Commentary

Selected Criticism

Title:
Imperialism
Author:
Grünzweig, Walter
Print source:
J.R. LeMaster and Donald D. Kummings, eds., Walt Whitman: An Encyclopedia (New York: Garland Publishing, 1998), reproduced by permission.

Whitman's acclaim as poet of egalitarianism, humanitarian progress, and democracy has tended to obscure his involvement in movements and beliefs which are embarrassing to some of his admirers in the second half of the twentieth century. Imperialism is a characteristic case. Much of Whitman's poetry is informed by a commitment to manifest destiny, westward expansion and imperialism. This seeming paradox may be explained in terms of the ambivalence of the culture of which Whitman was a part.

In Walt Whitman: Racista, Imperialista, Antimexicano, Mauricio González de la Garza characterized Whitman as an "hombre contradictorio" who displayed "el sentimiento del internacionalismo" in his poetry while expressing regrettable imperialist attitudes in his early journalistic prose (de la Garza 9f). The examples de la Garza provides actually relate to Whitman's expansionism, which is limited to neighboring countries and territories. The victims of expansionism were mainly Mexicans and, as Ed Folsom stresses, Native Americans, toward whom Whitman also had a strongly ambivalent attitude. Imperialism, on the other hand, refers to hemispherical, even globalized, developments and strategies. In Whitman's texts, both are linked in the same large and contradictory cultural narratives that inform the author's vision of America. The rhetoric of manifest destiny is applied on a global scale: "It seems as if the Almighty had spread before this nation charts of imperial destinies, dazzling as the sun" (Complete 990).

Although Whitman's poetry is probably just as expansionist and/or imperialist as his prose, the conflict between the noble internationalist and the imperialist is adequately assessed by de la Garza. For Whitman, who desired a "mutual benevolence of all humanity, the solidarity of the world" (Grashalme xii), empire is frequently a requirement for a productive development and coexistence. To him, "the existence of the true American continental solidarity . . . wholly depends on a compacted imperial ensemble" (Complete 1050). American "individuality" would "flourish best under imperial republican forms" (Complete 959).

In early nineteenth-century American political discourse, empire at times represented the democratic counterpart to dynastical European monarchism, and Whitman may well have employed that rhetoric. Yet, like later critics such as Mark Twain, he also seems aware of the problematical implications of imperialism, for he suggests the problems caused by an "empire of empires": "But behold the cost. . . . Thought you greatness was to ripen for you like a pear? If you would have greatness, know that you must conquer it through ages, centuries—must pay for it with a proportionate price" (Complete 990).

In order to critique Whitman's poetry from the anti-imperialist angle, it is not necessary to refer to explicit lines such as the one in "A Broadway Pageant": "I chant the new empire grander than any before, as in a vision it comes to me" (section 2). The celebrated catalogues of Leaves seem to project an inclusive universalism, with hundreds of lines representing the colorful conglomerate of world cultures. However, these lines, each representing one such culture, rather resemble homogenized computer entries, highlighting one peculiar aspect of each much in the way modern tourism markets foreign countries. In their utilitarian compactness, these catalogues erase cultural differences and, through their very form, subject non-Western (or even non-Anglo-Saxon) cultures to Western standards. Even in "Salut au Monde!," Whitman's most successful and (given its global reception) most credible international(ist) poem, the vision of the lyrical persona forces Western technology on the whole world: "I see the tracks of the railroads of the earth, / I see them in Great Britain, I see them in Europe, / I see them in Asia and in Africa" (section 5). While the railroad tracks seem to equalize all continents and bring them together, they also standardize them on Western terms following a Western logic.

In one of Whitman's best-known poems, "Passage to India," the dialogue of the lyrical persona with his soul, though frequently a liberating experience in Whitman's poems, betrays the poem's imperialist impulse: "Passage to India! / Lo, soul, seest thou not God's purpose from the first? / The earth to be spann'd, connected by network" (section 2). Again, manifest destiny is extended globally, controlled by a universal "network." The explorer Vasco da Gama, uncritically introduced into the text, explicitly represents the colonialist and imperialist impetus of Western culture. Whitman envisions the world as "Doubts to be solv'd, the map incognita, blanks to be fill'd" (section 6). It is on Western maps, iconic texts of imperialism, where any territory not under Western domination appears as "blank," waiting to be opened up to world trade.

What is curious is not so much the existence of imperialist thinking in Whitman's poetry but its complex lyrical representation which, by fusing industrial, technological, logistical, and imperial images as early as 1871, already anticipates the Marxist-Leninist interpretation of imperialism as an ideology brought about by the development of monopoly capitalism.

Whitman's personae, seemingly celebrating the progress of the race, frequently celebrate the progress of Americanism in imperialist terms. Speaking prophetically to the world and using an enlightened rhetoric, they oftentimes identify the cause of America with that of humankind in general. Proceeding from his idea of America as a "composite" nation containing in itself all elements of humanity, Whitman develops a theory that America is by definition the one country that can serve as a model for all others. Thus, because imperialism is actually mandated in the interest of humanity, the imperialist charge would probably not have bothered him much. Emanating from progressive America, American imperialism would have appeared to him as benign, productive, and serving the common good.

While this naiveté may be shocking to those desiring a politically correct literature, imperialism was probably not a decisive moral issue for Whitman. In spite of an occasional uneasiness, he would have been unaware of the imperialism implicit in his globalist rhetoric.

Bibliography

Erkkila, Betsy. Whitman the Political Poet. New York: Oxford UP, 1989.

Folsom, Ed. Walt Whitman's Native Representations. Cambridge: Cambridge UP, 1994.

González de la Garza, Mauricio. Walt Whitman: Racista, Imperialista, Antimexicano. México: Colección Málaga, 1971.

Grünzweig, Walter. "'For America—For All the Earth': Walt Whitman as an International(ist) Poet." Breaking Bounds: Whitman and American Cultural Studies. Ed. Betsy Erkkila and Jay Grossman. New York: Oxford UP, 1996. 238–250.

____. "Noble Ethics and Loving Aggressiveness: The Imperialist Walt Whitman." An American Empire: Expansionist Cultures and Policies, 1881–1917. Ed. Serge Ricard. Aix-en-Provence: Université de Provence, 1990. 151–165.

Whitman, Walt. Complete Poetry and Collected Prose. Ed. Justin Kaplan. New York: Library of America, 1982.

____. Grashalme: Gedichte. Trans. Karl Knortz and T.W. Rolleston. Zürich: Schabelitz, 1889.


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