Tuesday, November 03, 2009

Max Cavitch's "American Elegy"

The full title of the book is American Elegy: The Poetry of Mourning from the Puritans to Whitman, and the book is as ambitious as its title sounds. It questions the bias of American literary criticism towards the novel and posits that poetry, elegy in particular, provides a powerful frame through which to view literary transactions with cultural transformations. Elegy had from ancient times been highly self-conscious of its mixture of precedent, transmission and invention. In the American Revolutionary and early national periods, elegy was "at once the most elite and demotic of mourning genres," Cavitch argues. It involved all reasonably literate people, as readers and writers; it was available to black writers who were still slaves.

To give shape to the vast mass of material, Cavitch focuses on a representative elegist or two for each period, while not neglecting other significant figures. To represent the Puritans, he selects Annis Stockton who memorialized her husband in an elegaic project that occupied her for over a decade. In her he finds, among other things, "the endless antagonism between the pressure to remember particular losses and the pressure to move, in a less encumbered way, into the historical future." This antagonism Cavitch relates to the nationalism of that period.

Writing of the poetic memorialization of George Washington, Cavitch cannily enlists two of the period's best-known novelists, Charles Brockden Brown and Susanna Haswell Rowson. Brown as an elegist "participates in the awkward but widespread poetic efforts to reconcile protoliberal ideals of individuation and republican ideals of depersonalization." Rowson, on the other hand, argues that the private indulgence of fancy is not incompatible with civic-mindedness.

William Cullen Byrant's elegaic poems in the voice of Indian mourners are a troubling instance of the politics of antebellum expansion. To examine the popularity of elegies for children, Cavitch discusses the complex example of Waldo Emerson. In both chapters, Cavitch attends sensitively to at least three different dimensions: the tensions within the genre, the corporatization of American life, and the elegist's own philosophical and political commitments. This kind of attention prevents the poems from becoming mere symptoms of history, or, the opposite danger, illusory autonomous art objects.

The same attention is brought to bear on African American elegists like Phyllis Wheatley and George Moses Horton. For them, writing elegies for elite whites enabled "a liminal incorporation into free society."They were, however, also enabled to speak of shared humanity--their suffering, rage and losses--in code.

The last chapter of the book "Retrievements of the Night" looks at Walt Whitman as an elegist. In the poetry of Drum-Taps,  Whitman practiced a writing of "remains," that is, "a writing not just about unassimilable pieces or fragments of wartime experience, including erotic experience and memorable glances, but writing that is itself characterized by patchwork, discontinuity, and open-endedness." In the process, he discovers "a moral substitute for statistical analyses of the costs of the war and for the forms of mourning--stoic, efficient, authoritative--that derive from such analyses." In his interpretation of "When Lilacs Last in the Dooryard Bloom'd" Cavitch would have Whitman succeeding, and not defeated, in generative re-combination. As he puts it, "Whitman lingers upon the experiential threshold of the swamp not as the thrall of traumatic repetition but in order to equip himself for a more creative dreamlike movement." I am not sure if his close reading of the poem persuades me this is so, but it is a very attractive thesis.

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