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Whitman in Liège

ISSUE:  Spring 2005

This fall, at the start of my semester as a Fulbright lecturer at the University of Liège, I watched Fahrenheit 9/11 with 500 Belgian high school students. The students came from Liège and the area around it, a landscape that evoked the 19th century’s difficult legacy, as a once booming economy struggled to adjust to postindustrial realities. The city had pleasant cafés that lined charming cobblestone streets, an impressive opera house, and a lively jazz scene. Yet closed or underutilized factories darkened the towns around it, polluted hulks that fail to interest potential investors.

After the screening, a retired professor of American Studies and I answered questions. I was told to speak slowly and to limit my vocabulary, tasks I found difficult, given my nervousness. “I have a question for the American professor,” one student asked: “Will corruption ever end in America?” Another teenager stood up to say, “I want to ask the American professor, What is the future of U.S.-European relations?” I was also asked how the United States could win the war on terrorism.

If I answered such questions honestly, I would say I had no idea. Instead, I fudged and equivocated, tried to speak slowly and avoid the word “hegemony.” “I am a professor of literature,” I wanted to say, “not of politics or history.” Yet to teach American literature in Europe, especially this year, was to see how quickly that distinction dissolved, if it ever truly existed. My very presence in Europe called it into question. A U.S.-government fellowship paid my expenses in the hope that literary studies served diplomatic ends, that (in the Commission’s words) “these efforts will lead to better understanding between the people involved and eventually between their countries.” The students directed their questions to me because I was “the American professor,” expected to give “an”—if not “the”—“American perspective.”

This curiosity extended beyond the students. Nearly wherever I went, Belgians wanted to know what I thought about the presidential election. Beforehand, they asked whom I would vote for and who I thought would win. On the day of the election, a florist and I discussed exit polls as he arranged some flowers for me to bring to a dinner party. The more we talked, the more flowers he added to the bouquet I had already bought, as if to reward an American for voting as he would. Once I realized what was happening, I shamelessly explained the important role that my home state, Ohio, might play in the election. The arrangement grew larger and larger. When I walked down the street, a woman asked in French, “For me, Sir?” before she and her friend burst into laughter at the bouquet, the size of an overstuffed laundry bag.

The day after the election, everyone wanted to know what went wrong. I did not meet a single Belgian who would have voted for Bush. All said they would have voted for Kerry, though, when asked, all admitted they knew almost nothing about the candidate, except he was not Bush. This American election, colleagues told me, generated more interest than any they could remember. The Belgians I spoke with expressed frustration over the fact that the election directly affected their lives but they could not influence it. America was on everyone’s mind.

This fact added to the awkwardness that started some conversations. Like many American professors, I did not know how to answer the first question that many Europeans ask a visitor: “Where are you from?” Should I say the town in Massachusetts where I was born, the three states where I earned my undergraduate and graduate degrees, or Ohio, where I live and work? The Belgian educational system differs from the American in that many professors grew up near the university where they teach and received their education. This arrangement risks insularity, in contrast to the American system, which nearly guarantees a sense of geographic dislocation. Several of my colleagues in Liège expressed more loyalty to their region than to their nation; they define themselves as Wallonian, not Belgian. They had a cosmopolitan sensibility, having lived abroad and knowing a dazzling number of languages, but also had deep roots where they live.

This is not to say that the concept of home remained unproblematic. One colleague lived in Germany, commuting across national borders in roughly the same amount of time it takes me to drive from Columbus, Ohio, to the suburb where I teach. A language division made the small country seem smaller. A country the size of Maryland claims three mother tongues. In Wallonian areas such as Liège, French is spoken; in Flanders, Dutch. There is also a small German-speaking area. Coupled with the economic disparities that exist between Flanders and Wallonia, the linguistic, cultural difference raises the real possibility that Belgium could dissolve as a country.

All of this may seem to have little to do with American poetry, except that these attitudes toward America cannot help but change the way its literature is read and taught. Set in unfamiliar contexts, words gain different inflections as coincidences juxtapose disparate events. While the American military conducted a war promoted in metaphysical terms—“a war against terror”—two occasions invited self-reflection. An election approached, followed by a date of more specialized interest: the 150th anniversary of Leaves of Grass, first published in 1855.

Acknowledging the book’s importance, I planned to start the semester rather conventionally. A class on American poetry and prosody opened with Leaves of Grass (1855 edition), the closest American poetry gets to a foundational text. Roy Harvey Pearce asserts that “all American poetry [since Leaves of Grass] is, in essence if not in substance, a series of arguments with Whitman,” a claim that Ed Folsom extends when he notes “how much American poetry has been in substance a record of that argument.” As if to demonstrate this point, a recent anthology collects one hundred poems written by one hundred poets, each inspired by Whitman’s work or his life. As the editors admit, the included work represents only a slim portion of the poems that show Whitman’s influence.

“You wrote the book against which we are read,” Mark Doty observes, paying Whitman a compliment he would have loved. By “we,” Doty means more than poets; he means Americans. From the preface’s first word, “America,” Whitman develops an instrumental notion of national identity. He gives “an”—if not “the”—“American perspective.”

Most Americans have read some Whitman in high school, usually the short lyric “O Captain! My Captain!” When teaching these students, I try to broaden their understanding of Whitman beyond the stereotype of “the good gray poet” that their high school teachers seemed to favor. My students in Liège posed another challenge. Most were Belgian, some were English, Canadian, and Austrian, but none, I was surprised to learn, had ever read any of Whitman’s poetry. 

Part of the reason arises from the curriculum. That semester I was the only professor to teach American literature. While many American universities emphasize their country’s literature, the department at Liège favors British and postcolonial works. (Hena Maes-Jelinek, a groundbreaking figure in European Caribbean studies, taught in the department for decades, exerting considerable influence.) Responding to the professors’ suggestions, the library houses a surprisingly limited collection of American literature, arranged alphabetically, while British and postcolonial literature requires nearly half an entire floor. The library shelves W. H. Auden, the Englishman turned American, and T. S. Eliot, the American turned Englishman, in the section for British authors, a peculiar arrangement that disregards Eliot’s droll observation: “Whichever Auden is,” Eliot noted of his nationality, “I suppose I must be the other.”

Rereading Leaves of Grass in order to teach it, I suspected that I might find that the poetry, written as America headed toward a civil war, anticipated the political challenges that Belgium faces. Instead, I found that Whitman spoke less to a country that confronts significant internal divisions than to the difficulties of U.S.-European relations.

In this respect I found Whitman surprisingly repellent. “The Americans of all nations at any time upon the earth have probably the fullest poetical nature,” Whitman wrote, reversing European dismissals of American culture as crude and unaccomplished. “The United States themselves are essentially the greatest poem.” I winced a little as I reread these lines, envisioning teaching them to a classroom of Europeans. By their very “nature,” their “veins full of poetical stuff,” Americans claim superiority. “The true American character,” “the soul of the largest and wealthiest and proudest nation,” gives its people an incomparable strength, a vitality that others lack. America, “the race of races,” inspires true poetry, as a bard’s “spirit responds to his country’s spirit.”

Such views were not unique to Whitman. “We must turn bullies,” Melville wrote, envisioning a time when America would claim “political supremacy” but still lag behind artistically. Melville praised “those writers, who breathe that unshackled spirit of Christianity in all things, which takes the practical lead in this world.” America’s muscular native Christianity will overtake the world because it is manlier. To achieve this domination, America should throw off European shackles. “[N]o American writer,” Melville counseled five years before the first publication of Leaves of Grass, “should write like an Englishman, or a Frenchman; let him write like a man.” Melville did not argue that nations should stop subordinating each other. He instead envisioned a time when England “must play the flunkey” to America, not the other way around. The Europeans exert an effeminate influence that must be resisted and will be surpassed. “[T]he time is not far off,” Melville augured, “when circumstances may force” American domination.

Preparing for class, I could not help but hear how such arguments echo the aggressive tone that the current administration takes when speaking to Europe. Several colleagues privately repeated Richard Boucher’s dismissal of Belgium, Germany, Luxembourg, and France as “chocolate makers,” though they wrongly attributed the State Department spokesman’s comment to Donald Rumsfeld. This mistake, though, is understandable, given Rumsfeld’s general stance toward “old Europe,” that it must (in Melville’s terms) “play the flunkey.” (To be fair, Rumsfeld does have his reasons to dislike Belgium, the country that tried to charge him as a war criminal.)

Yet Whitman was hardly a contemporary neoconservative. He disdained those who “moralize and who make application of morals,” anticipating that priests will in “a generation or two” “be no more” because “their work is done.” Radically and revolutionarily egalitarian, he developed a poetics that placed the president no higher than an opium eater and a prostitute:

The opium eater reclines with rigid head and just-opened lips,
The prostitute draggles her shawl, her bonnet bobs on her tipsy and
        pimpled neck,
The crowd laugh at her blackguard oaths, the men jeer and wink at
        each other,
(Miserable! I do not laugh at your oaths nor jeer you,)
The President holds a cabinet council, he is surrounded by great
        secretaries …

Whitman employs the same structure for the nation’s most powerful leader as for its outcasts; each receives a single verse line. He criticizes only those who look down at fellow citizens, “the men” who “jeer and wink,” because the absence of sympathy constitutes a great offense, a sin that ruins those who succumb to its temptations. “[W]hoever walks a furlong without sympathy,” Whitman observes, “walks to his own funeral, dressed in a shroud.” Even Whitman’s denunciation establishes connections. “I do not laugh at your oaths,” he asserts, reminding the members of the crowd that they—like the prostitute and the president—have taken their own “blackguard oaths.”

This devotion to society’s most vulnerable made Whitman a poetic hero to the political Left, abroad and in America. “You / taught me / to be American,” Pablo Neruda wrote, addressing Whitman. Whitman’s poetry, as the philosopher Richard Rorty notes, helped to create “the image of America which was ubiquitous on the American left prior to the Vietnam War.” In a provocative argument, Rorty chastises fellow leftists for abandoning Whitman’s hopeful celebrations of Americanness, for disdaining any demonstrations of American pride. In essence, they follow Twain’s lead, not Whitman’s. “[P]atriotism,” Twain charged, “is always moral cowardice—and always has been.”

Of course the American Right has never regarded patriotism as “a laughable and grotesque word.” When Andrew Delbanco refers to “the post-

Vietnam irony that we now bring to all pronouncements of high national purpose,” he excuses conservatives from consideration. The Right freely expresses patriotism. Instead of ironic detachment and distrust, its members enthusiastically receive “pronouncements of high national purpose,” especially since conservatives dominate nearly all of these displays. Seizing an opportunity, the Right produces the jingoistic images of national pride that command the civic discourse, achieving significant political advantage. Decades before September 11, the Right defined patriotism’s key terms, including “patriot” and “homeland.”

The Vietnam era also moved poets to reexamine Whitman’s legacy, bringing a version of the irony Delbanco observes. In 1968 Galway Kinnell turned Whitman’s words into taunts:

And I hear,
coming over the hills, America singing,
her varied carols I hear:
crack of deputies’ rifles practicing their aim on stray dogs at night,
sput [sic] of cattleprod,
TV groaning at the smells of the human body,
curses of the soldier as he poisons, burns, grinds, and stabs
the rice of the worlds,
with open mouth, crying strong, hysterical curses.

“I count with such absolute certainty,” Whitman prophesized, “on the great future of the United States.” With equal assurance Kinnell decries America’s present, employing a rhetoric that turns those it denounces into cartoonish villains. The soldier not only “poisons, burns, grinds, and stabs” (my italics) but also swears “strong, hysterical curses.”  Kinnell draws from one of Whitman’s slightest poems, “I Hear America Singing,” popular in high schools for the ease with which it fits into curriculums and reassuring notions of civic engagement. Instead of the “strong melodious songs” that delight Whitman, Kinnell hears imperial violence abroad and brutal repression at home. Because Whitman represents America, it is unclear whom Kinnell taunts with the poetic reference: Whitman for his faith in his country’s great future or America for failing to achieve the poet’s vision.

While these readings of Whitman might be called anachronistic, they remain faithful to the demands that Whitman places on his readers. Ending without terminal punctuation, the 1855 edition version of “Song of Myself” remains open-ended, asking the reader to complete its project.  “A great poem is no finish to a man or woman,” he wrote, “but rather a beginning.” Whitman asked to be “absorbed,” to be found under the reader’s bootsoles.

Debating “the degree to which Whitman may be regarded as a socialist poet,” F. O. Matthiessen concluded that it is “impossible . . . to give any one answer to the views Whitman held.” Whitman’s contradictions remain broad enough to encompass the antithetical emotions that living abroad inspires, the assertiveness that arises from a certain defensiveness. In churlish moments, I found myself disagreeing with criticisms of America that I shared, developing retorts and counterexamples to the arguments I heard again and again. Americans, I was told, distrust subtlety and remain ignorant about world affairs, the “world” defined largely as Europe.

As if to confirm the charges I resisted, a Whitmanesque echo entered the presidential race, befuddling the candidate I supported. While Langston Hughes’s “I, Too,” directly responds to Whitman (one of Hughes’s formative influences), proclaiming “I, too, sing America. // I am the darker brother,” “Let America Be America Again” uses recognizably Whitmanesque cadences and rhetorical devices. Struggling to establish a campaign slogan, John Kerry quoted Hughes’s poem on a number of occasions. “We need to let America be America again, so we can meet this energy challenge,” he asserted. In Pittsburgh to introduce John Edwards as his vice presidential running mate, Kerry ended his speech by quoting the poem’s entire first stanza, noting that “Pittsburgh knows about . . . those whose hand is at the foundry.” Responding to the Abu Ghraib scandal, Kerry observed:

There’s a powerful yearning around the world for an America that listens and leads again, an America that is respected, not just feared and mistrusted. Abroad as well as at home, it’s time to let America be America again.

Kerry selectively quoted “Let America Be American Again,” avoiding the poem’s stinging refrain, “America never was America to me.”  Invoking the poem, he often alluded to Hughes’s race but not to the anger that inspired his political commitments. He made Hughes sound like the Whitman of “I Hear America Singing,” espousing a version of the optimism that Kinnell scorned.

“Progressives,” the linguist George Lakoff notes, “are suffering from massive hypocognition,” a term Lakoff borrows from cognitive science to describe “the lack of ideas you need, the lack of a relatively simple frame that can be evoked by a word or two.”  Kerry’s use of Hughes’s poem and the Whitman legacy it represents illustrates this problem. Seizing on the candidate’s enthusiasm for Hughes, Random House rushed into production a pamphlet that collected nine of Hughes’s poems, with “Let American Be America Again” serving as the title and opening poem. In his preface Kerry notes that he is “[n]ot unmindful” of the poem’s “duality of meaning.” Awkward and puzzling, this double negative highlights the problem that Kerry never solved. If George W. Bush ever said, “Let America be America again,” the slogan would cause little confusion. Virtually anyone who reads the newspapers or watches the evening news knows the past that Bush wishes to reclaim. Kerry’s exhortation failed to inspire voters not because Americans dislike poetry or because they do not appreciate subtlety. Instead, too few knew what the candidate meant by “America.”

To teach Whitman, I too had to grapple with my own notions of Americanness. I had to decide what to emphasize and what to ignore, facing severe time restrictions. In Lakoff’s terms, I had to “frame” the issues, employing an accessible vocabulary to introduce complex issues. Settling on imperfect solutions, I decided to teach the passages I have cited, introducing the possibilities that Whitman’s poetry explores. I showed how Whitman borrowed techniques from the King James Bible, how, with each anaphora and parallelism, the assertion of difference, of cultural independence, inspires a richer entanglement.

But we lingered on perhaps the most famous passage in Leaves of Grass, the description of the bathers secretly watched by the woman who “owns the fine house by the rise of the bank. / She hides handsome and richly drest aft the blinds of the window.” Whitmanesque touches fill the surrounding lines. When the poet observes, “Ah the homeliest of them is beautiful to her,” he shares her sigh, as well as her taste in men. In my favorite moment, Whitman addresses the fellow watcher:

Where are you off to, lady? for I see you,
You splash in the water there, yet stay stock still in your room.

Greeting this “lady” caught in an unladylike moment, Whitman observes, “for I see you,” a phrase both teasing and sympathetic. He tenderly breaks the bounds of decorum, placing all involved in an eroticized space, where the homeliest is the most beautiful, the watcher is lovingly watched, and what is proper relishes the forbidden. The imagination moves those it possesses, transporting a viewer, alone and motionless in her room. It compels her across borders, across the blinds where she hides, and into the water.


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