A comparative reading of Whitfield and Whitman should stimulate a wide ranging discussion about what it means to be a poet of "America" during the 1850s. Here are some introductory questions and topics:
- What do the poets mean by the word "America"? Is it a concept? A place? What are the key similarities and differences in their uses of this word? To what extent do they regard "America" as a nation? What sort of nation is it and what sort of nation can it be?
- What sort of poetry do the poets suggest is inspired by "America"? What kind of poet or poetic persona? There are obvious differences between the poets' sense of "America" and "poet." Are there some important similarities?
- Consider the 1853 America and 1855 Leaves of Grass as poetic volumes. How do the poets construct their volumes? What's the significance of the placement of particular poems? How do the poets announce their projects and perspectives?
- Both volumes represent wars and battles and wounds. To what end? To what extent are the poets themselves wounded and how do they represent their wounds?
- In America, Whitfield presents Cinque, the leader of the Amistad slave rebellion, as a kind of American hero. What's the significance of Whitfield's decision to represent the Amistad rebellion in his volume? Who are Whitman's heroes?
- Discuss the poets' representations of love and sexuality. What are the important similarities and differences? Would it be correct to say that Whitfield seems more personal in his descriptions of his love?
- Drawing on Ralph Waldo Emerson, Whitfield titles one of his poems "Self-Reliance." Discuss the influence of Emerson on the respective poets.
- In the "Preface" to Leaves of Grass, Whitman asserts that the "American" poet must find new poetic forms and voices. What is the significance of the fact that Whitfield in his volume makes use of "traditional" poetic forms and diction? Does this make him less modern or American?
- How does the American Revolution figure in the poets' volumes? What is the significance of the fact that Whitfield begins his volume by invoking the American Revolution and concludes with a celebration of West Indies emancipation?
- Discuss the representation of slavery and race in the two volumes. To what extent does the subject matter have an impact on form and other poetical aspects of the respective volumes?
- Are the poets religious? Discuss the place of religion in their respective volumes.