Academic journal article Walt Whitman Quarterly Review

The "Labour Prophet"?: Representations of Walt Whitman in the British Nineteenth-Century Socialist Press

Academic journal article Walt Whitman Quarterly Review

The "Labour Prophet"?: Representations of Walt Whitman in the British Nineteenth-Century Socialist Press

Article excerpt

The s ignificance of Walt Whitman to British socialism has long been recognized: in the emerging fin de siècle labor movement, socialist peri- odicals printed articles about him and extracts from his poems; socialist orators spoke of him and quoted from Leaves of Grass ; his poems were set to music, published in labor movement songbooks, and sung at Labor Church meetings; Leaves of Grass was advertised and recommended to socialist readers alongside economic and political publications; he was even featured in a calendar of socialist saints. As M. Wynn Thomas has convincingly argued in relation to Edward Carpenter's Whitman- esque collection of poetry Towards Democracy, these can be seen as acts of "translation": Whitman's democratic vision was removed from its American context and reconstructed so that it was applicable to Britain and the socialist cause.1 For Whitman, "America" and "democracy" were "convertible terms," interchangeable conceptually and linguisti- cally.2 Clearly, British commentators did not interpret "democracy" in this way, and as Thomas observes, it was a "ver y heatedly contested term."3 Socialists were one group who incorporated it into their vocabu- lary, and in the discourses of this movement, "democracy" tended to be used either synonymously with "socialism," or to denote an overarching category which included not only socialism but other movements which worked towards creating a more equal society. In this way, W hitman, who was frequently dubbed the "poet of democracy" by contemporary critics, was seen to have a special "message" for the labor movement and could be claimed as a poet of British socialism.

This essay is part of a larger research project which examines how Whitman was represented, interpreted, and used in socialist publications in the late nineteenth century. My aim is to use examples, or "speci- mens" (to use a W hitmanian term), from three periodicals to give an overview of some of the ways in which he was invoked by fin de siècle socialist journalists. It is not always easy to determine what constitutes a socialist publication; at the end of the nineteenth century, anarchism and socialism were not such distinct ideologies, and it can be difficult to pinpoint where radical liberalism ended and socialism began. For the purposes of this study I follow Deborah Mutch in defining the socialist periodical in the same way that Deian Hopkin defines the "left-wing press": as "papers that espoused socialism or one of its variants and generally regarded themselves as politically on the opposite side, so to speak, of the conventional press."4 The periodicals selected-Seed-Time, The Labour Prophet, and The Labour Leader -span a period from 1889 (when the first number of Seed-Time was published) to 1922 (when The Labour Leader became The New Leader). This gives a sense of progres- sion, showing how socialism developed and how this development had an impact on the way that socialist periodicals treated Whitman and literature more generally.

These three publications were chosen according to two further criteria. First and most obviously, they had to engage with Whitman and his work. This criterion was not established in an attempt to provide a skewed notion of Whitman's importance but, rather, to show how he was appropriated when he was appropriated. The second consideration was variety, as I felt it would be fruitful to examine journals that served different socialist purposes and had different intended readerships. As the journal for the Fellowship of the New Life (a group "interested in religious thought, ethical propaganda, and social reform" that gathered around philosopher Thomas Davidson in 1883), Seed-Time is associated with what has been described as "the fons et origo of the later nineteenth- century ethical socialism of England."5 The Fellowship promoted a form of socialism that prioritized the development of the individual spirit over state reform, and individualism was not seen as being antithetical to socialism, a philosophy which has strong resonances with Whitman's cel- ebration of both the individual and the social whole. …

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