Late in his middle age, unmarried and childless, Walt Whitman was dismayed to hear that rumors were circulating about his sexuality. In response, he encouraged his friends to spread a counter-rumor: the reason he wasn’t interested in women was that he was still grieving for a lost love, from decades earlier. She was mulatto; they met in New Orleans, where during the 1840s he lived for six months; during that time they had had six children together [sic] before they had had, tragically, to separate. He’d never returned to New Orleans….
In this seminar we won’t spend a lot of time discussing the plausibility of this story of Whiman’s children. The irony is, though, that he did have a lot of progency: writers and theorists and artists who define themselves as overtly
in the “line of Whitman” [sometimes eagerly claiming continuity, sometimes consciously acting out Oedipal resistance]. We’ll read through the terms of Whitman’s long career, stage by stage [his idealism and anxiety before the Civil War, his work as a nurse during the War, his conflicted love poems, his celebration oflate-19th-century American expansionism and industrialization] At each stage we’ll also read work by writers, across several continents and centuries, who admired [or resisted] his model:
–novelists including D H Lawrence and Thomas Mann
–poets [Ezra Pound, W C Williams, Hilda Doolittle, Marianne Moore, Allen Ginsberg]
–gender-theorists and provocateurs [Oscar Wilde]
–post-colonialist writers and theorists of Negritude [Aimee Cesaire]
–epic/lyric writers [Pablo Neruda, J L Borges]
–contemporary writers of collective narratives [Vladimir Mayakovsky, Grace Paley]
We’ll also have a visit by a dramatist who will present her play on Whitman [and on the problems of representing him] and a screening of a new film on Emily Dickinson, which focuses on the dynamic of reputation-formation after a writer’s death [It’s more interesting– and funnier– than it sounds in paraphrase].