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Against SustainabilityReading Nineteenth-Century America in the Age of Climate Crisis$
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Michelle Neely

Print publication date: 2020

Print ISBN-13: 9780823288229

Published to Fordham Scholarship Online: January 2021

DOI: 10.5422/fordham/9780823288229.001.0001

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Recycling Fantasies: Whitman, Clifton, and the Dream of Compost

Recycling Fantasies: Whitman, Clifton, and the Dream of Compost

(p.21) Chapter 1 Recycling Fantasies: Whitman, Clifton, and the Dream of Compost
Against Sustainability

Michelle C. Neely

Fordham University Press

Chapter one takes up the paradigm of recycling in Walt Whitman’s first two editions of Leaves of Grass (1855 and 1856). While scarcity of materials meant scavenging and reuse were common practices in the nineteenth century, organic material recycling first emerged as a scientific principle during the antebellum period. Whitman’s documented journalistic and poetic interest in “compost” has led scholars to elevate the once-overlooked Whitman into the ecopoetic pantheon. Chapter one challenges this increasingly standard reading by placing Whitman’s interest in compost and organic recycling alongside his even more famous poetic investment in an indiscriminate, “omnivorous” consumption. Compost emerges as the twin of appetite in Whitman’s poetic environment, which reveals how recycling authorizes consumption without limits and yields a fundamentally static, and therefore nonegalitarian and anti-ecological vision of community. The last part of the chapter explores resistance to this paradigm in the poetry of Lucille Clifton, a twentieth-century African American poet self-consciously rewriting Whitman’s vision of democratic and environmental community. Ultimately, chapter one suggests that while Clifton resists the dream of cyclical, effortless material recycling and consequence-free consumption, it is nineteenth-century Whitman’s fantasy of the earth endlessly recycling and renewing human waste that remains more characteristic of contemporary U.S. life.

Keywords:   appetite, Lucille Clifton, compost, consumption, environmental, Leaves of Grass, race, recycling, slavery, Walt Whitman

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