Whitman's apparently positive depictions of racial others are intepreted in the light of his assumptions about biological indicators of racial identity and the role literature plays in recording that identity. Part one demonstrates that in the context of nineteenth-century racial thought a poem like "Salut au Monde!" seems directed less toward celebrating cultural diversity and more toward indicating the less-evolved status of other races compared to Americans. Whitman cannot describe the typical American as fulsomely as he can others, however, who serve in his poems as models of racy individuality-however backward they may seem. Part two therefore looks at Whitman's examination of various "specimens" of American identity, such as Lincoln, and at the ironies and contradictions that frustrate this examination. The problem for Whitman was not racial difference (racial others being for him and his contemporaries known quantities) but racial sameness. What Whitman needs, then, is some symbolic means of bridging the gap between actual American diversity and the ideological imperative of American identity, and this he finds in the concept of similitude (adumbrated in "Song of Myself"). But Whitman's poetry offers resolutions unavailable (and undesirable) in American culture. Part three describes Whitman's cultural discontent, chiefly as expressed in Democratic Vistas, where he chastises Americans for their bodily grossness and bad manners and discusses what he calls "the democratic ethnology of the future," a racial solution to America's cultural problems.
- Copyright 1994 The Regents of the University of California.