When Whitman says, “I contain multitudes,” or even, “I contradict myself,” he seems happy about the multiple identities that he occupies. I’ve been thinking about his imagined occupation of these many selves; for me and many other people I know, living in different roles (for me, primarily professor and mother) can be less harmonious and more schizophrenic. Tonight, on the final night of summer break, though, I’m amazed at the way my personal, professional, and national contexts seem to have aligned this year– and how much Whitman has been arguably present in all three. The professional immersion in Whitman, counting down to the grand opening of Digital Whitman on August 25 and including our visits to Brooklyn and Camden, has been intense; Jim Groom said this weekend, “You really can’t help but fall in love with Whitman,” unwittingly echoing something that Whitman himself once said about Lincoln: “I love the man personally.” Nationally, we are celebrating the bicentennial of Lincoln’s birth, so Ford’s Theater, where Whitman’s young lover watched Lincoln die, has reopened, and I’ve seen the American History Museum’s special exhibit on Lincoln (the hat he wore to Ford’s Theater, the cloth that draped his coffin, the masks worn by the assassination plotters when they were hanged, Mary’s purple dress…). Obama’s inauguration in this same year, and strong attachment to Lincoln, the president who probably freed the First Lady’s ancestors, resonates deeply as well. Personally, my son’s mania for American history has carried us to a Lincoln impersonator at the Kennedy Center, to Harper’s Ferry where John Brown attempted his raid (and close to where he was hung while John Wilkes Booth looked on), to Yorktown and to Appomattox, where we stood in the parlor where Lee surrendered to Grant and began the process of reuniting the nation Whitman loved. I’ve been to Montpelier and thought about slavery, freedom, democracy, and the individual. Here in Fredericksburg, I live on ground saturated by the blood of Union soldiers, walking distance from the Rappahannock River that 10,000 slaves from nearby counties crossed to reach the Union army and become not slaves but “contraband,” a river Whitman would have seen every day during his December days at the Union “hospital” at the Lacy House. There are more examples to list, but, in summary, in a powerful alignment of my selves, I feel like I have spent 2009 thus far seriously grappling, personally, professionally, and as a citizen, with the foundational principles of the nation Whitman loved, with the evil that split it in two and the people, places, and events of 1861-1865, those terrible years of reckoning, with race and legacy and region, with rhetoric and poetry–in short, with Whitman. “Walt Whitman! Walt Whitman!” said my son back in June. “Why is everything about Walt Whitman?” Good question.
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