Some Subtle Sympathy: Connecting with the Living and the Dead in Walt Whitman's 'Jack Engle' and 'Leaves of Grass'

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2017-08

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Abstract

This dissertation traces the arc of Walt Whitman’s later fiction-writing career, illuminating a key moment in it—the publication of his recently recovered novella 'Life and Adventures of Jack Engle' (1852)—and taking it as a stage for more wide-ranging discussions of Whitman’s sympathies with the living and the dead. In Chapter 1, I interpret the novella’s—and in particular, its twelfth chapter’s—rhetoric of sincerity as encoding queerness, and its moments emphasizing sincerity and sympathy as conveying an “indescribable something” between the disidentified, via a “hard” sentimentality among queer men. Then, in Chapter 2, I loop back to provide an extended historical contextualization of Jack Engle, in which I situate the novella generically, bibliographically, and biographically. Given what I find to be the novella’s place in the literary tradition of sentimentalism, and Whitman’s little-remarked engagement with the (related) moralistic tradition of sentimental ethics, in Chapter 3, I explore Whitman’s ethics in more detail. In particular, I question how the poet moves from the traditional ethics of his fiction and his early poems to what David S. Reynolds calls his “far more adventurously mystical and more erotically charged” engagements with ethics and theology, ethics that are not only open-armed but, seemingly, at peace with the very notion of sin. There is a certain symmetry between moral-sentimental sympathetic identification and Whitman’s poetic commitment to embodying the Other—in both cases, there is the ontological sense that one is, in a sense, another person—and in both 'Jack Engle' and 'Leaves of Grass,' Whitman literalizes this relation by positing a porous relationship between the living and the dead. In Chapter 4, I analyze this posited relation to death and renewal by tracing Whitman’s poetic relationship to the grave. First, I review Whitman’s early poetic period, noting the relationship of many of his youthful poems about death to the work of the so-called Graveyard School. Then, using 'Jack Engle'’s own graveyard passage (ch. 19) as a springboard, I examine how Whitman’s evolving relationship to graves, graveyards, and graveyard poetry gradually subverts, and eventually transcends, the death-tropes of the Graveyard School, as well as of their American counterparts, most especially Bryant. 'Jack Engle'’s graveyard scene (ch. 19) provides a critical link between his earlier, more traditional engagements with the Graveyard School, while containing language and symbols that prefigure several now-famous poetic moments in “Song of Myself.” Thus, the novella’s recovery reveals not only Whitman’s complex relationship to an influential poetic tradition of melancholy and ephemerality, but also opens a window into an important period in the development of a key poetic passage in 'Leaves of Grass.' On the subject of recovery, I conclude this work with a meditation on the rediscovery of American literatures of the nineteenth century.

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Keywords

Whitman, Walt, Life and Adventures of Jack Engle, Leaves of Grass, Sentimentalism, Sentimental ethics, Graveyard school, Sympathy, Sincerity, Graveyard, Literary recovery

Citation

Portions of this document appear in: Turpin, Zachary. "Introduction to Walt Whitman's 'Life and Adventures of Jack Engle'." Walt Whitman Quarterly Review 34 (2017), 225-261.