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Friday, July 17th, 2009 | Author:

This is the mansion in which the President of the University of Mary Washington resides today, which sits on the Sunken Road battlefield and was used by Confederates during the battle and later as a hospital.  Shown here with rifle pits in front.

http://departments.umw.edu/hipr/www/Fredericksburg/pics/04a39584.jpg

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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