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English & CLS - Research Seminar

Location: H0.58

Whitman’s Touch: Toward a Haptic Reading of Whitman’s Leaves

Cécile Roudeau (Université de Paris)


Whitman’s poetry makes sense through, and makes sense to, the reader’s senses; his poems ask us to touch and be touched, to hold him, man and body, in hand. This paper will turn to Whitman’s other leaves, the manuscripts that have been digitized and are now available through a (mental) haptic gesture in the section “In Whitman’s Hand” of the Walt Whitman Archives website. Whitman, like Dickinson and others at the time, wrote his poems on scraps of papers, on the flap of envelopes, on the back of newspaper articles written by himself or others. Reading Whitman on both sides / reading both sides of Whitman allows us to reassemble what has been made distinct through the combined agency of printer, editor and poet: prose and poetry; political pamphlets and love jottings; Whitman the eccentric hobo and Whitman the clerk in Washington. Recovering this material if contingent contiguity confronts us with a messier trove than the neat arrangements of both the death-bed edition of his poems or the volume of Collected Prose have so far suggested. Allowing those different leaves to touch challenges our own critical and analytical practices and the legibility of his oeuvre, helping us to revisit a commonplace liaison in Whitman’s oeuvre, that of poetics and politics. More specifically in this paper, I propose that reading Whitman with both hands complicates the poet’s democratic thrust even as it recovers a little-known genealogy of an American experiment with regulatory governance.


Cécile Roudeau is professor of American literature at Université de Paris. Her first book (Université Paris Sorbonne, 2012) revisits the notion of “place” in New England regionalist writing, and argues that “taking place” was as much a political and epistemic claim as a spatial experience. She is currently working on a book project titled “Beyond Stateless Literature: Practices of Democratic Power in Nineteenth-Century US Letters.” This book follows her essay, written in French, on the “Fictions of the Commons in Nineteenth-century US Literature.” Cécile is also the current editor of Transatlantica, the on-line peer-reviewed journal of the French Association of American Studies.

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