Note: This is a discussion of Walt Whitman’s life and work, beginning with Leaves of Grass. Leaves of Grass is available free at the internet archive, or you can buy it like I did for five bucks or less. I’ve seen copies at garage sales and thrift stores for less than a dollar. If other things get discussed they’ll be linked or photographed in the post.
Whitman’s had a place in my noggin since I was 17. The initial appeal is probably because American Lit had been swimming in the fugly prose of Hawthorne, Melville, and Thoreau so writings by Whitman, Poe, Dickinson felt like a stroll through the quiet woods. Even more important was that he conveyed a radical sense of freedom and personhood. His Nietzschesque desire to be an instinctive artist, a creator of original values, to live and think freely without apology. The other part, the one I didn’t realize at the time, is that Whitman had rhythm. It’s there and it’s more important than rhyme and structure. You can’t push anything into a closed mind, and it’s rhythm that first cracks the mind open.
Like all writers Whitman had deep shortcomings. He extolled the positives of US expansion but said nothing about the genocide that accompanied it. As far as I remember he said little about slavery or the Jim Crow laws that arose while he was alive. In fact, he spends little time discussing justice at all.
Though I did most of my Whitman reading as a junior in high school, I’ve returned to Leaves of Grass frequently. I decided this (2019) is a good year to
revisit the poet, and the man, hopefully with a little more understanding. Maybe even find some inspiration while I’m at it. I plan to read some Whitman and write about every week for the next few months, trying to keep each post to less than 1500 words. Life is for living, not just thinking about other people’s lives. Not a bad way to start a year.
Inscriptions is the first section of Leaves of Grass, 24 poems that presumably prepare the reader for the rest of the volume. Whitman opens with One’s-Self I Sing, and As I Ponder’d in Silence by sharing his belief in and the intended breadth of his work. He believes he doesn’t just talk about himself–his poetry is a song about and for all of humanity. Not only that, he believes his writing is part of an age-old cause, a battle in an ancient and ongoing war, and that Leaves of Grass is “a longer and greater one than any”. The war is for ideas, souls, for the act of living as a free person.
In To a Historian, When I Read the Book, and Eidolons Whitman describes his sense of time and history. He argues that the study of history is the study of stories–an attempt to discern a clear story from strings of events. But even when describing just one life, one biography, it’s impossible to really know the subject as a person. Not only can the details never be fully known; the internal life of the person is impossible to know. Every understanding one gains is an Eidolon–a ghostly, spiritual impression of the past. When trying to understand, the is is actually seeking an Eidolon that inspires him or her. Nevertheless, Whitman sees the exercise as worthwhile. In Beginning My Studies, Poets to Come, and Shut Not Your Doors, he describes the pleasure of learning new things and the feeling of power it imbues. He asks that the future not forget his work, and that his book be part of the future’s ideas.
Whitman indirectly describes his sense of time: that the past is a set of actualized events that leave at least a powerful impression on the present. The present is a thing to be experienced, lived, loved as animals do and without apology. He sees the future as something that will certainly take place but has not yet been determined. He sees individuals who live in the present taking part in that future by sending ideas and impressions into it. Furthermore, he sees the act of dying itself as an act of participation in the future–the body first becomes part of the earth’s surface, and through chemical cycles becomes part of future lives. There’s a hint of this in “Beginners” (which could aptly be swapped for “Babies”), where he describes death as the price every living thing pays. This puts him firmly outside the dominant Protestant Christian ideal of his time–death isn’t the wage of sin from Whitman’s point of view–it’s the wage of life itself.
There’s a flavor of Nietzsche in all this. I feel the the push and pull between Dionesian and Apollonian ideals in Whitman’s work–the formless impetus toward living competing with the drive to give form and story to that life. There’s also a desire to live freely and bravely, to pursue pleasure and instinct, but also the morose duty to show restraint. But Whitman’s experience is imbued with optimism and lust for living, an ethic of being all-embracing of ideas and experiences, of creative enjoyment of the world as it is. Nietzsche embraced incessant criticism and destruction of existing ideals, and accepted that life itself is pain, while Whitman savored his interaction with the ideals around him.
The last thing I want to discuss is Whitman’s embrace of America as he knew it. He writes a Letter to the States, says I Hear America Singing, writes On Journeys through the States, and in possible violation of the Logan Act, sends a message To Foreign Lands. In these he describes his undying love of his country as it expanded during his life. His famous line “resist much, obey little” shows up here as a message to the States, a piece of advice that ran in headlong contradiction to his support of the Union in the Civil War. He advised foreign folks to read whatever they want into his poetry if they want to understand America. I Hear America Singing was an unadulterated embrace of American workers like the kind campaigning politicians have used since the invention of elections. In this piece he gives the first clue of his homosexuality; he glowingly describes the male presences in his poem, and the women and girls, meh, they’re okay too.
Next week I hope to discuss Starting from Paumanok.
If you have any thoughts please comment below.