By Jerome Loving
Walt Whitman died 121 years ago today. The Bruce Springsteen of his age, he sang about and celebrated what he called “the Divine Average”. And it was always on equal terms, the woman the same as the man, as he suggests in “America”. Shortly before his death, the aging bard may have spoken the poem into one of the Thomas Edison’s devices that made wax cylinder recordings. It authenticity is suggested by the fact that the recording which survives, readily available on the web, is one of the late poems of Leaves of Grass (1855-1892) instead of something earlier and today greater. Poets always think they’re working on their best poem, and “America” is a late poem for Whitman.
The lands, geographies, dancing before you, holding a festival garland,
As brides and bridegrooms hand and hand.
Today Whitman has become something of a cultural artifact. Levi uses the “America” poem in one of its advertisements. Walt Whitman used to “sing the body electric,” writes Tom Geier. “Now, the late poet is singing the praises of denim-clad bodies in a new advertising campaign for Levi’s . . . . It’s not the first time that dead authors have been used to shill products, though I can’t help finding the whole concept a little creepy and unsettling”. The poet’s image has also been used in a number of cinemas, including, most famously, in Dead Poets Society. The actor Rip Torn has starred in a CBS special in the 1970s entitled Song of Myself. There he played the poet as he was about to publish his first edition of Leaves of Grass in 1855. Torn also appeared as the older Whitman in the movie Beautiful Dreamers (1990); there the older Whitman visits a Canadian Mental Hospital, where his first biographer, Richard Maurice Bucke, was superintendent. The poet engages the inmates, finding sanity in their diagnosed insanity.
“This is what you shall do,” Whitman wrote in the famous preface to the first edition of his book: “Love the earth and sun and the animals, despise riches, give alms to every one that asks, stand up for the stupid and crazy, devote your income and labor to others, hate tyrants, argue not concerning God, have patience and indulgence toward the people, take off your hat to nothing known or unknown or to any man or number of men, go freely with powerful uneducated persons and with the young and with the mothers of families, read these leaves in the open air every season of every year of your life, re-examine all you have been told at school or church or in any book, dismiss whatever insults your own soul, and your very flesh shall be a great poem.”
He also wrote in the 1855 Preface that “America” was “essentially the greatest poem.” He meant that nature itself was a poem of which we were all a miraculous part:
Who goes there? hankering, gross, mystical, nude;
How is it I extract strength from the beef I eat?
“Take my leaves America, take them South and take them North,” the poet urges us in “Starting From Paumanok.” The leaves, or spears of grass, are Whitman’s stand-in for nature itself, which as Ralph Waldo Emerson had taught him, was the emblem of God. The grass was also green, the color of hope, and perennial, reflecting the endless recycling of lives. These symbols were dropped into our existence by God the way a lady would drop her handkerchief to attract the notice of a man:
Jerome Loving, Distinguished Professor of English at Texas A&M University, is the editor of Oxford World Classics edition of Walt Whitman’s Leaves of Grass. He is the author of a number of biographies, including Walt Whitman: The Song of Himself. His Confederate Bushwhacker: Mark Twain in the Shadow of the Civil War will be published in the fall of 2013.
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Image credit: Walt Whitman. Photographer: G. Frank E. Pearsall (1860-1899) (NYPL Digital Gallery) [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons