Whitman Today: Community and Empathy

Kim Edward-KeatesMCRo

The 2019 bicentenary celebrations of Walt Whitman’s birth have been noteworthy for the effusive celebrations of his radical democratic impulses. Temptingly offering a unifying, “kaleidoscopic Whitman” he has, in the words of Matt Cohen’s recent study, been problematically perceived as “Inspiring political movements and literature on almost all parts of the ideological spectrum”. Yet in “containing multitudes”, Whitman’s poetry and politics raises provocative questions about the universality and relevance of Whitman’s ideals today. How can Whitman speak so profoundly to all without eliding (and therein disguising) structural hierarchies? To what extent have Whitman’s attitudes towards empathy, loss and community been reconfigured for the twenty-first century? And pertinently, how are these issues felt and articulated by marginalised readers today? This panel seeks to explore such questions of concern in light of an ongoing pilot case study which brings Whitman’s poetry to deprived areas of Greater Manchester. Creative workshops with women’s groups, refugees and asylum seekers consider a complex sense of connection with Whitman’s writing, focalised through this academic enquiry and presented by five researchers at the University of Bolton.

Community of the outside in Walt Whitman's 'Song of Myself' (Jill Marsden)

English and Creative Writing Programme Leader, University of Bolton

This paper explores the relevance of Walt Whitman's writing to our thinking of inequality and social inclusivity today. In "Song of Myself" Whitman does not simply attest to being the "poet of the woman the same as the man", he professes sympathy for the dispossessed: the scrounger, thief and syphilitic. Refusing to acknowledge any difference between these persons who have been "slighted or left away", Whitman risks effacing the structural and ideological barriers to social inclusion. Nevertheless, the paper will argue that beyond the moral and ethical issues raised by Whitman's depictions of socially marginal figures, there are aesthetic resources in his poetry for rethinking the role of the outsider.

Holding Walt Whitman by the Hand (Evan Jones)

Lecturer in English, University of Bolton

My discussion draws on ideas of gift culture and examines notions of the 'obligation' both within and because of Whitman's poetry. The gifting of a physical copy of Leaves of Grass is a gesture in itself, the mentor pressing work into the hands of the student. But what if that gift -- more than other books, a fetish or totem -- holds catastrophic obligations for the debtor? Taking into consideration a number of recent examples of Whitman as gift, I will examine the afterlife of Leaves of Grass and discuss the ways in which Whitman himself sees his reader's obligation.

'The Great Work: Whitman and the End of Death in Chris Adrian’s Gob’s Grief (2001) (Valerie O'Riordan)

Lecturer in Creative Writing, University of Bolton

‘The past, the future, dwelling there, like space, inseparable together.’

Whitman, ‘Kosmos’

For Walt Whitman, democracy was ‘a material reality of physical connections across space and time […] and most importantly among and through the bodies of its citizens’ (Sychterz, 2003, p.14). In Whitman’s Civil War poetry – Drum Taps (1865) in particular – grief emerges alongside democracy as his key theme: here, the poems’ speaker(s), as he mourns the casualties of the war, manifests as a figure of ‘embodied empathy’ (Jamison, 2007, p.23). Similarly, in Chris Adrian’s 2001 novel, Gob’s Grief, which features Whitman himself as one of four focalizing characters, the poet is positioned – by the other characters – as an embodiment both of empathy and democracy: he is ‘the Cosmos’, and the key component in the grand democratic project of the titular character, Gob, to eliminate death and bring back the six million Civil War dead. Both Whitman and Adrian, then, are concerned with productive responses to mass carnage and individual loss – but whereas Whitman’s mourning persona in ‘When Lilacs Last in the Dooryard Bloom’d’ (1865) articulates an ‘anti-resurrectional vision of mourning’ (Jameson, 27), Adrian’s Gob marries nineteenth century rationality and Spiritualism in a mission to make redundant the very acceptance of death towards which Whitman strives. In this paper, then, drawing on Jamison’s work on empathy and Derrida’s theory of hauntology, I will explore how Adrian’s use of the figure of Whitman interrogates the limits of the poet’s own vision.

Walt Whitman and the Wonder Women (Kim Edwards Keates (Lecturer in English, University of Bolton) and Kathryn Thomasson (Doctoral Candidate, University of Bolton))

1880s Bolton marks a pivotal moment in the popular reception of Walt Whitman’s writing, witnessing, as Carolyn Masel notes, “the first group of working people to receive Whitman’s poetry collectively, the first community of non-University readers”: the Bolton Whitmanites of Eagle Street College. This paper presents research that examines the continued relevance of Whitman’s poetry today with marginalised local women’s community groups in Bolton, including the ‘Wonder Women’ and Bolton’s City of Sanctuary. Both groups promote a close sense of community, confidence and well-being, while the City of Sanctuary provides particular support to refugees and asylum seekers. Through a series of shared reading and craft projects, culminating in the delivery of Whitman’s poetry to an international audience, this paper reveals how the groups’ engagement with Whitman in the bicentenary year of his birth produced striking narrative and statistical data sets for those who experience social marginalisation, thus prompting a re-evaluation and analysis of the universality of Whitman’s voice today.

Sun 1:00 pm - 2:15 pm