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Inventing Walt Whitman

ISSUE:  Spring 2005

There’s a manuscript in the Albert and Shirley Small Special Collections Library at the University of Virginia that I consider the most important single sheet of paper in American literary history. It doesn’t look like anything so grandiose. In fact, it looks like little more than a scrap of paper with a few scrawled lines. There are words scratched out here and there in the penciled script, alternate words tried out, question marks inserted over uncertain choices, but the words could hardly be more significant:

The spotted hawk salutes the approaching night;
He swoops by me, and rebukes me hoarsely with his invitation;
He complains with sarcastic voice of my lagging
I feel apt to clip it and go;
I am not half tamed, yet.—

This is the earliest surviving version of the last section of Walt Whitman’s “Song of Myself.” The exact date of the manuscript is unknown (sometime between 1850 and 1855), but whatever the date, it was the final hour of the first America—the America that lived in the shadow of Europe, as a nation of mere imitators and emulators. Soon Whitman would distill those lines and add one of the most famous in all of American poetry:

The spotted hawk swoops by and accuses me … .
         he complains of my gab and my loitering.
I too am not a bit tamed … . I too am untranslatable,
I sound my barbaric yawp over the roofs of the world.

Yes, Whitman was about to proclaim himself to all readers and all lands. But first, he hesitated. He went back, and between the final two lines in this manuscript, he inserted the line: “I am W— W—— the American.” This nascent thought would soon turn into the other most quoted line from “Song of Myself,” in which the anonymous author reveals himself as “Walt Whitman, an American, one of the roughs, a kosmos.” Thus we see in this humble scrap of paper American poetry on the brink, about to leap toward greatness.

But more than that, we see the earliest example of that most American trick: self-invention. Walter Whitman had been born into a humble family of Quakers on Long Island, and his social standing had allowed him to rise no further than fleeting stints as editor of various small-time newspapers. For the better part of the 1840s, Walter had fashioned himself a dandy, complete with cane and boutonniere, in a vain attempt to boost his status. But for the frontispiece of the first edition of Leaves of Grass, Whitman changed all that. His broad hat tipped back, his beard thick and mottled, he stood defiantly, one hand crooked at his hip, the other thrust in his pocket. Most importantly, he was dressed in the clothes of the common man. No waistcoat or tie, he posed with his collar open, revealing a workingman’s undershirt. And this new persona required a new name; Walter became Walt.

So it was, on Independence Day 1855, that not only American poetry but also the American artistic stance was born. Still, Leaves of Grass was not readily embraced. The slim, outsized volume of sprawling, free-verse lines was hard to fathom; the poems had no individual titles, the author was unnamed on the spine or title page, and the book carried an enigmatic title. Nevertheless, readers recognized in it something new, something American. One of its early reviewers wrote: “It is like no other book that ever was written, and therefore, the language usually employed in notices of new publications is unavailable in describing it.”

And therein lies the real significance of Leaves of Grass. Whitman did more than invent a new mode of poetry. He created something that required a new language to describe it, a new way of thinking to encompass it. He left aside high, poetical language for straight talk, discarded Latinate tongue twisters for blunt Old English. But this was no one-sided monologue; more than anything, Whitman craved conversation:

Loafe with me on the grass … . loose the stop from your throat,
Not words, not music or rhyme I want … . not custom or lecture,
         not even the best,
Only the lull I like, the hum of your valved voice.

He welcomed every part of you, accepted every part, and made it part of himself.

Some contemporary readers have found this difficult to accept. How can we believe Whitman’s claim that, no matter the particular person, the particular hardship or landscape, “I am the man … I suffered … I was there”? The answer is simple. The year 1855 was the magic birth of more than Walt Whitman; it was also the moment of our own immaculate conception, when a poet imagined us into being. In the expanded edition  published the following year, he expounded: “It avails not, neither time or place—distance avails not, / I am with you, you men and women of a generation, or ever so many generations hence.”

And Whitman did remain by our side. During the wrenching times of the Civil War, Whitman became the voice of the dead on the battlefields and the wounded in the hospitals. After a debilitating stroke in 1873, the poet of health became the honest chronicler of the body’s betrayals. Whatever the phase, Whitman embraced these revisions as evidence of his dynamic self. The inconsistencies that frustrated some early biographers were really at the heart of the human for Whitman: “Do I contradict myself? / Very well then … . I contradict myself; / I am large … . I contain multitudes.”

Even in his waning days, when the poems came less easily, Whitman sat patiently, every day for years on end, answering Horace Traubel’s questions, doggedly documenting the minute and the seemingly inconsequential. And yet, none of it was unimportant, because in sum it became the first recognizable modern life. Most casual readers of Whitman know him for his revolutionary and frank discussion of sex, but just as important was his welcoming of all the body’s functioning. In 1855, he declared, “Divine am I inside and out, and I make holy whatever I touch or am touched from; / The scent of these arm-pits is aroma finer than prayer.” And late in life, he worried openly that “Ungracious glooms, aches, lethargy, constipation, whimpering ennui, / May filter in my dally songs.” It may be hard to imagine Longfellow discussing sex, but it’s downright impossible to imagine him sneaking a whiff of his armpits or complaining of constipation.

But the point was never to shock, only to admit to whatever is human. Whitman wanted more than anything to bridge the gap between poet and reader. As he wrote in 1860:

Camerado! This is no book;
Who touches this, touches a man;
(Is it night? Are we here alone?)
It is I you hold, and who holds you;
I spring from the pages into your arms …

One hundred and fifty years after he first published Leaves of Grass, Walt Whitman still springs forth from the pages to hold us in his arms, and I know he would be delighted to find that his million kisses still reside on the lips of so many poets and writers, the multitudes Whitman imagined and still contains.


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