This is my second time studying Sherman Alexie this semester, and in terms of Whitmanian influence and/or response, he is a bit harder to crack. Most of what I know about Alexie’s writing stems from our dissection of his book, The Lone Ranger and Tonto Fistfight in Heaven, in my Ethnic American Literature class. I know that much of his writing is, as he calls it, a “thinly veiled memior,” and he seeks to study the strange, metamorphosing line between one’s ancient heritage (as a Native American, in this case), and one’s roots as a citizen of the United States. It is a peculiar and complex line to straddle, and many times can leave one with a bewildering sense of self and place, which can have negative effects on one’s psyche.
At first glance, Alexie’s poem “Defending Walt Whitman” reads much like a straightforward poem focusing on Whitman observing a game of basketball on the reservation. Upon delving deeper, we see it is also a type of linking poem in which Alexie is attempting to point out that much of the themes in Whitman’s poetry and view of an optimistic America pertain to the Native American population as well, even though many people in the past have left them out of the American dream. We see them as soldiers, warriors, those closer to the earth than just about anybody else, but there is a sadness in the poem with the realization that Whitman may be one of the few people who could see them in this light, as part of the America he dreamed about. Whitman sees the beauty in this culture that has both preserved itself and melded to the country he loves. However, Whitman is also portrayed as a bizzare addition to the reservation, adding an underlying note of uncertainty.
Like most of Alexie’s other works, this poem operates in levels upon levels. One could spend hours writing about the ideas inherent in each stanza, and the complex situation that Alexie weaves to mirror the complexities of being a “Native American – American.” That in itself is Whitmanian enough for me.