115th Annual Conference - Honolulu, Hawaii
Friday, November 10 - Sunday, November 12, 2017

America as an Island: Walt Whitman and Naval Imagination

Maki Sadahiro, Meijigakuin University

This paper analyzes Walt Whitman's sea images to historicize his nautical imagination. I will locate it within the context of the development of the US navy--the development from an illegitimate group that rebelled against the Royal Navy to a national institution heading towards achieving sea power under the President Theodore Roosevelt by the end of the 19th century.

Proposal: 

   Throughout his career, Walt Whitman persistently employed sea images in his poetry, as exemplified in the whole of the “Sea-Drift” section and “A Passage to India,” among others. Critics tend to perceive these images as representing a religious or at least an abstract idea, such as death, eternity, maternal nature, and understand Whitman’s attitude toward the sea in an ahistorical manner. However, even though Whitman believed that historiography should follow literature, as indicated by the declaration of his intent to create a new kind of historiography through his poetry in Democratic Vistas, the seemingly abstract oceanic images are fraught with historical incidents. In fact, though Whitman did not write any poems related to the American Navy to celebrate or memorialize particular combats or vessels as Herman Melville did, his decision of calling Abraham Lincoln a captain in “O captain! My captain!” (1865) discursively indicates his deep realization of America as a drifting ship, or as an island surrounded by the two great oceans.

    Through the analysis of the sections of “Song of Myself” that describe John Paul Jones at a scene of a sea-fight in the Revolutionary War and the three technological inventions (the transatlantic cable, the Suez Canal, and the transcontinental railroad) in “A Passage to India,” my presentation attempts to historicize Whitman’s nautical imagination. I will locate it within the context of the development of the US navy--the development from an illegitimate group that rebelled against the Royal Navy to a national institution heading towards achieving sea power under the President Theodore Roosevelt by the end of the 19th century