In the first chapter of Yevgeny Zamyatin's We, "Announcement - The Wisest of Lines - An Epic Poem," the novel's narrator, D-503, transcribes the State Gazette's call for "treatises, epic poems, manifestos, odes, or other compositions." These works will be used, the announcement tells its audience, to facilitate OneState's integration of the inhabitants of other worlds into its collective. The types of possible compositions that the State is looking for may be limitless, but it is not arbitrary that Zamyatin refers to epics in his chapter title. The epic, as eighteenth and nineteenth-century commentators on the form theorized, is a national poem in which the values of the community are exemplified for the purpose of producing unity within the state or national community. OneState's hope is to turn the epic into an imperialistic tool to avoid the need to impose its ideology through armed conflict. Zamyatin, of course, is also calling attention to the possibility of using the epic or a national literature for state control, thereby undermining its value as a unifying force. Who, after all, wants to feel that the literature s/he reads is manipulating her/him to identify with a government's ideological construct?
Zamyatin's critique of the epic's function had been preceded by an epic that simultaneously sought to be a national poem and a celebration of the individual, an epic that thus takes into account the unifying tendencies associated with the form and undercuts their value as a force of social control, at least if one reads the poem on its own terms. That poem was Walt Whitman's "Song of Myself," and the book, Leaves of Grass, in which it appeared was first advertised for sale on July 6, 1855, though Whitman had apparently wanted his book to go on sale on July 4, the date on which some literary historians still claim it was first released. (I have seen it asserted that the bookstore was closed on the fourth, requiring Whitman to wait until the sixth, which fell on a Friday in 1855. The fact leads one to ask: why not publish on the fifth?)
Part of the power of "Song of Myself" is its ability to be inclusive without erasing difference. "I," not "we," is its proper pronoun, and this is perhaps just as evident in Whitman's catalogue of the country's inhabitants as it is in the passages in which Whitman's "I" is most prominent. Take, for example, the following lines:
The bride unrumples her white dress, the minutehand of the clock moves slowly,
The opium eater reclines with rigid head and just-opened lips,
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,
On the piazza walk five friendly matrons with twined arms (Quoted from the 1855 version)
We have here a contrast of individual types, if not of deeply portrayed individuals. Each would not seem to belong with the others: bride and opium eater, prostitute and President would normally be separated in a decorous scene. Whitman ignores decorum and goes out of his way, it seems to me, to call attention to the fact that he is doing so. By mentioning the crowd that laughs and jeers, he acknowledges the prostitute's status as an outcast and then, with the parenthetical statement, insists on her right to be present. The next figures on the list are the President and the great secretaries, who thus stand with the prostitute on equal footing. The President and secretaries, to be more exact, are below the prostitute, but not for satiric purposes. Whitman is not taking a cheap shot at politicians: he is erasing the high-low distinction so important to the hierarchies of European society that the Declaration of Independence was meant to negate and thereby poetically realizing the promise of our country's foundation.
What is just as interesting is that the catalogue brings different types together and also avoids the unified solidarity of a social we. The laughing and jeering crowd marks the separation of one type from the other, as do the peddler and the haggling customer in lines that immediately precede the ones I have quoted. The social we, in fact, is implicitly discredited: the speaker not only fails to join the crowd, which he nonetheless feels the need to put into his catalogue, but also asks us to reject the values that hold it together because those values lead the crowd to reject individuals who are different from its members. America, as Whitman saw it anyway, is the promise of an all inclusive nation, one that will suffer the contradiction of including mutually exclusive types; it is large, containing multitudes.
1. I'm using Clarence Brown's translation of We.