How Two 19th-Century Books Paved the Way for Modernism

Works published in 1855 by Walt Whitman and Faris al-Shidyaq, one in English and the other in Arabic, were shaped by similar concerns with a newly emerging world

How Two 19th-Century Books Paved the Way for Modernism
Illustration by Joanna Andreasson for New Lines Magazine

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In 1855, in two different countries separated by thousands of miles, two books were published that would transform the literary traditions of their societies. In America, Walt Whitman self-published a poetry classic, “Leaves of Grass,” while across the Atlantic in France, Faris al-Shidyaq was poring over the proofs of “Leg Over Leg” (“al-Saq ala l-Saq”). At first glance, they are vastly different works of literature: Whitman’s is a slim volume (at least in its original edition) of ecstatic, mystical poetry written in English, whereas Shidyaq’s satirical, cynical work written in Arabic sprawls over four volumes, full of digression and detail.

But underlying these two outwardly different forms, in two very different 19th-century settings, is a common project: the creation of new forms of expression in the service of a greater vision for their societies. Whitman is staking a claim for an American language that is distinct from the English literary tradition; Shidyaq is striving for an Arabic that by no means shakes off the classical past but is used (even weaponized) in new literary forms to discuss new issues in his society. Both authors shared the belief that language has the power to shape political and social realities, making their projects vitally important for emancipation from European influence and control. Both authors also worked through journalism to practice and promote their linguistic and political aims.

There is no evidence that either author was aware of the other, which makes their similarities all the more remarkable. Reading them alongside each other illustrates the common concerns of the time, which occupied an American in New York and a Levantine in Paris, alike. Literature, alongside philosophy, art, architecture and many other disciplines, was responding to an increasingly mechanized, connected and sped-up world. The new technologies fueling these changes were quickly spreading across the globe, and these two texts from different parts of the world show us how literature was responding. Modernism was on the cusp of emerging, and these works played a central part in the genesis of that literary movement, in Arabic and — American — English.

Shidyaq was born into a Christian Maronite community in Mount Lebanon, later acquiring the extra name “Ahmad” on his conversion to Islam, some years after the publication of “Leg Over Leg.” His protagonist is al-Fariyaq, a contraction of his own two names in a not-so-hidden gesture to the work’s autobiographical nature. We accompany “the Fariyaq” on his travels (and travails), following him from his native land of Lebanon to Egypt, Malta, looping back to the Levant (Beirut, Mount Lebanon, Damascus), then Egypt and Malta again, and on to England and France. Part travelog, part anthropological observation and almost wholly satirical, “Leg Over Leg” observes and skewers the customs of all countries, though reserving most of its most sharp-edged scorn for clergy of various denominations, along with their political patrons. The author’s final letter, the postscript of the novel, as it were, summarizes this attitude: “Father Hanna, I swear to you I don’t hate you. I hate only your arrogance and your ignorance.”

The very first chapter gives fair warning of what will unspool over many more hundreds of pages. (The edition from the Library of Arabic Literature, published over 150 years later in 2013, is a rare example of a complete edition, and the work’s first translation into English. With facing pages of Arabic and English, these four volumes run to 1,558 pages, not including the notes.) With more than 100 words in the Arabic language for both vagina and penis, Shidyaq uses both examples to demonstrate the breadth of the Arabic lexicon — a challenge for translation into any other language. I imagine Shidyaq would be delighted with the lengths translator Humphrey Davies had to go to in such passages, searching not only the English language but also its vast literature and various dialects for euphemisms and innuendo to translate what Arabic covers with ease. (The disparity is apparent in the relative lengths of these passages in Arabic and English, the latter taking more than double the former to run the gamut of words for these sexual organs.) This immense work wasn’t written to shock, although it most certainly did, resulting in immediate bans and multiple subsequent abridgements.

The author’s notice states that there are two concerns in writing the book: “The first … is to give prominence to the oddities of language, including its rare words.” The fiercest critic could not deny that Shidyaq achieves this aim, though this isn’t necessarily a point of praise. At some point, I had no choice but to start skimming word lists: The 50-page list buried in volume 2 of definitions of rare words in the previous chapter, covering wonders, games, musical instruments and types of food and drink, was killing my ability to finish the book. (The effort and exhaustion of the list is acknowledged in the following chapter, which in its entirety reads: “…….. Right There! ,” reminiscent of the European model the book is so often compared to, Laurence Sterne’s “Tristram Shandy.”) The sheer unreadability is, of course, part of the point: The “qamus” (dictionary) emerges as a character in its own right, a source not only of words but also authority, consulted to adjudicate in the frequent arguments.

“One of his main concerns, if not the main concern, was the relationship of language to power,” Rebecca Johnson, director of Middle East and North African studies at Northwestern University and author of the introduction to the recent edition and translation of “Leg Over Leg,” told me, “and a frustration with the way that those in power (like priests, notables, the patriarchy) guard the boundaries of language knowledge instead of disseminating it.” She sees the whole work as an experiment in erasing boundaries of language, and I would add, here, the erasure of boundaries in society, politics and religion, too. “It’s not a critique of language itself but a call to dig deeper into it. I think it’s also quite earnest — because language can express, or try to express, profound ideas and emotions, attachments and aspirations.”

Whitman would wholeheartedly agree. In the early 1840s, he attended a lecture by the already famous Ralph Waldo Emerson, a founding figure in the burgeoning American Transcendentalism movement, who was advocating for a homegrown American intellectual and literary expression. The lecture Whitman attended would become the published essay “The Poet,” which contained a call to arms, asking where the great American poet was to give voice to the “ample geography” that “dazzles the imagination.” Whitman later described that he “was simmering, simmering, simmering, and Emerson set me to boil.” The result was “Leaves of Grass.”

This mystical work also uses lists, both in its prose introduction and throughout the poems that make up the rest of the short volume. (Added to over Whitman’s life to become a thick book, the original 1855 version is only 12 poems, albeit long ones.) The lists are far from the dictionary entries of “Leg Over Leg”: Although Whitman also has an encyclopedic approach and uses extensive categorization, his is in the sparser language of poetry. And he is using his lists for a different purpose to Shidyaq’s. Rather than an experiment in Arabic, Whitman is sketching out an expansive portrait of America — the first word of the book, and the beating heart of his prose and poetry alike.

“The blue breadth over the inland sea of Virginia and Maryland and the sea off Massachusetts and Maine and over Manhattan bay and over Champlain and Erie and over Ontario and Huron and Michigan and Superior, and over the Texan and Mexican and Floridian and Cuban seas and over seas of California and Oregon,” begins one such list; together they define and delimit the boundaries of America, naming each feature, almost as Adam named each creation in the garden of Eden, thereby pinning down the whole. The geography, nature, society and people of the continent are all delineated in this way, in an attempt to encapsulate the essence and ideals of the young country.

The project, then, is America, but the tool for expression is poetry, and for Whitman these two creative aims, to create a new society and a new language, are interwoven. “The United States themselves are essentially the greatest poem,” he writes, while “Americans … have probably the fullest poetical nature.” These people, who are also “unrhymed poetry,” need a new voice, he says, echoing Emerson: “[America] awaits the gigantic and generous treatment worthy of it.”

There is plenty of poetry in “Leg Over Leg” (including 100 pages of verses the Fariyaq supposedly composed in Paris), and indeed Shidyaq points out that “the philosophers” praise poetry as “the first product of rapture,” an apt description for Whitman. Yet the work as a whole resists any such categorization, despite the attempts to do so. The most common description is the Arabic “Tristram Shandy,” with Shidyaq frequently compared both to Sterne and Rabelais, a moniker that is easy to understand. Indeed, Shidyaq’s own words suggest the comparison: “I committed myself to writing a book that would be a repository for every idea that appealed to me,” he writes, “relevant or irrelevant, for it seemed to me that what was irrelevant to me might be relevant to someone else, and vice versa.” The resulting meandering and digressive aspect of the book is clearly Shandy-esque, but this is hardly the only characteristic of the work, as, again, Shidyaq tells us.

“I … notice that all the authors in my bookcase are shackled to a single stylistic chain,” he writes of the Arabic literary tradition. “Once you’ve become familiar with one link of the chain, you feel as though you know all the others. … This being established, know that I have exited the chain.” His publisher is clear he succeeded: “The author, having once opened the door to this strange style of writing, has as quickly shut it again.” It is one of a kind, striving to break the mold, but not for the sake of it. “I follow what I see to be good, seize what I find appealing by the forelock, reject the impositions of tradition,” Shidyaq claims, and his oeuvre as a whole demonstrates this approach. “Leg Over Leg” may have smashed any semblance of literary genre, but Shidyaq also edited classical texts and wrote works in classical styles. While he spent much of his life dedicated to classical Arabic, compiling a 20-volume critical edition of a 13th-century dictionary, he also coined neologisms (always faithful to the rules of classical Arabic) that are still in use today (among them “jaridah,” a newspaper; “intikhab,” an election; and “jawaz,” a passport).

This pick-and-choose approach to literature (what Johnson calls “omnivorous textuality”) is apparent in “Leg Over Leg” itself, in its descriptions of “Frankish” (European) literature as well as impressive uses of traditional genres of Arabic literature, most notably the rhymed prose form known as “maqamah” (chapter 13 of each of the four volumes is written as a maqamah, as are occasional outbursts throughout the rest of the work). But “following what is good” while rejecting “the impositions of tradition” also describes Shidyaq’s attitudes to the countries he is traveling through. The subtitle describes the work as “Days, Months and Years spent in Critical Examination of The Arabs and Their Non-Arab Peers,” and as such he critiques traditions he finds to be absurd, outdated or unjust, while praising what he sees to be good or worthy of retaining, whichever culture is under scrutiny. Whether “Frankish,” “Turkish” or “Arabic,” customs are mocked or appreciated, from bonnets to hospitality to styles of poetry.

The diversity of humanity is key to both 1855 texts: Perhaps the most famous line in “Leaves of Grass” is: “I am large. … I contain multitudes.” For Whitman, he is describing “not merely a nation but a teeming nation of nations,” and the quest for unity out of this multitude is the point of America (whose motto was already e pluribus unum, that is, out of many, one) and “Leaves of Grass” alike. The multitudes in “Leg Over Leg” arise from the Fariyaq’s travels across rather than within borders and the historical result of frequent occupations and foreign rule over the Arab world. Yet despite these differences and the extreme variance in style — hard-bitten satire as opposed to mystical poetry — both writers explore, through experimenting with language, optimistic visions of society.

For, at their core, these books have a not-so-dissimilar vision of humanity. Democratic ideals of equality are of course more overt in Whitman’s description of America, but beyond the often-vicious satire of Shidyaq, too, lies a strong commitment to equality. “Everyone to whom the term ‘human’ may be applied, without regard for the styles of people’s dress or differences of color or country,” he states in one of the rare moments of earnestness, arguing for proper treatment for all “for the sake of God Almighty.” It is a deeply moral vision, based on a very modern perception of humanity and underlain by a deep commitment to God, amid the bawdy jokes at the clergy’s expense.

There is of course no equivalent to Whitman’s nationalistic project in “Leg Over Leg,” yet Shidyaq, too, is making a plea for modernization and personal freedom. Perhaps the most striking example of this is the extended argument throughout the book for gender equality. Indeed, the second of two reasons given in his author’s notice for writing the book is “to discuss the praiseworthy and blameworthy qualities of women.” There follows an introduction to the woman the Fariyaq is to marry, which in fact contains no blameworthy examples but only praise. He lauds her achievements, especially given her uneducated starting point: “[She] has made such progress in education that she now argues with theorist and practitioner alike and provides excellent critiques of the political issues and conditions, mundane and spiritual, of the countries she has seen.”

These debates Fariyaqiyyah has with her husband (filling much of volumes 3 and 4) show Shidyaq’s respect for women’s abilities. Kamran Rastegar, professor in international literary and cultural studies at Tufts University, has pointed out that her name, Fariyaqiyyah, is not actually the feminine form of Fariyaq (which would be Fariyaqah), but rather means “Fariyaq-ness,” in the feminine; she is thus functioning as an alter ego, a counterpart to the male protagonist, her husband.

Once again, Whitman gives us a pared-down version of a similar sentiment:

The wife — and she is not one jot less than the husband,

The daughter — and she is just as good as the son,

The mother — and she is every bit as much as the father.

The Fariyaqiyyah is indeed not one jot less than the Fariyaq, but there is rather more detail in “Leg Over Leg” (often exhaustive, calling on previous generations of intellectuals and the dictionary as well as referencing contemporary debates) as to her rights, from choosing her own husband, to divorce, to demanding and deserving sexual pleasure.

The common concerns of “Leaves of Grass” and “Leg Over Leg” — in particular, language, equality, freedom, paradox and multiplicity — illustrate the international nature of how the 19th century was wrestling with modernity. Published in the same year, there is no indication they were aware of each other’s work, but that makes their similarities even more telling, suggestive of common themes threading through world literature. Perhaps this shouldn’t be surprising, given that modernity was itself defined by increasingly global trends of connectivity and change, stimulated by new technologies. Writers in America, Europe and the Ottoman Empire were similarly adapting to increased opportunities for — and decreased costs of — travel, “to connect the disconnected,” as Shidyaq puts it in “Leg Over Leg,” stressing how different the world was to “the world in your late grandfather’s and father’s day.”

This speed of change, accompanied by both anxiety and hope for the future, fueled new literary and intellectual movements across the world. In the Arabic world, one response was the “nahda” (meaning awakening or renaissance) movement, though what exactly this was remains contested. Samah Salim, professor of Arabic language and literature at Rutgers University, has argued for the existence of two intertwined nahdas, given the simultaneous emphasis on rediscovering and reinterpreting the classical Arabic tradition while looking toward Europe for inspiration in moving forward. This two-pronged approach could be describing “Leg Over Leg” itself, placing Shidyaq at the forefront of the struggle to reconcile conflicting demands of modernity.

Whitman, too, is working in a nascent modernist milieu, but here, where they engage with modernity, the two texts diverge significantly.

“What al-Shidyaq ultimately gives us in Leg over Leg is a theory of world literature,” writes Johnson. “Far from holding up Sterne or Lamartine as culturally distinct and inviolable paradigms, he incorporates them into Arabic literary categories, aligning ‘Tristram Shandy’ with the maqamat.” In other words, Shidyaq is embracing non-Arabic literature in his characteristic magpie approach, picking out what he can use (for both his literary and political aims) from anywhere and anyone. On the other hand, despite Whitman’s claim that “The American poets are to enclose old and new,” his project is not to create some sense of world literature but, on the contrary, to focus on the single project of America: “for America is the race of races. Of them a bard is to be commensurate with a people.”

The sense of American exceptionalism, combined with a deep belief in poetry as the expression of truth above anything else, drives Whitman’s work, along with a unifying transcendental philosophy in keeping with the school of Emerson and others (though it has been suggested the spiritual aspects of his sense of unity with the world are a result of a mystical experience earlier in the 1850s). Emerson himself was delighted with the response to his call for an American poet. On the publication of “Leaves of Grass,” he wrote to Whitman to tell him he had produced “the most extraordinary piece of wit and wisdom that America has yet contributed.”

And it has indeed taken the place Emerson envisaged in American letters. A recent scholarly book traces the very origins of American modernist poetry “back to Walt Whitman … driven by the same concern to engage with the world in revolutionary terms, inspired by the concept of democracy vital to the American dream.” It is a standard text in American schools and indeed around the world. In contrast, Shidyaq has languished in relative obscurity, perhaps not surprisingly, given his off-color jokes and taboo-breaking portraits of the clergy. Yet his masterpiece, too, is seen as a foundational text of Arabic modernity, albeit by a small subsection of scholars.

Reading the two alongside each other is to feel a similar immensity in the authors’ motivations, despite the differences in approach, genre and affect. Whitman’s project is the celebration of America: an ongoing project to which he is contributing. His language is transcendental, spiritual, optimistic. Shidyaq’s canvas is just as large, but he is taking aim at his and other cultures, critiquing social structures from the clergy to gender relations. This takes the form of pages of transgressive language and jokes, yet can change abruptly, becoming serious about what religion and society ought to be; he is also advocating for a fairer future. Both knew that their reliance on language as the driver of change was vital, yet simultaneously problematic: “I too, am untranslatable,” proclaims Whitman’s everyman, while Shidyaq intentionally obfuscated through sheer weight of words. In accepting this and yet continuing to use their languages to their limits, both paved the way for the later literary experiments with language and genre that came to be known as modernism, summarized most famously by the poet Ezra Pound’s injunction to “make it new.” Both “Leaves of Grass” and “Leg Over Leg” demonstrated how to do this decades before Pound was even born, striking out in startlingly new ways that broke from their respective literary traditions and continue to inspire — and, in the case of Shidyaq, shock — until today.

This article was published in the Fall 2023 issue of New Lines‘ print edition.

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