Two Ways out of Whitman

Two Ways out of Whitman

Two Ways out of Whitman

Two Ways out of Whitman

Synopsis

This collection of essays on American poetry begins with Walt Whitman. Donald Davie takes his bearings from Whitman to explore a range of poetry that will challenge any reader of American poetry.

Excerpt

I come before you asking what I hope are patient questions, as pretty much an ignoramus, certainly an amateur. This has not much to do with my being a subject of Her Majesty Queen Elizabeth ii, but it has something to do with that. and I should like to begin by spending a few minutes on the rather peculiar difficulties that a British reader feels when he approaches American literature. These difficulties will not be unfamiliar to you because they are a mirror image of what you as Americans encounter when you consider modern British literature. You know that modern British literature is a foreign literature to you, and yet quite plainly it is not foreign in the same way as French literature is, or Italian, or German, or Spanish. and the Englishman regards American literature in the same way: it is somehow a foreign literature, and yet it isn't, it is not foreign in the way other literatures are. As a matter of fact, of course, there are people on both sides of the Atlantic (though they are more prominent and numerous in the United Kingdom than in the United States), who would deny even this much, who would deny that the other English- speaking literature is a foreign literature at all. This is an attitude which was very common, particularly among the English, up to a couple of generations ago, and the people who still hold this view in England are, for the most part, in their declining years. They would say that 'English literature' is a term applied to literature in English wherever it is written, whether in North America, in Australasia, Polynesia, Asia, emergent Africa, anywhere. and in fact, there are quite strong arguments which can be brought to support this nowadays very unfashionable, and I think dying, attitude. in particular, people of this way of thinking can ask: If I as an English reader am to regard the literature of the United States as a foreign literature, am I not to regard the literature of Australia as foreign likewise? Indeed, am I not as an Englishman to regard Scottish literature written in English as a foreign literature, Anglo-Irish literature as foreign, Anglo-Welsh literature as foreign? These are difficult and ticklish questions to answer because what is involved in them is a sense of national identity on the part of various peoples. If we are to say that the literature of the United States exists as a literature foreign to English, but we refuse to recognize, let us say, New Zealand literature as having the same sort of status, patriotic New Zealanders are likely to be annoyed, for it seems we . . .

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