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Walt Whitman can evidently get into anything, if I let him. This week I am reading Richard Wright’s Native Son for Tweedy’s African American literature course, and I seem incapable of reading the two writers’ work separate from each other. I recognize that this risks imposing unnecessary dialogue between two distinct works, informed by dramatically different worldviews (God, what a mistake it was to see Gigli and Charlie Kaufman’s Adaptation on the same night!). But as Luke Mancuso’s “About” essay suggests, Walt Whitman’s 1867 edition of Leaves of Grass affirms the need for a highly nationalized, comparatively race-leveling “collective identity” that empowers and protects all Americans non-dichotomously (that is, without distinguishing South/North, white/black, etc.). Wright’s novel, published about 73 years later, maps out the extent to which African American experience had so far failed to fit Whitman’s representative identity, and thus reveals the position of privilege (whiteness, in Wright’s novel) necessary for an individual to claim Whitman’s kind of self-ownership.
In “Leaves of Grass (part 4),” Whitman’s speaker addresses a listener as fundamentally disempowered as Native Son’s protagonist, Bigger Thomas, asserting that “None have done justice to you—you have not done justice to yourself” (165, 1867 edition). The speaker then goes on to insist that every person must seize such “justice” through the innate power he or she possesses:
Whoever you are! claim your own at any hazard!
These shows of the east and west are tame compared to you;
…Master and mistress in your own right over Nature,
elements, pain, passion, dissolution.
…Through birth, life, death, burial, the means are provided, nothing is scanted;
Through angers, losses, ambition, ignorance, ennui,
what you are picks it way. (167, 1867 edition)
Whitman’s outlook, or at least that of his speaker, seems based on the assumption that, regardless of a person’s (even a creature’s) origin and specific life conditions, “the means are provided” by which that person might become “Master and mistress in your own right over Nature.” This serves as an extension of the “it shall be you” inclusiveness Whitman articulated in the 1855 version “Song of Myself,” spreading into a sense of empowered belonging.
Wright articulates Bigger’s desire for that belonging in a way that points out how difficult such a feeling is to claim:
What did he want? What did he love and what did he hate? He did not know. There was something he knew and something he felt; something the world gave him and something he himself had; …and never in all his life, with this black skin of his, had the two worlds, thought and feeling, will and mind, aspiration and satisfaction, been together; never had he felt a sense of wholeness. (Wright, 240)
What does Whitman’s poetic persona seek, for himself and others, if not that same “wholeness?” By imbuing an individual whom “justice” seems never to serve with the overwhelming natural ability to claim that justice, Whitman suggests that anyone might seize control, might “self-actualize.” Wright, whose Bigger only snatches a fleeting modicum of that self-ownership by killing two women and bringing the consequences on himself, reveals how little Whitman’s vision extends into the practical methods by which an individual becomes his or her own “master.” Whitman’s own poem “The City Dead-House” uses the image of the neglected dead prostitute to encapsulate those marginalized Americans who fail to accomplish this self-mastery, but “Leaves of Grass (part 4)” indicates Whitman’s avowed notion that any specific American might seize justice, autonomy, etc. for themselves. A number of decades and several “schools” of writing later, Wright and his contemporaries finally deconstruct this assumption of uninhibited individual potential, showing how the “wholeness” Bigger seeks can easily be “scanted… through birth, life, death.”