The transcendental admiral: re-visions of Columbus in Emerson, Thoreau, and Whitman

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Texas Tech University

In the Introduction to Walt Whitman: The Centennial Essays, Ed Folsom relates the story of how noted Whitman scholar Charles Feinberg was denied his request for a Centennial exhibition by the Library of Congress. "1992," Feinberg was told, "would be Columbus's year." Of course, as Folsom points out, 1992 was anything but a banner year for the once-celebrated mariner. While the long-rising wave of debunkings and deconstructions crested and crashed on the Quincentennial and the legacy it was intended to commemorate, Whitman's Centennial was a rousing national and intemational success. Yet, while Whitman scholarship and readings flourished during 1992, little notice was given to the coincidence of these anniversaries or to the poet's repeated identifications with, and literary appropriation of, our most protean and problematic American icon. While this silence may be attributable to an attempt at critical kindness towards the toasted bard (in contemporary criticism, Columbus is more likely to be represented as a symbol of imperialism, racism, phallocentricism, and ecocide than as a heroic visionary or intrepid world-finder), it is also indicative of a tendency in twentieth-century literary scholarship to underplay or avoid altogether the problem of this now-vilified American hero's persistent presence in American transcendental literature. This essay will explore the writings of three of America's most prolific and influential literary transcendentalists-Ralph Waldo Emerson, Henry David Thoreau, and Walt Whitman-in an attempt to clarify the role the Columbus myth played in the development of each author's version of the "transcendental" vision.

Whitman, Walt, 1819-1892 -- Criticism and interpretation, Emerson, Ralph Waldo, 1803-1882 -- Criticism and interpretation, Transcendentalism -- Influence, Columbus, Christopher -- Influence, Thoreau, Henry David, 1817-1862 -- Criticism and interpretation, Transcendentalism -- History