Adam L for 10/29

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.

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.

Works Cited

City Hall of Philadelphia. <>

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. <> Second Empire Architectural Style. Accessed 8-10-09. <Second Empire>

Adam L for October 15

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.