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A Uniform Hieroglyphic : Crossing Race and Ethnicity in Whitman’s Leaves of Grass (1855)

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Cortiel, Jeanne:
A Uniform Hieroglyphic : Crossing Race and Ethnicity in Whitman’s Leaves of Grass (1855).
In: Cass, Jeffrey ; Peer, Larry H. (Hrsg.): Romantic Border Crossings. - Aldershot : Ashgate , 2008 . - S. 171-180 . - (The Nineteenth Century )
ISBN 978-0-7546-6051-4

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Abstract

This essay focuses on Whitman’s first edition of Leaves of Grass (1855), now widely considered his most radical, and in many respects most transgressive work. The significance of Egypt to American national identity and to Whitman's poetry (Tapscott), and its link to race (Trafton; Schueller), suggest a new set of questions that have not been asked in interpretations of Whitman’s poetry. Whitman scholars so far have largely looked at Whitman’s Egypt and his racial politics as separate phenomena. Specifically, criticism on Egypt in Whitman has primarily been interested in how his poetry and prose use Egyptian culture as source or as metaphor, not in the symbolic value of Egypt itself, much less in how this use of Egypt is relevant to the text’s interventions in contemporary conceptualizations of race. This essay reads Whitman’s 1855 Leaves of Grass, particularly the poem that later became “Song of Myself,” next to mid-nineteenth century discourses around Egypt. My key argument is that focusing on the oblique figure of Egypt in Whitman’s work helps to unravel the complex ways in which his poetry absorbs, shapes and reworks racial alterity and selfhood. A close reading of the passage, in which a child inquires after the unifying image of the collection, grass, and centers around the grass as a "uniform hieroglyphic," shows that while ethnology was obsessed with difference and classification to a degree that eliminated the individual and put the class absolute, Whitman’s poetry makes the specific expression of difference speak for itself. Open, unstable and incongruous, its lists are the very opposite of the minute taxonomies offered by ethnology. The “uniform hieroglyphic,” which I read as an oxymoron, brings the impossible act of reading to the text at precisely the point where it performs the cultural encounter. Whitman here places the ideas of race, ethnicity and nationhood in precisely this field of tension, the pressure of which makes for an extreme conceptual openness that works against the limiting gaze upon the runaway slave or the black dray driver that appear later in the text.

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Publikationsform: Aufsatz in einem Buch
Begutachteter Beitrag: Ja
Keywords: Walt Whitman; Nineteenth-Century American literature; race; ethnicity; poetry
Institutionen der Universität: Fakultäten > Sprach- und Literaturwissenschaftliche Fakultät > Professur Nordamerikastudien - Amerikanistik > Professur Nordamerikastudien - Amerikanistik - Univ.-Prof. Dr. Jeanne Cortiel
Profilfelder > Emerging Fields > Kulturbegegnungen und Transkulturelle Prozesse
Forschungseinrichtungen > Forschungszentren > Bayreuth Institute for American Studies - BIFAS
Fakultäten
Fakultäten > Sprach- und Literaturwissenschaftliche Fakultät
Fakultäten > Sprach- und Literaturwissenschaftliche Fakultät > Professur Nordamerikastudien - Amerikanistik
Profilfelder
Profilfelder > Emerging Fields
Forschungseinrichtungen
Forschungseinrichtungen > Forschungszentren
Titel an der UBT entstanden: Nein
Themengebiete aus DDC: 800 Literatur > 810 Amerikanische Literatur in Englisch
Eingestellt am: 04 Dec 2015 10:11
Letzte Änderung: 04 Dec 2015 10:11
URI: https://eref.uni-bayreuth.de/id/eprint/7946