This Land of Prophets: Walt Whitman in Latin America

  • Enrico Mario Santí
Part of the New Directions in Latino American Cultures book series (NDLAC)


In 1943, amidst a year ridden by crisis—personal, political, and poetic— Octavio Paz wrote a proposal to the John Simon Guggenheim Memorial Foundation for one of its yearlong research fellowships. Paz’s proposal called for a study of “America and its Poetic Expression,” by which he meant poetry in both North and South, Anglo and Latin America, and taking at face value the Foundation’s stated criteria for “strengthening interamerican cultural relations and fostering greater continental intelligence.” In that study, which set out to answer one single question:”Do the Americas have a common soul?” Paz sought to isolate, in the history of Western Hemispheric poetry, “those traits that single it out, give it an original native profile, accent, and direction,” though not so much, he warned, in order to show “the forms in which that poetry has crystallized” as “to find in its language the history of a sensibility.” While surveying the span of continental poetry from Sor Juana and Emily Dickinson to Alfonso Reyes and Robert Frost, the proposal did single out three names—Poe, Dario, and Whitman—as sundry cases split into two tendencies: one (Poe’s and Dario’s) universal or cosmopolitan, the other (Whitman’s) a native strain expressing the “burgeoning American soul.” Indeed, Whitman’s name punctuated Paz’s entire proposal, and although he never did complete it (mercifully, perhaps), and instead spent his fellowship year at Berkeley writing his own poetry, the proposal does stand as a key document in the history of what one could call, for lack of a better name, the Whitman question in Spanish America.1


Literary History LATIN AMERICA Erratic Relationship Love Poem Distinctive Voice 
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© Enrico Mario Santí 2005

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