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A Criticism of Genres or an Essay on the Database?

rachelr's picture

 Perhaps our past discussion influenced how I read Folsom's essay, but what captured me in his words was not an argument about databases and archives, or even about his own Walt Whitman Archive; it was his conflict between the organization of literature and the constraints of genres. Folsom remarks that "peculiarity to person, period, or place always leads to division and discrimination, always moves away from and against universality" (1572). Everything that I read in Folsom's writing seemed to me to center around the limitations of genre. Whitman himself pushed against the restraints of being bound into one idea, one limited section of the written word. His works were different, and "once Whitman claimed the genre for his work, he quickly began altering it, extending it, testing it again" (1527). Whitman seemed to choose and place his work into a genre because that was what was expected in the literary community- everything needed to fit into a small nook on a long line of shelves, classified in some way or another into tools so that people could find them. Call number, author, publisher, genre... Folsom states in the very first sentence that "genre, in its most reductive form, seemed to have conquered all" (1571). 

And yet archives and databases are so akin to genres, just another way for humans to try to understand, to create order. Does a work of literature being part of a single genre limit it, limit the author's intent? In a way, yes. But literature has to be organized some way, as Folsom discovered. Is there a better alternative? In all the responses to Folsom's essay, the other authors focus on The Walt Whitman Archive and the idea of archives and databases in general. And while yes, these are main focuses in Folsom's work, I see them as only examples of how genre has evolved, how it stereotypes literature, and how yet it still remains a key in the organization of literature across the globe.


aseidman's picture


And yet, having pushed against those constraints, Whitman seems to have pushed back against himself. As stated in the article, he went back and created a new edition of Leaves of Grass in which everything that was a poem was marked as "poem." I'm interested by the idea that Whitman enjoyed re-arranging both the order of and the lines within his poems. Although I'll go ahead and agree that he was one of the early database users,  I also note that all of this changing and re-arranging of his writings did not actually change the genre of the work. In a previous article, we read that anything that follows a certain set of rules and guidelines for content could be said to fall under a certain genre. Therefore whether or not his works were labeled "poem," and whether or not they were in a book, sat alone, were re-arrangeable, or were set in stone (I didn't mean to rhyme, but let's go with it), they are all still very poetic in nature.

The way I see it, the idea that you can classify the genre of an author is ridiculous, and so we'll let that go. But in order for us to effectively discuss the nature of the genre of a work, we are probably going to have to accept one definition/set of criteria for a genre. I have a feeling that when we do, we will find that Whitman's poetics, for all of their unusual and mutable nature, fit very well into the genre of poetry. Their potential to fall into other genres as well does not neccessarily mean that they are genre-less.

I had a wonderful conversation about all of this databasing last night with a friend of mine, I only wish I could remember it well enough to give you the transcript. Maybe I'll remember it for next week's class.

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