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Canadian Review of American Studies/ Revue canadienne d'etudes americaines Volume 25, Number 2, Spring 1995, pp. 27-48 "Now Lucifer was not dead": Slavery, Intertextuality, and Subjectivity in Leaves of Grass ChristopherBeach 27 In a series of his notebook entries from the mid-1850s, Walt Whitman carries on a personal debate concerning questions of liberty, race, and slavery. Having decided to leave aside the practical reasons for opposing slavery ("Will it payt'), he introduces what he considers the deeper argument at stake-the philosophical question of racial and social inferiority: The learned think the unlearned an inferior race. The merchant thinks his bookkeepers and clerks and sundry degrees below him; they in turn think the porter and carmen common; and they the laborer that brings in coal, and the stevedores that haul the great burdens with them. (Whitman [1854?] 1978, III: 762) Whitman identifies an essential principle of human society: there exists a discourse of inferiority and prejudice which extends beyond the borders of race. According to his democratic principles, such a hierarchy of privilege and oppression is untenable, and he must attempt to reconcile his racial beliefs with his larger sense of equality: But this is an inferior race. Well who shall be the judge of inferior and superior races. The class of dainty gentlemen think that all servants and labouring people are inferior. In all lands, the select few who live and dress richly, make a mean estimate of the body of the people. (762) 28 Canadian Review of American Studies Revue canadienne d'etudes americaines Despite Whitman's lingering belief in racial disparity ("But this is an inferior race"), he attempts to convince himself that such distinctions may be more the result of social differences than of innate racial characteristics. The two sets of oppositions Whitman establishes-"dainty gentlemen" versus "servants and laboring people," and the well-dressed few versus the "body of the people"-demonstrate the superficiality on which such distinctions rest. The metonymic equations of class privilege with dress and of labour with the (naked) body make clear where Whitman's sympathies lie and introduce one of the central rhetorical formulations of Leaves of Grass. How exactly Whitman intended to use the discourses of slavery and race in Leaves of Grass is not clear; it is significant, however, that three of the first five poems he wrote for the 1855 edition-"Song of Myself," "The Sleepers," and "I Sing the Body Electric"-contain important passages dealing with different aspects of slavery. That Whitman was intending to include slavery and race as integral components of his democratic vision in Leaves of Grass is further supported by entries in his "Primer of Words," written during the years immediately following 1855. In the 11 Primer," which, though never published during his lifetime, was an important corollary to Whitman's poetic "language experiment," both slavery and negro dialect are suggested as possible discourses for poetry. "Slavery" is listed along with other historical, geographical, and economic categories under the rubric "Words of These States." In another entry, Whitman argues that the dialect of blacks has provided an entirely new vocabulary ("hundreds of outre words, many of them adopted into the common speech of the mass of people"), and a new method of pronunciation ("wide open pronunciations as 'yallah' for yellow and 'massah' for master"), while at the same time suggesting "the further theory of the modification of all the words of the English language, for musical purposes, for a native grand opera in America" (Whitman [185 6?] 1978, III: 730). None of these ideas appears to have had a direct impact on the poems of Leaves of Grass; in fact, there is no directly quoted black speech in Whitman's poems. 1 Perhaps some of the 11 outre words" Whitman mentions do enter the language of his poems-which on one level are an attempt to capture the range of 11 common speech" practiced by the American ChristopherBeachI 29 people-but it is difficult to determine what words these are, since he does not list them. We can only speculate about the ways in which the sense of a "wide open pronunciation" and of a "native grand opera" may...


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