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American Literature 73.1 (2001) 147-184

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“Of Me and of Mine”:
The Music of Racial Identity in Whitman and Lanier, Dvorák and DuBois

Jack Kerkering


With Reconstruction entering its tenth year in 1875, plans were underway in Philadelphia for a gala event to mark the following year’s national centennial. Opening ceremonies would feature a choral cantata with music by Northerner Dudley Buck and words by Southerner and former Confederate soldier and poet Sidney Lanier. This collaboration between North and South was deliberately meant to symbolize the national unity that Reconstruction had so far failed to restore.1 Lanier’s poem “The Centennial Meditation of Columbia,” or the Centennial Cantata, asserts national continuity by personifying America as a single entity, the goddess Columbia, whose declaration “I was: I am: and I shall be” asserts a national will to endure.2 Lanier was not the only poet, however, to mark the centennial, for Walt Whitman’s 1876 “Preface” also references “the Centennial at Philadelphia,” describing Leaves of Grass as “my contribution and outpouring to celebrate . . . the first Centennial of our New World Nationality.”3 Both Lanier and Whitman, then, seize the centennial moment to look beyond civil war toward national unity.

In doing so, however, each poet provides a different account of the nation’s history. Whitman invokes the Revolution of 1776 to celebrate a “New World Nationality” that coincides with “the Hundred Years’ life of the Republic” (LG, 751). Figuring the Revolution as a national birth, he asserts: “[A]ll the hitherto experience of The States, their first Century, has been but preparation, adolescence—and . . . This Union is only now and henceforth (i.e., since the Secession war) to enter on its full Democratic career” (LG, 750). In contrast to this account of national maturation, Lanier’s Columbia announces not progress but [End Page 147] stasis. The line “I was: I am: and I shall be” echoes assertions of divine permanence in the Bible’s Old and New Testaments,4 and the poem itself supports such permanence by reaching back to a time well before the Revolution when “Jamestown” and “Plymouth” first struggled against “Famine” and “War” (“CMC,” 61). Thus Whitman’s narrative of maturation—the struggle of American patriots to free themselves from the British and pursue a “Democratic career”—contrasts with Lanier’s narrative of perpetuation, in which British settlers struggle to extend the ways of the Old World into the New.

Bound up with these different narratives of national history are different approaches to poetic form. “[M]y form,” writes Whitman, “has strictly grown from my purports and facts, and is the analogy of them”—that is, free verse is the “analogy” of “a revolutionary age” (LG, 755). For Lanier, the Centennial Cantata’s form involves “the short, sharp, vigorous Saxon words [that] broke, rather than fell, from the lips of the chorus”5—and these are not “analogies” of the Revolution but relics of a prior civilization: “[T]he author desiring to experiment upon the quality of tone given out by choral voices when enunciating Saxon words, as compared with that from smoother Latin derivatives, wrote his poem almost entirely in the former” (“CC,” 272). Thus, while Whitman’s centennial writings link poetic form to America’s revolutionary origins (“Out of the Hundred Years just ending . . . my Poems too have found genesis” [LG, 756]), Lanier derives the formal features of his Centennial Cantata from a source that predates both the Revolution and colonization—from the “abrupt vocables” of Anglo-Saxon (“CC,” 273).

By insisting on Anglo-Saxon sounds in the text of his cantata, Lanier redirects the force of the line “I was: I am: and I shall be,” for although spoken by the New World’s goddess Columbia, these are Old World sounds. And it is this focus on sounds, I will argue, that underwrites Lanier’s break from Whitman’s “New World Nationality.” Where Whitman asserts an “Indissoluble Union” (LG, 747), Lanier’s concern is the sounds of Anglo-Saxon; where Whitman’s...


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pp. 147-184
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