- Whitman Noir: Black America and the Good Gray Poet ed. by Ivy G. Wilson
More than a collection of essays reexamining Walt Whitman’s works, Whitman Noir: Black America and the Good Gray Poet, edited by Ivy G. Wilson, excavates African Americans in Whitman’s works and the role that their condition played in the development of his vision of a modern and new US nation—an expansion of a concept Wilson developed in his first book, Specters of Democracy: Blackness and the Aesthetics of Politics in the Antebellum U.S. (2011). Whitman Noir is a response to the call that Toni Morrison issued in Playing in the Dark: Whiteness and the Literary Imagination (1992) for scholars of early American literature to consider the Africanist presence informing understandings of what it means to be “American.” The collection goes further still by highlighting the ways in which “the good gray poet” influenced African American literary production from the turn of the twentieth century to today.
Contributors to the volume take for granted that blackness is essential to definitions of what is often described as white America even as blackness is erased or marginalized. Christopher Freeburg points to the specters of lynching that are missing from Whitman’s writing during this nadir of race relations in the United States, juxtaposing this absence with the central action leading up to a pivotal scene in James Weldon Johnson’s Autobiography of an Ex-Colored Man (1912). Freeburg engages the essay of fellow contributor Ed Folsom on the issue of the disappearance of African Americans from Whitman’s manuscripts and published works, including the first through subsequent editions of Leaves of Grass (1855). Even though, as Folsom notes, free African Americans were a part of Whitman’s vision of the modern United States—and it is this vision that in part gave Whitman notice among African American writers—it was largely a cerebral or “futuristic” belief on Whitman’s part (26). Both essays discuss the absence of blackness in Whitman’s America and what the author’s blindness to lynching says about his vision for a democratic nation.
While some contributors theorize about how the explicit absence of blacks from Whitman’s Leaves of Grass manuscripts informs his implicit democratic [End Page 228] realizations for the US nation, others, like Amina Gautier, examine Whitman’s direct treatment of blacks and blackness in his sole novel, Franklin Evans, or The Inebriate (1842). Gautier highlights the limits of Whitman’s paralleling of drunkenness with the state of enslavement in the novel, for while one could make the decision to be sober, the condition of slavery did not lie within one’s own will. In Gautier’s analysis, inebriation leads to the demise of the nation because enslavement to one’s “passion” gestured to a “loss of agency” and “a weakness and vulnerability indicative of an inability to self-govern” (35). In other words, inebriation puts the subject on the level of a slave, thus threatening one’s white superiority.
Despite the seemingly disparate topics of the various essays, they complement one another well. For example, Matt Sandler takes up the question of how Whitman’s experiences in New Orleans come through in the creative principles of hybridity (or métissage) in his poetry—both in content and form. On an apparently unrelated topic, Wilson traces Whitman’s concern with how e pluribus unum plays out in American English to Ralph Ellison’s own cultural project, demonstrating the ways in which a US lingua franca reveals the sort of democracy to which the nation ascribed but had yet to achieve: “In Ellison’s vision, the ‘bond of language’ unites US Americans across their different regional, class, ethnic, and religious particularities, and it is central to his notion of ‘cultural pluralism’ that this language bears the tenor of blacks” (110). Readers can also see the traces of métissage that Sandler invokes regarding Whitman in Wilson’s discussion of the poetics of language in Ellison...