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Prose Evolution: Before and After Walt Whitman

enewbern's picture

      Throughout the second half of the semester, we have discussed the progression and evolution of literature and works of art through the generations. Our example of this progression was to compare Walt Whitman’s Leaves of Grass to a contemporary novel called Sorrows of an American by Siri Hustvedt. I thought that this comparison was quite interesting, but personally I would like to see the progression of a particular genre of art rather than art as a whole travel through a progression and/or an evolution. Personally I would like to look more closely of the creation of prose. I found that writing style very interesting in Whitman and I would like to see where such a stylistic form of poetics might have come from pre-Whitman and see where it has gone post-Whitman, preferably from the American archives so that the cultural nuances are more or less similar.

      In my search for a piece of prose predating Whitman, I came upon a book of poems from 1795 that contained a variety of poetry including several prose poems. I chose to look at one entitled “The Young Compositor, Chapter 1.” It had two parts but since they are technically separate poems I thought it would be more useful to just use one of them as an example for this time period. It had a very “stream of consciousness” feel to it although not the same sort of thing that Whitman utilizes.  The first part goes on for some pages ruminating about the composition of youth both in the mind and the body. It starts out like this:
      “When a mind has fixed itself upon a subject for its reflections, one of the most difficult ends

       is then accomplished. It is always the café with youth, that when they have brought their minds to

       a mode of thinking, and sit down to compose, their first and greatest difficulty is, on what subject 

       they shall write.” (Linn, 13).

The poem continues in this meandering vain contemplation until the end where the author reaches the conclusion that “It is better there be one mouth; let us therefore, be only silent hearers.”Which would lead me to believe that the end conclusion was very different from Whitman’s idea of oneness, but rather an idea that one person sometimes needs to have the floor to speak his mind in totality to figure out things in his own reality.  It’s a sort of precursor to Whitman; people should listen to each other, “be only silent hearers,” so that a sort of cohesiveness of self and reality can come together as a composition like Whitman’s idea of oneness but not quite as all encompassing. It sticks more closely to the realms of the conscious mind than Whitman’s work does. Whitman is not afraid to put everything out there. He doesn’t detach himself from his work he is inside it as her clearly states pretty early on in his work: “I celebrate myself, and what I assume you shall assume, from every atom belonging to me as good belonging to you” (Whitman, 21). He lives in the realms of the mind and the unconscious while the author discussed above lives more on a surface of the mind in the conscious planes.

      After a quick look into the past of prose, I decided to jump forward two centuries and look at the prose of the 20th century. It is a very different use of prose entirely. It works with the idea of putting an issue that is emotionally striking into a form a sort of conversation; it can drift into the conscious or even the unconscious, but everything revolves around the issue at hand. One poem I looked at was called “there is something horribly, terribly wrong…” where “millions of girls abuse food to manipulate their problems” not just the “anorexics and bulimics” but those every day girls that were tortured by their admiration for “flat tummies and sleek, airbrushed thighs” (Green and Taormino, 31). There were many thoughts and the mass of women and girls did have a certain aspect of oneness to them, but they didn’t really have that inhibition and lack of boundaries that Whitman seemed to possess. It wasn’t lacking really so much as different. The argument of Sarah F. is more instructional than inviting; although it does touch on a somewhat sensitive topic in modern culture it doesn’t really ask you to embrace the world as yourself, but rather to just embrace yourself. The modern American seems to have troubles in that particular arena, which might have a little bit to do with the difference in presentation.
      The basic idea of prose though hasn’t really seemed to change that much though. All three of these prose pieces have links to the mind and a meandering sort of argument, there are stops along the way but eventually their end is met. There actual presentation is different, the works seem to become progressively less formal and more personally directed as it has evolved, but essentially the same sort of basic structural idea still exists. I find this very interesting. Since the range of the poems spans over a little more than 200 years it is quite impressive that basic style of prose has gone through so little actual change. It can’t be said of many art forms. For example, Picasso went through dozens of phases of his artwork within his own lifetime that all influenced different sects of more modern painting styles while there is still a type of writing that has stayed more or less consistent for the past two hundred years or so. There are some differences but they seem to deal more with the evolution of the culture of America rather than that actual evolution of the art form. Maybe that’s more or less true for a lot of writing mediums? I guess it is hard to say.
Works Cited:
Green, Karen and Taormino, Tristan. Ed. A girl’s guide to taking over the world:  writings form the girl

          zine revolution. New York, NY: St. Martin’s Griffin, 1997.

Linn, John B. Poems – 1795. New York, NY: Thomas Greenleaf, 1795. Found online through  the Bryn

          Mawr College Library: MTA2LjIwMi4xMTk&p_action=doc&p_queryname=1&p_docref=v2:0F2B1FCB8 79B099B@EVAN-0F301446DA8E08E0@28973-0FDDC767E8077B78@33.


Whitman, Walt. Leaves of Grass. Mineola, NY: Dover Publications, Inc., 2007.




Anne Dalke's picture

looking closely

In each of your earlier papers, you conducted an “etymology hunt,” so I wasn’t surprised that this one, too, begins with a desire to look “more closely” at the evolution of prose style, to focus more tightly on the evolution of a particular genre than we have been able to do, so far, in this class. I like watching your focusing mind narrow the question.

What puzzles me, then, is the seeming randomness of your selections. What was the logic that drove your selecting? Doesn’t that entirely dictate and determine your outcomes? You say that you “came upon a book of poems from 1795” and later that you “looked @ one poem” (that appears to be from a contemporary girls’ ‘zine). But I have no sense of why or how you chose these two examples, or why—set in chronological sequence, with Whitman as the linchpin between them—they enable you to make the very large generalizations that you use them to make, about the “troubles” of “the modern American,” and the fact that “the basic idea of prose hasn’t really seemed to change that much.” A random selection of two other very different texts might have led to precisely the opposite conclusion: that American prose styles have changed radically over the course of the past 200 years. What is the “same sort of basic structural idea” which you see persisting? And how to convincingly assemble the proof that it does?

I’m also puzzled by your speculation that “American troubles in this particular arena might have a little bit to do with the difference in presentation.” It’s unclear to me which drives which: does presentation arise from cultural presumptions, or culture from presentation? Or is there a more reciprocal, interactive “loop” operating here, in which each feeds the other?