Behnam M. Fomeshi, The Persian Whitman: Beyond a Literary Reception (Leiden: Leiden UP, 2019), 240 pp.
Behnam M. Fomeshi begins The Persian Whitman giving us an anecdote about his personal life, growing up in 1980s-1990s in Iran hearing “marg bar Amrika” (down with the U.S.) as his first encounter with the United States. This continued in school within the textbooks as the United States was called the Great Satan. However, as an undergraduate after 9/11 and the heat of the “axis of evil” discourse, he comes to know a different United States when he did his master’s thesis on Emerson and Suhrab Sipihri. He found “points of similarity and, of course, points of difference between two enemy countries” (1). Inspired by these similarities and differences, Fomeshi goes on to write his doctoral dissertation on Whitman which later becomes this book.
In The Persian Whitman, examining the reception and translations of Walt Whitman’s works in Iran, Fomeshi desires to bring Whitman out of the provincial context and expose his globalized version to the readers who are unfamiliar with “the variety of ways that Whitman has been construed for the purposes and needs of other cultures,” in this case Persian culture (5). This in turn aids in “not only the globalization of American Studies but also to a better understanding of Iranian culture” (5). This is what Fomeshi promises to do in his introduction and achieves effectively throughout the book. He reveals the ways that Whitman’s messages were received in modern Iran, and the ways that modern Iran constructed a new version of Whitman—the Persian Whitman.
The Persian Whitman is divided into nine chapters, an introduction, and a conclusion. The chapters are organized based on Whitman’s critical, creative, and political reception and translation in Iran. The first three chapters of the book provide the reader with a biographical sketch of Whitman, his poetic innovations, and a historical background of nineteenth-century America contextualizing Whitman’s works. It is not until chapter four—60 pages later—that we read about the first translation of Whitman’s works in Persian. As a reader, I found myself seeking to arrive to this chapter faster; perhaps the first three chapters could have been more condensed and included in the introduction. In any case, in chapter four, Fomeshi begins with providing context about the Period of Awakening—the period between the Safavid era and the Constitutional Revolution 1906-11—as the period for which translation played a major role. While much of the period’s translation was of French works, Fomeshi writes that Whitman found his way to Iran via French translations. One of the most interesting sections of this chapter is when Fomeshi examines the first translation of Whitman’s “The Large / Great City,” which was done by Mirza Yusif Khan I’tisam Mulk Ashtiyani. Comparing the English poem with its Persian translation, Fomeshi demonstrates how the translation was appropriated to construct a new Whitman relevant to Iran. In chapter five, Fomeshi explores the ways that Iran’s modernist poet, Nima Yushij, utilized Whitman to justify his poetic discourse. In chapter six, Fomeshi investigates how Whitman’s “Noiseless Patient Spider” has influenced Parvin I’tisami’s “God’s Weaver” through the use of the metaphor of the “spider.” In chapter seven, Iran’s political left’s interest in and appropriations of Whitman’s poetry are discussed. Chapters eight and nine are perhaps the most innovative chapters where Fomeshi compares various images of Whitman used as front covers of Persian translations and how Iranian readership preferred the images where Whitman is depicted as older, wiser, sage, and mystic-like, and the appropriation of Whitman’s poetry post-2009 in Farid Ghadami’s translation, where both international and domestic criticism can be found.
While there are several overlaps within the chapters, Fomeshi’s book is a major contribution to Whitman Studies. His book should be adopted in Humanities and Social Science courses dealing with comparative cultural studies of the Middle East and the West—particularly in American Studies and Iranian Studies.
Claudia Yaghoobi (University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill)