December 9th, 2009
The video is cut off because the battery died. Ironically, my animal finding whitman partner, opted to leave at almost exactly the same time. I chose to keep that video, rather than reshoot it with a fresh battery, because Simon’s exit is very Whitmanesque and goes perfectly with the excerpt from “Song of Myself” I was reading.
I apologize about the quality of the picture and sound.
December 3rd, 2009
So, I’ve been dealing with Whitman’s disciples this week, and how they each believed the good grey poet was more than human and that his work would survive in the future generations. In some ways they were right. Whitman’s poetry continues to be read. He is remembered and has statues built in his image, libraries, schools, and bridges in his name.
All of these thoughts regarding Whitman’s legacy have been circling around in my skull, as I’m using the topic in my final project/paper. Naturally, for me that is, my ipod plays a major role in my daily life, which, of course, includes my thought processes, reading, and writing. There are very few times when I’m not working to music in the background. So when Katatonia’s “Burn the Remembrance” came up on my ipod, I started connecting it to my thoughts on Whitman’s legacy, legacies in general, and how we remember things. The song, in plot/story, has little to do with Whitman; it’s about a breakup and the aftermath–and how those memories remain, hence the title. However, the band, like Whitman, tends to get philosophical in their lyrics. They ask very deep questions about legacies and memories–and how they aren’t always what we want to live on after us, or during our lifetimes.
Here is the song on youtube: Burn the Remembrance
As a side note, the first 10, or so, times I’ve heard this song, I thought the chorus was “Words will replace us” instead of “What will replace us?” That misunderstanding actually affected the way I think about writing. Honestly, the song is great the way it is, but I think it would be even better if they replaced “What” with”Words.”
December 3rd, 2009
My first disciple is John Burroughs. Like Kevin explained about Maurice Bucke, Burroughs imagined himself a friend and disciple of Whitman before they had even met. Burroughs acts as a loyal friend and defender to Whitman two years prior to meeting him: “In 1862 he had frequently visited Pfaff’s beer cellar, a bohemian watering hole and the center of literary life in Manhattan. There Burroughs championed Whitman in literary arguments, anticipating at every moment a meeting with the poet himself” (Sarracino). This is a behavior Burroughs would continue to exhibit toward Whitman after they became friends and throughout their friendship.
In 1864 Burroughs and Whitman met, by chance, in Washington D.C. Whitman was heading toward the army hospital, so he invited the unemployed Burroughs along. Burroughs got a job nursing the wounded, but he didn’t have the stomach for it and quickly left. Even though Burroughs’s employment at the hospital didn’t last, his friendship with Whitman would last until the poet’s death—and beyond.
Burroughs held several odd jobs, none of which lasted long to the chagrin of his wife, Ursula, but he always wanted to write. Under Whitman’s tutelage and encouragement, Burroughs developed his writing skills, sending pieces to magazines while working at his day jobs. Eventually, with Whitman’s help, he discovered his niche in writing about nature; he had an amazing eye for the details of nature, which in turn inspired Whitman to sharpen his eye for his poetry. Once again, Whitman’s relationship with his friend/disciple involved giving and receiving advice: It was a true friendship, not a one-sided relationship.
Burroughs’s behavior also reveals a proto-feminist perspective in Whitman. When Burroughs and his wife were having marital problems, Whitman sided with Ursula, always. He chastised Burroughs for his infidelity and insisted Ursula’s lack of sexual interest in Burroughs was a result of his failings to earn her love. This is a very interesting defense of the wife of a friend. Naturally, Ursula was a good friend of Whitman, though not a disciple.
There is also a quasi-sexual element between Burroughs and Whitman. I’m not claiming that they were lovers, though it is a possibility that can never be proven, but I thought it was very interesting that Burroughs referred to the love of his life (not Ursula) as “Whitmanesque.” She could have been described as beautiful, or intelligent, or any other adjective, but Burroughs chooses to describe her in similar terms as his dead friend. Clearly, this is an indication of the love and devotion Burroughs felt for Whitman, which persisted after the poet’s death and remained until his own death.
Like Bucke, Burroughs also wrote a biography of Whitman, Notes on Walt Whitman, which was also edited and partially written by Whitman. It also isn’t very objective. In his introduction, Burroughs includes inflated language about how Whitman isn’t appreciated in his own time, but will one day be absorbed by America—in the way Whitman sought to be absorbed.
My next disciple is Horace Traubel who, unlike the previous disciples, was only fourteen when he met Whitman in Camden in 1873. Because of the vast age difference between Traubel and Whitman, there were whisperings and rumors of a sexual nature among the neighbors. Again, there is no evidence of anything sexual in their relationship, but there is a quasi-sexual element present between them.
Traubel viewed himself as Whitman’s son, and he played the role of a devoted son—even after Whitman’s death. He tended to Whitman as he was ailing, carefully writing a journal/book With Whitman in Camden. In his note to readers in With Whitman in Camden, Traubel explains his motivation for writing the book and how it is designed to honor Whitman’s wishes.
Traubel writes about how he will tell the truth about Whitman in his final months because that is how the poet wanted to be remembered.
Growing up, Traubel was increasingly interested in reform and read Leaves of Grass as having a socialist agenda. He received confirmation from a reluctant Whitman. In any event, Traubel’s work was to take what he felt Whitman started in Leaves of Grass and extend it to be even more radical with a major socialist slant. Traubel wrote his own books, but they can be read as “socialist refigurings of Whitman’s work” (Folson). His work as a radical reformist made it difficult for him to find and keep a good job. So, he lived a relatively impoverished life.
A few days before he died in 1919, Traubel saw a vision of Walt Whitman beckoning him to the afterlife. Again, this is an example of Whitman having the divine meaning of a demigod for his disciples. Traubel is buried in Harleigh Cemetery close by Whitman’s tomb—like a son would be buried nearby a father.
Folsom, Ed. “Disciples: Biography, Horace Traubel.” The Walt Whitman Archive, 2009. Web. 28 Nov. 2009.
Sarracino, Carmine. “Disciples: Biography, John Burroughs.” The Walt Whitman Archive, 2009. Web. 29 Nov. 2009.
November 19th, 2009
Last Spring, I took a Seminar called Poetry as Survival at Rowan. For that course each student had to choose one poet out of five poets and spend the entire semester working with that poet’s book. Each contemporary poet was writing in response to human tragedies—war, loss, heartbreak, alcoholism, and failure—as a way of surviving them—and helping their readers survive their own personal tragedies. For the final paper, I had to trace the trajectory of the entire book and connect it to other poets’ essays about poetry. I wish I had read “A Backward Glance O’er Travel’d Roads” when I was working on that paper because Whitman explains his view of poetry and how it is essential for survival and will therefore always survive itself. He responds to someone’s claim that poetry wouldn’t exist beyond the next fifty years:
As I write, I see in an article on Wordsworth, in one of the current English magazines, the lines, ‘A few weeks ago an eminent French critic said that, owing to the special tendency to science and to its all-devouring force, poetry would cease to be read in fifty years’ (Whitman 659).
Whitman expected the opposite to happen:
Only a firmer, vastly broader, new area begins to exist—nay, is already form’d—to which the poetic genius must emigrate. Whatever may have been the case in years gone by, the true use for the imaginative faculty of modern times is to give ultimate vivification to facts, to science, and to common lives, endowing them with the glows and glories and final illustriousness which belong to every real thing, and to real things only. Without that ultimate vivification—which the poet or other artist alone can give—reality would seem incomplete, and science, democracy, and life itself, finally in vain (659).
Whitman doesn’t discount science; he simply believes that poetry, art, and music, are essential to the human spirit, and science can never take their place because it is only interested in the real and reality. Art has endless possibilities and isn’t restrained by reality. For this reason, Whitman believes poetry must survive for the sake of humankind.
Though he doesn’t address it in “A Backward Glance,” Whitman’s poetry can be seen as an attempt to heal some ills. Whitman writes of war, loss, pain, as well as joy, beauty, and nature. He combines the lovely with the ugly in his imagery, mixes negative and positive connotative words—sometimes in the same line. The poet writes of the truth, reacts to his world, and transcends it. This is what the contemporary poets I studied last spring did in their work, which makes Whitman a poet of survival.
Because, without realizing it, he was explaining poetry as essential to human survival, Whitman was also explaining why poetry should survive—and continue to be read in the future. For the most part, his words have been proven accurate. People still read and write poetry—they still read Whitman—but a lot of people don’t read poetry. So, to what extent did poetry—both by Whitman and others—survive? This is partially the question I’ll be working with in my final project.
November 19th, 2009
My Annotation, or Taking it Apart, and Putting it Together Again
First, I will reproduce the poem for easy access. Please disregard the different font colors for now; I will explain what the colors mean, eventually.
Election Day, November, 1884
If I should need to name, O Western World, your powerfulest scene and show,
‘Twould not be you, Niagara–nor you, ye limitless prairies–nor your huge rifts of canyons, Colorado,
Nor you, Yosemite–nor Yellowstone, with all its spasmic geyser-loops ascending to the skies, appearing and disappearing,
Nor Oregon’s white cones–nor Huron’s belt of mighty lakes–nor Mississippi’s stream:
–This seething hemisphere’s humanity, as now, I’d name–the still small voice vibrating—America’s choosing day,
(The heart of it not in the chosen–the act itself the main, the quadrennial choosing,)
The stretch of North and South arous’d–sea-board and inland–Texas to Maine–the Prairie States–Vermont, Virginia, California,
The final ballot-shower from East to West–the paradox and conflict,
The countless snow-flakes falling–(a swordless conflict,
Yet more than all Rome’s wars of old, or modern Napoleon’s:) the peaceful choice of all,
Or good or ill humanity–welcoming the darker odds, the dross:
–Foams and ferments the wine? it serves to purify–while the heart pants, life glows:
These stormy gusts and winds waft precious ships,
Swell’d Washington’s, Jefferson’s, Lincoln’s sails.
The next logical step is to look at the title “Election Day, November, 1884.” As a few of my classmates pointed out in their posts last week, this election was very close and intense. The candidates James Blaine (Rep) and Grover Cleveland (Dem) slung mud at each other throughout their campaign. Grover Cleveland narrowly defeated his opponent by winning New York state, and the election. Blaine probably would have won New York state, but something happened during his campaign that pushed enough people to vote for Cleveland, allowing him to win the election. During a campaign meeting with several hundred pro-Blaine Protestants,
Reverend Samuel D. Burchard delivered a warm welcoming address which ended with the words: “We are Republicans, and don’t propose to leave our party and identify ourselves with the party whose antecedents have been Rum, Romanism, and Rebellion.”
Blaine didn’t catch the slur directed towards Irish Catholics, but a reporter hired by the Democrats to cover the meeting did. Blaine didn’t give himself enough distance from Dr. Burchard, and it cost him the election.
Whitman is in part reacting to the tumultuous, intense election, but, primarily, he is writing in awe of the electoral process, “America’s choosing day.” Because he is both in awe of the act of voting, and reacting to the intensely heated campaign, Whitman combines positive and negative images–sometimes in the same line. Now, I think my highlighting will make more sense. I have highlighted the positive images and words in green, and the negative ones in red.
The poem begins straightforward enough. Line 1 reveals that the speaker wants to name the best illustration of America’s power. Lines 2-4 list in typical Whitman fashion all of the things the speaker doesn’t want to talk in his poem. However, at second glance, these lines are doing more than listing: They are describing, briefly, various images of strength, but also instability and turmoil. As you can see, there are both green and red colored words in the first four lines. Whitman describes the prairies as “limitless” and the canyons as “huge rifts.” The limitlessness of America’ s potential is something Whitman awes, but he also recognizes the divisions. I would argue Whitman chose these various images to coincide with his feelings about the election of 1884, and the electoral process. The words, “rifts,” “spasmic,” and “seething” mean, respectively, divisions, convulsive, and tumultuous or intensely heated. All of these words could be used to describe the campaign of 1884.
In Line 5, the speaker reveals his intended topic of discussion: “America’s choosing day.” Now, there are some absent things I should mention. Nowhere in this poem, does the speaker mention Cleveland’s victory or even hint at it. He is, as far as I can tell, non-partisan, a neutral voice reacting to a particularly heated political battle, and the resounding voice of Democracy making a choice, which has potential for good or ill. The speaker doesn’t seem to care much about the winner: “The heart of it not in the chosen,” (6) but he does care about the process of voting: “the act itself the main, the quadrennial choosing” (6). Quadrennial simply means every four years, as in America’s presidential elections taking place every four years.
The next line (7), simply takes note that the entire country was involved in the election.
Line 8 threw me the first wrench when initially dealing with the poem. “The final ballot-shower from East to West” was simple enough to understand. The votes were coming in from across the country. It’s the “paradox and conflict” that threw me. First of all, I expected to see the word conflict, especially after reading about the history of the election itself. But, “paradox” didn’t seem to make sense to me. At first I thought he meant “paradoxical conflict” as in “swordless conflict,” (9) or the idea of a peaceful revolution every four or eight years—sometimes longer, like, in the case of FDR. Only he didn’t seem to be using “paradox” as an adjective but as a noun, indicating the election itself was a paradox. This compelled me to look “paradox” up in the OED to see if there was another meaning I was unaware of, and there was. Paradox can, rarely, mean an outcome that doesn’t seem logical, or doesn’t make sense, but when evidence is accounted for, it does prove true. With this possibility in mind, I looked further into the history of the event. This is when I learned about the “Rum, Romanism, and Rebellion” debacle, which cost Blaine the election. Using the new definition of paradox, the word could be a description of Cleveland’s victory. This didn’t seem to fit in with the phrase, “the heart of it not in the chosen,” (6) at first. But, after I looked at the entire poem again, and again, and again, I noticed the language of conflict throughout. Plus, if all he wanted to do was glorify voting, Whitman could have called the poem “America’s Choosing Day” rather than the event itself. Whitman wasn’t writing in a vacuum; he was inspired by the events surrounding the election and wrote about them.
“The countless snow-flakes falling” (9) seems to be modifying “The final ballot-shower” (8), and would imply that each vote was like a snow flake, cleansing, purifying, rejuvenating the country, allowing a fresh start—a new president.
The conflict between the candidates was “swordless;” however, it was very intense: “Yet more than all Rome’s wars of old, or modern Napoleon’s” (10). With this line, I had to answer the question: more what? More peaceful? More intense? More paradoxical? In the end, I decided I don’t think Whitman meant more peaceful than Rome’s wars or Napoleon’s because that wouldn’t make much sense. Of course our elections are more peaceful than their wars were; nobody is killed during our elections, typically. Plus “swordless conflict” already covers the peaceful angle, so I’d guess Whitman was referring to the intense mudslinging between the candidates and comparing that intensity to that of warfare and claiming war doesn’t always have to involve violence and death and swords.
The phrase “the peaceful choice of all” (10) seems to say, the choice of all Americans, the ones permitted to vote, create the peace. Voters end the “swordless conflict” by choosing a candidate to become America’s president. This is the most important part of election day for Whitman, “The act itself” (6).
The next line seems to present the possible consequences of “America’s choosing day.” The “chosen” could work for the “good or ill [of] humanity.” (11). Voters are potentially “welcoming the darker odds, the dross” (11). I take “odds” to be part of the phrase “odds and ends,” which means bits and pieces. This meaning, with the word “darker,” fits best with “dross,” which means impure matter, or rubbish. These darker items working for the ill of humanity would “foam or forment the wine” (12) making it impure, in other words, ruining the purity of America. There is a question mark at the end of the phrase, obviously, implying there is a question somewhere. After rereading the poem a number of times, I came to the conclusion it questions the role of “America’s choosing day.” This question doesn’t mean the speaker has a negative view of the role of voting in America. It is a rhetorical question for him to answer: “it serves to purify,” (12) like “the countless snow-flakes falling” (9).
The concluding lines explain how “America’s choosing day”(5) “serves to purify.” He gives examples of positive outcomes from negative situations. “While the heart pants,” (12) has a negative connotation. Usually when I think of panting, I think of dogs, or my breathing after running. So I looked it up in the OED and discovered there is a rare use for pant, mostly for poetry that means the heart is pulsating, throbbing, due to powerful negative emotion. But, when the “heart pants,” (12) “life glows” (12) or shines bright. From a negative situation comes a positive outcome.
The final two lines provide the ultimate example of hope for America. “These stormy gusts and winds” (13) refers to the intense battle of elections. In the phrase “waft precious ships,” (13) waft means to guide, convoy, or propel like the wind. In the next line, the “precious ships” are revealed: Washington, Jefferson, and Lincoln, Whitman’s heroes. Literally, Whitman is saying each of the great presidents of America’s history arose from turbulent times.
Bottom line: Whitman doesn’t know what the outcomes of Cleveland’s presidency will be. He seems to be pretty non-partisan. The poet is reacting to the turbulent conflict, though swordless, between the candidates, and to the way “America’s choosing day” ended the conflict. He ends by saying the president—without revealing his identity—has the possibility of rising to greatness out of the turbulent, stormy conflict of the election and other storms of America—“rifts,” “spasmic” situations, and examples of “seething humanity.” Whitman ends his poem on a hopeful note.
November 12th, 2009
Yesterday at work, (I’m an English tutor at Gloucester County College.) a student came in for help with an assignment. She had to write a 550 word essay analyzing a poem. The poem she had chosen was “Success is Counted Sweetest” by Emily Dickinson. Part of my task in helping the student was to ask her questions to force her to look deeper into the poem, so she could better analyze it. I also had to teach a crash course in creating a thesis and organizing a paper around it, but that’s not the point. In helping the student, my own understanding of the poem improved—one of the many benefits of tutoring. Last night, after I’d come home from work, I read Whitman “To Those Who’ve Fail’d” and immediately thought of Dickinson’s poem.
Here is Dickinson’s poem:
Success is counted sweetest
By those who ne’er succeed.
To comprehend a nectar
Requires sorest seed. Read the rest of this entry »
November 6th, 2009
During last night’s class, we learned that Whitman wrote a “zombie” poem about the dead soldiers who haunted him. This reminded me of a short Japanese film “The Tunnel,” which I watched for a course last spring. I was able to find it online. I will let you view it for yourself, but in a nutshell it’s about one soldier coming back from the war and how he is haunted by the men who died while under his command. It is roughly 15 minutes long, and is in Japanese with English subtitles. You’ll probably notice a dream motif; that’s because the film is part four of an eight part film Dreams.
November 5th, 2009
I hope when I reach the end of my life that I have the strength of character to write a final send off like Whitman did. In The Songs of Parting, especially in “So Long,” Whitman takes control of his life, death, and work. He makes himself larger than life, immortalizing himself through his art, and ends the poem “disembodied, triumphant, dead” (71). At first glimpse, the word “disembodied” has a negative connotation—literally being without a body isn’t a particularly nice image. But then, I looked it up in the OED, instinctively knowing the word would help me better understand the line and the poem, and found that it actually means to be “freed from that in which it has been embodied” (OED Online). Using this definition, I’m able to reread the line: free, triumphant, and dead. In this sense, death for Whitman is a positive thing. However, some of the other poems in this section and the account of his final weeks in With Whitman in Camden paint death in a different light. In the end, Whitman, as a man and poet, has a complete view of death, much like he did of war, and writes of death from every angle. Ultimately, Whitman chooses to accept the fact of his impending death. This allows him to take control over it and the final image his readers will have of him.
In “So long!” Whitman briefly recounts his lifelong career as poet (Singer) and writes of his fate after dying. He sets the tone in the line “To conclude, I announce what comes after me” (1). This act of concluding has multiple meanings. He is concluding his book, his career, his life. Notice also, the word “announce:” He is making one final proclamation, singing one last song, and he is doing it about his own death. What better way is there to take control of one’s life and death, but to make a proclamation about it?
In the next stanza, Whitman refers to a time before he was a published poet: “I remember I said before my leaves sprang at all,/I would raise my voice jocund and strong with reference to consummations” (2-3). Whitman promised to sing joyfully and strong, and he has. He always knew he would sing of consummations, which has several meanings: perfections, completions, sex, the end, and death (OED Online). Whitman, indeed, sung of every item on this list, and more. Now, at the end of his life, he will sing of his ultimate consummation—his death.
The next few stanzas recount his previous songs, which lead to several stanzas of announcements. When he returns to the idea of his songs, he writes “My songs cease, I abandon them,” (51) which he further explains in the stanza:
Camerado, this is no book,
Who touches this touches a man,
(Is it night? are we here together alone?)
It is I you hold and who holds you,
I spring forth from the pages into your arms—decease calls me forth (53-57).
Whitman immortalizes himself through his work, a motif he as used before in his earlier poems, but now it is his last hope for immortality. His book is more than a book; it is him, and after his death, Whitman will only exist in his writings—and anything written of him. As people continue to read Whitman, his “avataras,” (67) or manifestations to the world, will ascend. In one final message, Whitman requests:
Remember my words, I may again return,
I love you, I depart from materials,
I am as one disembodied, triumphant, dead (69-71).
Whitman is free from the world of physical pain, he exists only in his words, and will continue to do so, as long as we read them.
October 22nd, 2009
Sometime around 1863, Walt Whitman met John Burroughs, became close friends with him, and accepted the gift of a walking stick from him. This walking stick proves to be very important to Whitman, and its importance demonstrates values of the American culture.
Before Whitman received the walking stick from Burroughs, he was using a cane/walking stick of his own, probably as a fashion accessory. This establishes the importance walking sticks have in Whitman’s life in general. In 1841 Whitman used a cane. The first picture shows him professionally dressed, and the description indicates the cane was part of that look. The image of Whitman in the photo matches the description given in the PBS special American Experience: Walt Whitman:
He dresses in a white collar with a vest, walking stick, a big floppy Fedora, and tries to pass for a professional man of letters. And he gets into doors on the basis of how he appears. It’s not his Harvard pedigree. He doesn’t have one. What he has is the force of his personality and how he appears (Allan Gurganus).
Comparing the description from this short film and the image in the photo, it seems Whitman continued to dress professionally as he needed to be taken seriously. The cane/walking stick is part of this image. This indicates that the poet showed an affinity for walking sticks and would appreciate one as a present.
In 1863, Whitman met John Burroughs, who quickly became one of his closest friends and a major part of his support system. Sometime after that, Burroughs gave Whitman a walking stick made out of calamus root and cleverly inscribed (Library of Congress). This indicates the closeness between the poet and his friend—Burroughs purposely chose the calamus root as the basis for the walking stick to refer to his book of poetry Calamus, which was published for the first time in the 1860 edition of Leaves of Grass.
Whether Whitman used this particular walking stick to support him while walking or not is unclear. During his years at Camden, Whitman’s health was failing, and there are many examples in his prose of “hobbling,” which would indicate the use of some aid. If we trace the trajectory of walking sticks in Whitman’s life, (such an undertaking is speculation at best) we would probably come to the conclusion that Whitman went from carrying walking sticks/canes as fashion accessories (1840s in New York) to using them to remain ambulatory in his later years in Camden. In “A Sun-Bath—Nakedness,” Whitman writes, “Another day quite free from mark’d prostration and pain. It seems indeed as if peace and nutriment from heaven subtly filter into me as I slowly hobble down these country lanes and across fields” (830). In this work of prose, Whitman indicates openly that he has been suffering from pain recently, but is enjoying a day without pain, but still has trouble walking, so he moves slowly, hobbling. Between this passage and the fact that many pictures of Whitman’s final years, featured on Whitman’s Archives, display a cane prominently, it is probably safe to say the poet was using a walking stick—at least until paralysis forced him into a wheel-chair. However, it is unclear whether he actually used Burroughs’s gift.
The typically intended use of this gift for support is symbolic of the relationship between Burroughs and Whitman. Burroughs was always behind Whitman, as a friend, admirer, and disciple. He—and Whitman’s other disciples—would rush to Whitman’s defense when critics attacked Whitman’s work. He wrote the first biography of the poet; although, its accuracy is questionable. Burroughs proves to be a loyal friend, showing Whitman in the best possible light—and conveniently neglecting certain aspects of the poet’s life and personality—which makes him a nonobjective biographer, but a very supportive friend. In Walt Whitman’s America: A Cultural Biography, David Reynolds writes, “Burroughs failed to mention Whitman’s churlish side—evidenced, for instance, by an incident on a Washington streetcar in which the poet reportedly got into an angry scuffle with a carpetbag senator” (Reynolds 460). Burroughs also wrote reviews for Whitman’s work, often defending him from other critics. In his review of Drum Taps, Burroughs wrote, “He has been sneered at an mocked and ridiculed; he has been cursed and caricatured and persecuted, and instead of retorting in a like strain, or growing embittered or misanthropic, he has preserved his serenity and good nature under all” (qtd. in Reynolds 459). In other words, if Whitman needed some support from a friend, Burroughs was there—and so was the walking stick if he needed it.
This walking stick must have been very special to Whitman because it was very well preserved—and now is part of the Library of Congress’s collection. At some point, Whitman must’ve decided to preserve the treasured gift and switch to a less precious cane: In later years, Whitman is pictured often with a cane, but it isn’t the one Burroughs gave him. As you can see in the pictures, the walking stick gift doesn’t have the cane shaped top, but the ones in the later photos do. This fact—and the fact that the present is in fine condition and now a part of America’s history—indicates that Whitman valued his friend’s gift very highly, but stopped using it—if he ever used it.
Now, what does this say about America’s culture? The gift itself is practical, thoughtful, and symbolic of the relationship between giver and receiver. Burroughs obviously put a lot of thought into the gift, by choosing something of practical use and referring to the poet’s work. Such a practical, thoughtful, and symbolic gift indicates the importance of gift-giving in American culture. Sometimes, we give or receive presents that demonstrate the amount of thought that went into choosing them; other times, presents illustrate little or no thought, but they are always appreciated.
The way the gift was preserved is also indicative of American culture. Whitman chose to keep something—a material object—that he was no longer using because he considered it important to him, and his friend, that he keep it. Americans tend to horde their belongings. How many books and TV shows are out there about clutter, and how to organize our stuff? Clearly, Americans like to have a lot of stuff, and keep it forever. Whitman kept what was important to him, and I can understand this. I still have the note from a friend that came with a vase of flowers, which have long since died. Do I have any practical use for the note? No, but it’s important to me because it came from a friend, and so I will probably keep it forever. I’m sure you all have a story—and a present—similar to mine and Whitman’s. As Americans, we place symbolic importance on material objects, and seek to preserve those objects.
The concept of a walking stick also indicates a culture that places great emphasis on mobility. When age and/or disability keep individuals from being mobile, they rely on aids to improve their mobility. Assuming Whitman used a walking stick during his days of hobbling, he needed that device to remain ambulatory so he could experience nature in its full glory and write poetry and prose. The poet would have been unable to write as effectively, for as long as he did, if he couldn’t move—even if it was more of a hobble. In our culture, our livelihoods typically rely on our being mobile—either by our own means or through the use of crutches, walking-sticks/canes, wheel-chairs, etc.
The walking stick is important in our study of Whitman, our understanding of his friendship with Burroughs, and our understanding of the importance of gift-giving, hoarding belongings, friendships, and mobility.
American Experience: Walt Whitman. Dir. Mark Zwonitzer. Patrick Long Productions, 2008.PBS. Web. 22 Oct. 2009.
Morand, Augustus. Walt Whitman # 068. 1878. The Walt Whitman Archive: Pictures and Sound. Web. 22 Oct. 2009.
Papers of Walt Whitman in the Charles E. Feinberg Collection. Manuscript Div., Lib. Of Cong. Feinberg-Whitman Collection. Web. 20 Oct. 2009.
Reynolds, David S. Walt Whitman’s America: A Cultural Biography. New York: Vintage, 1995. Print.
Walking Stick. Library of Congress. American Treasures: Revising Himself: Walt Whitman and Leaves of Grass. Web. 19 Oct. 2009.
Walt Whitman # 002. 1848-1854. The Walt Whitman Archive: Pictures and Sound. Web. 22 Oct. 2009.
Whitman, Walt. “A Sun Bath—Nakedness.” Whitman: Poetry and Prose. New York: Library of America College Editions, 1996. 830-832. Print.
October 6th, 2009
Whitman’s “Drum-Taps” is a complete portrayal of war—the triumphant and the non-triumphant, the lovely and the ugly. Every aspect of war is represented—and with equal energy and zeal. While I say Whitman wrote with equal energy, I do not mean that he celebrated every moment: He wrote “triumphant songs” and “cold dirges of the baffled/ And sullen hymns of defeat” (“Year that Trembled” 4-6). By this I mean that he gave everything equal attention and drove his images home, making his audience feel the full range of emotions that come in a war.
One effect of covering one topic so completely is the blending of loveliness and ugliness—sometimes within the same line. For example, in “As Toilsome I Wander’d Virginia’s Woods,” Whitman repeats the line “Bold, cautious, true, and my loving comrade” (7). This line is italicized, and it is the makeshift tombstone for a dead soldier: a “tablet scrawl’d and nail’d on the tree by the grave” (6). This image is both lovely and ugly. The words used to describe the fallen soldier are indicative of a comradery between the men of the unit, but the fact that those words were written quickly on a piece of paper and nailed to a tree illustrate how quickly events transpire in a war—and how even the mourning process must be sped up.
Whitman addresses the constant motion of the world in these poems. These reminders of the on-going motion of life serve to link those fighting in the war with those waiting at home. Life goes on for the wound-dresser nursing the dying, the mother back on the farm who just lost her only son, and the men on the frontlines. Whitman illustrates this in “The Wound-Dresser:” “While the world of gain and appearance and mirth goes on,/So soon what is over forgotten, and waves wash the imprints off the sand” (21-22). In other words, life will go on for those alive, seeking to move forward and triumph, but the dead will be forgotten, their mark on the world washed away and replaced by the marks of the living. This isn’t necessarily a bad thing, just a fact of life. The ones who live have a responsibility to go on, as the nurse in “The Wound Dresser” does: “On, on I go” (39). There are many wounded and dying men who need attention from the nurse, so he must keep going on.
Because the world keeps moving forward, those lucky enough to survive a battle or war are able to experience a moment of triumph. Whitman describes these triumphant moments in celebratory images. In “Cavalry Crossing a Ford,” Whitman creates the image of a flag waving triumphantly through the air: “Scarlet and blue and snowy white,/The guidon flags flutter gayly in the wind” (6-7). This is a moment of celebration and a lovely image.
Sometimes Whitman provides lines that explain his intentions as poet. Some lines apply to more than just the poems in which they are featured, but in the entire section of poems. In “City of Ships,” he provides a few such lines: “I chant and celebrate all that is yours—yet peace no more,/In peace I chanted peace, but now the drum of war is mine,/War, red war is my song through your streets, O city!” (15-17). These lines indicate that Whitman will write of the entire human experience—including war and death—with equal energy. He might not find every detail pretty, or worthy of celebration, but he will sing the songs of existence.