Whitman’s “batch of convulsively written reminiscences” (799) about the Civil War in “Specimen Days,” particularly his record of encounters with soldiers he cared for as a nurse, really started me thinking about what the war represented to Whitman. Obviously the day to day violence and massacre would take its toll on anyone, both physically and mentally. But for Whitman, the war seemed to be a catalyst for the complete dissolution of the soul or spirit, and therefore came to tear the United States further away from the ideal democracy that Whitman stressed as necessity.
I say that the war may be viewed as a recipe for the breakdown of the soul by looking at the connections Whitman often made between the soul and body. As frequently discussed in class, Whitman viewed the human body as ultimate perfection, writing often of its splendors and praising its uses and beauty. He also declared that the soul and body are in a completely mutually beneficial relationship and that they rely on each other through this; this is shown when he writes, “The spirit receives from the body just as much as it gives to the body” (21) in the preface to the 1855 Leaves of Grass. As Whitman viewed, recorded, and even engaged in attempting to mend the devastation brought about by the war, he focused particularly on the hundreds of amputations various soldiers (from both the North and the South) were forced to endure. He writes in “Specimen Days,” “I notice a heap of amputated feet, legs, arms, hands, &c., a full load for a one-horse cart” (736) and mentions these severed and disposed appendages many times throughout the remainder of the text, as well as within several of his more graphic war poems. The physical dismemberment of the limbs of soldiers, the removal of pieces of their bodies, can equally be said to allow for the chipping away of their spirits as well. In losing one part of the aforementioned relationship, the whole deteriorates.
This is even more difficult for Whitman to grapple with as it is the result of America against America – a kind of national suicide. The spiritual dismemberment that follows physical dismemberment hits him in a way that leaves him reaching for ways to bring the country back to some level of commonality. He attempts to accomplish this by focusing on the natural world, the land that remains beautiful despite all of the violence and tragedy. He writes:
The night was very pleasant, at times, the moon shining out full and clear, all Nature so calm in itself, the early summer grass so rich, and foliage of the trees—yet there the battle raging, and many good fellows lying helpless, with new accessions to them, and every minute amid the rattle of muskets and crash of cannon, (for there was an artillery contest too,) the red life-blood oozing out from heads or trunks or limbs upon that green and dew-cool grass (746).
In illuminating a battle scene by jumping back and forth between the harsh brutality of war and the peaceful serenity provided in and by nature, Whitman seems to hope to force his readers and the American people back into a place where their spirits and bodies may be uncompromised and where they may remain united. In his writing, he seeks to piece together a people that continually divide themselves and hopes to stop them from doing so before there is nothing left to reunite.
In Luke Mancuso’s assessment of the 1867 Leaves of Grass, he writes on “The City Dead-House” of Whitman’s use of the figure of a dead prostitute to present and argue against flawed democracy. As Whitman develops the scene of the prostitute dead and lying within sight of the Capitol, Mancuso posits:
Socially outcast, the body of the prostitute requires the intervention of the poet’s speaker in order that she may be represented visibly, in a democracy in which many are invisible. If persons were rotting on the pavement within sight of the Capitol, this compelling poem enacts a recovery of the rightful place of human solidarity among strangers.
Whitman’s using a prostitute’s death to expose the problems of a “democracy” that chooses to ignore the needs of its members is interesting because prostitution is also an issue he again addresses in “To a Common Prostitute.” This poem struck me particularly due to its closeness with scripture in Jesus’ encounter with the adulteress in John 8:1-11, which says (if you’ll allow my lengthy quotation for those that aren’t familiar with the story):
1But Jesus went to the Mount of Olives. 2At dawn he appeared again in the temple courts, where all the people gathered around him, and he sat down to teach them. 3The teachers of the law and the Pharisees brought in a woman caught in adultery. They made her stand before the group 4and said to Jesus, “Teacher, this woman was caught in the act of adultery. 5In the Law Moses commanded us to stone such women. Now what do you say?” 6They were using this question as a trap, in order to have a basis for accusing him.
But Jesus bent down and started to write on the ground with his finger. 7When they kept on questioning him, he straightened up and said to them, “If any one of you is without sin, let him be the first to throw a stone at her.” 8Again he stooped down and wrote on the ground. 9At this, those who heard began to go away one at a time, the older ones first, until only Jesus was left, with the woman still standing there. 10Jesus straightened up and asked her, “Woman, where are they? Has no one condemned you?”
11“No one, sir,” she said.
“Then neither do I condemn you,” Jesus declared. “Go now and leave your life of sin.” (New International Version)
This passage struck me as similar to Whitman’s poems in its direct address to a woman who has otherwise been scorned and put out by society (not to mention that this passage is often falsely thought on as being about a prostitute…AND Jesus often hung out among and talked with prostitutes similarly). In “To a Common Prostitute,” Whitman addresses the prostitute in much the same way that Jesus addresses this adulteress, allowing him to again transfer himself (not just the speaker but “Walt Whitman, liberal and lusty as Nature” (512) ) into the position of savior. It also allows Whitman to argue for a world in which even those considered different or even immoral would be given an equal opportunity to exist by using subtle biblical allusion as is so often his conduit in driving home many of his points.
Now, in coming back to “The City Dead-House,” Whitman (as Mancuso points out) uses the death of a prostitute to represent the difficulties of the current application and assessment of democracy in the budding and troubled United States. Whitman speaks out for a woman who has both literally and figuratively been silenced by the government. My point here is that it seems to me that Whitman would have (as has been often suggested in class) himself viewed as a Christ-figure, a savior, and further that he would have himself seated as the savior of democracy. In linking these poems through the prostitute, an outcast, he speaks up for his idea of what democracy should (or rather what it should not) be, bringing to mind the prejudices between North and South, blacks and whites, as well as other issues of disagreement and confrontation throughout Whitman’s lifetime.
I as thinking about Whitman’s long lines and the fact that he breaks the boundaries of the page, and I wanted to share some thoughts with you all. Whitman really seems to be pushing the reader to explore beyond the beliefs that he/she carries. He proves that he cannot be contained, even with in the page. However, I think that is goes even deeper than this. He proves that he is into breaking boundaries in all he does, whether it be sexuality, thoughts on women, ect, but also, he is breaking the boundaries of the page. This breaking of the page’s boundaries cause the reader to see a need to break the boundaries he/she puts up in life and explore past the outer layer into what lies beneath, and thus seeing the layer underneath the surface. Looking at the underlayer of his work, as well as the issues that surround us, allows us to see what truly matters.
I am interested in the ways in which Walt Whitman’s experiences (particularly during the war) manipulate the way he organizes Leaves of Grass. Gailey discusses it briefly in her “Publishing History of Leaves,” but I am interested to discuss this more, especially as we get into Whitman’s writing throughout the Civil War.
So, I was kind of randomly in Washington D.C. the other night and had my digital camera with me (and my Whitman book as fate would have it)…I started thinking about Whitman’s obsession with Abraham Lincoln and the many poems he has written for him. I read “O! Captain! My Captain!” on the steps of the memorial with the beautiful statue of Lincoln glowing ominously behind me. Having had somewhat of a crush on Lincoln myself growing up (yes, I realize how that makes me look), reading that poem on the memorial steps was actually a really moving experience for me. I wanted to post this now, even though the quality of the video isn’t the best, to try and share my experience with you guys. Hope you enjoy it.
Or in front, and I following her just the same” (248)
Right away, in the first poem of “Children of Adam,” “To the Garden of the World,” Whitman proposes a utopia that most of us cannot fathom as ever being America. But, as he addresses “the world anew ascending” (248), he brings to mind both the biblical Garden of Eden as well as the developing nation. His act of situating America as the “garden of the world” surfaces many interesting ideas understood through exploring several points of comparison between Eden and the way Whitman sees our nation.
Suggesting that one be “content with the present, content with the past” drives home a point that I brought up in class on Tuesday. That is, that Whitman is concerned with and urges America to ascertain itself in the present, and further, to be ok with it. In Eden, utopia was lost to Adam and Eve after they ate of the fruit of the Tree of Knowledge, but through eating the fruit, they exchanged ignorance for knowledge even if it came hand in hand with a trade of bliss for suffering. Beginning anything is, in many ways, an act of embracing a world of ignorance; therefore, the people breaking away from England to begin America were readily exchanging knowledge, comfort, and protection, for vast ignorance and uncertainty. But, through this line, Whitman urges the people of America to think on this transition only in a way that brings them contentment, and to embrace the here and now as it comes rather than concern themselves with fear or regret.
Further, Whitman introduces the importance of equality (most directly between men and women here) as a necessary ingredient to achieving contentment with the present and past when he introduces Eve. Though many of you have been grappling with Whitman’s view on women and what role he desires that they play in his America, (I am still struggling with that myself) it is clear here that, at the very least, he acknowledges women’s importance and presence in the setting forth on this journey into knowledge and discovery. Whitman suggests that every man and every woman may relate to one another at this level because no one knows what is ahead and therefore it makes no difference who leads and who follows; everyone is embarking on new territory.
Lastly, (well, for this blog at least) Whitman’s positioning of himself as Adam allows him to become, figuratively speaking, the man who begat all other men. This is Whitman again placing himself as the leader, the prophet, the father of the American people, allowing him to present himself as the poet America “needs” (as we discussed extensively in class last week). His role as Adam is important because it suggests that he, being the first man, was made in the direct image of God and therefore may be considered closest to him. It also makes the claim, as this poem seems to put an optimistic spin on the usually depressing story of the expulsion from Eden, that walking away from the direct presence of God, or any authority, to discover one’s own way may be a better and more exhilarating way to achieve peace and unity.
Triphammers were often powered by a water wheel and are known to have been used as early as 20 AD in China. They were used widely for blacksmithing until the Industrial Revolution. At that time, triphammers fell out of favor and were replaced with something referred to as simply, the power hammer (Reference.com). As the Industrial Revolution occurred prior to Whitman writing “Song of Myself”, it is interesting that he writes of this older technology instead of proclaiming, “Where the power hammers…” This perhaps shows Whitman’s attention to all things going into and coming out of “revolutions” or any other change that America goes through. Earlier in the poem he writes, “I am afoot with my vision,” (59) and Whitman is afoot with his vision everywhere, even where technology is not yet advanced, or where people are not yet advanced.
What thoughts I have of you tonight, Walt Whitman, for I walked
down the sidestreets under the trees with a headache self-conscious looking
at the full moon.
In my hungry fatigue, and shopping for images, I went into the neon
fruit supermarket, dreaming of your enumerations!
What peaches and what penumbras! Whole families shopping at
night! Aisles full of husbands! Wives in the avocados, babies in the tomatoes!
–and you, García Lorca, what were you doing down by the watermelons?
I saw you, Walt Whitman, childless, lonely old grubber, poking
among the meats in the refrigerator and eyeing the grocery boys.
I heard you asking questions of each: Who killed the pork chops?
What price bananas? Are you my Angel?
I wandered in and out of the brilliant stacks of cans following you,
and followed in my imagination by the store detective.
We strode down the open corridors together in our solitary fancy
tasting artichokes, possessing every frozen delicacy, and never passing the
Where are we going, Walt Whitman? The doors close in a hour.
Which way does your beard point tonight?
(I touch your book and dream of our odyssey in the supermarket and
Will we walk all night through solitary streets? The trees add shade
to shade, lights out in the houses, we’ll both be lonely.
Will we stroll dreaming of the lost America of love past blue automo-
biles in driveways, home to our silent cottage?
Ah, dear father, graybeard, lonely old courage-teacher, what America
did you have when Charon quit poling his ferry and you got out on a
smoking bank and stood watching the boat disappear on the black waters of
“On a Love Theme by Walt Whitman” – Allen Ginsberg
I’ll go into the bedroom silently and lie down between the bridegroom and the bride, those bodies fallen from heaven stretched out waiting naked and restless, / arms resting over their eyes in the darkness, / bury my face in their shoulders and breasts, breathing their skin, and stroke and kiss neck and mouth and make back be open and known, / legs raised up crook’d to receive, cock in the darkness driven tormented and attacking / roused up from hole to itching head, / bodies locked shuddering naked, hot hips and buttocks screwed into each other / and eyes, eyes glinting and charming, widening into looks and abandon, / and moans of movement, voices, hands in air, hands between thighs, hands in moisture on softened lips, throbbing contraction of bellies till the white come flow in the swirling sheets, / and the bride cry for forgiveness, and the groom be covered with tears of passion and compassion, / and I rise up from the bed replenished with last intimate gestures and kisses of farewell – / all before the mind wakes, behind shades and closed doors in a darkened house / where the inhabitants roam unsatisfied in the night, nude ghosts seeking each other out in the silence.
I just wanted to put these poems out there for your reading pleasure…I’ll probably talk more about them later. I enjoy Ginsberg’s work and was delighted to come across these poems. The second poem is particularly interesting for where we are in the class as it is a response to a portion of “A Song of Myself” where Whitman writes, “I turn the bridegroom out of bed and stay with the bride / myself, / And tighten her all night to my thighs and lips” (64). (Sorry the format of the second is without line breaks)
After briefly discussing Whitman’s view of America last Tuesday and then reading Fuller’s essay on American literature, I became even more interested in the way Whitman presents himself to his nation as well as how he feels the nation presents itself to him and to the American people. Whitman urges, even requires us to take a step back and examine the “big picture”; he desires us to consider America as one expansive but unified plane that delights in its differences and diversities rather than allows them to act as a divider. This is achieved, he seems to suggest, when each person takes an active role in educating his or herself. He says, as Professor Earnhart read last week, “Books are to be call’d for, and supplied, on the assumption that the process of reading is not a half sleep, but, in highest sense, an exercise, a gymnast’s struggle” (1016). Whitman is saying, Wake up, America! This is the reason we are here. Take advantage of your ability to be different, to be free!
Despite this command and call, Whitman also seems to realize that America still has a long way to go before its people are completely unified. This is what Margaret Fuller was getting at in her essay, particularly when she discusses America’s relationship with England and its tendency to borrow from England’s practices and culture even when those practices are incongruous with the United States Constitution. Whitman, perhaps inspired by Fuller’s article, speaks directly to this problem throughout his work. He seems to agree that America is a separate and individual nation and that it needs to start acting like one by, at a minimum, learning to embrace its entire people. It is for this reason that education becomes so important. By striving to achieve an education, each individual becomes more cognizant of the thread which binds all human beings. He or she also begins to realize that learning not only expands knowledge, but often encourages acceptance and dissolves prejudice. When one can learn to understand that all people are equal, he or she will begin to see in their surroundings the ways in which people are connected. In “Crossing the Brooklyn Ferry,” Whitman writes, “What is more subtle than this which ties me to the woman or man that looks in my face? / Which fuses me into you now, and pours my meaning into you?” (312) as well as claims throughout the poem, “I, too…” in order to better illuminate the benefits of accepting that people can be connected through experience or even through the very act of living.
Adrienne Riche, in her commencement address titled “Claiming an Education,” says, “you cannot afford to think of yourselves as being here to receive an education; you will do much better to think of yourselves a being here to claim one” (Riche 19). Though Riche was speaking to a women’s college nearly a century later (in 1977), Whitman would have undoubtedly agreed that being active in seeking an education is the only way to truly learn. He continues in “Democratic Vistas” to stress that active learning will produce “a nation of supple and athletic minds, well-train’d, intuitive, used to depend on themselves, and not on a few coteries of writers” (1017). It is through education and learning to accept and even embrace differences that make America what it is intended to be, a nation that is truly by the people and for the people.
Riche, Adrienne. “Claiming an Education” Women: Images and Realities. Eds. Amy Kesselman, Lily D. McNair, Nancy Schniedewind. New York: McGraw Hill, 1995. 19-21.