- A Place for Humility: Whitman, Dickinson, and the Natural World by Christine Gerhardt
If American lyric poetry were a globe, it would be tempting to place Emily Dickinson and Walt Whitman on different poles. Dickinson, it could be argued, [End Page 109] wrote lines such as “I wish I were a hay - ” as if no one were listening, whereas Whitman declared, “I believe a leaf of grass is no less than the journey-work of the stars,” as if everyone were listening. Implicit in the urge to position the two poets this way is a perception of humility, and such (op)positioning reveals how humility is gendered, as well as how humility is communicated via form (think of Dickinson’s stripped lines opposed to the fleshy Whitmanian line), speaker (Dickinson’s slippery “I” opposed to the speaker who contains multitudes), and subject matter (the single hay stalk opposed to the countless stars embodied in a grass blade). In her exciting book A Place for Humility: Whitman, Dickinson, and the Natural World, Christine Gerhardt illuminates the complex and often subversive role of humility in both poets’ work in order to link Dickinson and Whitman as environmentally-aware writers of place in the nineteenth century.
Gerhardt incorporates humility into ecocriticism by elegantly reminding us that the word humus provides the etymological source for the very human attitude of humility: “Humble and human share the same root: the earth” (14). While humility may not be a surprising ethical perspective vis-à-vis the natural world in our contemporary culture of environmental crisis and climate change, Gerhardt demonstrates how it was a radical stance in nineteenth-century American writing about nature: throughout A Place for Humility, Gerhardt places Dickinson’s and Whitman’s poetics in dialogue with each other and with a nineteenth-century discourse of nature and science that was being developed by figures such as Edward Hitchcock, George Perkins Marsh, and Alexander von Humboldt. By highlighting the poets’ understanding of and challenges to emerging ecological discussions in geography, natural history, and conservationism, Gerhardt makes a valuable case for the environmental awareness and foresight of their work.
The book’s first section, “Noticing Small Worlds,” highlights what Gerhardt calls “small nature poetics” (77). The two grass-focused lines quoted above, which appear in Dickinson’s “The Grass has so little to do” (Fr379) and section 31 of Whitman’s “Song of Myself,” exemplify what Gerhardt describes as Dickinson’s and Whitman’s “frequent acts of noticing previously overlooked, supposedly minor flora and fauna” (26). Humility in poems such as these is more complicated, however, than noticing a small familiar thing: “From different perspectives, Dickinson and Whitman express a sense of humility that stems not only from the sheer act of noticing the smallest creatures beneath one’s feet, but also from their identification with the small, which is counteracted by the realization of nature’s unspeakable otherness” (22). In other words, Dickinson and Whitman enact an eco-ethical paradox: how to write about the natural world in such a way that [End Page 110] respects that world’s complexity without reinforcing its otherness. Their writing wrestles with what all environmental writers wrestle with: the way that writing about nature distances us from it.
To mediate this distance, as Gerhardt shows, Dickinson and Whitman deploy strategies of description to construct “dynamic local landscapes that retain a remarkable degree of autonomy and dignity, while letting their speakers rethink their position to the point of virtually canceling out their poetic voice” (91). The book’s second section, “Describing Local Lands,” presents poems such as “Frequently the woods are pink - ” (Fr24) and “It will be Summer - eventually” (Fr374) to reveal how Dickinson’s spare poetics and self-effacing speaker link her work to the scientific approaches in the emerging fields of “botany, geography, geology, and especially biogeography . . . which studied local natural units primarily by way of detailed descriptions” (88). Dickinson’s environmental savvy is matched by Whitman’s in poems such as “Out of the Cradle” and “As I Ebb’d,” in which...