The Evolution of Stories and Stories of Evolution: Walt Whitman’s Multitudes

Rachel Townsend's picture
I contain multitudes.”
- Walt Whitman, Leaves of Grass


Bryn Mawr College’s course “Evolution of Stories and Stories of Evolution” strives to open its’ students minds about the way they think about evolution, literature, and the way these disciplines are framed.  Professors Anne Dalke and Paul Grobstein from the English and Biology departments, respectively, teach the course, which is the only class in the country cross-listed in English and Biology.  They have taught the course a number of times in different incarnations, focusing on different written works.  This semester the four texts which the course focused on were Charles Darwin’s On the Origin of Species, Daniel Dennett’s Darwin’s Dangerous Idea, Walt Whitman’s Leaves of Grass, and Siri Hustvedt’s The Sorrows of an American.  Each text brought out different ideas and thoughts for the class, as well as the professors.  As the course discussions evolved and changed, we found certain ideas continued to remain relevant.  One quote from Walt Whitman continued to be especially potent throughout the semester: “I contain multitudes.” (3) This line came up again and again in our discussions.  
The line has been especially powerful for me because Whitman’s poem was my favorite of the pieces which we read in the course.  Because of this, I spent much time considering its’ relevancy to all fields covered by the course.  I have come to the conclusion that this line is an overarching theme to the class, with applications throughout the length of the course and the topics.  
But how do Whitman’s “multitudes” apply to so many different topics, one might ask.  The idea applies to biology and evolutionary theory as well as evolutionary philosophy.  It applies to poetry, the unconscious, and psychoanalytic theory.  Our class discussions, personal opinions, growth, and even the different manifestations of the set up of this course are exemplified in Whitman’s statement “I contain multitudes."

While Whitman’s full statement is to be considered, it is the word “multitudes” which is of particular interest to us here in our discussion.  The full statement is particularly useful in some cases while in others it is this word which is enlightening.  Because of this, it is the word “multitudes” which will be the primary focus.  
Looking at Darwin and evolutionary theory, Whitman’s full statement is very applicable.  Whitman “contains multitudes,” just as all humans do.  We contain evolutionary potential, many different genes, possible manifestations of our reproductive capacities.  We get a set of genes from each of our parents: thus we contain multitudes of possible selves.  We contain many, many eggs or sperm, depending on our gender: thus we contain multitudes of possible offspring.  And as we have the capacity for many different mates, we also contain multitudes of potentiality for reproductive success.  
The tree of divergence and convergence is another element of evolutionary theory which is incredibly relevant here.  There are many “multitudes” of branches of the tree and the randomness of the tree’s structure represents “multitudes” of possibilities.  The tree really is a visual representation of how Whitman’s idea of “containing multitudes” applies to evolutionary theory.  
In terms of evolutionary philosophy, Daniel Dennett feels that Darwin’s theory of evolution can be applied to our way of thinking about life, and that it must be.  While he complicates Darwin’s theory by philosophizing it, his work reminds us that theories sometimes have effects beyond those that seem to come as a direct result.  Dennett reminds us that theories raise “multitudes” of questions and applications, which we often attempt to, or completely, ignore.  
Walt Whitman’s poem “Leaves of Grass” is a part of the literary canon, and a very important addition to this class.  The poem certainly gives us our central focus but its’ place within the literary canon is also an important and interesting element of the piece.  During the more literature focused part of the course, there was a significant amount of discussion about literary canons.  What are they and how are they created? Who creates them? What is the criteria needed to be a part of one? Is a canon the best of a genre or the first of its’ kind? What distinguishes canons and are they really different or are we operating from one giant canon?  I have included an epigraph at the beginning of this paper, which contains Whitman’s line: “I contain multitudes.”  This epigraph, according to Wikipedia, “link[s] the work to a wider literary canon.”  So through this use, I have, myself, implied that Whitman is a part of the “wider literary canon.”  Does this mean that Whitman is necessarily a part of that “wider literary canon” or that he is a part of the canon because I have used him in such a way, as to imply that he is?  
Ultimately the important point which comes from all of these questions is that Whitman’s “multitudes” represent both all the possible answers to these questions as well as all of the possible canons.  Canons “contain multitudes.”  They contain fiction, poems, plays, and short stories of every genre.  The word “multitudes” describes the very concept and practice of literary canons.  
The inclusion of poetry in the course plays with the idea of “multitudes” as well.  Poetry, and especially, Walt Whitman, is an incredibly different reading experience than prose reading.  Poetry opens up for “multitudes” of meanings in a way which prose do not.  Whitman may even have been making a nod towards this in his statement that “I contain multitudes.”  Walt Whitman, myself, does not just contain multitudes, the poem itself contains multitudes of interpretations and meanings.  Is possible that the whole exchange is also the voice of the poem, as well as Whitman:

Do I contradict myself?
Very well then . . . I contradict myself;
I am large . . . I contain multitudes. (3) 

This very well could be the voice of the poem, rather than, or in addition to, the voice of Whitman.  Both the poem and Whitman contradict themselves at times and both are also “large” and “contain multitudes.”  While Whitman’s poetry is particularly open to different meanings and interpretations, poetry in general very much has this trait.  The nature of poetry is to not tell us every last detail but to allow us to have the experience of the poem that we wish, thus they contain “multitudes” of meanings.  
We had an example of this at the beginning of the course when we read Whitman’s “O Captain! My Captain!” which has a much more traditional schema than “Leaves of Grass.”  The class read this poem aloud together and then Professor Dalke asked what the poem was about.  One student responded with “Lincoln!”  Many in the class agreed while others were disappointed.  Professor Dalke asked why the student said that and when she received the response “because that’s what my teacher told me in high school,” Dalke asked us whether this was a good reason to interpret the poem in this way.  A discussion of the meaning we take from poems ensued.  Some people who had never heard the poem before were disappointed to find out that it was written about Lincoln, while others could not shake the interpretation they had been taught in high school.  Ultimately we established that the “problem” we had run in to is one which all poetry provokes: is there a right interpretation of poetry?  Fundamentally, there are “multitudes” of “right” interpretations of poetry.  
Looking at Siri Hustvedt’s The Sorrows of an American we see the manifestations of “multitudes” in her characters.  The book is written from the point of view of Eric.  This struck many of the class members as weird, or at least different, since the author is a woman.  Possibly, the writing of this book from the point of view of a male main character gave Hustvedt the opportunity to connect with the maleness that is one of the “multitudes” she contains.  Throughout the book as Eric talks to his patients and interacts with the other characters we see the “multitudes” of personalities, types of people, ways of being and acting.  His father’s journal is another “multitude” of ways of being.  The book also displays “multitudes” of ways of dealing with loss, from those exemplified by the different characters to the book itself and the use of Hustvedt’s father’s journal as raw material in the novel. (4)  But one of the most interesting manifestations of “containing multitudes” in the book are the examples of the unconscious.  
Hustvedt’s book deals a considerable amount with the unconscious, but the class also discussed it at length.  In The Sorrows of an American the unconscious represents the “multitudes” of different thoughts and brain patterns which exist or could exist.  Near the the beginning of the book, Eric explains his day to day routine and describes to us his process of sitting down with his notes from the day’s clients to look through them.  “Insights would sometimes come to mind unbidden,” he says. (4, p. 22)  This exemplifies how our unconscious contains multitudes of different thoughts and ideas which we cannot always access.  As Eric reflects on his father and his tendency to speak out loud things which he did not mean to he notes: “That is the strangeness of language: it crosses the boundaries of body, is at once inside and outside, and it sometimes happens that we don’t notice the threshold has been crossed.” (4, pp. 16-7)  This description, which initially applied to language, also exemplifies how the unconscious works.  The idea of a boundary which we are unaware of being crossed is much like Eric’s description of insights coming to him about his patients “unbidden.”  It is this boundary which hides the “multitudes” of our unconscious from our conscious minds and selves.  
Psychoanalytic theory is a main part of Hustvedt’s novel since Eric is practices it with his patients.  The interesting thing about psychoanalytic theory is that it is a way of regulating, sorting, and figuring out the “multitudes” of our unconscious and conscious brains.  It seems that Whitman would be fervently against any thing that attempted to regulate these “multitudes” as he sees them as healthy, important parts of our lives.  Whitman might even find the idea of mental illness to be a stigmatization of different manifestations of “multitudes.”  Whitman, likely, would have discouraged the use of psychoanalytic theory to correct people’s different or unfamiliar “multitudes.”  
These four texts come together quite well in the context of this class and are all very much connected by Whitman’s idea of containing multitudes, but what of the course when we acknowledge that this is the first time Whitman has been included in the course, as well as the first time any of these particular texts have been included?  This course has itself manifested in “multitudes,” with different texts focused on in its different incarnations.  It is striking that neither Darwin nor Whitman have been included in the course before, considering their relevancy to the course and to each other.  But even as it seems these two texts are integral to this course, we find that the mere fact that other texts have been utilized, successfully means that the multitudes of possibilities are serving to manifest the very concept of the course. Throughout different incarnations of the course, different things have been helpful to the project of the course and Whitman and Darwin are really just other bits in the multitudes of possibilities for this course.  Whitman may have ultimately summed up this incarnation of the course in his line, but it is still possible that “I contain multitudes” is still a very accurate representation of the course in all of its different versions.  
The class discussions in the course this semester have been all over the map, cover topics far and wide.  We can most superficially say that the discussions themselves covered “multitudes,” but this does not seem to do justice to the depth and complexity developed and covered by the discussions.  While the lectures were structured and full class discussion was more directed, the smaller group discussions allowed the students to address topics of interest to them.  The discussions in these smaller groups represent only a tiny portion of the “multitudes” of possibilities for topics to be discussed, roads to go down, thought processes to be followed.  Due to the small, minute portion of the possible ideas discussed students were left to develop other ideas for themselves, in the online forum, and later in small groups with other members of the class.  
In these smaller groups, the class prepared creative presentations for the final week of class.  Each group came up with something very different from the next.  While some groups did skits, others did interpretive dances, and still others gave readings of important material from over the course of the class.  Each group had something different to offer in looking back over all of our readings, lectures, and discussions.  Many groups speculated about how the four authors might interact over different topics or situations while one group simply discussed the many ways that they could do their presentation.  In groups which incarnated the four authors, the person playing Whitman very often, if not always, many a nod to or joke about the line “I contain multitudes.”  While this many have been a joke to many of the groups, the importance of the line to the course overall was emphasized by its appearance over and over, not to mention that there were “multitudes” of different ideas put forth and certainly many more “multitudes” of possibilities for this final presentation.  
This course brought up ideas and thoughts that most of us in the class had never considered or bothered to think about.  What is the distinction between science and art? Science and humanities?  Science and literature?  Each student has had to question the way that she or he thought about these things and then has had to go through the process of rethinking these issues.  Over the course of the semester students opinions have changed, blossomed, and changed again.  I have watched as fellow students have changed the way they think about something only to change the way they think about it again after looking at another aspect of the course.  I have found that even “I contain multitudes.”  We all contain multitudes of opinions which sometimes coincide and sometimes contradict, which then leads us to reexamine our thoughts again.  The process of this course has been extremely multitudinous as it was certainly intended to be.  
Which brings us to the “multitudes” of ways of thinking about things.  Throughout the course our approaches have changed and shifted, along with our opinions.  We have realized the different ways that we all have thought about the world and even become more aware of some of the ways of thinking about the world that we are critical of.  In Professor Grobstein’s small group discussion there was a significant amount of dialogue about world views which attempt make a bridge between the islands of reality and fantasy, rather than recognizing that the two are separate entities.  While practicing critique of this as well as some other ways of looking at the world, the group explored the “multitudes” of approaches, many of which are extremely different from our own.  
Certainly, all of the students in this course have experienced personal growth and change.  The process of this course would be nearly impossible to go through without having at least some small change in personal opinion or feelings.  All of the students, as well as the professors, having come from different backgrounds with different opinions to begin with, all participants in the course have come to different conclusions as well.  While some of our opinions may be the same, how we arrived at these opinions may be completely different.  This course brought out many different experiences and opinions and changes in opinions for people, but we do also have the common ground of the course.  These multitudes of different personal growth stories were produced by this similar experience: the course and texts which we shared.  
The course “Evolution of Stories and Stories of Evolution” may seem to be simply about the intersection of evolution and literature, but ultimately it is about so much more.  The course is about possibility and potential, how the “multitudes” of differences and similarities between us can help us to better understand our world and the connections between things which may feel completely incongruous to us.  This is a course about development, about difference, and growth and change.  Whitman said what this course is about quite eloquently: “I contain multitudes.”  


(1) Darwin, Charles. On the Origin of Species by Means of Natural Selection. Ed. Joseph Carroll. Broadview Texts, 2003.
(2) Dennett, Daniel. Darwin’s Dangerous Idea. New York: Simon & Schuster Paperbacks, 1995.
(3) Whitman, Walt. Leaves of Grass: The Original 1855 Edition. Ed. Joslyn T. Pine. Mineola, NY: Dover Publications, 2007.
(4) Hustvedt, Siri. The Sorrows of an American. New York: Picador, 2008.

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