American Poetry in the Age of Whitman and Dickinson

Posts Tagged ‘Heath Anthology of American Literature

Further Thoughts

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Back in June, in a post called “The Best of the Rest,” I asked about the nineteenth century’s third-best poet (Whitman and Dickinson coming first, of course) and offered a list of candidates. I also copied out the names of the poets covered by The Norton Anthology of American Literature (the teaching anthology I sometimes use), taking up the Heath more briefly in a footnote. I stand by my list — for now, anyway — but it’s frustrating how much got left out.

Which is no surprise: I knew at the time my approach would marginalize a fair amount of work I do admire. Worse still: I knew at the time my list was premature. If my goal was to ignite interest in unread poets — and it was — a more flammable material would have made for a better start: a pile of logs with a single match is not the best way to get a fire started; logs are a good way to keep it going, but brush and twigs make for better tinder; even branches make for better tinder, if they’re not too green.

It seems, then, that a method is needed for building a fire that can eat through logs.

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Written by Ben Friedlander

February 5, 2010 at 3:38 pm

The Best of the Rest

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tuckermanBack when Whitman was out of fashion and Dickinson had not yet achieved full recognition, scholars divided their attention more evenly among the poets. Yvor Winters wrote a monograph on Edwin Arlington Robinson, and he passionately championed Jones Very and Frederick Goddard Tuckerman. A Winters student, N. Scott Momaday, edited Tuckerman’s Complete Poems for Oxford and Charles Anderson edited Sidney Lanier before writing his fine book on Dickinson. Whitman specialists existed, but they shared the field with biographers of Longfellow and Whittier. Decades before he helped edit the variorum Leaves of Grass, Sculley Bradley worked on George Henry Boker. In 1930, Yale published a critical study of Fitz-Greene Halleck; there would be no other for the rest of the century.[1]

For us, with Whitman and Dickinson, the question is not “These two also?”but “Who else, if anyone?” After 1970, the “if” became a very steep slope, though individual poets had their advocates. Melville’s poetic reputation held steady and even grew while the Fireside Poets slipped into obscurity (I’m old enough to remember engraved pictures of Bryant et al. in my classroom). Scholars did pay the first serious attention then to African American and women’s poetry from the nineteenth century, but the work was looked at in isolation, or as distinct from other poetries of the same time, so that no full picture of the century’s literary cultures came into focus. This began to change in the last half-decade, with long essays by Barbara Packer and Shira Wolosky in the new Cambridge History of American Literature (2004) and important monographs by Mary Loeffelholz (From School to Salon, 2004), Angela Sorby (Schoolroom Poets, 2005), and Joan Shelley Rubin (Songs of Ourselves, 2007), to cite only those that reappraised the whole period. More specialized studies by Paula Bernat Bennett (Poets in the Public Sphere, 2003), Janet Gray (Race and Time, 2004), Eliza Richards (Gender and the Poetics of Reception in Poe’s Circle, 2004), and Christoph Irmscher (Longfellow Redux, 2006) also deserve mention. All of which has made possible a new answer to the question: “Who, after Whitman and Dickinson, should we read and enjoy and remember and study?” Or to put it more colloquially: Who are the best of the rest? Read the rest of this entry »