Saturday, February 5, 2011

Religion in Writing

In our study of American utopias and dystopias, it is clear that religion has become a theme in this particular genre of writing. Whitman and Butler both make strong use of religious themes within their texts. While Butler finds religion as a solution to the dystopia that America has become in her futuristic text, Whitman makes use of religion in what he considers a utopian America. Interestingly enough, Whitman’s text has done exactly what Butler’s attempts to do, form a religion that people can turn to.
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.
The idea that literature can serve as a gateway for religion is not a new notion that people must confront. The Torah, the Bible, the Koran, all serve as literary texts on which people can base their lives. The three religions that have stemmed from these texts, Judism, Christianity, and Islam, respectively, have seen their influence over the world for thousands of years. The study of American utopias and dystopias has led me to believe, however, that the ideas and beliefs formulated from these religions will not serve for the greater good. Take, for example, Butler’s Parable of the Sower. Butler’s protagonist lives in a futuristic America, an America that has been completely transformed into a land of fear and impoverishment. In response to this, she creates a new religion, Earthseed, which she believes will provide people with greater guidance than the current established religions.
What Butler was attempting to do, by suggesting that a new religious system will be necessary in order to move ahead in society, is a reality when observing Whitman’s writing. Clearly, he has taken the step past merely writing and created a gospel of sorts. While it may not have turned into a world-wide religion, the fact that it has had influence over a single individual, and more for that matter, suggests that Whitman has indeed made the cross over from poet to prophet.

Works Cited: READING WHITMAN RELIGIOUSLY. By: Robertson, Michael, Chronicle of Higher Education, 00095982, 4/11/2008, Vol. 54, Issue 31


  1. I see at least three distinct lines of thought here.

    1) Your summary of the essay itself, which is concise and solid - you don't get bogged down in details, but you do touch upon some useful details.

    2) Your argument that there is something comparable between the kind of religious thought in Butler and that in Whitman. I like & endorse this line of thought, although you don't really develop it (unless you're trying to argue that Butler was directly influenced by Whitman, which is challenging and worthwhile).

    3) Your argument that we *should* understand Whitman as a poet-prophet, and not primarily as a poet. I thought this was interesting, but I'm unclear on what, if anything, you're adding to the essay itself on this one - is this really your voice, or are you adopting Robertson's voice as your own?

    I think these three lines of thought in one essay pulls you in too many directions. Arguing that Butler is Whitmanesque, or Whitman-influenced, in her artistic-religious vision, is a challenging but also very worthwhile argument, which probably demands thinking some about the verse form she uses in Parable.

    I also think trying to critique or push the class by arguing that we should understand Whitman more as a religious figure is a fine approach - but you need to demonstrate how you are moving beyond Robertson, and not just echoing him, for that to work as a revision.

  2. I particularly like your contrast between the differences found through the use of religion in Whitman and Butler. I find it interesting that each author views religion under very different circumstances; Whitman believes that religion is what is needed to move towards a better America, whereas Butler uses religion as a solution to a destroyed America. The last line of your first paragraph also ties together the idea very nicely.

    There are however some parts I felt I was a bit confused on where you were going with your idea. For example, there are many points where I felt you were jumping around from idea to idea and I couldn’t get a good grip on what you were trying to say. I feel like your overall idea is very well thought out, with just a little editing, I think your thoughts could flow better as well.