Walt Whitman's Presence in Maxine Hong Kingston's 'Tripmaster Monkey: His Fake Book.' (Maskers and Tricksters)

By Tanner, James T. F. | MELUS, Winter 1995 | Go to article overview

Walt Whitman's Presence in Maxine Hong Kingston's 'Tripmaster Monkey: His Fake Book.' (Maskers and Tricksters)


Tanner, James T. F., MELUS


In this essay, I will attempt to examine and evaluate the "presence" of Walt Whitman in Maxine Hong Kingston's 1989 novel, Tripmaster Monkey: His Fake Book. The Whitmanian presence is discernible via a character analysis of the protagonist (Wittman Ah Sing), a study of the allusive chapter titles, and an examination of the overall thematic thrust of the book. Such an investigation will reveal the remarkable cultural interaction between Walt Whitman, nineteenth century idealist-democrat-humanist, and Maxine Hong Kingston, twentieth century Asian American-modernist. A tangential benefit of this exploration will be a partial understanding of the continuing influence of Whitman's Leaves of Grass as a primary text/guide for the American democratic experiment, with special reference to the Asian American community.

The plot of Tripmaster Monkey is clearly subordinate to Wittman Ah Sing's song of himself. I quote below Tom Wilhelmus's concise plot summary:

Wittman does what we suppose he would do. He cruises around San

Francisco, reads Rilke aloud to passengers on a Bay Area bus, yearns after

beautiful women, loses his job in a department store after conferring with

the ex-Yale Younger Poet holed up in the stock room, gets stoned in Berkeley,

gets married on Coit Tower by a man who may or may not be a bona fide

minister, visits his parents and his "aunties" in Sacramento, makes a side

trip to Reno looking for a woman who may or may not be his grandmother, and

winds up fulfilling his principal ambition which is to stage a play based

upon the epic Chinese Romance of the Three Kingdoms at a theater in

Chinatown. (149)

All this supposed plot exists to give Wittman Ah Sing sufficient expanse for his solitary musings, an interior monologue strongly reminiscent of Walt Whitman's "Song of Myself."

The Whitmanian content of Tripmaster Monkey is evident, to begin with, in the fact that its protagonist, Wittman Ah Sing, is named after the quintessential American poet, Walt Whitman. The narrator reports of Wittman Ah Sing that "His province is America, America, his province" (41). Michelle Cliff observes: "To underline the Americanness of Wittman, Hong Kingston has named him for the most American of American poets. To play with his name is irresistible. Whitman Ah Sing the body electric. Wittman, Ah hear America Singing" (11). And many other word plays are certainly possible; for example, "Of Thee Ah Sing" and "One's-Self Ah Sing" and "Ah Hear It Was Charged Against Me."(1)

One might observe in passing that many of the personalities invoked in this novel of the 1960s are intellectual and artistic disciples of Walt Whitman, the "monkey spirits" attempting to change American society through elaborate costuming and posturing--Allen Ginsberg, Jack Kerouac, Gary Snyder, William Burroughs, Abbie Hoffman,(2) William Carlos Williams,(3) Jack Spicer,(4) James Baldwin, William Saroyan, John Steinbeck, and many others. It is, therefore, the Whitmanian tradition in American literature, and not merely Walt Whitman himself or Leaves of Grass alone, that predominates in this novel.

But it is the Walt Whitman of Leaves of Grass who wrote "Facing West From California's Shores" (Whitman 110-11) the "mantra" that Wittman Ah Sing recites from the top of Coit Tower, where he can see Alcatraz and Angel Island (places he longs to turn into theatres). The mantra is appropriate for the place, and thematically it is fitting, since an awakening and discovery of a new world is announced; Wittman's car is parked next to the statue of Christopher Columbus, who stands with "his nose toward the Golden Gate and the Pacific beyond" (Tripmaster Monkey 161). Thus Whitman Ah Sing, like "the poet his father tried to name him after," looks toward the Orient in his meditation, the "house of maternity," where Columbus's circle would be circled; where East and West would, in fact, achieve reconciliation; where American society would achieve a spiritual unity (all this reminiscent of Whitman's "Crossing Brooklyn Ferry"). …

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