Revision to: http://pitt-crit-reading.blogspot.com/2011/02/religion-in-writing.html
Walt Whitman has been regarded as the quintessential American poet. A pioneer of literature during the 19th century, Whitman served as much more than a mere poet. His writing has often been interpreted as a modern day gospel. It is clear that author Octavia Butler drew a good deal of inspiration from the poet, with her novel Parable of the Sower focusing on the creation of a new religion in a futuristic America. As both pieces of writing have a heavy focus on religion, perhaps they are suggesting that the world does not necessarily benefit from the current system of religious beliefs.
Butler writers of a futuristic America, one that has become a land of desolation and despair. In an effort to deal with the severe downward spiral America has experienced, Lauren Olamina attempts to create a religion of her own, one that will benefit the society she lives in. The religion, written in parables, encourages change by the people whom had previously relied entirely on faith in God. The sort of change that Lauren preaches is something that religions up until this point had not relied on. Her poetry was forging a path that had previously been uncharted in this America.
Though coming before Butler’s time, Whitman exercised a similar train of thought. Michael Robinson suggests in his essay, Reading Whitman Religiously, that Whitman was more so a prophet than a poet. With changes brought about during the Enlightenment, organized religion had lost some of its cultural value, being replaced instead by doctrines of science. People in the 19th century were much more receptive to the idea of a “poet-prophet” than they would be today. “Whitman’s own spiritual aspirations, his ambition to become a poet-prophet, are evident both in his comments about his poetry and in the poems themselves. ‘I celebrate myself, /and what I assume you shall assume, /For every atom belonging to me as good belongs to you.’ So begins the first poem in the first editions of Leaves of Grass (1855). The statement is political – it asserts a democratic equality between poet and reader – but it is also religious. I and you are not simply equal, but identical in a way that makes sense only in metaphysical terms.” (Robinson) Robinson’s argument holds strong, as the beginning of Song of Myself does suggest an equality that is, in fact, what America was based on. It is clear, however, that this supreme level of equality that Whitman presses for has not yet been reached, even 150 years after he suggests such an idea.
Writing during the Civil War era, Whitman’s poetry focuses heavily on equality. During a time where people were clearly all not regarded as equals, despite living in a land where all men were supposedly given equal status, Whitman writes placing all people on the same level. Often Whitman discusses professions in long lists, describing daily routines or goings on. No one profession, according to Whitman, is considered more important than another, with prostitutes and the President of the United States falling within the same verse. “The prostitute draggles her shawl, her bonnet bobs on her tipsy and pimpled neck, /The crowd laugh at her blackguard oaths, the men jeer and wink to each other, /(Miserable! I do not laugh at your oaths nor jeer you,)/The President holds a cabinet council, he is surrounded by the great secretaries,” (Whitman 13) By placing two seemingly unequal professions within the same verse, Whitman is equalizing them, placing them at equal levels of importance. This sort of ultimate equality is something that had been completely unheard of at the time.
Whitman, as a pioneer of literature, clearly presented his readers with ideas that were necessary in order for America to progress forward during a turbulent time like the Civil War. The book Leaves of Grass, containing the poem Song of Myself, was often regarded as much more than a book of poetry. Robertson quotes John Burroughs in his piece, suggesting that Burroughs many texts on the subject of Whitman all have one central theme: “Leaves of Grass is primarily a gospel and only secondarily a poem.” (Robertson) Though perhaps not Whitman’s attempt, he clearly influenced a great number of people to rethink those values that they had previously believed in.
Parable of the Sower is a modern interpretation of the flaws that are currently plaguing America. Christianity, the main religious philosophy of the country, largely teaches the idea that the world and situations that people face are at the will and power of God, and cannot be changed by anyone. Butler, however, takes a different approach to this religious philosophy, encouraging that change can be made by a person, and that one should not remain passive in a time where action is required. The first parable that Lauren writes reads: “All that you touch/You Change. /All that you Change/Changes you. /The only lasting truth/Is Change. /God/Is Change.” (Butler 3)
This refusal to passively move through life is a change to the previous Christian doctrine that has been so prevalent within the American society. Like Whitman, Butler has taken a stance on an issue that needs to be changed. If the futuristic America that Butler predicts actually comes full circle, perhaps heavily relying on a faith that preaches trust in an unknown is not the way to solve the problems. Like Whitman’s insistence that equality be bestowed to all people, Butler encourages a world in which people take charge of their own situations.
Literature holding a stronger influence than mere words on a page has been proven throughout history. Religious texts began as nothing more than ink on paper. They were read, then regarded as religious. Whitman has ultimately had the effect that religious texts have, though on a much smaller, muted scale. Butler draws inspiration from Whitman in an attempt to enforce change in a world where it is largely ignored.
READING WHITMAN RELIGIOUSLY. By: Robertson, Michael, Chronicle of Higher Education, 00095982, 4/11/2008, Vol. 54, Issue 31
Butler, Octavia E. Parable of the Sower. New York: Grand Central Publ., 2000.
Whitman, Walt. Song of Myself. Mineola, NY: Dover Publications, 2001.