Laurence Bashford Performing American Literature Project Proposal 03.06.2017 Spring 2017
Deferred Desire & the American Dream:
A Walt Whitman/Langston Hughes Dialectic
In 1860, the latest edition of Walt Whitman’s Leaves of Grass anthology is published, echoing the shift in both the poet’s and popular consciousness of America as the country stood poised on the brink of bloody civil war. One century later, another poet stands in Whitman’s same shoes, and reflects on the fierce battle that is on the brink of tearing down the very fabric of American democracy once again; this time namely, Langston Hughes, and the new war is that of the Civil Rights Movement, escalating to a fever pitch across the United States.
These two poets parallel one another in ways beyond just the historical – in fact, what is most fascinating about them is the way in which they correspond directly, as Hughes uses allusions lifted directly from Whitman’s own words to sustain a continuous narrative and literary heritage, that consistently interrogates the nature of the American dream, its meaning and its attainability.
It is my hope to create a performative and interactive literary project that brings these two poets and their writings to life in dialogue with one another across the centuries. I envision this would take the form of firstly a close-analysis document that uses digital humanities technology to annotate and track the path of poetic influence on a line-by-line basis across both poets’ collated works, drawing primarily on selections from the 1860 Leaves of Grass edition, and Hughes’ 1960 Selected Poems. Once this foundational research and annotation process has been completed, it would be my hope to use the common ‘cluster’ format of both poets, to create a newly-curated series of their poems in tandem – that highlights the two distinct voices as speaking to a common ideal for America beyond the reach of present reality. As Ed Folsom discusses both poets in terms of “the postponement of desire”[i] and “the deferral of a dream”, I found myself reminded of Jill Dolan’s question, ‘How can performance, in itself, be a utopian gesture?’[ii] By assembling the basis for new readings of Whitman and Hughes thus, I hope reanimate their own respective utopic visions of the future as part of contemporary America, and its continued struggle towards the elusive tenet of liberty and justice for all, using the performative power of poetry, and illustrated by the accompanying critical annotations.
Field Survey: The Literature
While many authors and poets deal with the critical themes engaged by the poets selected for investigation over the course of this project, I would contend that these two are uniquely placed for inquiry given the direct way they can evidently be seen to engage and relate in direct parallel to one another; in a way that is clearly a manifest part of Hughes’ poetic intent, which in turn stands as a testament to how Whitman’s own original message speaks directly to Hughes and his America too, long before that America or Hughes’ generation was even born.
When considering other directions I could take this project that finds its basis in Whitman’s Leaves of Grass, there were multiple other resources and influences that occurred as possibilities for analysis. For instance, alongside Langston Hughes, there could be any number of African American writers also in this same critical vein of challenging the presumptions of the American Dream, and the internal conflict of America around the subjective issue of freedom and identity politics. Such contemporaries included James Baldwin, Audre Lorde, and other notable figures of the Harlem Renaissance era. Alternatively, a poetic link beyond these two poets to the present day, to the works of Claudia Rankine and other contemporary African American poets offers the potential to be a fruitful avenue of comparison. However, while this may be useful in expanding the scope of the project thematically or contextually, it would in doing so necessarily dilute the clear heritage that can be traced so precisely from Whitman to Hughes even on the microcosmic level of word-choice; and thus it seemed unnecessary to continue to pursue such possible routes for widening the scope, especially given how prolific both Whitman and Hughes were, across various literary media.
However, even operating under this decision to focus solely on the works of Hughes and Whitman, there remains some paring down that I feel could yet be done to best specify which aspects of their oeuvres to preserve, and which to leave outside the bounds of this project. For instance, there are the multiple editions and corrections of Leaves of Grass, with the disparate structures and compositions offering widely varying shades of meaning to each of the poems contained within. My inclination is to rely most heavily upon the 1860 edition, as its specific historical positioning just at the onset of Civil War best corresponds to Hughes’ own positioning on the verge of widespread civil disobedience and activism in the 1960s. This said, resources such as the online Walt Whitman Archive should prove to be an invaluable resource, and I plan to compare the differing editions of specific poems from Leaves of Grass across the span of year and published editions to get a better sense of how Whitman’s own dwindling optimism for the American “experiment in democracy” (as he called it), and how this affected his own stylistic choices.
Lastly, Whitman and Hughes are centrally united around the phrase ‘So long’: a multifaceted expression of longing and desire for unattainable states of being, that illustrates the core of their poetry. Besides this direct poetic dialogue however, many critics have noted the clear influence of Whitman in many of his other publications, for instance the short story ‘Blessed Assurance’.[iii] The desires that they express and repress naturally encompass the political and ideological longing for a united and inclusive America, but also span to the intimately personal; both writers are known for the latent themes of queerness, which surface in published and unpublished works alike. This in particular is a common theme that I intend to uphold as central to the malaise each writer identifies in their respective experiences of America in their times. As such, I anticipate drawing upon supplementary and unpublished materials from different points in the literary careers of both Whitman and Hughes, in order to develop more rounded portrayals of the key emotional and ideological concerns of each poet respectively, and to identify specific points of commonality that resonate nonetheless across their two starkly contrasting circumstances.
In order to inform the ongoing development of my project, I intend to draw significantly upon the pre-extant corpus of critical writings and theory that touches upon the works of Whitman and Hughes, both in their own rights independently, and also those which view them in comparison. Such critical imaginings of the form and body of their works should help clarify areas of thematic and symbolic significance, that will allow a more coherent connection to be drawn between the two writers in relations to one another. I will also drawn upon the ideas of disciplines such as performances studies in investigating the notion of envisioning and enacting utopias, which has manifested in literary form extensively in the postcolonial context that thereby forms a crucially useful parallel to the comparable American Dream paradigm. In creating a rubric for a performance or staged reading of these poems, in addition to a one for an annotated publication, I see this project in the vein of artists such as Anna Deavere Smith, who for instance writes:
The utopian theatre would long for flesh, blood and breathing. It would be hopelessly old-fashioned in a technical sense, hopelessly interested in presence, hopelessly interested in modes of communication, requiring human beings to be in the same room at the same time . . . the utopian theatre finds a place for ease inside of riddles, inside of paradoxes, inside of disturbing realities. The utopian theatre does not believe in mind over matter. [iv]
This idea of “presence” and the physical existence of performers giving life to the ideas they embody, to me strikes a critical chord here, and seems to come close to realising the notion of giving ultimate unity to Hughes and Whitman in both ideological and literal terms, as they reach across time to interact with one another through their poetry, in the immediate present of a reader’s imagination or performance for an audience in America today.
Format, Methodology, & Approach
The first port of call for this project is, naturally, a simultaneously in-depth and broad-reaching reading of the works of Whitman and Hughes in question here. By examining these two texts side-by-side, I hope to identify the common points of theme and structure as the one seeks to parallel the other, and then to trace the specific motifs and words that can be found linking the two together. I hope to combine this research into thematic and verbal intertextuality, and employ a form of annotative digital humanities software (that is as-yet undetermined) to create an interactive copy of the texts, that can be manipulated as the editing and curatorial process develops, and the choice of content becomes increasingly refined in constructing the final project. I expect to collaborate with the Digital Humanities Lab and its affiliated Fellows in order to identify strategies for executing these options in effective ways. I am interested in considering techniques such as colour-coding with hyperlinks to directly transport the reader visually across the two works in reading each in tandem. This will allow for a fusion of the two distinct diegetic levels of source material and subsequent inspiration, and hopefully will be conducive to the creation of a coherent, overlapping narrative with the two writers and their works in dialogue. This portion may well begin to expand beyond the realm of poetry; into accompanying short stories such as Blessed Assurance that highlights their literary relationship, and also other unpublished works that go further to illustrate the common concerns that link these two authors, in particular, American identity, envisioning American futures, and the place of queerness and blackness within these regimented environments. Furthermore, I would like to consider the possibility of compiling key critical interpretations of the selected works, and including these as a separate layer of marginalia to the central works, thus providing a reader or scholar further insight into how the format is founded upon scholarship expounding the clear common literary heritage that runs between Whitman and Langston.
Once all this information is compiled, the editorial process will begin – using the idea of thematic “clusters” (that form the basis of structure in Leaves of Grass and Selected Poems both) that examine different aspects of Whitman’s and Langston’s unique yet intertwined conditions. Ideally, these clusters will progress to take on a shape somewhat resemblant of a dramatic structure, that could lend itself to a performed rendition of the anthologies pieces. A potential final avenue then for this project could be to undertake further prospective work into the design conception for what such a performance might look like – to consider accompanying music and sound scapes; setting, technical, and lighting design; and to contemplate the possibility of developing a more conventional narrative that might even take the dialogue of these poetic pieces a step further into embodying the poets themselves onstage, enacting the very American futures that they inevitably could only bid “so long” to, and of which they could only dream expectantly throughout the course of their own literary careers, and lifetimes.
References & Bibliography
[i] Ed Folsom, ‘So Long, So Long! Whitman, Hughes, and the Art of Longing’ in Walt Whitman, Where the Future Becomes Present, (2008)
[ii] Jill Dolan, ‘Performance, Utopia and the “Utopian Performative”’, Theatre Journal, 53 (2001), p. 455.
[iv] Anna Deavere Smith, ‘A System of Lights’, Theatre, 26, 1–2 (1995), pp. 50–1.