Provocative Co-Reading

Author: cirvine

Provocative Co-Reading

Here, I present a dialogue between Walt Whitman and Martin Luther King Jr.  With this I will identify Whimanic rhetoric in the “I Have a Dream” speech and seek to compare and contrast common themes within the speech and selections from the 1891-92 version of Leaves of Grass.  This is meant to be read in conjunction with the recorded dialogue or up against the transcript of the conversation between Walt Whitman and Martin Luther King Jr.

Martin Luther King started his iconic speech by paying homage to none other than Abraham Lincoln.  In fact, the speech was given in the shadow of his memorial.  Walt Whitman never missed a chance to show his admiration for President Lincoln.  It’s true that Martin Luther King Jr. did not have the same personal affections for the president as Whitman did; he respected him for signing the Emancipation Proclamation that freed the slaves.  However, the two men did share a mutual admiration for his use of compassion and logic in his decision-making.  This habit was demonstrated when Lincoln said, “Whenever I hear anyone arguing for slavery, I feel a strong impulse to see it tried on him.”

Martin Luther King Jr. goes on to describe the Emancipation Proclamation as “a great beacon light” for the slaves who believed that they would soon experience equality.  However, he regretfully proclaims that one hundred years later, the promise has not been kept and the Negros are still not free.  Whitman responds with his vision of America with excerpts from “America” and “Salut Au Monde!”  Written decades prior, Whitman conjures a nation where every person is equal and everyone has the same limitless possibilities.  Although Whitman’s America was yet to be realized, he offered a dream of his own of what he thought was possible that continued to be fought for almost a century later.

The “I Have a Dream” speech goes on to compare the broken promises to African Americans as a bad check written by the government.  He believes, however, that America does indeed have the capacity to cash such a check and grant equality to all its people.  Whitman’s response comes from a time before checks and funds were a part of the common vernacular, instead in “To a Certain Cantatrice” he says, “Here, take this gift.”  The gift he says was being reserved for a hero fighting for the great cause.  Of course it is impossible, but his description of the one deserving of this gift matches Martin Luther King Jr. almost exactly.  Whitman offers that those who are willing to fight deserve a reward, whether it be an ambiguous gift or a check needing to be cashed.  In the last line of the poem he opens it up and includes not just one leader as deserving of this gift, but everyone who stands behind him.

The next section of the speech warns against allowing violence to corrupt the fight for equality.  Martin Luther King Jr. was a strong proponent of non-violent protesting, saying, “We must not allow our creative protest to degenerate to physical violence.”  Although Whitman himself never found himself caught up in the same kind of fight as the Civil Rights Movement, he seemed to share the opinion saying, “Be radical, be radical, but not too damn radical.”  Whitman responds to King’s warning with an excerpt from “To Him That Was Crucified” in which he urges men to be compassionate and remain grounded and silent in disputes.  He goes on to say that free men shall walk the earth as brothers and lovers.

King also uses the image of walking to show demonstrate just how long and tiring the struggle for equality has been.   This is commonly used by Whitman to show the passage of time.  King agues the importance of continuing the struggle by saying, “We cannon turn back.”  Whitman responds with a passage from “Pioneers, O Pioneers” in which he says, “We must march on my darlings, we must bear the brunt of danger.”  The image of a long and exhausting walk conjures up many of the feelings that both men hoped to inspire in their readers or listeners, like maintaining the determination to reach a destination regardless of obstacles in the way.

Next, King explains exactly what his dream for the nation is.  He employs the Whitmanic device of providing a sweeping list of states in which equality is finally realized.  It’s impossible to say whether or not this was directly inspired by Whitman, but it’s obvious that both men used the technique for one clear reason: it is effective.  The repetition builds and builds the excitement as King imagines a nation where equality has been fully put in to action.  Whitman responds with a dream of his own, from “I Dream’d In A Dream.”  Whitman dreams of a city built on “the quality of robust love.”  In Whitman’s time, he may have believed that love was enough to keep a city together, but in the harsh reality of the Civil Rights Movement, King was hoping for something much more concrete.  He once said, “It may be true that the law cannot make a man love me, but it can stop him from lynching me, and I think that’s pretty important.”  The idea of equality had gone beyond Whitman’s understanding of a nation of brothers working together, and had grown to require legal action in order to ensure the rights of all citizens.

Following the depiction of Whitman’s dream for the nation, is another example of the power of repetition as King and Whitman engage in a dialogue where King calls for the ring of freedom in a great range of states.  Whitman responds excitedly with passages from “Starting from Paumanok” in which he too provides a sweeping list of states and expressions marked by exclamation points like, “marches humanitarian!” “Libertad!” and “Americanos!”  Both men used these devices to excite their readers or listeners and create a moment of climax lead by an enthusiastic speaker.  This distinct voice has proven successful in making a work memorable, as described by Bakhtin with, “we always arrive, in the final analysis at the human voice, which is to say we come up against the human being” (FTC, p. 252-53).   By eliciting excitement King and Whitman alike appealed to basic human nature to create something that continues to hold meaning long after its original presentation.

Whitman gets the last word, in which he pays respect to King with a passage from “Over The Carnage Rose Prophetic A Voice.”  Here he states his belief that all can be overcome with relentless work and love for fellow man.  With as much as Whitman speaks of equality, it can easily be assumed that he would have respected King for fighting so diligently to achieve the America that Whitman thought was possible.

Works Cited:

King Jr., Martin Luther. “I Have a Dream.” Washington DC. 28 Aug. 1963. Speech.

Morson, Gary, and Caryl Emerson. Mikhail Bakhtin, Creation of Prosiacs. Stanford: Stanford UP, 1990. Print.

Whitman, Walt. Leaves of Grass. 1892 ed. New York: Library of America, 2006. Print.