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Shakespeare, Whitman & Emerson

In American History, Arts & Letters, Emerson, Literary Theory & Criticism, Shakespeare, Walt Whitman on August 9, 2010 at 9:55 am

In Repositioning Shakespeare, Thomas Cartelli situates Whitman’s Shakespeare in contradistinction to Emerson’s Shakespeare.

The phrase “Whitman’s Shakespeare” is, in a way, an odd construction because Whitman did not seek to claim “ownership” of Shakespeare so much as he sought an “appropriation and critical transformation” of Shakespeare (32).  Cartelli submits, in fact, that Whitman “brought a contentiously critical approach to bear on his assessments of Shakespeare” (30).

Although Cartelli pays lip-service to Emerson’s ambivalence about Shakespeare, he concludes that Emerson transformed the Bard of Avon “into a virtual founding father” by attempting “an act of wishful appropriation in which the (literary) model that cannot be superseded is annexed by the (political) model that supersedes” (33).

Cartelli thus seems convinced that Shakespeare shaped Whitman’s and Emerson’s thought, but he seems unsettled about how and why.

We await a critical comparison of “Shakespeare; or, The Poet,” by Ralph Waldo Emerson, and “Poetry To-day in America—Shakespeare—The Future,” by Walt Whitman.  These texts may demonstrate that although Cartelli’s observations are generally accurate, Whitman and Emerson are more conflicted than Cartelli lets on.

Emerson, for instance, essays that geniuses rely on the precedent of other geniuses only moments before stating that “the essence of poetry” is “to spring, like the rainbow daughter of Wonder, from the invisible, to abolish the past, and refuse all history” (119).

Whitman’s and Emerson’s oscillations are more revealing and interesting than their tenuous conclusions.  Emerson’s inconsistencies are just as meaningful as his putative certainty; Whitman’s contradictions are just as important as his supposed confidence (he is, after all, the man who is vast and contains multitudes).

To appropriate Whitman and Emerson to fit his own critical aims, Cartelli exaggerates Whitman and quotes selectively from Emerson.  He is guilty of the same kind of appropriation for which he criticizes Emerson and Whitman; he multiplies the network of appropriation with an added layer of mediation.  He constructs an appropriation of an appropriation.

If Whitman and Emerson have annexed Shakespeare’s literary model with a political model, as Cartelli suggests, then Cartelli has doubly politicized an already political model by annexing Whitman and Emerson.

Works Cited

Cartelli, Thomas.  Repositioning Shakespeare.  London and New York:  Routledge, 1999.

Emerson, Ralph Waldo.  “Shakespeare; or, The Poet.”  Americans on Shakespeare: 1776-1914. Ed. Peter Rawlings.  Ashgate, 1999.

Whitman, Walt.  “Poetry To-day in America—Shakespeare—The Future.”  Americans on Shakespeare: 1776-1914.  Ed. Peter Rawlings.  Ashgate, 1999.


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