Archive for » November, 2009 «

Sunday, November 22nd, 2009 | Author:

On our field trip to Washington DC, as we doggedly trekked back to the cars, Chelsea and I fell into conversation about Whitman’s letters. Of course, we were thrilled to have seen them and nearly touched them. The preciseness of Whitman’s handwriting and the possibility that one of the letters might have had his fingerprint was incredible. What was even more incredible about the letters, I think, was the fact that they were physical evidence of Whitman’s transcendence of time. Not only had his words and thoughts survived, but they were still able to touch a group of college students and turn them into weepy messes. Even something as simple as his revisions brought on tears, and then his letters…Oh, Walt. I know I’ve said this before, but the “I will get well yet” will always stick with me.

It got both Chelsea and I thinking: in the age of technology, with emails and AIM, what is our legacy going to be like? Emails and IMs are deleted within minutes and what with their ability to be instantaneous, I think we tend to make them a lot more impersonal. There’s just something lacking when you type in Times New Roman, size 12. Furthermore, where are they going to be saved? How are we going to pass some of these things on for people a hundred years ahead?

Granted, I think part of the reason we are able to take Whitman’s letters to heart today is because he knew he was going to be pretty special. Score one for egotism But I can’t help wonder what his legacy would  be like if Whitman was reduced to 140 characters (sorry, Jim Groom!). At any rate, the idea has made me get out my pens and write some letters via snail mail. I even sealed them with wax. So maybe I’m not going to be famous like Whitman, and future generations would probably care less what I wrote to my grandmother, but at least my children might one day get a glimpse of what I and my super trippy handwriting were  like (I’ve been told I have the cursive of a serial killer, seriously).

Okay. At the risk of this not having anything much to do with our field trip, I’m going to post several of the pictures of Whitman’s letters and handwritten notes. I dare you not to tear up a little (or at least the Whitmaniacs in Digital Whitman, anyway).







Tuesday, November 17th, 2009 | Author:

I found Whitman on Sandpiper Road, in Virginia Beach, VA. Because Whitman takes so much pride in being a “son of Manhatta,” it’s rather fitting that it was here, as this is where I (very proudly) hail from. Oh, PS: Excuse my crazy hair and the cameraman’s finger that apparently appears three-quarters of the way through. I never noticed it until I got back to Fredericksburg.

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Sunday, November 15th, 2009 | Author:

Oh, Walt.

We’re pretty much at the final stretch for this class, and having dealt with his death (where I was a very weepy individual), it seems appropriate that we now look at what Whitman has left us. Or, to be more specific, I suppose, what the world has done with Whitman now that we only have his poetry to guide us.

We claim Whitman as the American poet, but interestingly enough, I don’t really know if he can take only that title.  I think that Whitman has established World Status. Our readings alone stretch his influence across oceans, and that’s not even a small part of those who have taken Leaves and made it part of themselves.  The poet of our Nation has created other poets of Nations; Guo Moruo, for instance, was heavily influenced by the few translations he managed to get and has become one of the more influential poets in China. Moruo often responds to the idea of democracy and a revolution against traditionalism (much like Whitman’s rejection of classicism).

Take a look at a couple of these stanzas from the prefatory poem in Moruo’s The Goddesses:

I am a proletarian

Because except for my naked self, I possess nothing else.

The Goddesses is my own creation,

And may be said to be my private property,

Yet I want to be a communist,

Therefore I make her public to all.


Go and find the one with the same vibrations as me,

Go and find the one with as may kindling points as myself.

Go and strike the heartstrings

In the breasts of the dear young brothers and sister,

And kindle the light of their wisdom!

Thematically, I can see Leaves resonating here. Moruo’s individualism stands out, with stark images such as “my naked self,” and the numerous uses of a possessive pronoun and “I.” The pride of his individualism is also present in the second stanza; although I’m still working out what “same vibrations” is, Whitman could easily have written these same words about himself, proclaiming the divinity of his poesy prophecy. Yet Moruo also rebels against individualism, his sense of unity is displayed in his desires to “make (Goddesses) public to all” and by placing both “brothers and sisters” in the same line, neither above the other. This line also makes Moruo a teacher in the sense that Whitman is; both seek to teach their political stances and ideals through poetry, uniting men and women through education.

Structurally, the two are similar as well; note the exclamation marks and the repetition of “Go,” which I think serves to reinforce the poet’s many points and the length of the journey one might have to go to find someone such as the poet. The fact that the last line never quite ends may imply that such a quest is also never ending. Because Moruo and others embraced Whitman so completely, Whitman has become one of the influential Western poets and one of the most studied. This is not to say that the Chinese completely look away from traditionalism; Whitman is also one of the most controversial Western poets because of his radical Western ideals.

I think that Whitman’s world influence is something that he would have been proud of. I mean, look at this stanza from “Salut Au Monde!”:

Within me latitude widens, longitude lengthens,

Asia, Africa, Europe, are to the east—America is provided for in
the west,
Banding the bulge of the earth winds the hot equator,
Curiously north and south turn the axis-ends,
Within me is the longest day, the sun wheels in slanting rings, it
does not set for months,
Stretch’d in due time within me the midnight sun just rises above
the horizon and sinks again,
Within me zones, seas, cataracts, forests, volcanoes, groups,

Malaysia, Polynesia, and the great West Indian islands.

Yes, Whitman was a proponent of manifest destiny, and these lines definitely speak to the that. But that imperialism also applies to his words and ideas; Whitman knows that he will stretch across the map and infect every nation. As for his canonical status, that’s something else I think he may have appreciated; it provides the chance for the ideas of Leaves to spread to even more individuals, educated or not. What’s important about it though, is that those who are studying it pay attention to those ideals and learn from them, rather than merely sucking in his words and ignoring their purpose. Whitman, I am glad you never went to high school with me.

Thursday, November 12th, 2009 | Author:

Okay. While I was doing work on my project, I found this, and I think it definitely merits a look. Leaves Unbound attempts to showcase various selections in “Laves of Grass” involving interpretive dance, chamber choirs, and naked people.  Lots of naked people. Apparently there is a lot of chanting of various lines in the text, “From I contain multitudes” to “I celebrate myself.”

I’m really curious what you guys think of it–or even what you think Whitman would have thought of it. It certainly incorporates the unification of body and soul. But do you think that embodying and displaying Whitman’s themes were the ultimate goal, or was it simply an excuse  to put nudity in performance art? Either way, it looks kind of awesome.

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Sunday, November 08th, 2009 | Author:

This field trip is going to take more blogs than I’ll have time for, but here’s a shot at the first one. I’ve been a Virginian all my life, so Washington, DC has never been a big deal for me. I went on this field trip, however, with Whitman in mind, and it completely changed the way I viewed everything. The mall is nearly the same every time I visit: a big stretch of patchy grass covered with tourists. It’s muddy and it’s crowded, and unless you’re en route to one of the Smithsonians, not all that interesting. But there’s something decidedly different when you look at it as a place that Whitman would have traveled on, crowded with soldiers and refuse.

We also visited the Library of Congress,the grand finale and the culmination of everything we’d been looking at. I remember being tired, achy, and definitely grumpy as we tromped around its parameters. And then we filed into the room, and I noticed table upon table set out with Whitman paraphernalia-kind of like Thanksgiving for a Whitmaniac. We crowded around the tables, eagerly snapping pictures and taking in everything that was spread out. We’ve talked about Whitman for hours on end, but having the artifacts made me feel closer to Whitman than ever before. I was literally inches away from things he had touched and loved, things that Whitman had known future generations would want to see.


Maybe I’m feeling particularly emotional with us nearing the end, but the phrase “I shall yet get well” on this letter makes me tear up.


One of Whitman's hospital notebooks

One of Whitman's hospital notebooks

Whitman's glasses. The right eye is frosted over.

Whitman's glasses. The right eye is frosted over.


Engraving on the Calamus Staff. Given to Whitman by Burroughs.

Engraving on the Calamus Staff. Given to Whitman by Burroughs.

Whitman's hair. This seems to be a theme when Erin and I go on trips.

Whitman's hair. This seems to be a theme when Erin and I go on trips.



Oh, and by the way, most of us cried. When the haversack was unveiled, it felt like everything we had done in that class came together. It clicked on a level I’m not really sure I can describe (maybe this is the “discovering Whitman” episode we’ve been looking for?). Whatever it was, I felt more connected to Whitman and the rest of my class than I ever have before. It’s kind of incredible how something as simple as a letter or a bag can do that. Perhaps all it requires is a little touch of divine poesy.

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Saturday, November 07th, 2009 | Author:

I’ve been thinking a lot about the debates we’ve had in class concerning which edition of LoG was the better one. By the end of everything, however, the results were inconclusive: the few of us that preferred the 1855 edition were still set in our ways, as well as those who preferred the 1891-92 edition.

With that, I can’t help but think that there isn’t any definitive version to read, despite the fact that Whitman preferred his latest. The way our course is structured reflects this: we’ve dealt more critically with the “Drum-Taps” and Civil War editions than any other, while the other campuses take on their own edition reflecting their geography. And no campus really has a “better” edition or Whitman (although I will always be partial to my tender nurse Walt). Rather, each edition is definitive of the Whitman who was writing at the time as well as the country that he wished to save and unify, and each merits an equal amount of studying in order to best understand the changes and person in Whitman. If one wants to read a Whitman wounded from the war, then one should read the 1867 edition. The 1891-1892 is a matured Whitman, dealing with the effects of ill-health and the advent of a new century. Similarly, the other editions reflect other Whitmans, sober, youthful, or mournful.

For example, I’ve been looking at “Ashes of Soldiers,” which appears in the “Songs of Parting” section of the deathbed edition. Until the 1867 edition this poem did not exist; it is a testament to the war and the losses that the nation suffered. 1855 is the triumphant youth of Whitman; the sobered sense of reflection wouldn’t make as much sense here. 1860 is the beginning of the tumult, and 1867 embodies a more sobered Whitman. In 1867, “Ashes” was known as “Hymn of Dead Soldiers,” a title that more closely defines the funereal and mournful outlook facing the nation post-war and post-Lincoln. The poem itself is also completely reworked. “Hymn” plunges into the physical aspects of the soldiers and war within the first several lines. “Ashes,” on the other hand, spends a good ten lines genuflecting on the ethereal aspects of the soldiers, as well as the idea that both North and South are dead. This transition is evident in the notes Whitman made here. Perhaps this is a reflection on Whitman’s older self, one who has had time to withdraw from the passions of war and is able to distance himself. Whitman even physically removes himself in “Ashes,” saying that he “muse(s) retrospective” and that the war “resumes.” The war is past tense and spiritual, rather than fresh and wounding. Rather than purely mourning the soldiers and being obsessed with their loss, Whitman also inserts the common theme of unification, reaffirming that the losses he felt were the losses of all the country. This also serves to reinforce mourning of the fractured nation.

Whitman’s sense of reflection is also evident in the latter parts of the text. Whitman adds the line, “Shroud them, embalm then, cover them all with tender pride.” Time plays an important role in “Ashes;” it literally enshrouds the memories here. While not necessarily softening them, it allows the speaker distance between himself and the war. Most of the changes take in this poem occur between 1867 and 1871. It’s only a span of four years, but the fact that Whitman allowed the poem to remain largely unedited until the deathbed edition may allow one to assume that Whitman’s general feelings on this aspect remain the same. The end lines are the only difference. Whitman places “South and North” to describe the soldiers, again reaffirming the theme of unification within the poem.

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Sunday, November 01st, 2009 | Author:

At the very beginning of this course, someone remarked that the 1855 edition of “Song of Myself” (or perhaps it was Leaves of Grass in general) was considered to be the superior text, and honestly, I think I have to agree. I know it’s more or less stating the obvious, but the speaker seems so much older than that of the 1891/1892 edition. Bear with me; I know that it’s kind of a “duh” statement.

In the 1891/92 edition, the poem has been section off-one dose of Whitman for every week in the year. The syntax, too, differs. Where the 1855 punctuation is spread out with a myriad of ellipses, this one contains rather domesticated looking commas (and every so often, a dash or two). The effect is similar to Whitman’s sectionalizing; it looks contained and sparse, almost as if Whitman deemed it necessary to have more organization in his life and work. But the 1855 seems more to hold true to his message; the sprawling text seems to emulate the author’s immense covering of the “Kosmos” and “multitudes.”

There are also several changes in diction that I found interesting-if not sometimes disconcerting. For instance, Whitman becomes “Walt Whitman, a kosmos, of Manhattan the son” (210). Where is the American? Why isn’t Walt one of the roughs anymore? It’s an interesting edit, particularly because I think it speaks so much to the message ofSong of Myself;” Whitman is defending himself as the all-American poet, the see-all, do-all, feel-all, be-all. Maybe that message changed somewhat, with the war. Whitman is an American,  but perhaps he is more closely Manhattan than anything else, and being a Manhattan-ite is what validates him as American. I’m not really sure why “one of the roughs” is gone; it identifies so closely with the former image on the frontispiece. In the same vein, Whitman changes the line on 203;  after one of his infamous lists, of these he “weaves the song of myself,” rather than “be[ing] more or less I am.” It’s almost as if Whitman is acknowledging that he can not be all of these people, can not do-all. But perhaps he can feel-all, and this he demonstrates with Song.

This entire section is stricken from section 18:

This is the breath of laws and songs and behaviour,

This is the the tasteless water of souls . . . . this is the true sustenance,
It is for the illiterate . . . . it is for the judges of the supreme court . . . . it is for the
federal capitol and the state capitols,
It is for the admirable communes of literary men and composers and singers and
lecturers and engineers and savans,
It is for the endless races of working people and farmers and seamen.

This is the trill of a thousand clear cornets and scream of the octave flute and strike
of triangles.

It disappeared from the 1867 edition and never returned. I imagine it’s because of the following section, wherein the speaker “play(s) marches for conquer’d and slain persons” (204). The earlier section detracts from the dead soldiers to whom Whitman became so close to. Within the text, the “victory marches” that Whitman mentions seem more for the capitols and seats of government and beings that caused the fractures that Whitman so desperately wanted to heal. And perhaps Whitman did not want his song characterized in the same vein as these individuals, particularly since “composers” and most “literary men” had no real idea what went on with the war; rather, they read the newspapers (some of which Whitman contributed to). Whitman’s evidence of the war is also shown later in this section; he “beat(s) and pound(s) for the dead” (205) rather than raise “triumphal drums” (44); it’s more of a dirge than a celebration here.

With experience, comes change-and Whitman certainly does that, revising his work as the nation continually revised itself. So, maybe I’m a little bit wrong. Perhaps it’s not so much that one edition is better than the other; perhaps it’s just that certain ones exemplify different aspects of his life-sometimes more efficiently than others.