The tallest of Sams for November 17

     The readings for this week were incredible. I have to admit that, after listening to Ginsberg’s recitation of Howl (the first time I had ever heard that poem recited, much less by the writer), I texted Chelsea and said “I feel like Ginsberg just danced flamenco on my brain with cleats.” Just so everyone knows :-).

     Anyway, for this week’s question about Whitman’s influence, I decided to focus on Robert Lowell’s For the Union Dead. In it, I think the poet takes a very balanced approach to Whitman. Lowell is not blind to the faults of Whitman: For the Union Dead observes the latent, awkward racism that has been a characteristic of both Whitman and the states throughout their years. However, a very Whitmanic idea about the necessity of memory is also beautifully articulated. The Whitman that shines through in Lowell’s poem is the emotive spirit of the country that struggles to survive in a time that often emphasizes utility over beauty.

     So, first things first, to get the less fun things out of the way: Whitman was not above racism. We’ve read stuff both in and out of class about it and, even though it hurts, it’s true. Lowell’s description of the relief of the African-American soldiers as “… a fishbone / in the city’s throat” expresses the nature of the racism in both Whitman and the United States very well. It is not too difficult for a city board to approve a mural depicting the heroics of long-dead former slaves, just as Whitman was able to write about his empathy for slaves in the comfort of his own room. That’s the meat of the fish, the good taste of stepping outside the box.

     Unfortunately, it is when the perspective shifts from the idealized to the personal that the unexpected and uncomfortable bone reveals itself. To the father of Colonel Shaw, the soldiers that fought and died with his son are less than human, a regiment of individual men all summed up in one word, and were so thoughtless that they did not even allow him the courtesy of burying his heroic progeny. According to our Higgins reading for this week, one of the fish bones for Whitman was the Fifteenth Amendment. An imagined slave was virtuous enough to warrant praise, but a real-life African-American was not trustworthy enough to be included in the country’s body of voters. I believe that this racism reinforces the importance of memory that Lowell’s speaker emphasizes.

     A recurring idea in For the Union Dead is the return of the repressed. Even though the museum housing primitive animals has been knocked down, “yellow dinosaur steamshovels” still populate the land. Even though the overt monument to the animal kingdom has been destroyed, “Everywhere, / giant finned cars nose forward like fish.” People are trying to forget their less-civilized roots, but they continue to manifest themselves. That applies to the city’s racism; they try to drown out the memory with a mural. That forgetfulness is what perpetuates the problem though: those that do not remember the less-than-savory aspects of history are doomed to repeat them.

     The pathetic substitute for a World War II monument, the advertisement for Mosler Safe Company, illustrates both the necessity for memory and the disturbing lack of it. The inspiration for the ad is nothing less than the dropping of the atomic bomb on Japan, a most grave subject that must never be forgotten. However, instead of reminding passersby of the horrific nature of war, the picture emphasizes what was preserved through the atomic blast. There is no mention of the thousands that died, both immediately and later on, because of the bombs dropped on Hiroshima and Nagasaki. The positive spin of the ad might make an unwary pedestrian wonder if the bomb was really that bad after all. Apply the ripple effect, and eventually the resulting callousness might result in an atomic bombing that was taken too lightly.

     Whitman saw his Memoranda notes as a necessity, preserving the memory of what the unsung foot soldiers suffered through during the Civil War so that their lives, and hopefully the lives of future soldiers, would not be uselessly thrown away by disconnected generals with a romantic view of war. It is a personal perspective that stands in contrast to the afore-mentioned racism and exposes it for the terrible idea that it is. The capitalistic call for utilitarianism would do away with these difficult memories, in the name of efficiency and the bottom line, but Whitman is the yawp that demands their remembrance. While he was not above reproach himself, Whitman is the voice that calls us to move beyond our obstacles by going through them instead of around them.

November 15 2009 07:52 pm | Uncategorized

One Response to “The tallest of Sams for November 17”

  1. Erin Longbottom Says:

    I think you have finally identified what has been confusing me about Whitman’s racism for so long. I couldn’t understand how he could talk about taking the runaway slave in, and yet believe that blacks should be kept separate from whites. Your point about how it’s easier to venerate and accept something that is not tangible made things click for me.
    In response to the rest of your post, I really liked your reading of the poem. Maybe that’s lame to say, but I did.

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