Commentary

Selected Criticism

Title:
Interculturality
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.

Walt Whitman saw himself as an international poet and carefully mapped out his reputation abroad. Insofar as this internationality is collaborative rather than antagonistic and generally cultural rather than specifically political, it can be referred to as intercultural. This interculturality is located on the textual level, on the level of the communication between the author (or his associates) and his readers abroad, and informs the interactive relationships among Whitmanites of many countries. In this way, interculturality has become a special feature of Whitman's reception.

Whitman's hope to create "new formulas, international poems" amounted to a new program in American literature. In his introduction to the first German edition of Leaves in 1889, he claimed that "I did not only have my own country in mind when composing my work. I wanted to take the first step towards bringing into life a cycle of international poems." This hope coincided with his view of the role of the United States as furthering "mutual benevolence of all humanity, the solidarity of the world" (trans. from Grashalme xii). Whitman had a sense of poetry as a new vehicle for international relations, "an internationality of poems and poets, binding the lands of the earth closer than all treaties and diplomacy" (Complete 1049), setting an open democratic poetry against the secret treaties and diplomacy of the reactionary European powers of his period.

Thus, the foremost American poet of his time also emerges as a programmatically internationalist author; this is a paradox Whitman explains by referring to the special nature of American culture. As a "composite" culture, it has per se an intercultural quality—"on our shores the crowning resultant of those distillations, decantations, compactions of humanity" (Complete 1075).

Based on this theory, Whitman developed an intercultural poetics which manifests itself most prominently in his lyrical catalogues. There is hardly a geographical or cultural space in the atlas not addressed by Whitman's poetry. His interculturalist poetics thus seems to be based on universality and inclusiveness.

His poetry also reflects another basic theme of interculturalist research of the late twentieth century: Whitman never looks at foreign cultures as exotic artifacts, but emphasizes the relationship between self and other, between America and the lyrical globe he projects. In his most famous and most explicitly international poem, "Salut au Monde!," the speaker states in conclusion: "Toward you all, in America's name, / I raise high the perpendicular hand, I make the signal" (section 13).

Yet another tenet of interculturalism is its emphasis on regional and local cultures rather than on (national) states which are deemed oppressive. Whitman's intercultural poetics provide for recognition of the periphery as well as the center. In fact, he prefers to identify groups of individuals through regions and landscapes, as inhabitants of cities, rather than presenting them as belonging to national states and cultures.

However, Whitman's globalist poetry is at times also quite Eurocentric. In spite of the egalitarian form of the catalogues, there is a hidden hierarchy which puts (Anglo-)American culture first. The celebration of discovery and expansion (e.g. in "Years of the Modern" and "Passage to India") furthermore links Whitman with imperialist conceptions in international relations.

Starting in the late 1860s, Whitman and his friends took a personal interest in his reception abroad. The object was to project the image of Whitman as Good Gray Poet and prophet of a global democracy. Whitmanites abroad were furnished with material meant to steer their activities in the desired direction. The first attempt to establish an international Whitman Society was undertaken during Whitman's lifetime, by a German-Japanese-American artist, Sadakichi Hartmann. Whereas this project failed for financial reasons, Horace Traubel's organization, Walt Whitman Fellowship International, was very successful in bringing such Whitmanites as the French Whitman translator Léon Bazalgette, the eminent Polish-German-American cultural critic Amelia von Ende, and the German-Scottish anarchist poet John Henry Mackay into the inner circle.

Some European Whitmanites wanted to establish a special organization in Europe. Léon Bazalgette and Germany's foremost Whitman supporter, Johannes Schlaf, repeatedly discussed the creation of a Whitman society in Europe modeled after the Fellowship. Individuals involved in this discussion were Stefan Zweig, Emile Verhaeren, Romain Rolland, Francis Viélé-Griffin, Jules Romains, and others. Increasing tensions among Europeans in the foreground to World War I apparently prevented the realization of this project.

The manifold contacts among Whitman devotees from different cultures form an intercultural network of impressive complexity. Whitman appears prominently in Stefan Zweig's and Hermann Hesse's correspondence with Romain Rolland. A pacifist selection of Civil War poetry and prose appeared in Switzerland in 1919 edited by René Schickele, an Alsatian expressionist, with translations by the Franco-German poet Ivan Goll and the German-Jewish writer and translator Gustav Landauer.

Among Slavic nations, enthusiasm for Whitman developed in collaboration with Central and Western Europeans. Johannes Schlaf's German translation was the basis for much of Whitman's reception in the Czech lands and other Slavic nations. Emanuel Lesehrad's Czech translation was inspired by an early German Whitmanite, Alfred Mombert.

The intercultural network continued to exist far into the twentieth century. Exiled Western communist writers learned about Whitman in Russia, where the first Soviet commissar of culture, Anatoly Lunacharsky, had firmly established a Soviet tradition of Whitman reception. Erich Arendt, author of a representative Whitman translation in the German Democratic Republic, fled from Hitler to South America and encountered Whitman through Pablo Neruda. In 1955 the International Peace Council, often described as a Communist Front organization, staged an international celebration for the centennial of Leaves.

Thus Whitman's intercultural poetics and poetry have inspired an intercultural reception. Reception processes in individual cultures did not occur in isolation from each other but amount to a highly interactive, dynamic process. Betsy Erkkila has appropriately spoken of a "new trend toward an international community of art" (237) with Whitman as a focal point and has called for a "different and more cosmopolitan image of the American poet" (5).

Bibliography

Allen, Gay Wilson, and Ed Folsom, eds. Walt Whitman & the World. Iowa City: U of Iowa P, 1995.

Erkkila, Betsy. Walt Whitman Among the French: Poet and Myth. Princeton: Princeton UP, 1980.

Grünzweig, Walter. "'Collaborators in the Great Cause of Liberty and Fellowship': Whitmania as an Intercultural Phenomenon." Walt Whitman Quarterly Review 5.4 (1988): 16–26.

____. Constructing the German Walt Whitman. Iowa City: U of Iowa P, 1995.

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

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.


Comments?

Published Works | In Whitman's Hand | Life & Letters | Commentary | Resources | Pictures & Sound

Support the Archive | About the Archive

Distributed under a Creative Commons License. Ed Folsom & Kenneth M. Price, editors.