Commentary

Selected Criticism

Title:
"Broadway Pagaent, A" (1860)
Author:
Doudna, Martin K.
Print source:
J.R. LeMaster and Donald D. Kummings, eds., Walt Whitman: An Encyclopedia (New York: Garland Publishing, 1998), reproduced by permission.

This occasional poem first appeared as "The Errand-Bearers" in the New York Times on 27 June 1860 and was reprinted in Drum-Taps (1865) as "A Broadway Pageant (Reception Japanese Embassy, 16 June 1860)." Significant as an early precursor of "Passage to India," it was prompted by the celebration welcoming the Japanese envoys who had just arrived in New York City from Washington, D.C., after ratifying the first diplomatic and commercial treaty between the United States and Japan.

The first section of the poem vividly describes the scene as an estimated half million New Yorkers, including Whitman, turned out to watch the visitors from Japan make their stately way in carriages down Broadway. The remaining two sections are concerned not with the Japanese delegation itself but with the larger meaning of this first diplomatic visit from an Asian country. Like "Facing West from California's Shores," written a few years earlier, "A Broadway Pageant" reflects both the popular nineteenth-century American interest in Asia and the progress in Whitman's thought toward the idea that receives its fullest expression in "Passage to India."

"Facing West" speaks of a "circle almost circled"; "A Pageant" asserts, "The ring is circled" (section 3); and "Passage" refers to the "rondure of the world at last accomplish'd" (section 4). The speaker in "Facing West" looks toward Asia, "the house of maternity"; the speaker in "A Pageant" sees Asia as "the Originatress," the "all-mother," the "long-off mother" (sections 2 and 3); and the speaker in "Passage" sees Asia as "the cradle of man" (section 6). And just as "A Pageant" depicts Asia as the source of human origins, with a reference to "the race of eld" (section 2), so "Passage" honors "the myths and fables of eld" (section 2)—the only two uses of the word "eld" in Leaves of Grass.

"A Pageant," nevertheless, is inconsistent in its presentation of the relationship between the United States and Asia. The references toward the end of section 2 to "America the mistress," a "new empire," and "a greater supremacy" seem to suggest a Manifest Destiny extending across the Pacific. Yet section 3 counsels the young American nation—addressed as "Libertad"—to be humble and considerate of the "venerable Asia." Although this inconsistency is not resolved, the use of the verbs "justified" and "accomplish'd" in the penultimate line of the poem points the way to their key use in section 5 of "Passage," where the full reconciliation of East and West is depicted.

Bibliography

Doudna, Martin K. "'The Essential Ultimate Me': Whitman's Achievement in 'Passage to India."' Walt Whitman Quarterly Review 2.3 (1984): 1–9.

Dulles, Foster Rhea. Yankees and Samurai: America's Role in the Emergence of Modern Japan: 1791–1900. New York: Harper and Row, 1965.

Miner, Earl Roy. "The Background, Date, and Composition of Whitman's 'A Broadway Pageant.'" American Literature 27 (1955): 403–405.

Smith, Henry Nash. Virgin Land: The American West as Symbol and Myth. 1950. New York: Random House, 1970.

Sugg, Richard P. "Whitman's Symbolic Circle and 'A Broadway Pageant.'" Walt Whitman Review 16 (1970): 35–40.


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