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American Literary History 15.1 (2003) 61-69
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Representing Emergent Literatures
Cyrus R. K. Patell
Basketball is like this for Walt Whitman. He watches these Indian boys
as if they were the last bodies on earth. Every body is brown!
Walt Whitman shakes because he believes in God.
Walt Whitman dreams of the Indian boy who will defend him,
trapping him in the corner, all flailing arms and legs
and legendary stomach muscles....
There is no place like this. Walt Whitman smiles.
Walt Whitman shakes. This game belongs to him.
These whimsical lines from Sherman Alexie's poem "Defending Walt Whitman" (1996) dramatize the predicament faced not only by Native American writers, but also by all US writers who belong to emergent literary traditions. As a Spokane/Coeur d'Alene Indian, Alexie is playing a game in which he is the underdog and Whitman the favorite: Whitman dominates the landscape of US poetry; his powerful shots "strike[s] the rim so hard that it sparks" (1. 47); the "game belongs to him" (1. 61). The poem imagines "Indian boys" who must defend against Whitman, who must prevent him from scoring by blocking his shots. Yet it also imagines other Indians, those who are Whitman's teammates: "Somebody throws a crazy pass," Alexie writes, "and Walt Whitman catches it with quick hands" (11. 32). These Indians work with Whitman; they defend him against those who oppose him. The poem pays homage to Whitman by adopting his free verse idiom and by describing the game from his perspective. At the same time, however, it shows us a Whitman who is out of place, who is awed by the "twentieth-century warriors" (1.3) surrounding him, whose "beard is ludicrous on the reservation" (11. 49-50), who "stands/ at center court while the Indian boys run from basket to basket" (11. 54-55), who "cannot tell the difference between/ offense and defense" (11. 56-57). The poem's title is a pun, simultaneously [End Page 61] with Whitman and against him. The poem celebrates Whitman, even as it seeks to contain him within the context of "areservation summer basketball court" (1. 7).
The Chinese American novelist Maxine Hong Kingston achieves a similar effect when she gives the protagonist of her novel Tripmaster Monkey: His Fake Book (1989) the name "Wittman Ah Sing." Both tipping her hat to the great poet of American individualism and gently mocking him, Kingston's novel depicts a young poet-playwright who wants to be another Whitman—a Great American Artist—but finds that first he must disengage himself from the subordinate place that US culture has made for him on the basis of his ethnicity.
Alexie and Kingston thus dramatize the problem faced by all US minority cultures: how to transform themselves from marginalized cultures, often regarded as "foreign" or "un-American," into emergent cultures capable of challenging and reshaping the US mainstream. My conception of cultural emergence here draws upon Raymond Williams's analysis of the dynamics of modern culture, an analysis that has served as the foundation for minoritydiscourse theory in the 1990s. Following Antonio Gramsci, Williams characterizes culture as a constant struggle for dominance in which a hegemonic mainstream seeks to defuse the challenges posed by both residual and emergent cultural forms. According to Williams, residual culture consists of those practices that are based on the "residue of... some previous social and cultural institution or formation," but continue to play a role in the present, while emergent culture serves as the site or set of sites where "new meanings and values, new practices, new relationships and kinds of relationships are continually being created" (123). Both residual and emergent cultural forms can only be recognized and indeed conceived in relation to the dominant: each represents a form of negotiation between the margin and the center over the right to control meanings, values, and practices.
For the historian of twentieth-century US ethnic literatures, this conception of the emergent offers a dynamic model of the interaction of literary cultures, a model that focuses our attention on the fact that literatures are...