English | Major American Writers 1855 to Present
L753 | 24486 | Hutchinson


10:10a -1:10p W

TOPIC: WALT WHITMAN, LANGSTON HUGHES, AND THE POETRY OF DEMOCRACY

This class will examine the writing of two of the United States’
most admired and influential poets in relation to the concept of
the “poetry of democracy”--that is, poetry that aims to help
instantiate “democratic” ways of being in the world and writing that
meditates on democracy’s “poetry” or aesthetics  Walt Whitman (1819-
1892), sometimes called the “father of American poetry,” has had a
world-wide impact probably unequaled by any poet since his time; and
Langston Hughes (1902-1967), often called the “poet laureate of
black America,” was the most influential African American poet of
the twentieth century, affecting writers throughout the black
diaspora and beyond.  Notably, Whitman was Hughes’s favorite poet.

Both writers self-consciously challenged themselves to be “poets of
democracy,” believing that democratic ideals demanded new aesthetic
practices.  Both also believed in the idea of a
distinctly “American” poetry.  Both poets of “the body,” they got in
trouble for overt treatments of sexuality, and in recent years most
scholars have come believe that both were primarily homosexual in
orientation.  We will study each of these poets in their own right
but also with an eye to the relationship between them.  The focus
will be on how each author wrestled with interrelated concerns and
views of the relationship between aesthetics and democracy.
Questions arise such as these:  What function did they think poetry
should serve in democracy, and how did this affect their techniques
and forms?  What did “America” mean to each poet?  What threat did
capitalism pose to their notions of democracy?  What tensions or
contradictions arise between their simultaneous commitments to
national, racial, and individual “identity”? How did they imagine
the relationship between racial identity and poetic voice, or
between group identity and human universality?  How does human
sexuality figure in their work and what has it to do
with “democratic culture”?  How did their poetry engage with the
specific political and social challenges of their times--most
notably the crisis of the Union for Whitman, the Depression and the
McCarthy era for Hughes?  We will look at some theories of
democracy, democratic individuality, and the “culture of democracy”
that explicitly use Whitman as a point of departure, as well as at
stringent critiques of Whitman’s purported “liberalism,” and then
see how these arguments look in relation to Hughes’s work.

While the focus will be on poetry, we will also look at their work
in other genres, including autobiography.  Required work will
include thoughtful participation in class discussions, periodic
informal writing on the course material, one 15-minute presentation,
a conference-style paper abstract, and a 20-page seminar paper.

Readings:

Whitman, Leaves of Grass, “Democratic Vistas,”  Specimen Days
Hughes, Collected Poems,  Not Without Laughter, The Big Sea

Essays or chapters by George Kateb, Jeffrey Stout, Doris Sommer, Wai-
Chee Dimock, Alan Trachtenberg, Karen Sanchez-Eppler, Michael Moon,
June Jordan, Martha Nussbaum, John Dewey, Richard Rorty, Kwame
Anthony Appiah, and others.