Tag-Archive for » legacy «

Friday, September 25th, 2009 | Author:

Hey Whitmaniacs, here’s a shiver-inducer:

Today I was in C’ville for an appointment and when it was done, my traveling companion Professor Emerson and I decided to stretch our legs on the grounds of our alma mater.  Professor Emerson has a friend who works in the new rare book facility, which I had not seen, and we stopped by to see him.  Although we missed him for the day, we paused to look in a small display on the edge of the controlled rare book area.  And (hold your slouch hats), I suddenly recognized the handwriting on two pieces of paper, each about 3×5 (one with ragged edges as though torn out): a hand-written manuscript of “When I Heard at the Close of Day,” in ink with WW’s revisions in pencil (description in the display: “autograph manuscript  with pencilled and pasted corrections in author’s hand.  1857-1859”), the final lines of the poem squeezed near the bottom of the second page.  Needless to say, I nearly shrieked, but instead read the poem aloud to Professor Emerson, who bravely offered to risk jail by using her cell phone as a camera in the controlled rare book space.  Though I was perfectly willing to risk her freedom in pursuit of Walt, we both felt the manuscript would not photograph through the specialized glass, so instead you have only this, my testimonio, and will have to trust me that it was wonderful.

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Monday, September 21st, 2009 | Author:

I came across this story and video (do NOT skip the video, which features the poem “Beat! Beat! Drums!”, t-shirts with Whitman in slouch hat, a bad rendition of “I Kissed a Girl,” people spouting such hate it will give you shivers, and the weirdest dancing religious prostester I’ve seen in a long time) about a protest at Walt Whitman School in Bethesda last April and the counter-protest staged by students and teachers.  Here’s what one protester says to sum it up:

“Walt Whitman is a f*g who died years ago and obviously has been worshiped to the degree that he has a school named after him.”

My friends, this, too, is Whitman under our bootsoles.

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Thursday, September 10th, 2009 | Author:

I had been meaning to post this Sharon Olds poem for several weeks, but it speaks directly to Chelsea’s post on Ginsberg.  Let’s say it takes womanliness and Whitman to a new level.

“The Language of the Brag”

I have wanted excellence in the knife-throw,

I have wanted to use my exceptionally strong and accurate arms

and my straight posture and quick electric muscles

to achieve something at the centre of a crowd,

the blade piercing the bark deep,

the haft slowly and heavily vibrating like the cock.


I have wanted some epic use for my excellent body,

some heroism, some American achievement

beyond the ordinary for my extraordinary self,

magnetic and tensile, I have stood by the sandlot

and watched the boys play.


I have wanted courage, I have thought about fire

and the crossing of waterfalls, I have dragged around


my belly big with cowardice and safety,

my stool black with iron pills,

my huge breasts oozing mucus,

my legs swelling, my hands swelling,

my face swelling and darkening, my hair

falling out, my inner sex

stabbed again and again with terrible pain like a knife.

I have lain down.


I have lain down and sweated and shaken

and passed blood and feces and water and

slowly alone in the centre of a circle I have

passed the new person out

and they have lifted the new person free of the act

and wiped the new person free of that

language of blood like praise all over the body.


I have done what you wanted to do, Walt Whitman,

Allen Ginsberg, I have done this thing,

I and the other women this exceptional

act with the exceptional heroic body,

this giving birth, this glistening verb,

and I am putting my proud American boast

right here with the others.

“The Language of the Brag” is from SATAN SAYS by Sharon Olds.

Copyright © 1980

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Sunday, August 23rd, 2009 | Author:

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.

Tuesday, July 14th, 2009 | Author:

This summer has found me thinking a lot more about the basic concept of our course: Whitman and place.  “Place” to me is emerging not just as the streets of Fredericksburg and DC, though that is powerful, but also as a place in time or history–where is Whitman now, here?  My ideas about it are fluid and exist more as a series of juxtaposed experiences and images, which I will call paratactic catalogue rather than jumbled thoughts.  On the Fourth and Fifth, these elements were part of my catalogue:

a parade moves through the streets of Fredericksburg, where George Washington walked and his mother Mary lived, where George Washington Whitman would have marched uphill (determined? afraid? moving between the staggering Union survivors in retreat?) and come back down (marching? dragging? on a stretcher?–exhausted, defeated, wounded, through the blood of thousands dead in a day);

my family and others march behind an election banner for our neighbor, the Commonwealth Attorney for the city: La Bravia Jenkins, an African American woman;

the cluster of African American friends, family, and supporters for La Bravia are the only people of color I see in the parade, which is a collection of children on decorated bikes, babies in strollers and wagons, the cow from Chik-fil-a, one clown;

my son walks in the parade wearing a paper George Washington mask and a tricorn hat, above his red-and-white Obama 2008 t-shirt, calling “Happy Independence Day!” to the people on the sidewalks;

I mull over the fact that the parade is called The Heritage Parade;

at the dunking booth for the Fredericksburg street festival, my son waits nearly an hour for the editor of the local paper to get in so he can pitch the balls and dunk him in chilly water for the conservative viewpoints he spouts from the editorial page;

at Montpelier, the home of James Madison, Architect of the Constitution, which sits about 50 minutes south of Fredericksburg and was used for a winter encampment of Confederate soldiers in 1863 when Whitman was two hours north in DC, we read about Madison’s death in the words of his literate “man-servant,” who reports that just before he died, Madison told his niece it was “nothing but a change of mind”;

in the basement of the home, the cellars, storage rooms to which Dolley Madison kept the keys, and indoor kitchens, which are not on the guided tour, we see the first names of 120 slaves written in cursive letters on transparent plastic informational signs throughout the rooms, their ghostly naming floating behind facts and dates;

we read that one of Madison’s slaves accompanied him to Philadelphia, where he listened to Madison, a man always well prepared for his debates, defend freedom and basic rights for all human beings and then challenged his master about slavery; Madison admired his thinking and could not deny his point, so he wrote to his father that the slave would not be fit for plantation life again and might incite unrest among the other slaves; after the Congress he was sold in Pennsylvania, a state where he might earn his freedom after seven years of servitude;

we find that one of Madison’s oldest and longest serving slaves was named Moses; my partner says, “Ironic”;

we cross wet grass barefoot to see some headstones partially hidden by trees, and find they are for race horses because the Montpelier estate houses a stable for retired thoroughbred racers, which was established by the enormously wealthy DuPont family that purchased the house and land several years after Dolley’s death in poverty;

the slave cemetary we walk to has no headstones at all, just indentations in the earth where the soil has given way to rotting coffins– about five visible though there must be 100; the sign shows a photo of the indentations filled with snow, which increases their visibility;

we see that Dolley Madison lived long enough to be photographed, her likeness hanging next to her husband’s oil painting in a small gallery;

a fraction of a letter handwritten by Madison is also on display, having been found by historic preservationists in a mouse nest inside the walls of Montpelier in the last ten years and later authenticated by experts.

History/heritage/legacy/preservation/tradition.  Race.  Economy.  Politics.  War.  Literacy/language.  My Whitman Catalogue for Independence Day.

Thursday, July 02nd, 2009 | Author:

When I read Brady’s comment on my last post, I felt a shock of (non) recognition.  The lines of WW’s that Brady quoted were absolutely perfect for that post (thank you, Brady!) and I wished like anything I’d thought of them myself.  But I couldn’t have, because I swear to god they weren’t in the poem any other time I read it.  What I mean is, every time I read Song, and not just in its various editions but I mean even just the 1855 or the Deathbed, I find lines there that I would go to my own deathbed testifying have never been there before.  This happens to me with other long poems too, like The Waste Land, which I’ve taught so many times I ought to be able to recite it entirely.

It obviously has something to do with my own shifting concerns or interests– or maybe with how open I am that day to being invaded by what I read and what I self-protectively shut out.  But it hits me with such surprise (delight/awe/fear) that I think the poem itself is the fluid and shifting being in the encounter, not me.

So I start thinking, is this one version of literary greatness?  I am ambivalent about that whole concept since it is too easy and important to argue that it has never existed in any non-political form.  But even as I reject the idea of timeless, transcendent, and universal art, I find a poem that is so alive I believe it is changing itself, rewriting itself.  And one that is possibly more about 2009 than 1855.

Well, here is a more ludicrous look at ways in which WW still speaks for you:

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Thursday, June 25th, 2009 | Author:

For me, the real highlights of our Camden trip were of course the graveyard and house visits.  What I can’t shake about the house on what used to be Mickle Street is the juxtaposition of signifiers: home of Walt Whitman, inspired, experimental communicator, Civil War nurse, poet-philosopher of democracy and national optimist    +     the broadened, relatively gutted street on which his house now sits    +    the renaming of that street for Martin Luther King, Jr., probably our most effective and iconic national leader on race ever who, like Whitman, dreamed of a better future for a nation he believed in    +    the hulking county jail directly across from Whitman’s house    +     the fact we learned that women stand on the median in the middle of MLK boulevard and communicate with their loved ones inside the jail with an invented sign language    +    the Whitman House guide Dick’s comment that at first an observer might think those women “just got religion or something”    +    the national statistics about the incarceration of African American men.  We heard that the jail might be torn down and the prisoners moved elsewhere because the building is crumbling around them.  We heard that there are finally concrete plans to make a visitor center and park beside the Whitman House in what is now a vacant lot if money really comes through this time.  We heard that after 9-11, a woman in Europe sent her letter of condolence for the United States to Whitman House.  We saw a sign pinned to a tree by the Whitman House facing the jail that said, “Love you.  Miss you.”

The threads, at a minimum:  freedom and limitation/slavery/imprisonment, inspiration, poverty,  inventive language and necessary communications, race, hope and despair, the American Dream, future of the nation, the city, war/violence. . .

This will have me thinking for a long time.

Walt Whitmans House

Whitman House in center

View of the Jail from the WW House