Academic journal article Walt Whitman Quarterly Review

Whitman and Mathematics: An Introduction

Academic journal article Walt Whitman Quarterly Review

Whitman and Mathematics: An Introduction

Article excerpt

[T]he anatomist chemist astronomer geologist phrenologist spiritualist mathematician historian and lexicographer are not poets, but they are the lawgivers of poets and their construction underlies the structure of every perfect poem.

-Whitman, Preface to Leaves of Grass1

This special issue of WWQR anticipates a sustained dialogue about the long-neglected relationship between numbers and letters in Whitman's writings.2 Each featured essay proves in its own way that this dialogue is overdue: Whitman was well acquainted with mathematics in the schoolroom and thus in the growth of American democracy; his poems bear witness to the historically specific and multi-faceted cultural role of mathematics in the mid-nineteenth-century United States. Just as importantly, the essays collected here demonstrate how the Digital Humanities have conditioned this new subject, bringing calculation and non-alphabetic notation to the attention of twenty-first-century literary historians. This era of digital galleries, data mining, and colorful charts and graphs may also help us explore how the alphabetical and the numerical-poetry and mathematics-divide and recombine at different points in cultural history.

That said, the impetus for this special issue is neither technologically determined nor unprecedented. On the contrary, the relationship between Whitman and mathematics is particularly enticing for the fits and starts of attention it has received over the past three quarters of a century: Muriel Rukeyser's 1942 biography of mathematician Willard Gibbs, a prescient M.S. thesis written in 1965 by budding mathematician Kathryn Davies Lindsay, and a pair of close readings from 1989 and 1991 by Sister Charlotte Downey.3 With no sustained attempt to account for or to develop the approaches advanced in this minor corpus of secondary sources, research on Whitman and math- ematics has had little hope of thriving. Add to this the fact that as a "scientific" influence on Whitman, mathematics has, understandably, been overshadowed by sciences that figure prominently in the poet's biography and the thematics of his writings, such as the medical4 and the natural sciences.5 But even contextual overviews of the impact nineteenth-century popular sciences, from phrenology to astronomy, had on Leaves of Grass ignore the influence of nineteenth-century mathematics.6 To date, general and particular accounts exclude mathematics from Whitman studies-all in spite of the fact that in his 1855 Preface Whitman himself names mathematicians among the scientific "lawgivers of poets."

The exception is Kathryn Davies Lindsay's M.S. thesis from 1965, which was significantly influenced by Muriel Rukeyser's consistent references to Whitman in her biography of mathematician Willard Gibbs, the co-inventor (with James Clerk Maxwell) of statistical mechanics and, independently, of vector calculus. In this brief introduction, I offer a backward glance over the relationship between Whitman and mathematics in the works of Lindsay and (more briefly) Rukeyser; I then provide context for and summary remarks on the essays in this special issue; lastly, I suggest possible routes of inquiry for further research on Whitman and mathematics.

The Lost M.S. Thesis: Whitman and Set Theory

In her lyric biography of Willard Gibbs, Muriel Rukeyser regularly alludes to Whitman, Gibbs's contemporary, to suggest correspondences between the poet's and the mathematician's modes of theoretical system building. Late in the biography, in a chapter that compares and contrasts the writings of Whitman, Melville, and Gibbs, Rukeyser explains the logic of these correspondences as follows: "The single faces of Whitman's people, the faces of principle in Melville, the stars seen as the molecules of a great bubble of gas according to Gibbs, the furnaces pouring metal-these are linked" (368). Linked, yes, but far from equivalent: for Rukeyser, Gibbs's mathematical discoveries complete the literary achievements of the "American Renaissance. …

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