Summary (Magill's Literary Annual 1991-2005)
At some as yet unknown point after the beginning of the twentieth century, North American transcendentalism moved from the East to the West Coast. Influenced equally by German and English Romanticism and Chinese and Indian religions, American individualist philosophy flowered in the nineteenth century writings of Ralph Waldo Emerson, Henry David Thoreau, Margaret Fuller, and Walt Whitman. While the essays of Emerson found an immediate ear in the international literary world, many other transcendentalist writers waited outside institutional doors for years before receiving their literary canonization. East Coast optimism and idealism eventually paled before the advance of a mercantile realism; as Thoreau once wryly remarked, even in the 1840’s one could determine the true worth of Boston by counting the number of barrels being unloaded at the harbor. The late San Francisco Bay Area poet Robert Duncan, an admitted poetic descendant of the bard of Brooklyn, Walt Whitman, argues for human potentiality and human freedom in the essays found in A Selected Prose, often with the deliberation of a twentieth century Emerson, though occasionally with the circumlocution of a Fuller. Duncan also shares the transcendentalists’ wide interests in science, religion, and cosmology, all the while maintaining the necessary cutting humor of a Thoreau. As Duncan writes in “Pages from a Notebook,” one of the essays included in A Selected Prose, “What I lack in pretension I make up in wit.”
While the majority of the selections included in the text by editor Robert J. Bertholf concern themselves with poetry and the graphic arts, some of the most important deal with Duncan’s views on politics and sexuality. For Duncan, the two issues were related: As (apparently) the first North American writer to present openly his homosexuality in the context of public debate, he knew well the political and practical consequences of honest statements concerning sexuality. The French critic Roland Barthes once remarked that in America, sex is everywhere but in the act itself. Duncan was equally unhappy with American attitudes about sexual identity and activity. His 1944 essay “The Homosexual in Society,” which appeared in the journal Politics, was, as he notes, “the first discussion of homosexuality which included the frank avowal that the author was himself involved.” Such an occurrence should have guaranteed Duncan a place in the pantheon of the gay rights movement. Duncan, however, as a good dialectician, places considerable fault on the actions of homosexuals, saying that their adoption of a narrow sexual identity could be just as limiting as a narrow adoption of heterosexuality. The expanded version of the essay presented in the text was finished in 1959; notably, it was not printed during Duncan’s lifetime.
The revised version of the essay begins with a lengthy introduction that constitutes as much a statement on sexual politics as sexuality. Duncan begins, “My view was that minority associations and identifications were an evil wherever they supersede allegiance to and share in the creation of a human community good—the recognition of fellow-manhood.” This statement fits into his poet-persona as a representative man. Notably, Duncan maintains the possibility of minority identification as a means to community, as long as it does not impinge on or exclude the creation of a larger human society. His ideas on the body politic, he writes in 1959, came through, among others, his “Socialist and Anarchist associations.” Duncan sees, in retrospect, that his idealistic political views were about as likely to draw approval as his admission of his homosexuality.
Beginning with this idealistic position, Duncan criticizes the hypocrisy and narrow-mindedness of both the straight and the gay communities. Both, he argues, base their identity on principles of exclusion rather than inclusion. In particular, he notes the specialized vocabulary of gay circles and the derogatory names given to those who are not among the initiated (just as homosexual “camp” has gained a following among the hip on college campuses and society at large). While once a member of the “camp,” Duncan rejects it as an obstacle to human freedom. He concludes, in a section added in 1959, with an idealistic Blakean statement regarding sexuality: “Love is dishonored where sexual love between those of the same sex is despised; and where love is dishonored there is no public trust.” Sexual identity, according to Duncan, should be a way of creating connections among people and not used as a principle of exclusion.
Duncan’s appeal to a universal sexuality parallels his poetics. He subscribes to the poetic principles of Charles Olson, who wrote in...
(The entire section is 1943 words.)
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