December 10th, 2009
Eugene V. Debs, a prominent socialist, union leader, and once presidential candidate for the American Socialist party (receiving his nomination in jail), acknowledged Whitman as an influence upon his political ideology. To illuminate Debs’ connection to Whitman, it is best to start with their mutual friend, Horace Traubel, who “is best known as the author of a nine-volume biography of Whitman’s final four years” (Folsom). He transcribed many conversations he had with Whitman, which often focused on politics and, specifically, socialism.
Traubel was born in Camden in 1858 to a father who was a printer by trade and a fan of Leaves of Grass. Traubel shared his father’s appreciation for Whitman’s poetry, and when the poet moved to Camden in 1873, the young man befriended him, and they developed a close friendship over the next twenty years. Throughout their friendship, Traubel “often tried to convince his mentor that America’s democratic promise could only be realized through socialism” (Garman 90). Whitman warned Traubel, however, that his socialism was too radical; the two never agreed politically, and although Whitman’s socialism “was a pliable as the poet himself,” Traubel contributed to perpetuating a much more radical posthumous socialist legacy for Whitman than the poet had supported in his lifetime. (Folsom). In 1890, Traubel founded a monthly called The Conservator, which was devoted to reporting Progressive reform organizations, and to keeping Whitman’s works alive. “In virtually every issue there would be essays on Whitman, reviews of books about Whitman, digests of comments relating to Whitman, advertisements for books by and about Whitman. Often, Whitman would be presented as a kind of proto-Ethical Culture thinker” (Folsom). Traubel often attempted to “connect his idol (Whitman) to Eugene V Debs’ Socialist party” in the publication (Garman 92). Accordingly, Debs often wrote for The Conservator, acknowledging Whitman as one of his primary influences (Bussell).
Born and raised in the Midwest, “his fight against capitalism was inspired as much by Tom Paine, Walt Whitman and Wendell Phillips as it was by Karl Marx” (Platt). Debs was imprisoned for his activism several times throughout his life, arrested for his involvement in the Pullman Strike, and later convicted of espionage and sentenced to 10 years in prison for speaking out against World War I (Robertson). He was later pardoned by President Harding, and died in a sanitarium.
Debs’ letters were later collected and published; his own words about Whitman’s influence upon his politics speak for themselves:
2-13-1908 EVD, Terre Haute, to Stephen [Reynolds]. I have been East. Agree with your letter about organizing; have an article about that in a recent Appeal. We have to do more than talk Socialism– must get our machine in shape for political action. Will get a list of Indiana workers for you from Comrade Wayland. Will try to carry out your suggestion that Appeal discuss organization weekly. Being in West Virginia reminded me of John Brown. You are doing an immortal service which Old Walt [Whitman] would applaud. TLS 2p E (http://www.indianahistory.org/)
Bussel, Alan. “In Defense of Freedom: Horace L. Traubel and the Conservator.”
“Eugene V Debs Papers, 1881-1940.” Indianahistory.org. 2004.
Folsom, Ed. “With Whitman in Camden.” University of Iowa. 1996.
Platt, Pam. “Eugene V. Debs: The Hoosier Socialist. Courier Journal. November
Robertson, Michael. “The Gospel According to Horace: Horace Traubel And The
Walt Whitman Fellowship.” Mickel Street Review v 16. http://micklestreet.rutgers.edu/archives/Issue%2016/documents.htm
December 9th, 2009
A VOICE FROM DEATH.
(The Johnstown, Penn., cataclysm, May 31, 1889.)
|A VOICE from Death, solemn and strange, in all his sweep and
|With sudden, indescribable blow—towns drown’d—humanity by
|The vaunted work of thrift, goods, dwellings, forge, street, iron
|Dash’d pell-mell by the blow—yet usher’d life continuing on,|
|(Amid the rest, amid the rushing, whirling, wild debris,|
|A suffering woman saved—a baby safely born!)|
|Although I come and unannounc’d, in horror and in pang,|
|In pouring flood and fire, and wholesale elemental crash, (this
voice so solemn, strange,)
|I too a minister of Deity.|
|Yea, Death, we bow our faces, veil our eyes to thee,|
|We mourn the old, the young untimely drawn to thee,|
|The fair, the strong, the good, the capable,|
|The household wreck’d, the husband and the wife, the engulf’d
forger in his forge,
|The corpses in the whelming waters and the mud,|
|The gather’d thousands to their funeral mounds, and thousands
never found or gather’d.
|Then after burying, mourning the dead,|
|(Faithful to them found or unfound, forgetting not, bearing the
past, here new musing,)
|A day—a passing moment or an hour—America itself bends low,|
|Silent, resign’d, submissive.|
|War, death, cataclysm like this, America,|
|Take deep to thy proud prosperous heart.|
|E’en as I chant, lo! out of death, and out of ooze and slime,|
|The blossoms rapidly blooming, sympathy, help, love,|
|From West and East, from South and North and over sea,|
|Its hot-spurr’d hearts and hands humanity to human aid moves on;|
|And from within a thought and lesson yet.|
|Thou ever-darting Globe! through Space and Air!|
|Thou waters that encompass us!|
|Thou that in all the life and death of us, in action or in sleep!|
|Thou laws invisible that permeate them and all,|
|Thou that in all, and over all, and through and under all,
|Thou! thou! the vital, universal, giant force resistless, sleepless,
|Holding Humanity as in thy open hand, as some ephemeral toy,|
|How ill to e’er forget thee!|
|For I too have forgotten,|
|(Wrapt in these little potencies of progress, politics, culture,
wealth, inventions, civilization,)
|Have lost my recognition of your silent ever-swaying power,
ye mighty, elemental throes,
|In which and upon which we float, and every one of us is
November 5th, 2009
The Songs of Parting section has incredibly sad and self-conscious moments, and likewise, very joyous and universally conscious moments. I’m particularly fond of the drastic differences in the length of some of the poems, especially The Untold Want, Portals, and These Carols, and Now Finale to the Shore. Whitman is fixated on nautical metaphors for life, the lifespan as a voyage, space and time as a sea. To Whitman, death seems to be an all-expenses-paid cruise.
In Portals, the second line would be incredibly dismal, somber on its own: “And what are those of life but for Death?” What a fatalistic bummer this line would be without the previous line, “What are those of the known but to ascend and enter the Unknown?” Whitman is somewhat excited about anticipating the voyage of death that awaits him, and clearly considers it to be a moment of ascent, of moving up, of evolving. His choice to capitalize “Unknown” and “Death” while leaving “known” and “life” uncapitalized reinforces this idea – the hereafter is superior in its mystery.
The same idiosyncracies follow in These Carols, with a lower case “the world I see” juxtaposed with the capitalized “Invisible World.” I’ve been fixated on Whitman’s ideas about spirituality throughout all of my reading for this course, and this section seems to express his realization that all of his poetic daydreaming about the universe in earlier years is quickly approaching. He is awed, sad, but joyous at the same time. This is perhaps the most moving poetry I’ve read by Whitman so far.
Moving back a page, to As They Draw to a Close, I’m deeply compelled by Whitman’s intuitive conclusions about the nature of the universe, the speculative hereafter. “Through Space and Time fused in a chant, and the flowing eternal identity, To Nature encompassing these, encompassing God–to the joyous, electric all, To the sense of Death, and accepting exulting in Death in its turn the same as life.” In my last post, I called Whitman a Bokononist, but here he seems to be a Buddhist, a Pre-Einstein Einsteinian, and a Quantum Spiritualist. Certainly he was familiar with Eastern Spirituality, but what amazing intuition he had about the universe that he was describing it in ways that Neo-spiritualists of the 21st century would over a century later.
I’m not sure if anyone has ever successfully married a rational, scientific worldview with a spiritual one – but Whitman certainly came incredibly close, especially for his time.
October 28th, 2009
I’m fixated on “Darwinism–(Then Furthermore)” in the prose works. Despite the characteristically unclear, stream-of-consciousness impulse present here and throughout the entirety of the prose works, Whitman relates to the modern reader with shocking clarity exactly how little times have changed since his day.
After daydreaming briefly about prehistory, and summarizing Darwin’s theory and its recent popularization, Whitman describes how “angrily…conflicting advocates…oppose each other” (1084). This line halted the rapidly weaving path of my eyes abruptly; how incredible that over a century later the same debate can continue, despite substantial evidence on one side and…none…on the other.
Whitman goes on to commend the value of Darwinism in countering “tenacious, enfeebling superstitions,” but not before digressing into his thesis, which posits that the opposing theories of human origin, evolutionary science and “ecclesiasticism,” should be “reconciled…even blended.” His logic behind this thesis? — “the problem of origins, human and other, is not the least whit nearer its solution.”
Basically, Whitman concludes that Darwinism cannot replace Adam and Eve (or their varying cultural equivalent) because science does not provide ALL of the answers. Why does Whitman give a theory that provides no evidence or answers equal legitimacy to a theory that provides at least some? He explains in the second half–the “furthermore”–of the piece.
Actually, now that I’ve rescanned the paragraph, he doesn’t explain at all – he just offers the opinion that the “priest and poet” are “more needed” in the modern era, that they must “recast the old metal…into and through new moulds.” Whitman wants the clergy to stick around, but keep up with the times. Is he suggesting a rewrite of the Bible? I wouldn’t put it past him. If he were behind such a project, I doubt that the immaculate conception would survive.
I think it’s most important to point out that “priest and poet” are virtually interchangable for Whitman. The ideas in this piece, and the way Whitman seems to relate to religion, reminds me a lot of Kurt Vonnegut’s novel Cat’s Cradle, and the invented religion in the narrative. The essential tenet of this religion, Bokononism (invented by a homeless man and written in calypsos) is that all religions are entirely composed of lies. Bonokonists are aware of the constructedness of their beleif system, yet they find value in it, follow it, and preserve it anyway. Whitman seems to be a Bokononist – he is entirely aware of the constructedness of religion, but as a poet, he just can’t bring himself to dismiss the beauty of religious texts.
October 22nd, 2009
Whitman and Philadelphia City Hall
By 1873, when Walt Whitman came to Camden, Philadelphia City Hall was already two years into its long, expensive, and controversial construction. The project was approved in 1870, and Penn Square was designated as the building site, to accommodate the westward movement of the Philadelphia population from the Delaware River at the time (City Hall of Philadelphia).
Much of the structure, including the tower, was finished in 1881, but Whitman would die nearly a decade before City Hall was finally completed in 1901, becoming the nation’s largest and most expensive municipal building (Philadelphia City Hall). Its construction cost $24 million and it spans even larger than the U.S. Capitol, featuring enough marble, granite and limestone to cover 18 football fields. It has been called “the greatest single effort of late 19th-century American architecture,” and considered “the best—and most mammoth—example of French Second Empire architecture in America” (City Hall of Philadelphia).
Although he was unable to see the finished structure, Whitman wrote about his first encounter with City Hall—dated August 26, 1879—in the prose works.
Returning home, riding down Market street in an open summer car, something detain’d us between Fifteenth and Broad, and I got out to view better the new, three-fifths-built marble edifice, the City Hall, of magnificent proportions—a majestic and lovely show there in the moonlight—flooded all over, facades, myriad silver-white lines and carv’d heads and mouldings, with the soft dazzle—silent, weird, beautiful—well, I know that never when finish’d will that magnificent pile impress one as it impress’d me those fifteen minutes (Whitman 873).
The meaning of this excerpt is elusive when placed in the context of Whitman’s extensive writings on architecture. Charles Metzger explores Whitman’s passion for architecture in his book Thoreau and Whitman, with the thesis that “what Whitman said about architecture supports…the purport he announced in his poetics” (Metzger 82). Whitman objected to the “showy” and “monumental,” and to architecture as a means of displaying wealth, and did so with authority; he was not interested in architecture as a hobbyist, but as a knowledgeable critic who was well-versed and opinioned in the styles of the day (84). His sensitivity to changing styles becomes clear in a critique of the architecture of Broadway, in which he writes,
…grand edifices have become so much a matter of course that what would ten years ago have caused the greatest admiration and comment, is now altogether passe. (84)
And in a newspaper article, his objection to extravagant buildings is expressed when he writes that “wicked architecture” is,
not wicked in carelessness of material construction…nor in purpose…but in the uprighteous spirit of ostentation that unconsciously directs it, and in the manifold and frightful social evils following from it. (85)
When faced with Whitman’s strong opinions on modern architecture (and their alignment to the democratic ideology expressed in his writing), what could explain the poet’s apparent fandom of City Hall’s architecture in 1879? He had to have been highly critical that it was originally designed to be the world’s tallest building (eclipsed by the Washington Monument and the Eiffel Tower before its completion), and one of the world’s largest municipal buildings (with close to 700 rooms). The 37-foot, 27-ton bronze statue of William Penn would be the tallest statue on top of any building in the world—though this addition wasn’t made until 1894 (Philadelphia City Hall). Even before its completion, Whitman aptly describes Philadelphia City Hall as a pinnacle of ostentation and monumental showiness; yet he seems to appreciate what he sees, despite having strongly and publically disapproved of such architectural qualities.
His knowledgeable writing about architectural design indicates that he was certainly aware of City Hall’s French Second-Empire style, which was popular during the Victorian era and until the 1880s. Fundamental to this style was ornamentation to make the structure appear “imposing, grand and expensive” (Wikipedia). More than being aware of the characteristics of French Second-Empire style, Whitman certainly knew he was not a fan of it.
Metzger illuminates the connections between Whitman’s aesthetic ideas for poetry and architecture; his valuing of simplicity and essentialism is consistent in both mediums (Metzger 85). His writing on the subject of architecture reveals a concern “with the nature of building materials as the raw stuff of architectural expression, representing likewise the facts of American experience” (85). He fixated with enthusiasm on the “increasing use of iron and glass” in modern architecture, for example (85).
In this context, the excerpt describing Whitman’s encounter with City Hall becomes disorienting; Whitman’s words don’t seem to align with what we know he believed. Perhaps the orienting factor here is that the construction of City Hall was in progress when Whitman encountered it, its beams and raw building materials no doubt still visible—the nature of the structure not yet hidden by ostentation. It makes sense that Whitman would find beauty in the architecture of City Hall in its revealing incompleteness, with its essential structure on display.
The last sentence of the excerpt may indirectly express Whitman’s opinion that a building like City Hall, to him, could only be appreciated with its guts showing. The same sentence may also be an ironic expression of stylistic foresight—an educated knowing that the French Second-Empire style would plummet out of fashion before the original design would reach completion: “well, I know that never when finish’d will that magnificent pile impress one as it impress’d me those fifteen minutes.”
Whatever the meaning of that prose, how Whitman must have responded to the extravagant, race-to-the-sky construction of Philadelphia City Hall is not difficult to conjecture. Considering its record-breaking and bank-busting history, and Whitman’s democratic ideals about all art forms, one could guess that he would have disapproved of the project as a whole, despite being compelled to describe its strange beauty on that moonlit evening.
City Hall of Philadelphia. Essortment.com. <http://www.essortment.com/all/cityhallphilad_rnpn.htm>
Metzger, Charles R. Thoreau and Whitman: A Study of Their Esthetics. Seattle 1961. Accessed 8-10-09 <Full Text>
Philadelphia City Hall. Accessed 8-10-09. <http://philadelphiacityhallwillpennshomepage.org/>
Wikipedia.org. Second Empire Architectural Style. Accessed 8-10-09. <Second Empire>
October 13th, 2009
Whitman’s prose is very similar to his poetry, composed of long sentences and an unrestrained style. The style benefits the telling of Whitman’s fascinating personal history—the “convulsiveness” of the telling of his account of “the real war” reveals an impulse of rushing to record every detail. This style reaches its greatest effectiveness in the many scenes describing cases of wounded soldiers; its ability to condense a wide amount of sensory details makes the scenes incredibly vivid and compelling. An example of a single sentence, from page 749,
“In one of the hospitals I find Thomas Haley, company M, 4th New York cavalry—a regular Irish boy, a fine specimen of youthful physical manliness—shot through the lungs—inevitably dying…”
exemplifies the text’s power in humanizing and inspiring empathy for each soldier despite the numerous amount of cases described (and that’s not even half the full sentence). This manner of writing could be called long-winded, certainly “convulsive” as Whitman describes it himself, but in dealing with the insanity of his surroundings while writing these “reminiscences,” it works perfectly. Without the style, unraveling detail all over each page, we may have missed Whitman playing 20-questions with wounded soldiers amidst the many piles of amputated limbs.
The lack of action in these accounts of the war is revealing of Whitman’s understanding of what was “The Real War.” To him, it was clearly the behind-the-scenes agony, the unglamorous death and suffering that took place off the battlefield, mainly to the very young. His ability to render each of these young injured soldiers as disturbingly childlike, paired with exceptionally graphic accounts of violence, offers an extremely subversive picture of war.
The concluding passages in this section are especially compelling. In The Real War Will Never Get In The Books, Whitman returns to the core ideas expressed in his poetry, proclaiming his valuing of people over politics, the soldiers of both sides over the interests of either the North or South. The passage concludes the section artfully, as the bulk of it is about exactly what he proclaims to find the most value in—people and his relationships with them. This, and his discussion of the importance of recording written history, clearly contributes to Whitman’s lasting democratic legacy
One anomaly I find worth pointing out is The White House by Moonlight. Compared to the surrounding sections, this one is a calming, peaceful escape from the blood and gore of war. The hazy, moonlit setting is a moment of silence, that mitigates the tension of the narrative, until the last sentence about the sentries’ sharp eyes. It is positioned rather abruptly in the larger narrative, but the abruptness signifies how crucial this moment and this symbol is for Whitman. It is interesting to wonder how this experience must have changed him from that moment in which he dreamily described The White House, standing in awe at the majestic power it represented, and for which he would see hundreds of soldiers die.
September 22nd, 2009
I’m very interested in the anti-capitalist ideas in “A Song for Occupations.” Parallels between this poem and “Song of Myself” are drawn in their similar titles (though not designated by Whitman), first and second person voices, and pervasive egalitarian themes. The poem begins with a call for universal and personal human intimacy, but uses the key word “possess” to establish a dual political theme. The question asked in the first lines will become clearer as the poem unfolds: What is “the best I possess” or “the best you possess”? It becomes inarguably clear by the end of the poem that Whitman is no Material Girl, and I am left with suspicions that he may have been an avid reader of Marx at the time of writing this work.
In the very next line the dual ideas persist: “This is unfinished business with me.” While continuing the celebration of the essential self (“me as I am”), and the “contact of bodies and souls,” as he did in “Song of Myself,” Whitman also hints at the competing worldview value-system that he undermines in the lines that follow: Capitalism, the valuing of money over the essence of humankind, the viewing of people and objects of nature only in terms of enterprise. “Were I to you as the boss employing and paying you, would that satisfy you?” The question implies Whitman’s own dissatisfaction with the effect money has had on the design of human relationships. He describes the inequality of a Capitalist economy as defining the human as either “servant” or “master,” and with “neither” of which does he choose to identify.
“I take no sooner a large price than a small price.”
“I will be even with you, and you shall be even with me.”
He expresses a deep sympathy with the working classes and the underpriveleged, identifying with the “workman” and “workwoman,” calling for the self percieved social equality of the “drunk,” the “thief,” the “diseased.” Whereas Whitman addresses his own soul in “Song of Myself,” here he calls out to the “Souls of men and women,” in an attempt for this poem to be far more political, a rally cry to the proletariat. (Side note: “or that you was once drunk” What’s this improper grammar about?)
One of the most obviously anti-capitalist lines is on page 91, where Whitman writes, “And send no agent or medium…and offer no representative of value–but offer the value itself.” Clearly the “representative of value” is money. Again, on page 92, one of the most revealingly anti-capitalist passages, which attacks the greed of enterprise and the mechanization of the human body by enterprise:
The light and shade–the curious sense of body and identity–the greed that with perfect complaisance devours all things–the endless pride and outstretching of man–unspeakable joys and sorrows,
The wonder every one sees in every one else he sees….and the wonders that fill each minute of time forever and each acre of surface and space forever,
Have you reckoned them as mainly for a trade or farmwork? or for the profits of a store? or to achieve yourself a position? or to fill a gentleman’s leisure or a lady’s leisure?
These questions are direct, and starkly revealing of the impulses which were, before, underlying a continued conversation started in “Song of Myself.” In short, Whitman summarizes himself on page 93: “The sum of all known value and respect I add up in you.” To Whitman, the value of money, of business, of things one can own, of employees, is incomparable to the value of the essential individual, and the society he lived in clearly made him feel as though pointing this out was important.
September 15th, 2009
“The jour printer with gray head and gaunt jaws works at his case,
He turns his quid of tobacco, his eyes get blurred with the manuscript;” (39)
In this context, jour is used as “a colloquial abbreviation of journeyman” (Wordnik). A journeyman can be described as “one who has fully served an apprenticeship in a trade or craft and is a qualified worker in another’s employ,” thus able to earn “a full day’s pay for his work” (Wordnik).
At first I had assumed that the use of “jour” in the line I selected from “Song of Myself” referred simply to the French word for “day,” perhaps signifying a printer of a daily publication. But the discovery that its use is more likely an abbreviation for “journeyman” is interesting, as Whitman himself “worked as a journeyman printer for several New York newspapers, before ultimately becoming a journalist and editor in his own right” (Lehigh University).
The inclusion of this subtle self-image in one of the many visual catalogues in this poem resonates with his egalitarian assertions, that he is the everyman, the same as the carpenter, children, pilot, and deacons described on the same page.
The image above is sourced from Discovery Press, which offers additional insight into Whitman’s own career as a journeyman printer. “It was common for a journeyman printer to be called to temporary duty as a newswriter or reporter,” which often led to a growing career editing, publishing, and journalism, as was also the case with Whitman’s contemporary, Samuel Clemens.
September 8th, 2009
I exist as I am, that is enough,
If no other in the world be aware I sit content,
And if each and all be aware I sit content.
One world is aware, and by far the largest to me, and that is
And whether I come to my own today or in ten thousand
or ten million years,
I can cheerfully take it now, or with equal cheerfulness I
Even though the lines I’ve chosen to compliment my own frontispiece follow shortly after the line “I do not trouble my spirit to vindicate itself or be understood,” I think an explanation of my choice is justified by the lines, “Do I contradict myself? Very well then…I contradict myself.” Like Whitman, I’m comfortable with being a hypocrite. Anyway, the lines I’ve chosen describe a cosmic sense of self esteem, a solipsist sense of the world and self as interchangeable concepts, and the cool, “cheerful” ability to accept what life is and what it isn’t. These lines compliment my photo – it is a shot of me having coffee on the Walk of Fame in Hollywood, CA. I’m in the shade and in the corner, and Tinseltown is really the subject of the photo. I’m a nobody on a sidewalk that celebrates hundreds of somebodies. But I’m having a decent time, basking in the warm weather, the smell of cheap coffee, and my nobodiness. “That is enough,” and “I sit content.”