American Renaissance Poetry and the Topos of Positionality: Genius Mundi and Genius Loci in Walt Whitman and William Gilmore Simms

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If the modernist intellectual, fundamentally a deracine, saw literature as a "strategy of permanent exile" and fundamental displacement ... the new intellectual rather likes to pose as a topologist: S/he speaks from one specific place of cultural production.... "Positionality"--you might have heard of it-is the magic word, and you'd better take it literally.--Roberto Maria Dainotto, Place in Literature (1)

EVER SINCE F. O. MATTHIESSEN PUBLISHED AMERICAN RENAISSANCE: ART AND Expression in the Age of Emerson and Whitman (1941), the phrase "American Renaissance" has provided both an organizing principle for the study of nineteenth-century American literature and a lightning-rod for that study's critique. (2) These critiques have challenged Matthiessen's focus on just five authors (Emerson, Thoreau, Hawthorne, Melville, and Whitman), a canonizing gesture that excludes other prominent writers of the "renaissance" period (1850-1855) he addresses. In addition to challenging the exclusion of this period's women writers like Harriet Beecher Stowe and African American writers like Frederick Douglass, critics have more recently questioned the northern bias of Matthiessen's canon, and the author consistently invoked in order to redress this sectional imbalance is the southern writer William Gilmore Simms. In a recent issue of Southern Quarterly, a special issue devoted to Simms, David W. Newton observes that "the construction by Matthiessen and later scholars of the American Renaissance as a critical concept has contributed to the diminishment of Simms's literary reputation," a consequence that "is particularly ironic since the height of Simms's own literary career corresponds precisely with that crucial moment in American letters between 1850-55 which Matthiessen defines as the American Renaissance." (3) Newton's proposed correction, his assertion that "by any measure of literary achievement, [Simms's] poems clearly belong as an important part of the American poetic tradition" (p. 24), underscores the larger point made in the introduction to this issue of Southern Quarterly, where Peter L. Shillingsburg presents Simms as "a literary giant of proportions unacknowledged by--indeed, unknownto--the bulk of Americanist scholars." (4)

For my purposes here, this effort to renew critical attention to Simms is of interest not for the institutional circumstance it seeks to effect--the delayed justice of Simms's literary canonization--but for the historical circumstance it registers: Simms's Poems: Descriptive, Dramatic, Legendary, and Contemplative was published in 1853, a date significant less for its coincidence with Matthiessen's "American Renaissance" than for its proximity to the 1855 publication date of Walt Whitman's Leaves of Grass. Simms, these dates show, was an established figure in belles lettres and a prominent member of the nativist Young America group well before Whitman gave that literary nationalist stance its currently most celebrated articulations. (5) The eclipse of Simms by Whitman might call for more nuanced explanations than Whitman's own populist declaration, in the closing line of his 1855 "Preface," that "the proof of a poet is that his country absorbs him as affectionately as he has absorbed it." (6) Yet Whitman's affectionate absorption of his country made his work particularly relevant, as Allen Grossman has demonstrated, for a nation on the brink of civil war. Grossman presents Whitman's poetry as a kind of "policy" for preserving union, characterizing the formal innovation of Whitman's line as "an unprecedented trope of inclusion": "Whitman has devised a universal 'conjunctive principle' whose manifest structure is the sequence of end-stopped, nonequivalent, but equipollent lines." (7) At a time of national crisis, the reason a country absorbs a given poet--in this case, the reason the United States absorbs Whitman rather than Simms--has more to do with that poetry's social policy than its literary quality. …