Commentary

Selected Criticism

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

Whitman's presence in Israel has been previously acknowledged by Gay Wilson Allen and by Ezra Greenspan, who both note that the poet was already admired by Hebrew poets and critics in the 1920s. A close consideration can demarcate three areas of response to Whitman in Israel: literary, critical, and cultural. Whitman's reception in this country can therefore be considered an interesting example of his function as both poet and icon.

The best-known literary response is that of Uri Zvi Greenberg (1895–1981), one of Israel's leading poets. Greenberg himself points to such a connection in several of his earlier manifestoes. Thus, for example, in 1928 he declares, "Arise, the Hebrew Walt Whitman, Arise!" (qtd. in Goodblatt 238). This statement connects Whitman, adopted by the German expressionists as their precursor, to Greenberg, a primary importer of expressionism into Yiddish and Hebrew poetry. Cutting across languages and cultures, two Israeli critics have paid close attention to this connection. Benjamin Hrushovski discerns an unconventional rhythmic structure, combining regular metrics with syntactic and semantic units, in three expressionist poets: the Hebrew Greenberg, the Russian Vladimir Mayakovsky (1894–1930), and the American Whitman. Chanita Goodblatt focuses on an extended rhetorical comparison between Whitman and Greenberg, designed to emphasize a shared conception of poetry that challenges the monologic nature of the poetic text and stresses instead one that is publicistic and multivoiced.

Simon Halkin has nurtured the varied critical and cultural responses to Whitman in Israel, by translating Whitman into Hebrew and by composing a seminal Hebrew introduction for the Israeli reader. In 1952 he produced the most extensive Hebrew translation of Leaves of Grass, reprinted and enlarged in 1984 to contain over 500 pages. This and the accompanying publication of Halkin's Hebrew introduction (1952) comprised a double contribution to Whitman studies. Thus in the first chapter he adumbrates the critical change that has, in the meantime, occurred in Whitman studies during the last forty years. While reviewing the situation of Whitman studies in 1952, Halkin criticizes the problematic nature of the critical approach to Whitman's works that at that time was primarily characterized by the attempt to use biographical information to explain the literary corpus. The following three chapters present and explain the poet and his works to the Israeli reader, placing Whitman within American culture and experience, as well as discussing three basic characteristics of his poetry: his love of the world of the senses; his love for and belief in humanity; and his love for America and his belief in her mission in human history.

Two other Israeli critics have raised central issues regarding Whitman's poetry. Sholom J. Kahn confronts the poet's sense of evil, explaining that its limitations lie primarily in Whitman's attempt to remain ethically neutral. In other words, for him suffering is caused by a purely natural evil to which no reason or guilt can be ascribed. Zephyra Porat confronts Whitman's crises of faith in himself, as revealed in the poem "As I Ebb'd with the Ocean of Life" (1860). She reformulates the psychological concept of the Oedipal conflict as comprising for Whitman one between pride (self-love) and love of what is external to him, as well as pointing out the various ways in which the poem affords him a way to resolve this conflict.

This varied critical response to Whitman in Israel is accompanied by a varied cultural one as well. He has become part of the canon of general English studies. Two of his poems ("O Captain! My Captain!" and "A Noiseless Patient Spider") are included in the standard syllabus for the English Matriculation Examination in Israeli high schools. What is more, Whitman has come to be seen as a cultural icon, used by different groups in contemporary Israeli culture to express their ideologies. Upon publication of Halkin's translation, the literary section Masa in the newspaper Davar (the official organ of the Labor Federation) printed a Hebrew translation of Mirsky's socialist evaluation of Whitman's poetry. As socialist values were very much evident then in Israel, such an act exhibits a willingness to give voice to this ideological interpretation of Whitman. There is also Zoltin's recent article, which appeared in a special interest section on homosexuality in the weekend magazine of Davar. At a time when homosexuality is being debated in Israel, Whitman is represented as the figure of an embattled national poet, because of the explicit expression in his writings of homosexual feelings. Finally, the newspaper Ha'arets (11 October 95) printed Whitman's poem on Lincoln's assassination, "O Captain! My Captain!," as a tribute to Yitzhak Rabin's memory after his assassination. One can suggest that this is a reworking through Whitman of America's response to a presidential murder, within the context of an upheaval in Israeli society. It can indeed be said that in this country Whitman's presence is strongly felt on many levels.

Bibliography

Allen, Gay Wilson. "Whitman in Israel." Walt Whitman Abroad. Ed. Gay Wilson Allen. Syracuse, N.Y.: Syracuse UP, 1955. 235–236, 280.

____. "Whitman in Other Countries: Japan, Israel, China." The New Walt Whitman Handbook. New York: New York UP, 1975. 323–327.

Goodblatt, Chanita. "Walt Whitman and Uri Zvi Greenberg: Voice and Dialogue, Apostrophe and Discourse." Prooftexts 13 (1993): 237–251.

Greenspan, Ezra. "Whitman in Israel." Walt Whitman & the World. Ed. Gay Wilson Allen and Ed Folsom. Iowa City: U of Iowa P, 1995. 386–395.

Halkin, Simon. Walt Whitman: The Poet's Life and Work: An Essay (in Hebrew). Tel-Aviv: Hakibbutz Hame'uhad, 1952.

Hrushovski, Benjamin. The Theory and Practice of Rhythm in the Expressionist Poetry of U.Z. Greenberg (in Hebrew). Tel-Aviv: Hakibbutz Hame'uhad, 1978.

Kahn, Sholom J. "Whitman's Sense of Evil: Criticisms." Walt Whitman Abroad. Ed. Gay Wilson Allen. Syracuse, N.Y.: Syracuse UP, 1955. 236–254.

Mirsky, D.S. "Walt Whitman: Poet of American Democracy" (in Hebrew). Trans. editorial staff. Parts 1 and 2. Masa 8 (29 May 1952): 4–5; 9 (12 June 1952): 3, 8, 9, 11.

Porat, Zephyra. "What is Yours is Mine, My Father: On One Poem by Walt Whitman." Prometheus Among the Cannibals: Studies in the Question of Rebellion in Literature (in Hebrew). Tel-Aviv: Am Oved, 1976. 46–59.

Whitman, Walt. Leaves of Grass (in Hebrew). Collected and translated by Simon Halkin. Tel-Aviv: Hakibbutz Hame'uhad, 1984.

Zoltin, Lior. "Resist Much, Obey Little" (in Hebrew). Davar Hashavua 39 (1994): 20–21.


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