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“[I]n the thickness of his times…”

The excerpts we read from Betsy Erkkila’s Whitman the Political Poet reveal the 20th century conflict over whether or not to study Whitman in the context of his political involvement.  According to Erkkila, critics who act in the interest of the American canon prefer to ignore or dismiss the potentially political nature of Whitman’s poetry, instead claiming that “Whitman is best and most interesting as a personal rather than as a political poet” (7).  Erkilla, on the other hand, employs a New Historicist lens to her reading of Whitman.  She writes,

[M]y own aim is to repair the split between the private and the public, the personal and the political, the poet and history that has governed the analysis and evaluation of Whitman’s work in the past.  I shall attempt to present Whitman in the thickness of his times, yoking body, work, and body politic in a sustained analysis that will open, I hope, into a reading of America itself. (10)

By so clearly immersing her interpretations of Whitman’s work in the context of 19th century America, Erkkila intends to demonstrate not only a connection between Whitman’s life and his work, but also to prove that this connection makes the work even stronger.

Erkkila’s approach just makes sense.  Approaching Whitman in a way that does not take into account his position in American history is challenging.  When writing (and still revising) my explication of “To Thee Old Cause,” I found it difficult not to incorporate what I’ve learned about Whitman through Walt Whitman’s America: A Cultural Biography.  An explication necessarily requires the writer to focus solely on the text, omitting what might be potentially significant details about the author’s personal life and time frame (i.e. New Criticism).  While the explication gave me a chance to really work with the poem in-depth and gain an appreciation for its construction and word choice, I also recognized the value in what was missing–an exploration into how this poem relates to Whitman’s experiences.

The idea behind the “old cause” Whitman addresses in the poem is something I plan to investigate further.  There does not seem to be a whole lot of scholarship out there regarding this poem (in fact, Erkkila is one of the few critics who spends much time writing about it), so I plan to craft one of my larger assignments later in the semester around it.  In doing so, I hope to apply the less-limiting frame of New Historicism, allowing Whitman’s work to be situated where it belongs, “in the thickness of his times” (Erkilla 10). 

Erkkila, Betsey. Whitman the Political Poet. New York: Oxford UP, 1989.

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