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

Title data

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

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Abstract in another language

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.

Further data

Item Type: Article in a book
Refereed: Yes
Keywords: Walt Whitman; Nineteenth-Century American literature; race; ethnicity; poetry
Institutions of the University: Faculties > Faculty of Languages and Literature > Professorship American Studies > Professorship American Studies - Univ.-Prof. Dr. Jeanne Cortiel
Profile Fields > Emerging Fields > Cultural Encounters and Transcultural Processes
Research Institutions > Research Centres > Bayreuth Institute for American Studies - BIFAS
Faculties > Faculty of Languages and Literature
Faculties > Faculty of Languages and Literature > Professorship American Studies
Profile Fields
Profile Fields > Emerging Fields
Research Institutions
Research Institutions > Research Centres
Result of work at the UBT: No
DDC Subjects: 800 Literature > 810 American literature in English
Date Deposited: 04 Dec 2015 10:11
Last Modified: 04 Dec 2015 10:11
URI: https://eref.uni-bayreuth.de/id/eprint/7946