Whitman and Modernism

Since I first picked up a Virginia Woolf novel, modernism has been my favorite literary genre. While I enjoyed reading growing up, if I had to even look at Great Expectations or Pilgrim’s Progress one more time I was sure my love of literature would be extinguished forever. Perhaps it is to my detriment, but when I read I strive to connect to the author; I want them to take me on their journey; I want them to speak to me from their hearts. Up until the turn of the century, writing, and especially poetry, was considered a form of high art that was broken down to a science- in order to be ” a good writer” you must do a, b and c. And especially important during the 19th century, your art should contribute to the moral improvement of society, as dictated by those in charge. For this reason, a lot of literature up until the 19th century feels impersonal to me, almost sterile. Reading Whitman is like a breath of fresh air.

In my first post, I talked about how Whitman immediately struck me as an early modernist, mainly in his rejection of society’s imposed hierarchies and structures ( i.e. bullshit). However, upon revisiting Eliot last class I remembered how complex the term “modernism” really is. Eliot was a big believer in the necessity of working within the framework of the preexisting literary cannon. This belief is quite clear in his poetry, with the footnotes often taking up almost as much space on the page as the text itself.The fact that Whitman was not included in the cannon produced during his time rings clear to me and is perhaps why I find his poetry so refreshing. “The cannon” wasn’t big enough for Walt, his poetry needed to include the whole world! From the majestic black slave to the sun dappled apple orchards, Whitman’s poetry was about capturing life in words and celebrating it.

I believe this is the aspect of modernism that rang true to me so immediately upon encountering Whitman this time around. Writers like Woolf believed the challenge of their day was to “create literature where life lives”, to bridge the distance between people by illuminating the intangible ties that connect us all and to illuminate the ways in which we are on this journey alone but together. When I first read “Crossing Brooklyn Ferry”, I was struck by the transcendence of Whitman’s words; reading poetry out loud alone in my room I could almost feel his presence there, much in the same way I do when I read Woolf’s journals. The crisis of modernism is a serious one for sure, and a lot of modernist works are dark and brooding, and understandably so.

However, ultimately what the modernists saw was the breakdown of the old order and the birth of a new generation awakening to a identity that went beyond the one they had previously known, beyond religion, nationality or gender.

This is why I see Whitman as an early modernist, because he seemed to understand what so few people at his time understood–we are all connected and if we could only understand that we would be a lot better off.

Full of life, now, compact, visible,
I, forty years old the eighty-third Year of The States,
To one a century hence, or any number of centuries hence,
To you, yet unborn, these, seeking you.

When you read these, I, that was visible, am become invisible;
Now it is you, compact, visible, realizing my poems, seeking me;
Fancying how happy you were, if I could be with you, and become your comrade;
Be it as if I were with you. (Be not too certain but I am now with you.)

–Walt Whitman (b. 31 May 1819)

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