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6 - Aspects of America: James M. Whitfield, Herman Melville, and Walt Whitman

Published online by Cambridge University Press:  10 January 2024

Brian Yothers
Affiliation:
St Louis University, Missouri
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Summary

In the recent publication of a scholarly edition of the free African American poet James Monroe Whitfield's work, Robert S. Levine and Ivy Wilson suggest that Whitfield's 1853 America and Other Poems could be read as a counterpart to Walt Whitman's Leaves of Grass (Levine and Wilson, 2). In this chapter I respond to that challenge, exploring the complex role that slavery and freedom play in the development of Whitman's poetic voice and the alternative understanding of the early history of the republic offered by Whitfield. The chapter also includes a discussion of Whitman's Civil War collection Drum-Taps and Herman Melville's Battle- Pieces, two major collections to come out of the Civil War that reflected on the conflict with an ambivalence that contrasts with the jubilation in John Greenleaf Whittier's postwar poetry.

Whitfield and Whitman offer a telling contrast to each other, as a white poet and a Black poet who worked under differing conditions associated with their race even as both made equality as a concept central to their poetry. They also offer important contrasts to many of their contemporaries, in that Whitman, although appalled by slavery, was not an abolitionist, and indeed criticized abolitionists in print, even as he celebrated behavior that could fairly be deemed abolitionist in his poems. Whitfield, by contrast, clearly and consistently advocated the destruction of slavery, but his understanding of race in America reflects Martin Delany's separatism and emigrationism rather than the mainstream of abolitionism represented by Frederick Douglass. Melville offered yet a third path: not only was he a writer who loathed slavery but he could also, unlike most white antislavery writers, be regarded as actively antiracist, especially early in his career, but that antiracism did not lead him to the kind of outspoken abolitionist activism that Theodore Parker, Thomas Wentworth Higginson, or Henry David Thoreau engaged in.

Taking Levine and Wilson's cue, in this chapter I delve into the ways in which Whitman and Whitfield could both extend and revise or even contradict the antislavery poetry of their predecessors. Whitman's principled egalitarianism collides with his desire to speak across sectional boundaries in his early verse. (Sadly, by the later portion of Whitman's career, his egalitarianism would become attenuated in relation to questions of race.) Whitfield, at the same time, is both powerfully antiracist and in some ways marginal to the political antislavery movement.

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Publisher: Boydell & Brewer
Print publication year: 2023

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