TEMA 53. LA NOVELA, EL CUENTO Y LA POESÍA EN E.E.U.U.
MELVILLE, POE Y WHITMAN
The period known as the age of a national literature and romantic individualism had great literary giants: Emerson, Hawthorne, Poe, Whitman, and Melville among others. Their work is both a record of, and a reaction to, all of its shocks and strains. We sense through their work the inwardness of an age.
The most important event in American life during the first half of the nineteenth century was the rise of the Jacksonian democracy, which was not exactly what we understand by democracy nowadays: the 'black codes', the 'quota laws', did not guarantee an equality of opportunities. The movement towards universal manhood suffrage was slow, state by state, but it was irreversible.
On the other hand, the industrial and technological developments worked to bind the country together but exacerbated and shifted into a new dimension the conflict between the north and the south. In the north, the new industrial city was being born, and those at the bottom of the industrial heap protested against the system. Labour union and active labour press developed during this time, and with it a lively intellectual debate that absorbed and adapted early European ideas of socialism. In the south, black workers were still seen as part of the production, so, abolitionism was not easily accepted and 'black codes' would be established after the civil war.
All these problems were seen by many intellectuals, and a frenetic passion for reform was born in this time. By 1840 many men were already aware of the incoherence and injustice of the new industrialism in America as they could see what was happening in the UK. There already were other communities that, in the same period, had aimed to create the ideal society outside the industrial order, for example, New Harmony, Indiana. The idealism of the communal movement had sources beyond the social and economic. There was a specifically religious motive in the Mormons' epic conquest of the West. Other sects were the Perfectionists and the Millerites. Similarly, the Puritans also radicalised their principles (e.g.: alcohol was forbidden)
In this atmosphere of intellectuality, we find a movement that has its origin in Christian theology, the same as the abolitionist movements. This philosophy is known as Transcendentalism, and it emerged among New England intellectuals in the 1830s. This was mainly a reaction against the continuing development of science in the nineteenth century. Transcendentalists stayed outside society, and they considered that their mission was to draw individuals out of the masses. Transcendentalism was at its core, a philosophy of naked individualism, aimed at the creation of the New American, the self reliant man, complete and independent. Within the limitations of their age, the achievement of transcendentalism has a grandeur; they did confront and helped define the great issues of their time. American history is the record of how men tried to solve the tensions of their times, and American literature finds in this fact one of its basic themes.
The authors we are about to study here, are not considered to be transcendentalists, but they were well affected by the period they lived, and their intellectual reflections are very similar to the transcendentalists'. Each of them shows the philosophical quest of the human being: they all deal with the mysteries of life (Melville and Poe) or with life itself and what it has to show to people (Whitman). The three authors, besides being great philosophers, developed a personal literary style and greatly contributed to present-day literature in its different forms: novel, short story or tale, and poetry.
HERMAN MELVILLE (1819 - 1891)
We sense the unending and extraordinary creative struggle between fierce and irresolvable contradictions of American fiction in Melville's: the contradictory reality of good and evil, freedom and fate, knowledge and the unknowable, belief and non-belief, the life of safety and common sense and the life of the dangerous, perhaps.
Born in New York city in 1819, the first decade of his life passed in comfort, but in 1830' his father went bankrupt and two years later went insane and died. This fact affected his adolescence and the rest of his life, and provided him with a theme in many of his novels; the child's search for his father in Moby Dick, Redburn, and Billy Budd. Also it made him wonder about human freedom and he brought a certain Calvinist view of human nature and destiny; life is entirely predetermined and unfolded within the grand design of an omnipotent God.
The importance of the sea
His personal experience in a variety of vessels and whalers was part of his education, together with echoes and borrowing from world literature (Israel Potter, Benito Cereno and Billy Budd are based on the writing of others). That experience was something that made him different from the other writers of his time who also found the sea a rich source of metaphor. Thus, he was able to bolster his romantic flights with personal knowledge. The sea was for him not only a metaphor, it was also a real highway, along with real men that earned their living.
Indeed, in Melville's first books it is the reality - though a somewhat romantic one - that engages him. Typee pleased a public that was growing tired of travel narratives and sea yarns by presenting a fresh and exciting story couched as an autobiography. And in fact, though some of the material was the product of Melville's imagination, he did not seem to regard the book as a novel. His preface claims an "anxious desire to speak the unvarnished truth". He equips the story with a map, and adds documentary chapters. The style, as a whole, is that of the traveller on his best literary behaviour.
Typee is the first of the five novels that preceded the great Moby Dick. However, it would be wrong to consider them as simply creative stages en route to it.
Typee is an account, given in the 1st person, of the adventures of a young American who, with a companion (Toby), jumps ship. Making their way over a mountain range into an inland valley, the two find themselves among the cannibal Typees. Toby is able to leave, but the narrator is compelled to remain with the bribe. This will allow him to discover the contrast between the vices of civilisation and the virtues of the supposedly barbarous natives (typical of transcendentalism - they see everything from an outer perspective). In spite of this discovery, Melville suggests that the wandering narrator can find satisfaction neither among his own people nor among the savages. (This is also typical of American literature - the search for self fulfilment). In this sense we could see the beginning of that quest for knowledge and satisfactory understanding of reality that we find in Moby Dick. But, again, we must remember that these first novels have value by themselves.
In Omoo, the following book Melville published, he takes up the narrative where he left it in Typee, with the escape of his hero. Now, the hero is an ancient condemned whaler, but the tension is dissipated and a mutiny becomes a comic-opera situation. Omoo reinforced the public's view of Melville as a writer of jocular and lively reminiscence.
But Mardi, which followed hard on its heels, was another matter. It begins straight-forwardly, though the prose is markedly richer. Mardi is an over-strained book, confused in aim. Yet, it is Melville's first boldly attempt to siege the truth, and in this sense it is extraordinarily interesting to study as a preliminary to the wonderful Moby Dick.
The story in Redburn goes back to Melville's first ocean voyage (from New York to Liverpool and back) as a merchant boy on the merchant ship St. Lawrence. If it is superior to the novel prior to Moby Dick ( White-Jacket) is partly because it is rooted in personal experience. He shows himself as the bluff narrator of actual events, as though he could trust himself with outright fiction. Redburn is a major contribution to a primary American genre, the literature of initiation.
After these first novels, we find the great among the greatest Moby Dick. It is considered to be a national epic in scope and the sheer abundance of its materials. It contains several of the grand, traditional epic conventions - the long arduous journey of the great battle, for example. It is a tragic drama, a tragedy of pride and pursuit and revenge, a tragedy of thought in the mind's profoundest workings.
[ There are many indications in Melville's previous work that, not content with conventional narrative, he wished his adventure tales to carry a greater load of significance. Until he read Hawthorne's stories, however, and made Hawthorne's acquaintance, there was no one to encourage him in what he called "ontological heroics". But in Hawthorne he discovered another fellow-American who was concerned with "that which is beneath the seeming", and who used fiction as his medium. Though the friendship dwindled away, much to Melville's regret, it was a vital tonic to him while he was engaged on Moby Dick. He dedicated it to his friend Hawthorne "in token of my admiration for his genius".]
It must be noticed that this metaphysical inquiry comes out of physical fact and not viceversa. This is typical of Melville. For him, as we said, reality must be there, as he had an "anxious desire to speak the unvarnished truth". An example of this is the fact of making the story so heavily documentary. [ In the first draft it seems likely that the story was even more heavily documentary. But in final form the hunt for whales focused in one in particular, the White Whale, Moby (Mocha = café de moca) Dick ; and on the obsessive hatred of Moby Dick felt by the whaleship's captain Ahab. ]
This same interest for making what we are told "real" gives the novel a tremendous power. The first person narrator Ishmael allows us to identify with him and his desire to discover "the ungraspable phantom of life". Moreover, the novel moves grandly through alternations of excitement and ease to the almost intolerable tension of the three-day chase of the White Whale, and the eventual, inevitable disaster when the whale kills Ahab, and then smashes the Pequod. The action writing is unsurpassable: here Melville's energy seems commensurate to the job in hand. His voyage, his seamen, their ship, their captain, the whale itself, are tangible; they possess weight, dimension, colour. In some passages we can even feel the movement of the sea reflected in the excellent prose Melville writes. This effort to make it real makes us reflect much more than after reading a moralising novel as Mardi could be in some senses. What is added in Moby Dick is a genuine dimension, not an erratic moralising and grouping after significances as in Mardi.
Unlike his friend Hawthorne, after a brief period of great popularity, Melville lost all contact with the public world. From Moby Dick onward, he lived and wrote in a kind of absolute silence, the very type of isolated writer, yet heroic, energetic and uncomplaining to the end.
The 1850s were the worst period of his life. He was permanently in debt and with a growing family to look after, frequently in ill health and feeling in the verge of insanity. But he never ceased writing; partly for the little money he could make, partly in order to explain himself to himself, partly because his bruised imagination could no longer lie dormant.
He wrote then Pierre (1852), an unsuccessful projection of the author's alienation from America. After Pierre Melville slowly relinquished his effort to live by the pen. For some years he continued to write prose, including Israel Potter (1855), and The Confidence Man (1857). In these novels, we can see a Melville disappointed with human wickedness, hypocrisy and materialism. This theme also appears in Bartleby the Scrivener (1853), published as a contribution to Putnam's Monthly Magazine (1853). Benito Cereno (1855) would also take part of this magazine.
A few years before the Civil War broke out in 1861, Melville turned from prose to poetry. Among his verse works, we can name Clarel and Timoleon (1891). One might apply to Melville's verse the observation made by Emerson on Thoreau's - namely, that his genius was better than his talent. Melville's verse is mainly a counsel of acceptance with a hint of melancholy.
Last of all came Billy Budd (1891 written, 1924 published), the long short story. In it, he returns to the setting of a ship and also to the lago figure, the malign individual, not the orthodox villain of fiction but someone more to be pitied than hated.
In this story, he again reflects the mood of the last writings, when he printed poetry at his own expense, endured the death of his two sons, and responded with a flat politeness to the queries of an occasional admirer or anthologist: a genius but almost forgotten.
(1846) Typee: A Peep at Polynesian Life
(1847) Omoo: A Narrative of Adventures in the South sea.
(1849) Mardi and a Voyage Thither
(1849) Redburn, His First Voyage
(1850) White Jacket; or, the World in a Man-of-War.
(1851) Moby Dick; or, the Wale.
(1852) Pierre; or the Ambiguities.
(1853) Bartleby the Scrivener
(1855) Benito Cereno (Both "Bartleby..." and "Benito..." were contributions to "Putnam's Monthly Magazine".
(1855) Israel Potter: His fifty years of Exile.
(1857) The Confidence Man: His Masquerade.
(1891) Timoleon (verse)
(1924) Billy Budd, Foretopman.
He was very prolific (more works but not as significant as these ones)
EDGAR ALLAN POE AND HIS TALES
As we have seen, Melville constitutes in some ways the prototype of the American novelist. His interest for searching the "ungraspable phantom of life" present in the ambiguities of life is very typical of American literature.
[ This interest for ambiguity is also part of Poe's major works. The difference is in the focus: he sees it from a distinct point of view. He exploits the unknown mysteries of life (and particularly of death) in order to produce certain effects on the reader and also to escape from a society in which he did not believe, in spite of being part of it. ]
Generally speaking, he expresses in his tales and prose, his contempt for the utilitarian philosophy, for reformers and for uplift movements in general. He does not believe in progress and deplores America's increasing industrialisation. He was not the only one. The Transcendentalists of New England, a group he had no linking for, were also unhappy with it. Yet his criticism of contemporary American culture cut deeper than that of his contemporaries and his isolation was not more nearly absolute than theirs. Emerson was an individualistic, and Whitman was optimistic about democracy. Poe, on the contrary, questioned what was to be called the American dream and foresaw some of the problems the 20th century would have to face. [ Maybe that criticism of his society is one of the reasons why he got more admirers abroad than at home ]
In spite of being critical with his world, he seemed to have the aspiration to become part of Virginia society, he wanted to find a place in traditional society, but he failed to do so, which may have well exacerbated his sense of lonely individualism, previously acquired through his hard life.
The son of a wandering theatrical family, Edgar Allan Poe was orphaned at two and became the ward (pupilo, menor en tutela) of the John Allan family, in Richmond, Virginia.
Never legally adopted, he could not live quite the normal life of a son in a well-to-do family. Although in his early years both Mr. And Mrs. Allan did what they could to spoil (mimar) him, friction grew between him and his foster father until he was drawn from the University of Virginia after less than a year of attendance.
There followed a period of service in the army (1827-1829), an unhappy brief career at West Point (1830-31), and a final break with Allan (1830-31). Before the break, Poe had published three books of poetry, none very successfully financially.
Driving to try to make a living with his pen, he began writing tales. A sign that he had some success was that one of them, The Ms. Found in a Bottle, won a one-hundred-dollar prize in 1833. Then, he began a career as an editor, serving on the staff of several periodicals such as Southern Literary Messenger (1835-37), or Graham's Magazine (1841-42). In spite of being an alert and canny editor, his poverty, his fiery temper, and his instability, worked against his success.
Although Poe was not at all times the brooding, gloomy person tradition has painted, his life was on the whole an unhappy one. In 1831 he found a home with Mrs. Maria Clemm, mother of Poe's cousin, Virginia. In 1835 he married thirteen-year-old Virginia, a fragile child who suffered a devastating illness destined to end her life when she was twenty-six. Poe died in mysterious circumstances, in Baltimore, October, 7, 1849.
His personal circumstances might account for the depth and intensity of his Romanticism and the form it took: explorations of a world of dream and nightmare rather than explorations of the American daylight scene. His imagination was stimulated by Europe and the ancient East, or by world-wide lands. Poe remarks that beauty always has some elements of strangeness in it and cites Francis Bacon as its authority. In Poe's stories the past is darker, more ominous, and lies on his heroes and heroines with a heavier weight than it does in those of Horace Walpole or Mrs. Radcliffe. As he remarked to a friend: "My terror is not from Germany but of the soul".
And this terror coming from the soul is transmitted to the reader in a fantastic way. Poe said that the most popular tales represented "the ludicrous heightened into the grotesque; the fearful colored into the horrible; the witty exaggerated into the burlesque; and the singular heightened into the strange and mystical". [ Poe could turn out stories with any of these effects, but he was at his best in creating the second and fourth of them. Such spinetingling tales such as Ligea (1838), The Fall of the House of Usher (18399, The Masque of the Red Death (1842), and The Cask of Amontillado (1846) owe much to the Gothic romances.]
They also owe much to Poe's self-conscious craftsmanship. Using the theories proposed by psychology and phrenology (so in fashion in his days), Poe conceived a theory about writing. The skilful artist was one who carefully formulated the effect he wished to achieve, then invented and combined the events and told them in words chosen to establish the preconceived effect.
[ Depending on the elements chosen to achieve that psychological effect, Poe classified his tales in "arabesque" (tales in which horror or other emotion in violent suspense gives the tale its power), "grotesque" the effect is achieved by a grim and ironic humour - e.g.: The Masque of the Red Dead) and "rationative", where the effect comes from the use of rational analysis in reconstructing a series of events in the best manner of association psychology - e.g.: The Murder in the Rue Morgue and The Gold Bug.]
The different methods used to achieve that effect were developed rather than invented by Poe, but his careful study and systematic use of them made him the master of a new form: the short story of psychological effect.
Thus, although Poe was also a great poet and critic, he is mostly considered the master of the short story. Among the amount of tales he wrote in his short life, some of them deserve special attention.
His tales and themes
One of his first and most curious stories is "Berenice" (19.....). In this study of madness (one of the most recurrent themes in Poe's writings), the main character is afflicted with a "morbid" irritability of the "attentive" properties of the mind. The affected hero is in love with his cousin, a beautiful woman whose teeth, extremely white, become an obsession for him. Berenice falls ill with some vague but fatal malady, and before the two can get married, she is dead. After the burial, the hero has a dream in which he goes to the grave of Berenice. When he finds "the thirty-two small, white and ivory-looking substances" clatter on the floor, we find a good example of black humour. Berenice is considered a clear preliminary study for such stories as Ligeia and The Fall of the House of Usher.
We can learn a lot about his characteristic stage properties by an examination of the setting of "Ligeia", his favourite tale. The heroine is described as living in a "dim and decayed city by the Rhine". Consciously or unconsciously, Poe enhances the remoteness of the city by not naming it. He even denies Ligeia a surname: he makes use of a studied vagueness. After Ligeia's death her widowed husband moves to England and sets his household in a ruined abbey. He does not alter the abbey's surroundings but he does change the whole interior by filling it with rich furniture, tapestries and hangings. In doing so he provides the kind of setting required for many of Poe's tales: Morella, The Fall of the House of Usher or The Oval Portrait.
That atmosphere contributes to set the scene for decay and death, one of the main themes treated by Poe. Thus, the setting in The Fall of the House of Usher is not simply the scene where the action happens, but also a symbol of the inner self of the main character, who is suffering the same degradation as his house.
Poe's characters do fear the final annihilation. Ligeia, for example, who returns from the tomb, is now the undead precisely because she was never truly alive. According to Allen Tate, "Poe is not interested in anything that is alive". Everything in Poe is dead: the houses, the rooms, the furniture..."
Poe's typical hero is consciously living on the "fragments" of the past. The hero of The Assignation is a convenient example. As Tate says, Poe's characters are "dead to the world"; they are machines of sensation and will. For them the body is a mere machine which lives within but aspires to live beyond the body. As a consequence his characters insist on living with an intensity that has no relation to the limitations imposed by biological and physical laws. Many of his characters are obsessed with a fear of death. Some of them strive to come back from the tomb; others are terrified of being buried alive or in fact are buried alive like Berenice or like Madeleine in The Fall of the House of Usher. They sometimes fear that consciousness will not cease to be and that one will suffer the recurrent nightmare of being alive. His heroines are usually afflicted with mysterious diseases. They visibly waste away before their lover's eyes.
Death, as we see, is a predominant theme in Poe's writings. We see it not only in tales but also in poetry. Thus, we find it in The Conqueror Worm, the poem inserted in Ligeia. Or in The Raven, Ulalume, The Sleeper and The City in the Sea.
Poe is also much interested in the mysterious and baffling aspects of human consciousness, incipient madness and madness itself fascinate him, for he wants to understand the darker self that lurks behind the facade of rationality enjoyed by society upon its members.
Poe's interest in the powers of reason was intense and reveals itself in a number of ways. He fancied himself as cryptographer, and the problem of breaking codes comes in for full attention in his story The Golden Bug. In stories like The Murders in the Rue Morgue and The Purloined Letter reason is applied to the solution of a baffling crime.
Some few of his tales of nightmare terror come to happy endings precisely because the hero can think his way through a problem. The hero in The Pitt and the Pendulum cannot save himself from the death intended for him, but keeps alive until help from the outside arrives. And the hero of A Descent into the Maelstrom without any outside help, does rescue himself from the very jaws of disaster. In fact, one kind of Poesque hero can be described as a man forced to fall back on the resources of his own mind. In a way, the faith that one can find through reasoning a way out of apparently hopeless situation is one of the most "American things" about Poe.
As a reasoner, according to several recent scholars, he was not very good. His knowledge of science was rather superficial. It is, rather, a kind of untrained will. His commitment to reason was deep enough, but he had his reservations. Politically he was a conservative. At all events, his regard for reason never deluded him into underestimating the dark depths of soul.
He was fascinated with the deviousness of the human being and with its inner conflicts. He was intensely interested in the whole phenomenon of unconsciousness and the deeper realm of hidden motivations. He endeavoured to explore even more deeply than his British or American Romantic fellows the depths of the psyche. He attempts a rational examining of the irrational impulses and compulsive drives.
In spite of his morbid and obsessed topics, Poe's tales appealed to the audience of Poe's day. The answer may be that the ghost stories that Poe told his contemporaries were ghosts stories with a difference. Even though by setting them in a remote and decadent Europe, Poe masked their application to the situation in America. The stories pointed to a disintegration of which he was quite aware.
Poe imitated the authors who sold well, but he showed his true elevation of them by burlesquing them and went on to find ways in which to employ their materials in order to express his own coveted (codiciado, anhelado) - and denied - secure place in an old-fashioned society. He was able to exploit the local colour of Virginia or that of the American scene, and that is why he was read by his contemporaries. However, Poe's "American quality" is not a matter of the surface but an inward thing.
Poe sensed the change in the spiritual climate, and his fiction and verse - even the work that uses traditional settings - is really oriented towards the future. He clearly grasped the difference between traditional man and the new man (liberated? Emancipated? Alienated?) that was beginning to appear in America.
It would be excessive to say that Poe was fully conscious of all the implication of his stories and poems. It would be better to say that his imaginative works, which have been considered as a portent and a prophecy of things to come, were an extremely sensitive response to his environment.
(1827) Tamerlane and Other Poems.
(1829) Al Aaraaf, Tamerlane, and Minor Poems.
(1831, 2nd edition) Poems by Edgar Allan Poe.
(1845) The Raven and Other Poems.
(1833) The Mr. Found in a Bottle
(1839) The Fall of the House of Usher
(1840) Tales of the Grotesque and Arabesque
(1841) The Murders in the Rue Morgue
(1842) The Masque of the Red Death
(1846) The Cask of Amontillado
(1838) The Narrative of Arthur Gordon Pym (long narrative)
(1842) Review of Twice-Told Tales
(1846) The Philosophy of Composition
(1848) Eureka: A Prose Poem
(1850) The Poetic Principle
WALT WHITMAN: THE "BARD" OF THE PEOPLE
Poe, as we have said, viewed his society from quite a peculiar perspective. His stories speak of disintegration both of man and society.
Walt Whitman, however, responded to his environment in a different way. Conversely to Poe, he deeply believed in democracy and was genuinely committed to the democratic principles of freedom, equality and human brotherhood. All these principles will be fundamental part of his life and his writings.
The son of a carpenter, Whitman was born on Long Island and spent his entire life there, in Brooklyn and in New York. He attended the public schools of Brooklyn, read omnivorously, and listened to Elias Hicks, a Quaker preacher. Other early experiences included participating in a debating society, working in printing offices, and teaching country schools on Long Island.
These minor experiences would be of some value to his poetry. More important was the profession of journalism, which he entered after moving to Manhattan in 1841. He was the editor of the Brooklyn Eagle (1846-48) and the Brooklyn Freeman (1849-50).
Whitman's newspaper training, together with his remarkable precision of observed detail, explains something about the often crowded surfaces of his poetry and his relation to his materials. On a certain level he was a "realist". With Whittier, Whitman was one of the first of those American writers who came to the creative fidelity to an initially realistic vision of things. In 1848, after arguing the case for excluding Negro slavery from the territories, he made his first trip across America. He absorbed the scenery with the same intentness he had given to the turmoil of Manhattan. Out of this he developed from a New Yorker into an American.
In 1850 he returned north to become editor in chief of the Brooklyn "Freeman". A year later he quit as a result of his opposition to the Fugitive Slave Law. He lived quietly by doing some carpentry. The latter occupation gave him the last of his pre-poetic roles: the role of a simple, independent American workingman ("L of G": no author's name, but a picture of himself as a working American man).
In the early forties he had published several short stories as he had been determined to become a writer. They were crudely moralistic and unimpressive. His account of John Paul Jones and the massacre of Goliad, Texas, in "Song of Myself", and his poignant picture of General Washington saying farewell to his troops and the visit to his home of the Indian squaw in "The Sleepers" suggest a capacity for compelling human imaginary that could have been a major fictional resource. Nature, The American Scholar and The Poet, all by Emerson, were probably the works from which he took the conception of the poet as more than a maker of verses.
All this is reflected in the book he kept writing throughout his whole life: Leaves of Grass. In its pages, we find all the different themes that Whitman was concerned about: the Self and its relation to Nature and Universe; the close, almost sexual relation there existing between the body and the soul, the concepts of freedom and democracy, his reflections on human worries such as love, life, death...
[ What Walt Whitman tried to do in his poetry was quite simply to lay aside any commitments to tradition or conformity he might have as a poet and to find out and to express only what was inherently poetic about life in mid-nineteenth century America.
Starting with an uncritical acceptance of life in its totality, he worked inward to his consciousness through his senses and his insights, and outward to the democratic masses of American people and to mankind at large - through friendliness and love.]
Leaves of Grass is the result of his personal development, both as a poet and as a human being. Constant revision and rearrangement from edition to edition made Leaves of Grass grow in humility and wisdom as its author lived.
Themes in different editions
The long poem, or collection of closely related short poems, which occupied most of the first edition (1855) and which was later called Song of Myself, really contains the gift of all that Whitman had to say. In his first words "I celebrate myself and I sing myself", we can see his violent joy in life which will be present in most of his work, especially at the beginning.
That apparently egotistic "celebration of himself" is not such when we read the following lines: "and what I assume you shall assume". This means that he is thinking of the self as a powerful and sensitive instrument for receiving and expressing, rather than as Walt Whitman of Brooklyn. This is the doctrine of what Whitman called personalism. Whitman is constantly talking about "I", but the "I" is universal, a part of the Divine Soul, and therefore, not egotistic. For Whitman, as for transcendentalists, man should comprehend the divine soul within him and realise his identity and the true relationship between himself and God.
It is important to keep in mind that Whitman writes from a mystic perspective, that reminds us of oriental cultures. He believed in reincarnation (as for him, death does not mean the end), and considered both good and evil as part of the self, as part of the Cosmos.
It is from this perspective that he watches the world. He, as transcendentalists, watches and wonders. He applies the strategy of the "naïve wonder". He just "witness and wait" until he feels empathy with everything he sees. Whitman, as transcendentalists, considers that "observation" is something we all can do in order to "transcend" this world. The poet, in this sense, is one of the people. But, at the same time, the poet has a special quality that the others do not have: he can see further, he can project light over the rest of the people.
In fact, he was considered the "bard" of the people. In principle, we could say that he addresses to the American people, because America was his reality, and he always speaks from his own experience. However, this does not mean that his poetry was only for Americans. He announced ideas rather than facts, which allowed him to make the American ideals something universal. The poet thinks of America as the "center of equal daughters, equal sons", who are "strong, ample, fair, enduring, capable", and who identify themselves with "Freedom, Law and Love". He salutes America as the "grand, sane, towering, seated Mother", who is "chair'd in the adamant of time". This sort of poem is a reassertion of the poet's faith in the destiny of the American nation. It demonstrates his love of the masses, his devotion to democracy, and his belief in fulfilling a spiritual need of her people. He had faith in spiritual democracy, in creating and cultivating individuals who, through comradeship, would contribute to the ideal society. And this society was not only the American society, it was universal both in place or space and time.
His poems are actually, a contribution to that aim. The poet is for Whitman the "visionary" who can help to cultivate the others by showing them what we can find in nature. For Whitman, as for Emerson and the transcendentalists and romantics, Nature is an emblem of God, that can only be comprehended through intuition and close observation, the quality the poet possess. Whitman celebrates Nature and the relationship between nature and God, between the human soul and the divine soul. This is something very typical of transcendentalists, as we have just said. However, Whitman broke the convention when he put human soul and human body to the same level. He celebrates the body as well as the soul, and describes their relation in terms of sexual union.
The sexual references we find in his poems gave way to controversy in his lifetime and even afterwards. He was aware of the immense power of sexual impulse, which he conceived as a vital force. Before him, Hawthorne and Melville had also shown a consciousness of sexuality, but neither spoke with the freedom and candour Whitman allowed himself.
That vital relation soul-body is especially important at the beginning, when he wrote Song of Myself. This collection of poems was much altered with the years and with later editions of Leaves of Grass as Whitman lost some of his youthful extravagance, even though it never lost its original meaning. The second edition of Leaves of Grass (1856) carried forward the challenge of the first, but some time between 1855 and 1860, if we judge only from the evidence of the poems, Whitman experienced intimately the sorrows of love, bereavement, and death which had been largely theoretical to him earlier. There is a mood of depression and sadness in the new poems of the edition of 1860-61 that is totally lacking in the earlier volumes. [ But this does not mean that Whitman was pessimistic or that he accepted death in the way Christian tradition does. Whitman deals with death as a fact of life, but life in death is a truth for Whitman, which reminds us of Eastern civilisations.]
The next edition of Leaves of Grass (1867) added the poems from Drum-Taps to make a third stage in his poetic progress. When Whitman learned that his beloved brother George was wounded and in an Army hospital, he went to care for him, and then for the others who were stricken by the war. With the coming of sorrow, love for his fellows became more and more an impersonal bond with humanity, a principle of life closely associated with death.
As Whitman approached the meridian, he began to see life as a whole. The Leaves of 1867 is the most vigorous, rich - and confused - of them all. Here for the first time, the inscription "Oneself I sing" is placed first, the other poems drastically revised, and a few new poems in addition to those from Drum-Taps included. The book of life was beginning to take its final form. The theme of Modern Man is established deliberately and an attempt is made to develop it systematically through arrangement of existing poems; but the work is still unfinished because it was the poet's own life and he, as a man, had still a quarter of a century to live.
His uncertainty is evident in his feeling that perhaps the poems he was next to write would start a second book, and in his efforts to make clear his political and social philosophy in his only major prose work, Democratic Vistas (1871). He was at the peak of his creative powers, but doubts assailed his triumph.
The evolution of themes that we have just analysed, is closely related with Whitman evolution as a human being. But this does not mean that he changes his style or his way of "seeing" reality. He is constantly breaking conventions, and he does this not only in the themes he deals with but also in the personal style that he used to write his poems. His poems belong to no particular accepted form of poetry. Whitman was a poet bubbling with energy and burdened with sensations, and his poetic utterances reveal his innovations. His poetry, like that of most prophetic writers, is unplanned, disorganised, sometimes abortive, but nevertheless, distinctively his own.
Musicality, imagery and symbolism are three features that characterise his poems, providing them with the vitality he wanted to express.
Whitman believed that poetry should be spoken, not written, and therefore, he experimented with meter and rhythm. His poems do not follow regular patterns but they have a beautiful sound and also an oratorical style, typical of prophets. This effect is produced by the unconventional use of the trochaic movement (most English poets use the iambic meter).
Whitman brought vitality and picturesqueness to his descriptions of the physical world. He was particularly fond of sounds and described them with acute awareness. His language is full of eccentricities: he uses exuberant phrases and images, being able to use archaic expressions as well as colloquial and technical words, and even words from foreign languages, which add colour and variety to his style.
Whitman's use of imagery shows his capacity to capture reality instantaneously. He makes the past come alive in his images and makes the future seem immediate. Whitman's imagery has some logical order on the conscious level, but it also delves into the subconscious, into the world of memories, producing a stream-of-consciousness of images. These images seem like parts of a dream, picture of fragments of a world. On the other hand, they have solidity; they build the structure of the poems.
Finally, we have to speak about his use of symbols. [In the mid 1880s, the symbolist movement began in France, and the conscious use of symbols became the favourite practice of poets]. The symbolists and Whitman had much in common; both tried to interpret the universe through sensory perceptions, and both broke away from traditional forms and methods. But the symbols of the French symbolists were highly personal, whereas in Whitman the use of the symbol was governed by the objects he observed: the sea, the birds, the lilacs, the calamus plant, the sky, and so on.
Walt Whitman's achievement as a poet and prophet is truly monumental. He exercised a deep influence on his immediate successors in American letters, and even on modern poets, although he himself was a highly individualistic poet, as we have seen. As a symbolist, his influence was felt in Europe, where he was considered the greatest poet America had yet produced. His high style and elevated expression found echoes in Emily Dickinson, Marianne Moore, and others. Whitman as a stylist is the culmination of the sublime tradition in America, and even Allen Ginsberg, so different from Whitman in so many respects, follows the Whitman tradition of using invocative language. Whitman, though a man of his age, an essentially 19th c. poet, exercised a profound influence on twentieth century poets and modern poetry in the use of language, in the processes of symbol and image-making, in exercising great freedom in meter and form, and in cultivating the individualistic mode. In many ways Whitman is modern because he is prophetic; he is a poet not only of America but of the whole of mankind.
Leaves of Grass (revised and enlarged several times from 1855 until the final edition during Whitman's lifetime of 1892, posthumous poems added in 1897)
Memoranda during the War
"Preface" to the 1855 edition of Leaves of Grass.
What we have just said about Whitman could be perfectly applied to Poe and Melville. Each one in his own style, contributed to literature in a way that we will never be able to thank enough. Poe was a pioneer in his study of psychology to produce an effect on the reader. As we have said, he is "the master of the short story of psychological effect". In the case of Melville, the first author we have studied, his novels constitute a clear example of the main themes developed by American writers. The difference is in the importance given to personal experience and reality, which is reflected in language in a wonderful way. As we see, all these authors write on the main themes that lie under the human thought, but always from the reality that surrounds them: America.
Melville: Magister, Cen, apuntes y Enciclopedia Británica (appendix)
Poe: Cen, Magister y apuntes.
Walt Whitman: Cen, Magister, y mucho de los apuntes y fotocopias (dentro de los apuntes, las que hablan de sus temas y estilo).
bolster: reforzar, dar aliento a
to yarn: cuento increíble, exageración.
couched as an autobiography: enristrado, puesto en capas a modo de autobiog.
siege the truth: asedio, cerco, ataque a la verdad (búsqueda inparable de la verd.)
bluff narrator: franco / escarpado / enhiesto narrador
sheer abundance: absoluta / pura / completa abundancia
acquaintance: conocimiento, trato, familiaridad con Hawthorne
onthological: ontológico (estudio del ente, qué es el ser)
dwindle away: mermar, menguar, disminuirse
relinquished his effort to live by the pen: abandonar, dejar, desistir de, renunciar a su esfuerzo para vivir de la pluma.
Melville had written himself out:
blubber: esperma o grasa de ballena / gimotear, llorar haciendo ruido.
to drive yawingly to some horizontal goal: (yaw = guiñar; yawn = bostezar)
foster father: padre adoptivo
strive: esforzarse, procurar hacer lo posible, forcejear.
lurk: acechar, espiar, esconderse.
criptografía = arte de escribir con clave secreta o de modo enigmático.
turmoil: disturbio, desorden, alboroto.
compelling: compeler, apremiar, obrigar, forzar; arrancar.
bard: bardo, vate = p. heroico/lírico de cualquier época o país; vate=adivino
burdened with sensations: cargado, agobiado, lleno de sensaciones.
to delve (into the subconscious): cavar, penetrar, ahondar; inquirir, sondear.
TOPIC 53 (ESQUEMA)
- Period of National Literature and Romantic individualism
- Jacksonian democracy
- Industrial developments
- Slavery and abolitionism
- The writers we are about to study: philosophical quest of human life + great contribution to literature.
- Struggle between contradictory realities such as good and evil - typical of Am. literature: philosophy + reality ("anxious desire to speak the truth")
- Typee: contrast civilisation vices - barbarous virtues
- Omoo: jocular Melville
- Mardi: 1st boldly attempt to siege the truth
- Redburn: his voyage to Liverpool (rooted in personal experience)
- Moby Dick: - National epic + tragedy of the mind's profoundest workings.
- Metaphysical inquiry comes out of physical fact & not viceversa: everything in this novel is tangible, perfectly described.
- Afterwards: absolute silence ! 1850s: worst period of his life
- Pierre: projection of his alienation from America
- Israel Potter + The Confidence Man: disappointed with human wickedness
- Bartleby the Scrivener + Benito Cereno
- Poetry: Clarel + Timoleon
-Final posthumously published Billy Budd
EDGAR ALLAN POE
- He questioned the American Dream and exploited the unknown mysteries of life.
- Hard life.
- Tales: arabesque, grotesque, rational (elements chosen to produce an effect on the reader). The master of the short story of psychological effect
- Themes: decadence + death ! special setting = symbol of inner self.
- Mysterious aspects of human consciousness ! madness & powers of reason.
- A democrat and freethinker, convinced that his works spoke for every man.
- Biography: several works before he becomes a writer (simple, independent, American working man).
- His poetry: breaks conventions both in themes and style
- Themes: personalism, mysticism, body-soul, nature, love, death, America
- Style: musicality, imagery and symbolism. Extravagant images, free verse, symbols taken from real world (realistic vision of things).
Melville (Encyclopedia Britannica)
In the internal tension that put him in conflict with his age lay a strangely 20th-century awareness of the deceptiveness of realities and of the instability of personal identity. Yet his writings never lost sight of reality. His symbols grew from such visible facts, made intensely present, as the dying whales, the mess of blubber, and the wood of the ship, in Moby Dick. [ For Melville, as for Shakespeare, man was ape and essence, inextricably compounded; and the world, like the "Pequod", was subject to "two antagonist influences... one to mount direct to heaven, the other to drive yawningly to some horizontal goal". It was Melville's triumph that he endured, recording his vision to the end. After the years of neglect, modern criticism has secured his reputation with that of the great American writers. ]
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