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A Political Companion to Walt Whitman

John Seery

Publication Year: 2011

The works of Walt Whitman have been described as masculine, feminine, postcolonial, homoerotic, urban, organic, unique, and democratic, yet arguments about the extent to which Whitman could or should be considered a political poet have yet to be fully confronted. Some scholars disregard Whitman’s understanding of democracy, insisting on separating his personal works from his political works. A Political Companion to Walt Whitman is the first full-length exploration of Whitman’s works through the lens of political theory. Editor John E. Seery and a collection of prominent theorists and philosophers uncover the political awareness of Whitman’s poetry and prose, analyzing his faith in the potential of individuals, his call for a revolution in literature and political culture, and his belief in the possibility of combining heroic individualism with democratic justice. A Political Companion to Walt Whitman reaches beyond literature into political theory, revealing the ideology behind Whitman’s call for the emergence of American poets of democracy.

Published by: The University Press of Kentucky

Series: Political Companions to Great American Authors

Front Cover

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Series page

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pp. ii

Title Page

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pp. iii

Copyright Page

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pp. iv


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pp. v-vi

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Series Foreword

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pp. vii-viii

THOSE WHO UNDERTAKE A study of American political thought must attend to the great theorists, philosophers, and essayists. But such a study is incomplete, however, if it neglects American literature, one of the greatest repositories of the nation’s political thought and teachings. America’s literature is distinctive because it is, above all, intended for a democratic citizenry. In contrast to eras when an author would aim...


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pp. ix

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pp. 1-15

A POLITICAL COMPANION TO Walt Whitman is the first volume to bring together political theorists to ponder Walt Whitman as a political writer. Such calculated, if rather belated attention surely behooves explanation. The world of secondary literature devoted to the writings of Walt Whitman is already rich, extensive, and impressive. Scholars have scrutinized, it would seem, almost every line and verse of Whitman’s poetry and prose. They have also deftly connected these gems to Whitman’s personal...

Part I

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pp. 17

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Chapter 1: Walt Whitman and the Culture of Democracy

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pp. 19-46

I THINK THAT WALT WHITMAN is a great philosopher of democracy. Indeed, he may be the greatest. As Thoreau said, Whitman “is apparently the greatest democrat the world has ever seen.”1 To put it more academically, he is perhaps the greatest philosopher of the culture of democracy. He writes the best phrases and sentences about democracy. By democratic...

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Chapter 2: Strange Attractors: How Individualists Connect to Form Democratic Unity

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pp. 47-58

FOR SEVERAL YEARS, GEORGE Kateb has been spinning out a glittering line of thought: Democracy exists for individualism—our unique and shining selves are democracy’s whole purpose and end, and individualism is the real force preserving democracy. He reiterates the theme of earlier work, that individualists offer the strongest resistance to statism in its various oppressive guises: ...

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Chapter 3: Mestiza Poetics: Walt Whitman, Barack Obama, and the Question of Union

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pp. 59-95

WHEN IT CAME TO identifying with famous antebellum figures, Barack Obama chose early. Declaring his candidacy for the presidency from the steps of the Old State Capitol in Springfield, the junior U.S. senator from Illinois assumed the mantle of one of America’s greatest presidents: Abraham Lincoln. Delivered in Lincoln’s hometown on the weekend of Lincoln’s...

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Chapter 4: Democratic Desire: Walt Whitman

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pp. 96-130

WALT WHITMAN IS A political poet, a poet who holds that poetry has an essential role to play in the life of the American democracy.1 This is so because the poet knows what it is to see men and women as ends, and to see the boundless and equal worth of each and every one of them: ...

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Chapter 5: The Solar Judgment of Walt Whitman

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pp. 131-146

ACCORDING TO HENRI BERGSON, perceiving is subtractive, an act of screening off: our bodies “allow to pass through them, so to speak, those external influences which are indifferent to them; the others isolated become ‘perceptions’ by their very isolation.”1 Perception is a “discarding of what has no interest for our needs,” where the “interest” or principle of (de)selection is...

Part II

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pp. 147

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Chapter 6: “Mass Merger”: Whitman and Baudelaire, the Modern Street, and Democratic Culture

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pp. 149-154

WALT WHITMAN AND CHARLES Baudelaire didn’t know each other’s work, and don’t much sound like one another. But they share certain deep preoccupations that were shared by very few other writers in their times. Both addressed their readers in intensely personal and sometimes confessional voices. Both saw poetry as an arena for taking existential risks. Both...

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Chapter 7: Promiscuous Citizenship

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pp. 155-184

SHORTLY AFTER PUBLISHING THE first edition of Leaves of Grass in 1855, Whitman wrote several anonymous reviews of his own work. These self-reviews offer important insight into the expressly political motivations or “firstmost purports” animating this most innovative and formally unprecedented of nineteenth-century American literary experiments, particularly when read alongside the preface to the first edition of Leaves...

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Chapter 8: Walt Whitman and the Ethnopoetics of New York

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pp. 185-219

WALT WHITMAN’S INFLUENCE ON generations of artists, writers, and poets in America and throughout the world is undeniable.1 The lines, imagery, sentiments, and subjects of attention in his poems continue to emerge in novels, poetry, music, and other art forms. The title and much of the imagery and focus of his poem “I Sing the Body Electric,” for example, have migrated into a wide variety of texts, among which are a science...

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Chapter 9: Democratic Manliness

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pp. 220-241

BASED ON AN EXTRAORDINARY poetry that celebrates the workaday world with such intensity and at such length, Walt Whitman has enjoyed a considerable reputation as the poet par excellence of democracy. Indeed, he has been celebrated as a political philosopher, and the “teachings” of his poetry analyzed in that vein.1 Whitman himself was deeply involved...

Part III

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pp. 243

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Chapter 10: Whitman as a Political Thinker

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pp. 245-271

MY TASK IS TO present and assess Whitman as a political thinker. To make my task simpler, I’ve pretty much limited myself to the prose he wrote after the Civil War. That may or may not be his best writing, but it is certainly his most mature thought. I’ve compared him to what Alexis de Tocqueville says in his great Democracy in America, but mainly in search of points of agreement and not with the...

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Chapter 11: Whitman, Death, and Democracy

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pp. 272-295

ONE OF THE MOST striking moments in Plato’s Apology is when Socrates declares, “To fear death, gentlemen, is no other than to think oneself wise when one is not, to think one knows what one does not know.”1 Fear of death is intellectually presumptuous; it implies that one knows for certain that death is bad. Yet as limited mortals, we cannot know the nature of...

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Chapter 12: Morbid Democracies: The Bodies Politic of Walt Whitman and Richard Rorty

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pp. 296-309

ON JANUARY 30, 2007, Microsoft released its newest computer operating system, dramatically christened “Vista.” The multinational corporation thus simultaneously evoked the grandiosity of Walt Whitman’s expansive embrace of American democratic aspirations, redefined the visual-aesthetic domain where many of the world’s workers spend their greatest amounts...

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Chapter 13: Democratic Enlightenment: Whitman and Aesthetic Education

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pp. 310-339

ROUGHLY TWELVE TOPICS CAN be distinguished in Whitman’s essay Democratic Vistas, all of which he brings to bear on the three questions he struggles with most.1 What constitutes the uniqueness of democracy in America? What is required for American democracy to develop its unique potential and break with all past societies, their cultures, and the principles on which they are based? How would global history be altered if America’s...

"Leaves of Grass" Frontispieces

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pp. 340-341


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pp. 343-352


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pp. 353-355


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pp. 357-373

E-ISBN-13: 9780813126555
Print-ISBN-13: 9780813126548

Page Count: 368
Publication Year: 2011

Series Title: Political Companions to Great American Authors