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2 The“Terraqueous”Globe WaltWhitman and the Cosmological Geography of Humboldt and Somerville The roots of geopoetics, in which poetic formal experimentation enacts global connection and comparativism, can be found in Walt Whitman. His “Passage to India,” composed and revised in the last decades of his life, provides an illustrative starting point for tracing the intersections between poetic experimentation by American writers and the geographic epistemologies that held sway for them. The poem is global in scope. As recent readings have discussed, it considers space-collapsing innovations of the late 1860s, in particular the construction of the Suez Canal abroad and the Pacific Railroad at home as well as Christopher Columbus’s voyage to find the New World in search of a “passage to India,” and it marshals a wide range of histories and geographies that are not contained within America’s conventionally drawn spatial borders. But one significantly overlooked dimension of the poem is the debt it draws from the European cosmological geography of Alexander von Humboldt and Mary Somerville in its search for a compendious unity, which provides Whitman not only with a blueprint for truer forms of transnational connection that the poem seeks but also with disciplinary authority that allows him to “go global,” ultimately in ways that exceed the power of the geographer himself or herself. Whitman thus helps to illustrate the long genealogy of the intertwined development of geographic knowledge and experimental modernism at the same time that his work highlights the ways that such braidings and unbraidings of WaltWhitman and the Cosmological Geography of Humboldt and Somerville | 55 the geographical and the literary are often accompanied for American writers by contests over literary authority. Moreover, Whitman declares a superlative space for the distinctly disjunctive, paratactic nature of experimental poetics to create forms of global connectivity in ways that later modernists develop in a variety of directions. Exactly what geography “authorizes” experimental poets to do is part of what this and succeeding chapters will trace. Viewing “Passage to India” alongside Humboldt and Somerville illuminates the complex ways that American culture and geography intersected in the nineteenth century and raises the stakes for recognizing that connection, given that the politics of nation in nineteenth-century America was founded to a large degree on geography. As several American Studies scholars have observed , an appeal to certain American topographical features and geographic locales was a key technique for carving out a sense of national identity distinct from the established certitude of British and European cultures, and it is in this context that a wide array of nineteenth-century writers borrowed from geography texts, maps and map-reading techniques, travelogues, pamphlets, and land surveyance.1 The reasons for America’s interest in geography seem clear given the relative instability of America’s own geographical makeup. In the period before the Civil War, the nation was plagued by an anxiety about geographic expansion, perceiving the incorporation of new territories as both “formless and threatening,” as Anne Baker has characterized it (7). Not only were national divisions regarding slavery making it difficult for the nation to achieve a cohesive definition of itself, but the nation’s borders on multiple fronts were not yet codified and mapped according to conventional standards: the ever-expanding western borders under the banner of manifest destiny, conflicts with Canada over the northern border, the annexation of Texas, and the new acquisition of Florida from Spain all created uncertainty about the literal form of the nation (Anne Baker 2). The production of atlases during the first half of the century reflected these national concerns, as evidenced by the popularity of texts such as Sidney Morse’s 1849 System of Geography for the Use of Schools: Illustrated with More than Fifty Cerographic Maps and Numerous Wood-Cut Engravings. By the end of the nineteenth century, however, national interests shifted from a focus on internal domestic geography to that of world comparison (Schulten 17). During the late 1860s in the lead up to the publication of “Passage to India,” Whitman seems to anticipate this shift from an intense fascination with national geographic consolidation to a more outward looking internationalist way of conceiving of geography, and he routes this orientation through European cosmological geography. 56 | TheGeopoeticsofModernism It is only recently that scholarly attention in an Anglo-American context has recognized the international dimensions of Whitman’s work.2 He is in many ways one of the most firmly and self-consciously American-bound poets , whose nationalism certainly rings true in...

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Additional Information

ISBN
9780813055145
Related ISBN
9780813060514
MARC Record
OCLC
900158401
Pages
208
Launched on MUSE
2015-02-13
Language
English
Open Access
No
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