"The Principal Poem," by David Kuebrich
From Minor Prophecy: Walt Whitman's New American Religion, Indianapolis: Indiana University Press, 1989: p.79-110
Reviewed by Sasha Wilson
David Kuebrich sets out to write about Walt Whitman in a way that literary scholars have never done before. Kuebrich decides to consider the theological implications of the poet's work as much as the literary ones. Trained in both religious discourse and formal literary analysis, Kuebrich puts those skills to work in his book Minor Prophecy: Walt Whitman's New American Religion. Kuebrich boldly points out that nineteenth century readers did not readily accept Whitman's proposal on his "New American Religion" through the poem "Song of Myself." Instead of critizing Whitman for alienating his Christian audience, Kuebrich chooses to focus on the uniqueness of Whitman's rhetoric and glorify the poet's prophetic point of view. In the climatic chapter of the book, appropriately entitled "The Principal Poem," Kuebrich examines how "Song of Myself" serves as both Whitman's "spiritual solipsism" and as his post-Christian millennial manifesto that calls other believers to join in his search for meaning. Kuebrich's work engages his readers, enumerates the main motivations and movements of the poem, encompasses other literary critics' comments, and encourages the further discourse on Whitman's role as a prophet. This chapter especially served as a useful companion to Professor Railton's lectures on "Song of Myself," though both discussions left me with questions about Whitman's visionary message to America.
Professor Railton quoted Whitman's words on his main aim in writing, which was "to put a person, a human being, myself, really, truly, and fully on a piece of paper." This goal shows not only the prophetic nature of Whitman's work, but also his commitment to connectedness. Through writing himself completely, Whitman believed that he might also be completely known by his audience. Kuebrich picks up with this concept of connectedness through shared experience in his book. Like our lecture, Kuebrich begins "The Principal Poem" by stressing the unifying message of Whitman's work. He highlights Whitman's inviting nature and the effect that this invitation has on the message of "Song of Myself" as a whole. Just as the poem opens with: "I celebrate myself, and sing myself, / And what I assume you shall assume, / For every atom belonging to me as good belongs to you," Kuebrich invites his readers to join in the analysis and take Whitman's experiential writing on its own terms (Am. Lit. Anthology, p. 26, l. 1-3). Kuebrich reviews Whitman's sensory experience in the first few sections, analyzes the social descriptions of the sections 6 through 14, and emphasizes the American aspects of sections 15 through 17. Kuebrich shows how all of these elements draw the reader and the poet closer together. He insists that what belongs to the poet belongs to all men, that all men search for meaning just as Whitman searches, and most importantly, that America as a setting inherently unites Americans as a people.
Professor Railton and Kuebrich agree that Whitman's works is not only religious in nature, but "Song of Myself" is actually an American religion of its own. Again, what sets Kuebrich's argument apart is how he stresses the "newness" of this religion. Unlike other critics, Kuebrich does not see Whitman's theology as "an American outcropping of Indian religion" or even as a "poetic version of a shamanic ritual" (Kuebrich, 80). Instead, he "believes it is more accurately viewed as presenting a new religion for the American people that embraces modern science, especially nineteenth-century evolutionary thought, and that emphasizes personal religious experience and spiritual development" (Kuebrich, 80). Through this thesis, Kuebrich details the tenets of Whitman's faith as show in the poem; the writer believes that the universe was created by an ultimately loving and transcendent God who can also take part in the evolution of nature as well as the progressive course of human history (Kuebrich, 80-5). Kuebrich shows how this ideology grants Whitman "spiritual solipsism," setting him apart from other Victorian Christians, but it also offers him literary unity with the transcendentalist writers of the era. Kuebrich builds on Professor Railton's point about the importance of American identity within the poem and the poem's audience. Kuebrich argues that by "proclaiming his religious vision in America, where he believed the average person was already virtually free of political and material oppression, Whitman anticipated that his new faith would, by further freeing the American people of psychological and spiritual oppression, bring the citizenry to perfection and the society to its millennial fulfillment" (81-2). Yet Kuebrich criticizes Whitman for stopping short of this goal. And this critique is contradictory to Kuebrich's previous argument. He first says that the poem "is informed by a coherent world view," and then from a literary standpoint he conversely says he cannot see the poem as a "self
-contained whole." He scolds Whitman for "sharing his language" with his readers "but failing to include a lexicon." I strongly disagree.
Based on Professor Railton's development of Whitman as a self-proclaimed prophet, and on Kuebrich's brief description of Whitman as a "prophet-teacher," I feel that Whitman's role is simply to profess not to answer. Like Old Testament prophets to Israel, Whitman leads, speaks, and points the way for his nation, but he cannot take them there. In the final section, he is omnipresent and omniscient, but not omnipotent, promising to "stop somewhere waiting for you." Though Kuebrich does not explain this "waiting" process fully, he does an excellent job of analyzing the prophetic poet behind it.
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