ARTS & LETTERS
ROGER W. SMITH
KENNETH M. PRICE To Walt Whitman, America
Kenneth M. Price’s book (University of North Carolina Press, 192 pages, $49.95 cloth) is concerned primarily with Whitman as a social and cultural outsider whose works appealed to marginalized groups in society. It also takes up Whitman’s posthumous influence on various aspects of American culture including painting and film, bringing to bear on Whitman such seemingly diverse figures as D.H. Lawrence, George Santayana, Edith Wharton, Ben Shahn, John Dos Passos, Gloria Naylor, Muhammad Ali, and William Least Heat-Moon.
Lawrence faulted Whitman for being prone to overgeneralization and for (in Mr. Price’s apt phrase) “pouring his seed not into stalwart American brides but into space.” Santayana saw “Leaves of Grass” as a welcome antidote to the “moral cramp” of New England culture. Wharton, according to Mr. Price, found Whitman emotionally liberating after years of a loveless marriage. African-American writers have responded positively to Whitman, even though he himself was ambivalent in his feelings towards blacks. And Whitman was a major influence on filmmaker D.W. Griffith, especially on his masterpiece, the film “Intolerance.”
Mr. Price provides a stimulating reexamination of how what he somewhat tendentiously calls Whitman’s “project” was responded to by subsequent generations. But his exposition is plagued with opaque jargon that is often exasperating.“As both an actuality and a trope, bondage offered Whitman a means of emphasizing commonalities that cut across gender, race, and circumstance.” “[A] less atomistic and essentialist goal remains vital for many, a goal based on fluid and cross-culturally enriched identities. Accordingly, many African American intellectuals have found Whitman’s inclusive, future-oriented project a useful point of departure.”
The book is carelessly written and not particularly coherent or well organized, and the coded verbiage and formulaic writing lead to statements that are of questionable value as scholarship. Increased attention to the peer review and editing processes might have greatly improved this monograph, which was assembled in part from previously published articles. And while the scholarly apparatus is copious, the index is inadequate.
Dedicated readers of Whitman may find much to interest them here. Others will be better served turning to one of the excellent monographs in the University of Iowa Press’s ongoing Whitman series or Garland Publishing’s “Walt Whitman: An Encyclopedia” (1998).