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Whitman today

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.

Centre of equal daughters, equal sons,
All, all alike endear’d, grown, ungrown, young
or old,
Strong, ample, fair, enduring, capable, rich,
Perennial with the Earth, with Freedom, Law
and Love,
A grand, sane, towering, seated Mother,
Chair’d in the adamant of Time.
Walt Whitman in 1872
Whitman’s plan for democracy went beyond the shores of the United States. In “Passage to India”, he celebrated the completion of three great achievements in communication—the opening of the Suez Canal, the linking up of the Union and Central Pacific transcontinental railroads, and the laying of the Atlantic Cable—as an advancement of international brotherhood.

Europe to Asia, Africa join’d, and they to the New World,
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:

Or I guess it is the handkerchief of the Lord,
A scented gift and remembrancer designedly dropt,
Bearing the owner’s name someway in the corners, that we may
see and remark, and say Whose?

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 HimselfHis Confederate Bushwhacker: Mark Twain in the Shadow of the Civil War will be published in the fall of 2013.

For over 100 years Oxford World’s Classics has made available the broadest spectrum of literature from around the globe. Each affordable volume reflects Oxford’s commitment to scholarship, providing the most accurate text plus a wealth of other valuable features, including expert introductions by leading authorities, voluminous notes to clarify the text, up-to-date bibliographies for further study, and much more. You can follow Oxford World’s Classics on Twitter and Facebook.

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Image credit: Walt Whitman. Photographer: G. Frank E. Pearsall (1860-1899) (NYPL Digital Gallery) [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

Recent Comments

  1. Alison

    I have a feeling Americans wouldn’t understand him today!

  2. Shelley

    Whitman’s comments remind me of Czeslaw Milosz on more modern poetry:”…American poetry fell ill; excessive straining for high culture and a fear of simplicity of expression are not, as a rule, healthy for poetry.”

    As a writer, I look forward to your book on Twain. It’s amazing in American literature how quickly a blanket of silence fell over any mention of the Civil War.

  3. brett sidaway

    On this anniversary, I am reminded of his prescient lines from ‘Full of Life Now’

    ‘To one a century hence or any number of centuries hence,
    To you yet unborn these, seeking you.
    When you read these, I that was visible am become invisible
    Now it is you, compact, visible, realising my poems, seeking me
    Fancying how happy you were if I could be with you and become your comrade’

    He remains an inspiration in literature, in life

  4. […] in the Shadow of the Civil War was published on October 13, 2013. He has previously written on Walt Whitman for […]

  5. Marie

    Mr. Loving, you reduce Walt Whitman to “…the Bruce Springsteen of his day…” ???!!! My God, man, that is like comparing a sunset to a photograph, the Niagara to a mountain stream, the Great Plains to a meadow. I could go on!

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