legs / and legendary stomach muscles." Here, Alexie plays upon Whitman's love for bodies, but this affection is not suited for the game he is playing. Players do not typically dream of being trapped in the corner: they dream of getting around the defense and putting the ball in the basket.
That our speaker registers the violence that marks these boys and that Whitman does not--or does, and fails to note it in a more serious way--points to a blind spot in Whitman's delirious sensuality. In addition, the other players understand the game substantially differently than Whitman does, presumably making the attraction one-way, and his appreciation for their bodies seems problematically skin-deep.
The speaker also derides Whitman's beard, saying it is "ridiculous on the reservation," then later makes the same point: "[Whitman] is a small man, and his beard / is ludicrous on the reservation, absolutely insane" (Alexie 1996). In these lines, Alexie mocks Whitman's most characteristic physical feature, in addition to calling him "small" when Whitman regularly calls himself "large." The combination of these elements--Whitman playing basketball without regard to its usual objectives; Whitman's beard being silly; Whitman being small--and the history of war and violence that the speaker provides convey the poem's discomfort with the sensibility Whitman carries on the court.
Whitman gets to behave and observe the way he does because Alexie imports a Whitman who is able-bodied and whose canonicity seems to give him privileges. Halfway through the poem, Alexie writes that Whitman waits "on the sidelines. He has the next game" (1996). Later, Alexie indicates that "this game belongs to him." The shift in syntax--from having the next game (taking one's place in the queue) to the game belonging to him--we see Alexie emphasize the possessiveness inherent in the inclusive Whitmanian gesture. Whitman owns the game, even though he "cannot tell the difference between / offense and defense" and "does not care if he touches the ball." In this reading, the title should also be read ironically. Whitman is not trying to score, which would require the other team to defend against him carefully. While in the game, he is standing "at center court while the Indian boys run from basket to basket." We are compelled to ask from whom Whitman needs defending, for it seems he feels welcome to do whatever he likes.
Alexie's Whitman does not recognize the gap between his sensual appreciation for these bodies and the material and historical realities that our physical senses alone cannot apprehend. In this critique, Alexie may be calling on Whitman's association with Manifest Destiny, ably traced by Henry Nash Smith in 1947--a criticism that emerges despite the many moments in his poems that speak kindly about Native Americans. This link points to other problematic inclusionary moves, such as the fetishizing, marketing, and defining of otherness as a source of pleasure and appropriation grouped under the mainstream label multiculturalism; we can think of this Including as akin to the smoothing over of important cultural conflicts that frustrates Haddox and Beltran. Rather than using Whitman to romanticize the myth of the American melting pot, Alexie's Whitman is part of its ugly ahistoricism.
As Price (2004) and Cyrus Patell (2003) have argued, writers with marginalized identities often link themselves to Whitman, suggesting a camaraderie--think of Langston Hughes's "I, Too," for instance. Patell argues that Whitman seems a natural fit for writers reaching from the margins to the center because of Whitman's own marginalized position as a gay man in a heteronormative society. Patell sees "Defending Walt Whitman" making this connection, trying to claim affinity with Whitman (2003). This reading overlooks how much the poem struggles with Whitman's presence. The dynamic Patell discusses--the periphery identifying with the center to achieve legitimacy--of course affirms the center's supremacy, rather than interrogating it. (8) If the poem does contain a camaraderie with Whitman, it is one wherein Alexie claims the ability to critique the blind spots of this visionary poet's inclusiveness and poke fun at his other characteristics.
Andrea Dworkin's Mercy pushes even harder against many of Whitman's most beloved traits and legacies. Like Alexie, Dworkin inveighs against the liberal belief in a flexible social structure and the viability of appealing to the center's benevolence for recognition. If for Alexie, the problem is that Whitman's attitude toward Otherness looks too much like mainstream multiculturalism, the problem for Dworkin is that Whitman's celebration of individualism ignores the structural biases of patriarchal US culture. In this way, Alexie's more playful poem and Dworkin's ferocious novel overlap--they don't posit an ameliorative role for Whitman in a United States that assigns people to lives filled with pain.
Andrea, the protagonist and narrator of Mercy, is wooed by the nonconformity that Whitman's poetry represents for her: but her adaptation of Whitmanian ways (as she understands them) does not lead her out of her unhappiness. Her rejection of social norms fails to liberate her. Instead, the individualism she believes in turns out to be a beautiful rhetorical facade.
Mercy takes us through a brutal series of sexual assaults that Andrea endures, averaging more than one in each of the novel's thirteen chapters. These horrific attacks keep getting repeated, nearly as often as Andrea announces her relation to Whitman. Andrea tells us in every chapter (again, sometimes multiple times) that she grew up down the street from Whitman's historical home in Camden, New Jersey. At first, she gets a sense of vigorous courage from Whitman, recalling Brandeis's use of him. Whitman was "this great gray man who wasn't afraid of America" whose guidance fortified Andrea; because of him, she "wasn't afraid to go anywhere and [she] could love anyone, like he said" (Dworkin 1990, 58). Whitman's greatness made Camden's blight less embarrassing for her: "I liked having [Whitman's home] there because it meant that once [Camden] was somewhere; it meant you could be great; it meant Camden was something" (58). Whitman appeals to the young Andrea because of his ability to reframe her affective relation to her life, but as the narrative reveals, her unpleasant reality does not become more bearable as a result.
The book relentlessly charts Andrea's pain. In the first chapter, nine-year-old Andrea is traumatized by a man's advances on her in a movie theater. Later, a boyfriend's roommate rapes her. Another lover, a Greek revolutionary, brutally rapes Andrea after finding out she is taking birth control pills. Throughout the book, this is the cycle: Andrea cannot relax or trust the people around her--even, if not especially, those in the leftist counterculture. As Rachel Fernflores observes, Andrea's "Whitman-like hope in the future" is what draws her to "revolutionaries with idealist goals to change the world... only to be beaten or raped or both by them" (2009, 260). (9)
At times, Andrea turns to Whitman to provide her with philosophical solace and an acceptable spiritual forefather. At age nineteen, living in Crete, she says of Whitman: "I'm from his street. I'm from his country, the country he wrote about in his poems, the country of freedom, the country of ecstasy, the country of joy of the body, the country of universal love of every kind of folk... I'm from his country, not the Amerika run by war criminals, not the country that hates and kills anyone not white" (Dworkin 1990, 86). Andrea is able to bracket the historical atrocities that occurred in Whitman's America because of the force of his vision: "Amerika was the country of the multitudes before it became a killing machine. In my mind I know I am leaving out the Indians; Amerika was always a killing machine; but... I like having a Golden Age rooted in Whitman" (87). Her youthful desire to have some version of the United States to identify with allows her to elide the Native American genocide, which presages the other erasures Andrea later identifies (and reminds us of Alexie's complaint).
Beyond this romanticized America, Whitman teaches Andrea an openness to bodily pleasure from him that is essentially democratic and egalitarian: "men and women, he said they were all worthy, without exception... he wanted to be on them and in them and he wanted them in him" (Dworkin 1990, 172). She admires and adopts this inclusiveness: "once you start loving humanity there is no reason to make distinctions of beauty and kind, there's something basic in everyone that asks love, forgiveness" (173). These points connect for Andrea, the wanting to be "on" and "in" and the love of all humanity. This message resurrects the possibility of satisfying, supportive relationships, a prospect that appeals to the isolated and traumatized Andrea, while also seeming countercultural enough to fit into her distaste for conventionality (Andrea runs away from home at sixteen, disliking her parents' conformity and the sexist expectations of her teachers). Though she had parents, her alienation was so intense that she claims she "grew up an orphan sheltered by the passion of his great heart" (172). Andrea's appreciation for Whitman's democratic take on desire recalls Martha Nussbaum's argument that this affirmation is one of Whitman's most important political gestures (2011, 96-110). In other words, Dworkin gives readers the Whitman that conventional liberal treatments do, one whose political affiliations and affective charms seem present to help a young person find herself.
Yet Andrea turns on Whitman. Describing her life in New York City at age twenty, when she has become understandably embittered by her experiences, she writes of him,
The great gray poet talked it but he didn't have to do it. He was a shithead.... it's semen, you great gray clod, not some fraternal wave of democratic joy. I was born down in 1946 down the street from where Walt Whitman lived; the girl he never wanted... blood staining the gravel, mine not his; bullshitter poet, great gray bullshitter; having all the men in the world, all the women, hard, real, true, it wears you down, great gray virgin with fantastic dreams, you great gray fool. I was born in 1946 down the street from where Walt Whitman lived, in Camden. (Dworkin 1990, 101-102)
In these comments, Andrea criticizes many of the qualities she praises at other points. She mocks Whitman's interpretation of sex as mystical connection ("fraternal wave of democratic joy") because it doesn't recognize the persistence of systemic sexual violence. Andrea's "hard, real, true" sex has not empowered her or connected her to others. The replacement of Whitman's grass with Andrea's cement indicates Whitman's failure to imagine what American life would be for vulnerable people who live in inhospitable places--the blood on the gravel, rather than the body on the grass. The lonely claim that Andrea is "the girl he never wanted" proposes Whitman's vision of a future America does not have a place for her, even though the refrain restated at the end of the paragraph reminds us of the proximity of their homes. This proximity seems to haunt her, as she cannot square the closeness of their homes with the distance between their experiences.
Mercy has Whitman move in and out of the narrative, not always in a coherent pattern (as we have seen, Andrea denounces him on page 100 but reveres him on 172). After the midpoint of the book, she grows more consistent in associating Whitman with patriarchal domination. At times, Andrea makes him a patsy--Whitman is "an innocent boy, a dreamer, one of God's sillier creatures, put on earth as a diversion, a kind of decoy, kind of lyrical phony front in a covert war" (Dworkin 1990, 287). At other times, he is engaged directly in the patriarchy's "covert war": "Walt sings; to cover up the crimes; say it's love enough... Walt could sing, all right, obscuring a formal truth" (289). Though Andrea does not make clear whether Whitman is consciously singing "to cover up the crimes" or is "an innocent boy" used by the system, she no longer separates Whitman's America from Amerika. Her argument shifts, stating that Whitman's America is a tool for Amerika and part of its strategy.
In the book's tenth chapter, Dworkin has Andrea write a first-person and sometimes first-person plural narration of the Masada suicides of 73 C.E., exploring the level of agency of women participating in the event. Whitman anachronistically appears in this section, working as a spokesperson for Roman power. At the chapter's midpoint, Andrea demands that "uncle" (10) Whitman "get down on [his] big knees and... bare [his] throat" so she can behead him (Dworkin 1990, 286-87). To justify this action, Andrea states, "The poet says love; as command; the way others say sit to a dog; love, children, love; or love children; the poet advocates universal passion; as command; no limits; no rightful disdain... his thighs embrace us; he births us and fucks us; a patriarch's vision, we take him in our mouths grateful" (287-88). Here Andrea conveys Whitman's rhetoric as aggressive and hierarchical, his "command(s)" expecting obedient subjects. Andrea poses acceptance of these commands via the metaphor of fellatio, taking Whitman "in our mouths gratefully" while "thighs embrace," and having Whitman "in [her] mouth" also explains the presence of Whitman's language and style in Andrea's narration, which Fernflores calls "a kind of song of herself" (2016, 260). Whitman seduces the "we" that Andrea makes herself a part of and that has an incestuous relationship to the seducer. The "universal passion" he "advocates" and the "rightful disdain" he outlaws are both part of the vision of a romantic, metaphysical citizenship that Whitman presented to her earlier, and here, that vision is intimate, seductive, mandatory, and unacceptable. She murders Whitman because of the crime he has committed by disingenuously romanticizing their lives in a patriarchy, a social form Dworkin suggests the Masadan Jewish women mistakenly understood as offering them freedom. (11)
This scene initiates a campaign of revenge that moves from historical imagination to Andrea's actual environment at the novel's end. In the last section, Andrea begins a violent campaign of killing "men on the Bowery [who] resemble Walt; huge, hairy types"; she declares, "I visit him often... I went out; at night, to smash a man's face in; I declared war" (Dworkin 1990, 333). In this complicated and violent conclusion, Andrea ceases to discriminate between men who look like Whitman and Whitman the symbolic, textual, and historical figure. (12) To make sense of this refusal to discriminate, we need to remember that Andrea never feels that far from Whitman. He seems to be everywhere for her, from her home's proximity to his to the elements in the world that make her think of him, even in Masada or Crete. Whenever she thinks of him, the symbolic associations that prevented Andrea from seeing Whitman's America as killing-machine-Amerika threaten to emerge and seduce her again. She can always fall back into this belief system, because the belief system propounded by Whitman is always available in the United States, and it is always seductive.
Whitman's celebration of American democracy in principle always contrasted with the material conditions of life for most people in the nineteenth century--a point Whitman makes in Democratic Visas and elsewhere. Yet these acknowledgments are not part of the Whitman legacy, and working through Whitman as a liberal symbol, Dworkin targets this gap between the ideological and the actual. In her presentation, the consistent resurrections of Whitman's vision justify continued adherence to a system that compounds victimization. Dworkin deconstructs our expectation that Andrea will benefit from her encounter with Whitman in the way Brandeis's Flan or Alvarez's Yolanda does. In Mercy, Whitman reaches out to Andrea, but it's a false equivalence: for him, it's loafing in grass; for her, it's bleeding on concrete.
While a much more mainstream novel, Michael Cunningham's Specimen Days shares some of Mercy's positions, and it also problematizes the Rortian instinct to turn to Whitman for rejuvenating American hope. Cunningham's treatment of Whitman is especially compelling because it seems reluctantly and perhaps unwittingly ambivalent: Cunningham has publicly presented himself as a Whitman fan, but the depiction of Whitman in Specimen Days shows Cunningham struggling to square his appreciation for Whitman with Whitman's continuing relation to a deteriorating US mythology.
Specimen Days is a frustrating novel that reuses the format of Cunningham's more successful The Hours (1998) in less satisfying ways. In Specimen Days, Cunningham braids together three narratives set in Manhattan, one in the late nineteenth century, the second just after 9/11, and a final tale in the post-apocalyptic ruins of the city. Each section features central characters who are socially marginalized, much as in The Hours. Lastly, though Whitman is not a protagonist in Specimen Days while Virginia Woolf is in The Hours, both texts heavily reference and consider the influence of these major literary figures. Still, while Cunningham's use of Woolf is nicely aligned--one character is named Clarissa and hosts a party for a friend named Richard; one woman reads Mrs. Dalloway; one woman writes it--Wait Whitman's appear ances in all three sections of Specimen Days are harder to account for. (13)
Cunningham wrote about Whitman's role in Specimen Days within his introduction to Laws for Creation, a 2005 collection of Whitman's poems selected by Cunningham. In what follows, Cunningham explains a connection he locates between Whitman and US decline:
The America of [Specimen Days] has not entirely exhausted its early promise, but it has aged considerably, and is haunted by its rapturous beginnings more or less the way a very old, impoverished person might be haunted by the memory of a youth so robust and optimistic it seemed, at the time, that it must last forever. Whitman simply belonged on that chain of fictional events.... The America of my novel is meant to be Whitman's America extended. (Cunningham 2005, xxii)
Cunningham's comments seem to suggest a unified United States within Specimen Days, when the novel takes place in three distinct eras: one historical, one contemporary, and one in a dystopian future. Cunningham's unification, then, proposes a United States that is already past its prime in the 1870s and 1880s and goes from "aged considerably" to "very old" and from "not entirely exhausted" to "impoverished" within a paragraph. Significantly, too, we see that the "memory" of a "robust and optimistic" past "hauntls]" (emphasis added) the United States of Cunningham's novel, posing the ghostly recurrence of the robust optimism as unwelcome or uninvited.
Earlier in the introduction, Cunningham praises Whitman and the early United States. He writes that Whitman "could almost have been early America, embodied. He and it were both rough-hewn, ambitious, copiously gifted, rebellious" (Cunningham 2005, xxii; emphasis original). (14) Cunningham, then, takes the figure that's like early America--an America not in the novel--and puts him into a set of points along the declining "chain of events." Whitman is the American figure of promise that is necessarily present for and part of the failure.
Whitman's role in the three stories within the book reflects this conception. In all three sections, Whitman quotations are asserted involuntarily and out of context; they defy interpretation; they embarrass speakers. (15) The one time Whitman actually appears in the novel, he gives terrible advice or perhaps gives advice that is massively misinterpreted. Cunningham's turning and returning to Whitman suggests that Cunningham's United States has a deep and abiding relationship to Whitman and his vision of the future. Yet the future that we see unfold fails to match his optimistic vision, as Walter Kalaidijan (2007) and Aris Mousoutzanis (2009) have argued. Contra Rorty, the book cannot see a positive way of utilizing Whitman's optimistic faith in the United States' goodness.
The first section, "In the Machine," is a ghost story set in a gloomy nineteenth-century New York and focused on a twelve-year-old boy named Lucas. Lucas is facially disfigured, and his unusual perspective and emotional naivete suggest developmental problems. Lucas's immigrant father has been crippled by industrial labor; his brother Simon dies while working at a factory, and Lucas winds up taking over Simon's job. His mother suffers from dementia and paralysis. Catherine, Simon's pregnant ex-fiancee and the object of Lucas's love, works in a sweatshop patterned on the Triangle Shirtwaist Factory; she sidelines as a prostitute to make ends meet.
Amid these squalid conditions, Lucas reads a copy of Leaves of Grass he got from his teacher before he left school. The narration, focalized through Lucas, consistently refers to Leaves of Grass with the definite article; the narration calls Leaves "the book." The use of the definite article--not a book, but the book--underscores the reverence Lucas feels for the text, as does his every-night study of it. To Lucas, we are told, "the book was true" (Cunningham 2003, 64). He craves "a vigor... a defiant, uncrushable aliveness" that "he hoped the book could instill in him" (12). It replaces his education, for as he explains, "I don't need school. I have Walt's book" (4). Whitman is the only authoritative source of truth Lucas's narrative identifies, and he looks up to Whitman as a "courage teacher," just as the young Andrea does.
Reading Whitman has somehow compelled Lucas to begin shouting quotations from Whitman's verse, or, in the narrator's words, "to speak as the book" (Cunningham 2003, 4). Lucas's quotations occur sporadically and without regard to context, and Cunningham never makes clear whether Lucas understands what he's saying. Either way, Lucas cannot stop quoting Whitman: "He hadn't meant to speak as the book. He never did, but when he was excited he couldn't help himself" (4). At other times, it feels less like an irrepressible urge and more like evidence of possession. Lucas explains to Catherine that "the words come through me. I never know" (51). When Lucas, wanting to tell Catherine about his complicated interior life, says, "I celebrate myself, and what I assume you shall assume," he realizes that this "was not what he'd hoped to tell her" (4). Later, thinking of what heaven might mean for him, Lucas fantasizes that "he'd speak a language everyone understood" (8).
Cunningham often playfully subverts the meaning of Lucas's spontaneous quotes. On page five, Lucas quotes Whitman by saying, "The smallest sprout shows there is no death." Two lines later, a newsboy shouts, "Woman brutally murdered, read all about it!" (Cunningham 2003, 5). At other times, Lucas's exclamations seem more appropriate. For instance, after Catherine admits her sex work, Lucas shouts, "Undrape! You are not guilty to me, nor stale or discarded" (65). Even in this instance, Catherine doesn't understand him, and Lucas also doesn't seem to grasp what he's saying. While he does spout quotations relating to prostitution and pregnancy to Catherine, which push Catherine to admit her desperate situation, Lucas's statements more often frustrate her than cause her to feel understood. The story, then, does not indicate any clear benefit emerging from Lucas's consistent quoting.
Cunningham undermines our expectations for Whitman's role in other ways: Lucas does act in ways we might call brave, but his bravery is short-sighted and leads to his death. Indeed, Whitman's only appearance in Specimen Days is part of the sequence that leads Lucas to die. Lucas has a delusional belief that his brother Simon hasn't been killed by a machine but "had passed over into a world of machinery" (Cunningham 2003, 45). Simon's burial occurred in an urban landscape without grass or trees, denying Lucas the ability to imagine Simon entering peacefully into nature: the suggestions in Section 6 of "Song of Myself ("the smallest sprout shows there is no death") led Lucas to imagine that those in the afterlife remain proximate. Whitman confirms these wild speculations in a meeting on a busy New York street about halfway through the narrative. Whitman is speaking abstractly, but Lucas interprets literally. Lucas then allows his hand to be crushed in the machine he operates at work, which he believes will sate its appetite; in so doing, he saves Catherine, whom he believes the machine had targeted next. The shock and loss of blood combine to kill him.
Whitman's words also mobilize dangerous, self-destructive behavior in the second section, "The Children's Crusade." Young boys parrot Whitman, just as Lucas did in the previous story. Unlike Lucas's perfect recitation, however, their citations often come out incorrectly, though they are more contextually appropriate. The interpretation they have internalized derives from a woman who calls herself "Walt Whitman" and who rescued these boys from an orphanage; she raises them in an apartment wallpapered with pages from Leaves of Grass. In her attempt to turn the boys into suicide bombers, the female "Walt" teaches the boys many of the same phrases from Section 6 of "Song of Myself that haunt Lucas in "In the Machine." The quotations convince them that reincarnation diminishes the importance of their current lives. The protagonist of "Children's Crusade," Cat (short for Catherine), a psychologist working with the New York Police Department after 9/11, hears the young, would-be suicide bomber explain: "We're all the same person. We want the same things... Nobody really dies. We go in the grass. We go in the trees... Every atom of mine belongs to you, too" (Cunningham 2003, 122-23).
The same boy writes "TO DIE IS DIFFERENT FROM WHAT ANY ONE SUPPOSES, AND LUCKIER" (Cunningham 2003, 130) outside Cat's apartment; when he calls a second time, he asks her, "Do you think a great city endures?" (138). Cat eventually determines that the boy's language "starts to disintegrate as he gets agitated," and then "he starts throwing out lines from Whitman... I have a feeling that the poem is his language. It's what's in his head" (141; emphasis original). In each of the first two stories, we see Cunningham push this same idea, that Whitman can overwrite the thinking of impressionable people who read or hear his words.
While in custody, the female "Walt" complains to the police about the Western society. She argues that the downside of contemporary society is obesity, drug use, divorce, violence, mistrust, and environmental damage, a perversion of the United States that Whitman imagined and wrote about. Her revolutionary rhetoric--"no more sucking the life out of the rest of the world so that a small percentage of the population can live comfortably... history is always changed by a small band of very determined people" (Cunningham 2003, 171-72)--aligns with common leftist sloganeering about the ways of the West. It also links to the narrative of decline that Cunningham posits in the Laws for Creation introduction. Cunningham's decision to have orphan suicide bombers inspired by a demented revolutionary emerge in a New York still smoldering after 9/11 deepens the sense of the United States at risk because of its misguided priorities. (16) The text does not so much denounce the female Walt's themes as her methods.
The female Walt's appropriation of Whitman fits into the ways "The Children's Crusade" stresses the flexibility of Whitman's messages. Cunningham suggests the plausibility of any interpretation of Whitman in the novel's longest sustained conversation about the poet. In order to understand what connection Whitman might have to the attacks carried out by the orphans, Cat seeks out Rita Dunn, a Whitman scholar at NYU. Dunn, unable to help, points to the vast number of interpretations Whitman's work invites:
Whitman as you probably know was the first great American visionary poet. He didn't just celebrate himself. He celebrated everybody and everything.... You could say he was writing the poem that was the United States.... you wouldn't believe some of the interpretations I've heard. But really, Whitman was an ecstatic.... Whitman simply loved what was.... He was not particularly concerned about mortality.... You can go at him from just about any angle and find something that seems to support one thesis or other. (Cunningham 2003, 145-47; emphasis original)
Importantly, Dunn feels she can assume that Cat comes with some prior knowledge of Whitman, but the text poses that prior knowledge in a specific way--she assumes that Cat would know Whitman is "the great American visionary poet" (and she is right: Cat uses the same exact line on page 128). Her only role in the story, however, is to insist on the broadness of available interpretations. Cat tries out a possible one, telling her boyfriend, "It seems you could interpret [Whitman] as some sort of voice for the status quo. As in, if you worked some awful job in a factory, twelve hours a day, six days a week, here was Whitman to tell you that your life was great, your life was poetry" (148). Dunn's description points Cat toward a reading of Whitman that is almost completely antithetical to the cellleader Walt, but the narrative does not get fully behind either one; in fact, Cat's "voice for the status quo" argument could be a gloss on Lucas's Whitman in "In the Machine." Yet the variability of these interpretations does not diminish his gravitas. He is still "the great American visionary poet" (emphasis added).
Whitman's influence is so pervasive that the linguistic overcoding we see occur with the boys happens to Cat, too. Cat expresses surprise that New York can still look like itself after 9/11 and the first two boys' attacks in this way: "Broadway was still full of cabs and trucks, stores were still open, unfortunates still worked the passersby for change. The machinery of the city, the immense discordant poetry of the city (thank you, Mr. Whitman), racketed on" (Cunningham 2003, 157). Whitman here provides Cat with a benign, poetic reflection, but not long after, another boy wearing a bomb and holding a detonator quotes Whitman. In offering this range of outcomes, Cunningham produces Whitman as an omnipresent floating signifier that is incredibly potent when deployed.
The last story, "Like Beauty," also takes place in New York, after a major disaster nearly destroys the city (perhaps the "Walt" attacks, some readers have suggested). Rather than orphans living in cults, the marginalized groups that Cunningham focuses on in "Beauty" are androids and aliens. The androids are treated as sub-human, despite wiring that makes them largely indistinguishable from people, and the alien-refugees from the planet Nadia are relegated to low-wage jobs and social harassment.
Whitman's role in this final story is far more minor than the previous two. Near the story's close, we learn that android inventor Emery Lowell installed a chip containing the complete works of a major poet in each brand of androids he created. Android protagonist Simon's chip, predictably, contains the work of Whitman. Like Lucas of "In the Machine," Simon cannot control when the quotes of Whitman appear. When Simon simulates a 1980s style mugging for a German tourist (carrying out such simulations are one of the few jobs available to androids), he shouts, "Every kind for itself and its own, for me mine male and female." When the client expresses confusion about the statement, Simon says to himself, "Fucking poetry chip" (Cunningham 2003, 204). As in "In the Machine," the reader recognizes the incongruity of the quote in context, where it again produces frustration for the speaker.
Androids have been declared "inherently illegal" by trying to "possess [them]selves" rather than continue as property of the company that created them (Cunningham 2003, 245). Catareen, a Nadian nanny, protects Simon by lying to a drone searching for him in order to repay Simon's kindness to her early in the story. They wind up escaping New York together, heading West and hoping to locate Lowell.
When they do, they find that Lowell is planning an escape to a new planet (called Paumanok, the Native American name for Long Island and one Whitman was fond of), with his Nadian wife and a small group of outcasts. Simon describes the scene in ways that recall the departure for Plymouth Rock. Robert Duggan argues that this moment reattaches hope to the American founding narrative, a gesture he sees aligning with and supporting Whitman's quotes about rebirth that Cunningham scatters through the book. (17) Nonetheless, the story hinders any clear alliance between Whitman's outlook and Cunningham's. First, Simon simply is not deeply impacted by Whitman, unlike the other characters who quote him compulsively. Lowell tells Simon that Simon's poetry chip was supposed to impart a moral sensibility--"to regulate you... to give you some moral sense" (Cunningham 2003, 281). While Simon acts morally throughout the text, especially regarding Catareen, nothing suggests that his sense of morality emerges from Whitman (recall that Dunn suggested Whitman's poetry was not moral in "Children's Crusade," again showing the uneven treatment of Whitman in the book). Simon tells another character, "I don't know poetry, exactly. I contain it" (299). The "contain" certainly echoes Whitman's "containing multitudes," but in Whitman the poetic gesture is intentional and rhetorical. For Simon, it's factual: he stores the Whitman material without absorbing it.
Furthermore, Lowell, the poetry-lover who believes in the genre's moral basis, makes what might be the story's most callous decision. On their trip West, Simon realizes that Catareen is dying. He refuses to board the spaceship, which would mean leaving her alone to die, and Lowell either cannot or will not slow the launch of the ship. Once Simon's decision is clear, Lowell gestures for Simon to recite Whitman with him. They do this earlier in the story: Lowell joins with Simon after Simon involuntarily says, "A child said What is the grass? Fetching it to me with full hands; how could I answer the child? I do not know what it is any more than he" (Cunningham 2003, 282). This moment of kinship parallels a similar incident in "In the Machine," when Whitman and Lucas recite these same lines together. In the later story, however, Simon refuses to recite the verse a second time: despite his wiring, he tells Lowell, "I don't feel like reciting poetry just now" (300). This rejection of Whitman suggests a problem with the versatility Lowell assigns to Whitman and problematizes Lowell's invocation of this passage--rather than acknowledging the limits of understanding, Simon wants something firmer.
The last time that Simon quotes Whitman is context-appropriate, perhaps more so than any other quotation in the novel. Simon is riding a horse toward California, imagining the sights he will see as he heads West--a catalog heavy with noun phrases not unlike something from Whitman--while recovering from his disappointment at not getting on the spaceship. On the horse, Simon recites from Whitman's "Song of the Open Road": "The earth, that is sufficient, I do not want the constellations any nearer, I know very well where they are, I know they suffice for those who belong to them" (Cunningham 2003, 305). This fascinating moment uses Whitman to romanticize staying behind, when just a few pages before Simon compares the spaceship's journey to the founding of the United States. Strangely, then, Whitman legitimizes a decision not to emigrate, while similarly romantic American imagery appears to justify the departure for a new world. As with so much of the book, the narrative wants to retain Whitman's presence while shifting its meaning and value.
Regarding that ride West, we should recall that the American state has collapsed in the final story. Simon explains early on that the laws in New York may not be the same as in New Jersey, and we see no agents of the state during Simon and Nadia's cross-country trip. If there is hope, there is hope for something post-American and post-human, as Simon is not one of Whitman's sensualists or fierce American democrats (though he does have a close male-male relationship with another android and feels far more sympathy for Nadians than most humans). The progress here is not baked into the United States' political system or the exceptional American individualist Whitman celebrated. Yet it turns to Whitman again after the state that embodied so much of Whitman's hopes has collapsed.
In Specimen Days, Whitman gets quoted often, involuntarily, incorrectly, without regard to context. Whitman legitimizes dangerous and violent behavior as well as courageous and empathetic behavior. Most importantly, he is simply there in the America that Cunningham's characters live within: the boys in "Children's Crusade" simply say that they learned Whitman's words "from home" (Cunningham 2003, 138). I want to connect this compulsive reappearance and re-use of Whitman to the persistence of the progressive, romantic image of America that Rorty seizes on and calls on Whitman to symbolize. Cunningham is (perhaps unconsciously) parodying this consistent appropriation: writers and politicians continue to call on Whitman to revisit a romantic American identity or resurrect a liberal teleology, long after they cease to fit the context.
As other critics have suggested, Cunningham's work seems aligned with Ginsberg's "Supermarket" by bringing Whitman in to see the failure of his prophecies. Yet by bringing Whitman into different periods of American life, Cunningham intensifies the criticism by showing a continuing failure. He simultaneously attests to the inadequacy of exclusively blaming the prophecy, for the regular reappearance of the prophecy and the continuing force it exerts are far more dangerous.
In sum, the texts I have discussed target elements of Whitman's symbolic legacy. Alexie poses Whitman's sensuality as akin to superficial multiculturalism. In Mercy, Whitmanian self-fashioning does not lead to empowerment in the US's hierarchy, and Whitman's symbolic power justifies continued investment in an idea of the United States that does not match its reality. Finally, Cunningham makes Whitman's ubiquity in US culture a troublesome feature rather than a guiding force, and he interrogates how useful a faith in symbols of older US progressivism remains in successive generations. I see each of these critiques aiming at liberal shibboleths that have become bankrupted in the political developments of the last several decades: a sense that celebrating diversity alone ends the problems of racial inequality; that individuals expressing themselves somehow escape the tentacles of power; that rhetoric about freedom and choice can spark progressive momentum.
In closing, I want to return to Adrian's Gob's Grief. I do so because this novel worries so specifically about the instrumentalization of Whitman. Gob uses Whitman because he thinks Whitman is inseparable from the symbol he has become. We might say the mainstream deployments of Whitman use him in a manner comparable to Gob, investing their faith in a romantic US identity that Whitman can be seen to support. In so doing, they too buy into a symbolic logic about Whitman and the United States, about individual empowerment and personal bravery bettering or redeeming the nation. We can then see what unifies Alexie, Dworkin, and Cunningham--a desire to resist an easy connection between these characteristics. It is less Whitman himself than these simple connections that the texts argue against. In converting our expectations about what Whitman does for Americans of all stripes, these writers deconstruct the ways that the United States' romanticism about itself props up the country's inequities.
This essay is dedicated to Kathryn Hume, who has read a dozen versions of it since I first started writing it an embarrassingly long time ago. I also want to thank the peer reviewers of College Literature for their excellent feedback on the article.
(1) In addition to the cultural appropriations listed here, Kenneth Price and Andrew Jewell (2006) have catalogued a wide variety of references to Whitman in popular music, television, and advertising. Let me add that Price's 2004 book is masterful in its analysis of a bevy of artists who use Whitman in their narratives. This work is undoubtedly in debt to the broad picture of Whitman's presence that Price has provided.
(2) Jeffrey Severs (2009) finds opaque references to Whitman in Thomas Pynchon's Vineland, while Elaine Safer (1990) argues that Whitman is the implicit target of Pynchon, John Barth, William Gaddis, and Ken Kesey. Price (2004) features a chapter discussing Ishmael Reed's satire on Whitman's idealism in Reed's Flight to Canada and capably demonstrates ambivalence toward the poet in Bernard Malamud's "The German Refugee."
(3) Of course, Whitman's poetry was extremely controversial during his life, and readers with strong, traditional senses of propriety were often troubled by the "exceeding great stench," as Ezra Pound called it, of Whitman's ecstatic celebrations of the body. Still, even Pound decided that Whitman was "the only one of the conventionally recognized 'American poets' who is worth reading" (1973, 115).
(4) Banita has criticized the novel's portrayal of Flan in an argument about the treatment of race in post-9/11 novels. Banita draws together this novel with Cunningham's Specimen Days, but her article does not connect the uses of Whitman in both texts: her attention instead is on the intertwined panic about security with racist and xenophobic strains in American culture (2010, 253).
(5) For Jennifer Bess (2007), Whitman's individuality marks the American identity that is off-limits for Yolanda.
(6) Bruce Robbins discusses Whitman's "Salut" because of the reference to Whitman in Richard Powers' 1998 Gain. In an interesting parallel, Cyrus Patell begins his book Negative Liberties (2001) with an anecdote about undergraduates comparing Ralph Waldo Emerson and Whitman to Ronald Reagan. Mark Bauerlein (author of Whitman and the American Idiom ) heard echoes of Whitman in Donald Trump's inauguration speech (see Chotiner 2017).
(7) For more on the relationship between the functional individual and the neoliberal state, see Mirowski (2014, 89-156); Cherniavsky (2017); Nealon (2012); or Huehls and Smith (2017, 1-20). On Whitman and his drawing on tradition for his ideal version of identity, see Stout (2004, especially
(8) We can see a more pronounced version of the dynamic I describe in Cyrus Patell's argument in a reading of another text Patell analyzes, Maxine Hong Kingston's 1989 Tripmaster Monkey: His Fake Book. Kingston's protagonist Wittman Ah Sing is a fifth-generation American of Chinese descent. Wittman writes long, angry but creative monologues, and he refuses to compromise his individuality to fit social norms. Connecting Whitman to Wittman, writes James Tanner, demonstrates that Hong Kingston's protagonist has "absorbed and internalized the democratic message of America's greatest poet" (1995, 70). In Tanner's reading, this internalizing is a victory for the character: it is an accomplishment for the ethnic character to affirm a relation to the legitimate center.
(9) Rachel Fernflores touches periodically on Whitman's role in the text, but she overlooks Andrea's growing hostility toward Whitman. Fernflores's focus--as is the case with the few other writers to address Mercy--is on the ethics of Dworkin's presentation of Andrea and her attackers.
(10) In Dead Poets Society, Mr. Keating (Robin Williams) calls Whitman "Uncle Walt," and the affinity he claims--being freethinking, open to art, fiercely individual--is advocated by the film, which Price regards as subtly queer-positive. Dworkin pictures a far less amiable but still avuncular relationship: for both Andrea and Mr. Keating, however, Whitman feels like kin. The incest metaphor in Mercy underscores the text's intimacy with and hostility toward Whitman.
(11) This scene plays into the novel's larger frustration with existentialist understanding of agency and governing structures. Mercy is bookended with commentary by a postmodern feminist called Not-Andrea whom Dworkin clearly disdains; Wendy Steiner called the characterization "cheap" (1991). Not-Andrea argues that women in a patriarchal culture should adopt Jean-Paul Sartre's attitude toward their position in the hierarchy: "We were never as free as under the German Occupation" (quoted in Dworkin 1990, 2). The Masada sequence points back to the Sartre claim and Not-Andrea's advocacy for it. The "subtle freedom, this freedom based on nuance" (2) is not the freedom that Andrea seeks.
(12) Critics have debated the violence in the last chapter and its implications for feminist politics. Martha Nussbaum (1993) chastised Dworkin for failing to differentiate the particular men committing violence against Andrea, as doing so takes away our ability to understand their full humanity; the indiscriminate revenge is ethically problematic. Marissa Anne Pagnattaro (1998) forcefully pushed back against Nussbaum, asking why readers should demand more careful judgment from Andrea rather than better treatment by her society; Fernflores takes a similar approach (2006).
(13) Readers have differed on the role Whitman plays in Specimen Days, though most agree that Cunningham intentionally contrasts optimistic Whitman verses with the difficult reality of his characters to show the failure of his vision. Walter Kalaidijan (2007) and Aris Mousoutanzis (2009) connect Whitman's reappearances to the inability of repetition to solve trauma. Kalaidijan resurrects Whitman's value by stating that Whitman's views on relationships can align with a positive post-9/11 ethics premised on openness to possibility in the face of danger. Mousoutzanis links Whitman's love of nature to what he sees as the text's critique of technology (overlooking Whitman's love for machines and the text's use of an android as protagonist in the last section of the book). Among academic readings, only Georgiana Banita has avoided ultimately redeeming Whitman's presence in the novel, asserting that Cunningham seems to long for "an ethics of preference" over the "arbitrary morality" the text associates with Whitman (2010, 264-65).
(14) As Kenneth Price notes, many others have stated or encouraged this conflation (2004, 9).
(15) Mousoutzanis (2009) and Brooks Landon (2011) each make this point that the Whitman quotes never align with the situations they appear within.
(16) The title of "The Children's Crusade" ties the text to another Western deployment of children toward mistaken and violent ends, though without the West-East dynamic associated with the crusades. Kalaidijan's argument makes a compelling connection between the terrorism we see in Specimen Days and Derrida's reading of terrorism as an auto-immune problem (2007, 830-32).
(17) Robert Duggan claims that restaging the founding of America allows for an honest acknowledgment of the flaws and virtues of America's past. In making this argument, he echoes Richard Rorty's emphasis on the importance of an improvement narrative to American progressivism (Duggan 2010, 390-91).
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JEFFREY GONZALEZ is an Assistant Professor of English at Montr clair State University. His writing looks at how post-1990 literary forms and narratives relate to economic, political, and social concerns in the neoliberal era. His book project, Competing Determinisms: The Contemporary U.S. Novel and its Necessary Fictions, explores how massive changes in cultural hierarchies and arrangements of power over the last few decades have led to corresponding ideological shifts, which then alter narrative forms and functions. He has published articles in Mosaic: A Journal for the Interdisciplinary Study of Literature and Critique: Studies in Contemporary Fiction. His essay about the depiction of cancer in Richard Powers's Gain will appear within the Palgrave Handbook on 20th and 21st Century Literature and Science.
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