The Untold Want: Representation and Transformation Echoes of Walt Whitman's Passage to India in Now, Voyager

By Ely, M. Lynda | Literature/Film Quarterly, January 1, 2001 | Go to article overview
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The Untold Want: Representation and Transformation Echoes of Walt Whitman's Passage to India in Now, Voyager


Ely, M. Lynda, Literature/Film Quarterly


The untold want by life and land ne'er granted, Now voyager sail thou forth to seek and find.

-Walt Whitman, Passage to India

In Walt Whitman's 1871 Passage to India, the poet claims to celebrate the related themes of scientific and technological achievement and spiritual transformation, the former physical "passages" making possible the latter "passage to primal thought"-the "Passage to more than India!" Whitman represents America's greatest challenge: spiritual metamorphosis. In this paper, I identify and examine how public perceptions are shaped by the poetic language of Whitman's couplet, "The Untold Want," from Passage to India, how these are mediated and changed by the novelistic conventions of Olive Higgins Prouty's popular 1941 novel, Now, Voyager, and, finally (and most critically), how these alphabetic texts are transformed into cinematic images in the 1942 Warner Brothers film of the same title. My paper examines the way in which Warner Brothers (through producer Hal Wallis and director Irving Rapper) takes up the poet's and novelist's theme of metamorphosis and uses it in this melodramatic film to resolve sexual and political tensions, portraying a woman liberated from one stagnating relationship only to be trapped within another, while at the same time the film seemingly ignores the World War II effort celebrated in such films as Casablanca, a film sharing sets with Now, Voyager on the same Warner Brothers lot in the same year, 1942.

Finally, I analyze how Whitman's transformative poetic metaphor in "Untold Want" is not realized in this film, just as its hopeful message failed during Whitman's lifetime. Even as the film apparently attempts to articulate through images a triumphant process of selfdiscovery, there remains untold want. For the filmic voyager, psychic and physical satisfaction ("health," as Whitman might say) must at last be sacrificed to higher moral purpose. In fact, I would argue that the film, issued to a World War II audience of lonely American women, encourages such housewives and sweethearts to forebear, and, to quote Charlotte's famous closing line, to not "ask for the moon" when they "have the stars." Thus the final message of the film, in many ways, trivializes Whitman's expansive project. Women are quite explicitly not to venture forth "to seek and find," as the poet counsels; motion becomes immobility. Ultimately, only through imagination can the untold want be granted.

James E. Miller, Jr. accepts, in a conservative way, Whitman's own self-representation, writing that during the poet's "final" poetic phase (roughly, the period following the Civil War), Whitman's concern shifted from creating the physical prototype of the New World Democratic personality to "bring[ing] to the fore the vague presence heretofore hovering in the background, the body's spiritual counterpart, the soul" (32). In Whitman's own words as he writes in the preface to the 1876 Centennial Edition, he seeks finally to "spiritualize" Leaves of Grass at this phase, "mak[ing] a type-portrait for living, active, worldly, healthy personality, objective as well as subjective, joyful and potent, and modern and free, distinctively for the United States, male and female, through the long future" (Prose Works 470).

Presumably, this personality could thus benefit from America's material marvels-the Atlantic cable, the transcontinental railroad, the Suez Canal, for example-while, at the same time, enjoying the spiritual fulfillment Whitman represented as the ultimate consequence of American progress.

Even so, for Whitman the political element of American character underpins physical well-being and spiritual transformation, and even as he becomes increasingly disillusioned by party politics and corruption, he stresses the crucial democratic character of the American body politic. He outlines his often pessimistic vision for America's future in the essay Democratic Vistas published in its final form in 1871, just as he publishes the annex Passage to India.

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