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Shorter Book Reviews 299 were in Chafee's time, and the art of teaching is perhaps less secure now than it ever has been. If more reasons were needed, then these could be offered for consulting both Donald Smith's fine study and Chafee's own works. S. V. LaSelva Department of Political Science York University, Ontario George B. Hutchinson. The Ecstatic Whitman: Literary Shamanism and the Crisisof the Union. Columbus: Ohio State University Press, I986. xxviii + 231 pp. InLeaves of Grass, Professor Hutchinson argues, Whitman enacts a role analogousto ---perhaps even remotely derived from-that held in primitive societies by the shaman. Like the shaman, Whitman devotes himself to the religious and cultural salvation of his society in a time of crisis: he assumes the mask of the healer, enters an ecstatic trance in which he faces ultimate reality, and returns to the world of everyday consciousness, having helped to redeem his countrymen. Shamanism, Hutchinson contends, allows u.s to understand the hidden unity of Whitman's poems, which is not adequately explained by previous critical models, based on Eastern and Western mysticism, Freudian psychology, homosexuality, andconventional notions of genre. In particular, shamanism accounts, as mysticismdoes not, for the deliberate element of performance found even in Whitman's mostdeeply personal poems; whereas mystical experience can be radically private and internal, shamanism characteristically demands communal sharing of the ecstatic state through chanting and dance. Hutchinson uses shamanism to depict Whitman's development as a poet in the lightof America's historical development in the mid-nineteenth century. During the 1840s and I850s, he suggests, Whitman was struggling to define his own personaland poetic role in the spiritual regeneration of his nation; because the role ofshaman was not pre-established in his society, Whitman was forced to reinvent it for himself, by drawing on diverse influences from his reading and from contemporary religious revivals. The discovery of the shamanic role, which offered a link between his own psychic well-being and the health of his nation, wasa crucial element in transforming Whitman from a journalistic hack to the inspiredauthor of the first (1855) edition of Leaves of Grass and its most notable ecstatic poem, the untitled first version of "Song of Myself." The deepening crisiswhich the Union faced as the Civil War approached was reflected in the third (1860)edition, whose celebrated private poems had, according to Hutchinson, a publicand religious function. But the crisis was registered most powerfully in the poems written in response to the Civil War (the "Drum-Taps" cluster) and the assassination of Lincoln ("When Lilacs Last in the Dooryard Bloom'd"); as the 300 Shorter Book Reviews threat to the nation became greater, the regenerative function of the ecstatic state became more crucial. In the aftermath of the war, from 1871 onwards, Whitman's ecstasy became less daring and dynamic, as in the failed raptures of "Passage to India.'' And some of the shamanic power of the early editions was effacedby Whitman's revisions, as he moved toward the monumental finality of the Deathbed (1892) edition. Hutchinson's claims for his shamanistic model are sometimes overstated, forit relies, as much as the mystical, psychological, sexual, and generic models do,on a selective reading of Leaves of Grass. In championing his ecstatic Whitman, Hutchinson is unduly resistant to Whitman's revisions, and too ready to seethe later editions as regressive. While his shamanistic paradigm helps to explain the ecstatic moments of individual poems, it does not adequately account for the aesthetic principles which govern the entire Leaves of Grass as a cluster of clusters. The search for some single pre-existent cultural key to unlock the mysteries of Whitman's text is itself chimerical, since his elusive discourse resists the containment that any single critical viewpoint on it demands. With these caveats in mind, I recommend Hutchinson's book as a thoughtful, worthwhile contribution to Whitman studies, written by a capable scholar with a genuine empathy for his subject. Narrow though they are in their focus, his readings of individual poems are close and appreciative, and they anchor his broad theoretical concerns in a specific literary context. Furthermore, they quite rightly insist onthe public function served by...

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Additional Information

ISSN
1710-114X
Print ISSN
0007-7720
Pages
pp. 299-300
Launched on MUSE
2019-01-02
Open Access
No
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