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"Evolutionary" and "non-evolutionary" genres: a valid divide?

sustainablephilosopher's picture

Tim Richards
Monday, April 27, 2009
Evolit Paper 3

"Evolutionary" and "non-evolutionary" genres: a valid divide?

I wonder whether there is a certain sense in which Whitman is only significant because of his divergence from the literature and cultural norms that preceded him. In himself, is he an author worthy of mention, or is he only an important signpost in a larger evolutionary process that has long since asserted itself in manifold ways despite and in spite of him? For example, I do not think that Whitman is a filter through which all evolutionary or post-Modern texts must pass through and appeal to; on the contrary, Whitman is one of the early manifestations in the history of literature of the evolutionary idea expressing itself. There is nothing essentially Whitman-esque of all literature since Darwin, though some literature such as Alan Ginsberg, Jack Kerouac, and the Beats was self-consciously and markedly influenced by Whitman. Perhaps Darwin, though, is indeed the turning point to which all that follows must pay heed, because through his articulation of the idea of evolution for the first time in human history, all manner of new ideas and possibilities emerged for humanity.

However, I, like Professor Grobstein, am interested in what new things are possible through evolution is rather than analyzing the way that things came to be the way they presently are. This moment in literary, cultural, and biological history is one way that things have happened, but it could have been infinitely otherwise and will become infinitely otherwise. In canonizing Whitman, are we somehow attempting to essentialize the nature of evolutionary literature? Are we holding up Whitman as an example, saying, "Look, here is what evolutionary literature is and means"? In so doing, do we mummify the process of evolution and freeze it in one particular manifestation, an act that can serve to mold and limit the continuing process of evolution? Given all of these questions, I wonder whether evolutionary fiction is a legitimate genre of literature, or whether all literature (pre- and post- Darwin) must, of necessity, be considered to be evolutionary by definition, having resulted from a long process of human cultural evolution spanning back millennia. Even the fireside poets are revolutionary when held up next to Cave Man culture and paintings. I am hard pressed to determine whether there really is such a thing as non-evolutionary fiction.

Exploring the case study of Whitman might shed light on the question of whether an evolutionary genre as such can be properly said to exist. Whitman, for his part, seems to exhibit a great deal of idealization and romanticism of America. Our nation has undergone an evolutionary process that necessarily forsook much of what came before on the continent (namely, the Native Americans) in order to build its self-professed greatness that Whitman so profusely celebrates. However, in the very opening lines of the introduction to Leaves of Grass, Whitman writes that "America does not repel the past... the life which served its requirements has passed into the life of the new forms" (p. 3). So, it is not that we denied history in the genocide of the Native Americans; but rather, that we subsumed their life forms into ours at present, which he maintains is the "fittest for its days" (p. 3). This is an interesting take on the concept of evolution, that somehow America survived because it was more fit for inhabitance by Europeans than Native Americans. Nevertheless, I wonder what Native Americans might think in reading this introduction; I wonder whether they would be supportive of this use of the idea of evolution. It seems that Whitman has a peculiar take on evolution that doesn't necessarily pay heed to or revere the past in the same way that he reveres the American present.

Although Whitman was undoubtedly a revolutionary writer with regard to the time in which he was writing and the form and content of poetry that came before him, he does not seem to be the most evolutionary writer at times. For example, on p. 10 of the Introduction, he writes, "Nothing is better than simplicity..." This seems to be contrary to the thriving complexity of life and living organisms. He goes on to write, on the same page, "What I tell I tell for precisely what it is." His realist approach seems more similar to representationalism than to abstract art. In combination with the tendency for simplicity and uniformity, the representationalist/ realist approach, and the pining for the idea of the eternal, perhaps Whitman takes a more Modern approach to art than that of the post-Modern expressionists, for example. In this way, we might say that Whitman hasn't evolved past the conventions of his era after all, at least not in every respect. Yet, he self-consciously aspires for originality: "he is greatest forever and forever who contributes the greatest original practical example" (p. 10). For poetry, Whitman might just have fulfilled that example.

Darwin might certainly be said to have fulfilled the "greatest original practical example" for science, though he was likely not consciously aspiring to be the history-setting convention-breaker type. Perhaps Whitman was consciously inspired by Darwin in writing that "Exact science and its practical movements are no checks on the greatest poet but always his encouragement and support" (p. 11). Maybe Whitman read Darwin, or at least knew about his ideas of evolution, which in turn inspired him to make new forms of poetry. Evolutionary poetry, then, ultimately stems from scientific advances in theory, but the result of the poem is a different manifestation of this scientific knowledge in the artistic form: "In the beauty of poems are the tuft and final applause of science" (p. 11).

It seems to me that Darwin inspired a general divergence of literature and culture from that which came before. However, I do not think that we would be justified in labeling this proliferation of new forms as an evolutionary genre, given what I mentioned in the beginning that all of culture and literature is evolutionary in the broadest sense of the word. Whitman is indeed an important an interesting character, but I think it would be an injustice to human creativity if we were to canonize him and hold him up as the greatest example of what the human mind can generate, epitomizing him as an exemplar of evolutionary writing. He is one of the first original explorers of post-Darwin culture, and what he achieved was no small feat, but by no means was he the last or greatest example of free-form writing. I look forward to reading the great writers that will necessarily evolve in the future, who will find their ancestors (either consciously or unconsciously) in Darwin and Whitman.


Paul Grobstein's picture

Whitman and forms of evolution

"all of culture and literature is evolutionary in the broadest sense of the word"

Or, to put it differently, all of culture and literature are the products of an evolutionary process?  Perhaps, indeed. And then Whitman might perhaps be an exemplar of a convergent root that gives rise to a new divergence, ie "free form writing"?  With new and as yet unsuspected forms to appreciate yet to come?

I agree.  But that leaves a question still unanswered: why do we we value some creations over others?  what accounts for "stickiness"?