Straying aside /bodying athwart: Without the lines of traumatic history in Walt Whitman's “Specimen Days” and W. E. B. Du Bois' “The Souls of Black Folk”
Nestor, Amy Ruth
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Strays: letters, words, sentences, bodies, body parts, identities, sense. What will not be re-collected into meaningful form, into a story one might tell about one's self or one's nation. In Straying Aside/Bodying Athwart—Without the Lines of Traumatic History in Walt Whitman's Specimen Days and W. E. B. Du Bois' The Souls of Black Folk, I examine what strays in the writing of the American Civil War and its aftermath, analyzing the structure of the nation's traumatic history of sectional conflict, racial oppression, and sexual desire. In the first chapter, “Forethought: Against Healing,” I offer an introductory meditation upon the concept of healing and the assumptions that lie within it. In the next two, I turn towards Whitman's Specimen Days, arguing that the wayward structure of the text, particularly within the Civil War sections, offers a means to read his simultaneous investment in and resistance to a discourse of national healing that would forever entomb the War's dead. I then read Whitman with Du Bois to delineate the limit race creates within Whitman's own thinking of the national community, suggesting, in turn, the ways in which Whitman might aid in a reading of similar difficulties within Du Bois. Both readings, I argue, require a turn toward trauma theory to unravel the complex repetitions at work within their writings and American history. In the next two chapters, I return to Whitman, reading his claim that the “Real War will Never Get in the Books” as the mark of trauma—his own and that of the nation. Such trauma at once resists the too-quick pull towards healing reconciliation and opens the development of an ethical attitude—a bearing witness—towards the other, especially those, figured in Whitman's soldier-patients, who cannot bear witness for themselves. Such witnessing always exceeds the sense healing would demand, I finally argue, for the scandal of Specimen Days lies in Whitman's love—always eroticized—for the most polluted and abject: the wounded and mutilated soldiers, their amputated limbs. In this love, the ethical core of Whitman and Du Bois' witnessing—and not writing—of history strays.