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Colección: La Educación
Número: (115) II
Año: 1993

6. James DOUGHERTY. Walt Whitman and the Citizen’s Eye. Baton Rouge: Louisiana State University Press, 1993, xxi, 327 p., notes, illustrations, bibliography, index. Cloth: $32.50.

“If ever the man shudders at [his] alienation, and the world strikes terror in his heart, he looks up ... and sees a picture. There he sees that the I is embedded in the world and that there is really no I at all ... or he sees that the world is embedded in the I, and that there is really no world at all....” With this existential dilemma, expressed in the words of German theologian Martin Buber, James Dougherty launches his eclectic and penetrating study of Walt Whitman’s (1819-1892) attempts to engage and overcome the alienation of the individual from communal life in poetic form. For Dougherty, Whitman, a self-consciously “American” poet, seeks to create a communal bond with his compatriots by communicating with the I through the eye. Dougherty shows us Whitman as a journalist and poet who shares with the reader his “democratic” vision of America—a proud, unabashedly expansionist America without boundaries or limitations. The lists or catalogues of images that fill Whitman’s poems reflect the eye that sees them, a democratic eye that is perfectly open to differences of class, race, or religion. But with the self-reliant world view of new world democracy enters the threat of total alienation from society as Tocqueville warned, an unexpected abyss at the heart of a democratic society despite its promise of personal freedom and prosperity. Dougherty frequently invokes Whitman’s phrase “the mystery of the eyesight” in describing the poet’s faith in physical vision as a pathway between the individual soul and the reality that it apprehends. This reality, for Whitman, like the “I”/eye that apprehends it, is both physical and spiritual.

Part I of the three that comprise the book, entitled “The World in the Self, the Self in the World”, describes Whitman’s early attempts at creating a poetic community through the faculty of vision. For Whitman, the poet’s main task is to facilitate this link by mediating vision through his/her own imagination, to “indicate the path between reality and their souls.” Relying on Buber and on Ralph Waldo Emerson as well, Dougherty suggests that bridging the gap between “I” (the poet) and “Not-Me” (the rest of the world) becomes the central obsession of Whitman’s work; when this gap is bridged it then becomes possible for the poet to locate not only a “You,” but perhaps also, as Whitman does in his best poetry, a “We,” a community of believers in the mysterious ability of the eyesight to reveal spiritual truths.

In Part II, “The Citizen of Manhattan,” Dougherty traces Whitman’s progress toward the achievement of such a communal “We” in light of the increasingly sophisticated and contemporary visualist approaches that he utilizes, such as the diorama and the photograph. In the 1855 edition of Leaves of Grass, Whitman calls for a new American literature, one that realizes first of all that “the United States themselves are essentially the greatest poem.” In Dougherty’s view, Whitman’s desire to make himself the poet of American democracy and her people often produced in his poetry only renewed expressions of self-doubt and alienation; or as in Drum Taps a reliance on conventional mass art forms of the day such as lithographs and engravings to make contact with a wider American audience. But for Dougherty, Whitman comes closest to achieving his ideal of citizen-poet only when he writes of the cities that he knew so well: Washington, D.C., and New York. The city provided Whitman with everything he sought in his poetry: an entire world of possibilities in one place; the spectacle of the crowds; an endless diversity of faces and names around every street corner. Dougherty presents as the summit of Whitman’s achievement the poem “Crossing Brooklyn Ferry”, a work which relies heavily on the physiological particulars of eyesight to organize its words and images. Whitman celebrates the quiet magnificence possessed by physical things in a ritual journey of communal vision that places the poet as one among the untold millions that have made or will make the crossing on the Brooklyn Ferry. In the course of “Crossing Brooklyn Ferry,” Dougherty believes that Whitman dissolves the barriers between the “I” and the “Not-Me” of which so many American thinkers and poets have despaired.

But in Part III of his study, “Surface and Depth,” Dougherty explores the daunting influence of Walt Whitman on American artists of the next century, among them the poets William Carlos Williams and T. S. Eliot, photographers Bernice Abbott and Alfred Stieglitz, and painter John Sloan. While the influence of the poet has remained strong and fruitful until this day (as seen in the case of poet Denise Levertov), Dougherty also focuses on the frustrations of William Carlos Williams, who spent an entire career writing in Whitman’s shadow much as the British Romantic poets labored in Milton’s. The eclecticism of part III is impressive, calling as it does on so many different art forms and artists. The numerous illustrations are indispensable and very instructive. James Dougherty’s Walt Whitman and the Citizen’s Eye testifies in the strongest possible manner to the poet’s enduring genius, and in doing so, offers a superb example of a multi-disciplinary approach to literary criticism that will it see very influential in the future.

William C. Baldwin