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This chapter recasts the intellectual history of US sociology as a reception study of the poems of Walt Whitman, focusing on “Song of Myself.” Prominent early sociologists such as Robert Ezra Park and Daniel Brinton engaged Whitman under the banner of “social science.” They recirculated poetic extracts to illuminate the range of issues – from mass media and crowd psychology to race relations and urban studies – that became the foci of modern sociology. As the fledgling discipline probed for new conceptual models of social development in a modern, secular age, this professionalizing, reform-minded class of social scientists employed nineteenth-century verse to explicate twentieth-century social theory. More than most, Whitman’s poetry, which demanded empathy as well as observation, furnished the vocabulary for a compassionate, impartial, and distinctively American sociology.
The first time Walt Whitman ever left the New York area and experienced the wide-open countryside of the United States in the late 1840s, he did so with the objective of arriving in New Orleans, where he lived and worked for three months for a newspaper. The rumor that Whitman had a child out of wedlock in New Orleans first took hold and held sway among the poet’s readers as the earliest iterations of the legend of his life took shape. Even more importantly, Whitman experienced in New Orleans such an extraordinary diversity of peoples mingling on the streets that he began to devise a new aesthetic of urban democracy, of strangers from radically different worlds mingling if only for a moment on crowded streets, a vision that would shape his poetry ever after and become a towering monument in American poetry in general.
Poetic literacy was at a peak in mid-nineteenth century, and Edgar Allan Poe was fully immersed in the social networks that produced and disseminated poetry to a wide readership. Poe's poetry repeatedly dramatizes the ways that certain human values, capacities, and energies are not only threatened but actually extinguished. Poe explains that death is a transformation from particle to unparticled matter. For Poe, the properties of poetry that stir desires for impossible beauty are the elements of language that are irrelevant, or at least secondary, to its signifying capabilities. Poe's theory of death and the afterlife might seem somewhat idiosyncratic, particularly his understanding of an immaterial material, unparticled matter, as God, creativity, action, and spirit. Many of Poe's poems fall into two categories: there are the apocalyptic landscapes, like Dream-Land, and more familiarly, there are the meditations on lost love, like The Raven and Annabel Lee.
When Leaves of Grass appeared in 1855, one of the most remarkable aspects of Whitman's idiosyncratic volume was the engraving of a daguerreotype of the poet that appeared opposite the title page (see Figure 8.1). Since the title page did not contain the author's name, the visual image stood as a kind of surrogate identification, as if the authorizing presence of the volume was more effectively represented by an illustration than by the more conventional linguistic sign. The reader was greeted with a body in print unaccompanied by a name in print.
That engraving has come to be one of the most familiar icons in American literature. Much has been written about the image - how it represented Whitman as a “common man,” a worker instead of an intellectual, a poet whose poems emerged from his body and not just his head, a person who lived outdoors (or at least who was so contemptuous of social conventions that he wore his hat indoors and would not, as he indicated in the preface to his book, take it off to signal subservience to anyone, even - and especially - the president). It was an emblem of the poet of the body more than of the poet of the soul. The image centered on the torso instead of the face, and the portrait indicated that the poetry that would emerge from such a poet would be different from what had come before - earthier and more direct and more sensual. Over the next century, the image would prove to be highly influential: It gradually worked to transform the way most American poets portrayed themselves on their book jackets and frontispieces. A growing number of poets traded their coats and ties and face portraits for a1 fresco body poses in informal clothes - poses that echoed, again and again, Whitman's originating image of the poet as literal outsider.
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