And is it not better so? But here is what he writes about watching the soldiers of the First Regiment, U. But I have to say that I do not see one utterly revolting face.
- Cavalry Crossing a Ford;
- Poems – (Walt Whitman)?
- Whitman, Lincoln, and Brady; Three Perspectives on a Nation Divided!
- Morty and the Selfish Elf.
We are all historical actors: the insights and assumptions that constitute our own moral bearing will surely, a hundred years from now, be found severely wanting, will produce some shudders in even those who wish our memories well. I mention them because they shock us into thinking, once again, about what it means to read historically.
These began when he was still in New York and hitching rides with omnibus drivers. Visiting the ill and injured men in Broadway Hospital, he catalogued their afflictions in a series of articles for the New York Leader : fractured bones and amputations, gunshot wounds, burns and scaldings, rheumatism, typhoid, bronchitis, consumption, delirium tremens, dysentery, pneumonia, opium overdose. After war had been declared, Broadway Hospital began to fill up with soldiers who had joined their regiments in New York only to be felled by a measles epidemic.
He assisted at surgeries, brought gifts of jelly and tobacco, socks and shirts, read to the patients, wrote letters for them, fed them, fanned them, sat with them in their death throes. It is not entirely true, of course, that Whitman never pressed his finger across his mouth. The strategic cordonings-off of New Criticism offered a crucial corrective to the sentimental conflations of earlier biographical criticism; the strategic disavowals of Language Poetry, or rather, of its manifestos, offered a timely antidote to the inertias of latter day confessionalism.
But neither affords a fully sufficient model for reading. The gestures of self and the lineaments of story: for resilience and momentum and, yes, for subversive possibility, one would be hard pressed to find poetic instruments with richer aptitude. The longing for familiar kinds of meaning, in other words, is unkillable. It is also, crucially, ripe for transformation. So the built self, the simultaneous invitation to and refusal of biographical reading, has the power to lure both reader and writer into genuine discovery.
We discard it at our peril. As an ordinary rule of thumb, one cannot hold a writer responsible for the excesses of his followers and champions. But Whitman was also an eager orchestrator of his own mythology. This goes beyond the notorious strategies for self-promotion: the writing of anonymous auto-reviews, the flat-out lies about print runs and sales figures, the conversion of a private letter from Emerson into the gold-leaf letters of blazon on the cover of Leaves of Grass. In this one respect we must do better for Whitman than Whitman has done for himself.
What it omits is what we are enjoined to provide. Whitman contrived to speak with unprecedented intimacy in unprecedentedly public terms: for sheer communal reach, the classical epics were as nothing to the Leaves of Grass. His performance of public confidence was nowhere more outrageous than in its insistence on private confiding. And the insistence is a two-way proposition. That reading should be an act of self-discovery in the strong sense, which is to say, self-making very far from the sentimental exercise we think of as self-discovery today is a venerable rhetorical proposition.
What was new in Whitman were the lengths to which he was willing to go in daring his reader into reciprocity. Invoking the lineaments of selfhood—my body, my appetites, my paths across the pavements and the countryside—Whitman is partly conceding to a common mode of making sense and partly seeking to explode it forever. We mistake the proposition altogether if we filter out the dissonant parts or construe the categories as naive.
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Walt Whitman in Washington
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