In a few weeks, we’ll be focusing on Whitman’s literary legacy. With that in mind, I couldn’t help being struck by this passage of the interview we read for today, in which he responds to the question “What will be the character of the American literature when it does form?”:
It will be something entirely new, entirely different. As we are a new nation with almost a new geography, and a new spirit, the expression of them will have to be new. In form, in combination we shall take the same old font of type, but what we set up will never have been set up before. It will be the same old font that Homer and Shakespeare used, but our use will be new. (15)
This understanding of the essential connection between literature and the culture that gives birth to it immediately brings to mind “Theme for English B,” a famous poem written, roughly seventy years later, by Langston Hughes. As you probably remember, most of the poem is a response to a professor’s facile assignment, “Go home and write / a page tonight. / And let that page come out of you— / Then, it will be true.” An excerpt:
So will my page be colored that I write?
Being me, it will not be white.
But it will be
a part of you, instructor.
You are white—
yet a part of me, as I am a part of you.
The surface of Hughes’s poem is personal–a white English prof at a mostly-white Ivy-League school is naive if he thinks self-portraiture is a simple subject for a black student. But Whitman’s words encourage us also to take the poem as an analogy for literature itself, which will always be shaped by the social and political circumstances of the particular group that makes it.
When we speak of what makes up African-American literature, we may be referring partly to “the same old font of type”–the same basic English language–out of which our mainstream writers have constructed their works, but in order to have cultural authenticity it will have to be put to a use that mainstream readers may at first find utterly foreign. That, too, is American.
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