Sometime around 1863, Walt Whitman met John Burroughs, became close friends with him, and accepted the gift of a walking stick from him.  This walking stick proves to be very important to Whitman, and its importance demonstrates values of the American culture.

Before Whitman received the walking stick from Burroughs, he was using a cane/walking stick of his own, probably as a fashion accessory.  This establishes the importance walking sticks have in Whitman’s life in general.  In 1841 Whitman used a cane.  The first picture shows him professionally dressed, and the description indicates the cane was part of that look.  The image of Whitman in the photo matches the description given in the PBS special American Experience:  Walt Whitman:

He dresses in a white collar with a vest, walking stick, a big floppy Fedora, and tries to pass for a professional man of letters. And he gets into doors on the basis of how he appears. It’s not his Harvard pedigree. He doesn’t have one. What he has is the force of his personality and how he appears (Allan Gurganus).

Comparing the description from this short film and the image in the photo, it seems Whitman continued to dress professionally as he needed to be taken seriously.  The cane/walking stick is part of this image.  This indicates that the poet showed an affinity for walking sticks and would appreciate one as a present.

Whitman as a youth

In 1863, Whitman met John Burroughs, who quickly became one of his closest friends and a major part of his support system.  Sometime after that, Burroughs gave Whitman a walking stick made out of calamus root and cleverly inscribed (Library of Congress).  This indicates the closeness between the poet and his friend—Burroughs purposely chose the calamus root as the basis for the walking stick to refer to his book of poetry Calamus, which was published for the first time in the 1860 edition of Leaves of Grass.

Whether Whitman used this particular walking stick to support him while walking or not is unclear.  During his years at Camden, Whitman’s health was failing, and there are many examples in his prose of “hobbling,” which would indicate the use of some aid.  If we trace the trajectory of walking sticks in Whitman’s life, (such an undertaking is speculation at best) we would probably come to the conclusion that Whitman went from carrying walking sticks/canes as fashion accessories (1840s in New York) to using them to remain ambulatory in his later years in Camden.  In “A Sun-Bath—Nakedness,” Whitman writes, “Another day quite free from mark’d prostration and pain.  It seems indeed as if peace and nutriment from heaven subtly filter into me as I slowly hobble down these country lanes and across fields” (830).  In this work of prose, Whitman indicates openly that he has been suffering from pain recently, but is enjoying a day without pain, but still has trouble walking, so he moves slowly, hobbling.  Between this passage and the fact that many pictures of Whitman’s final years, featured on Whitman’s Archives, display a cane prominently, it is probably safe to say the poet was using a walking stick—at least until paralysis forced him into a wheel-chair.  However, it is unclear whether he actually used Burroughs’s gift.

Whitman in old age

The typically intended use of this gift for support is symbolic of the relationship between Burroughs and Whitman.  Burroughs was always behind Whitman, as a friend, admirer, and disciple.  He—and Whitman’s other disciples—would rush to Whitman’s defense when critics attacked Whitman’s work.  He wrote the first biography of the poet; although, its accuracy is questionable.  Burroughs proves to be a loyal friend, showing Whitman in the best possible light—and conveniently neglecting certain aspects of the poet’s life and personality—which makes him a nonobjective biographer, but a very supportive friend.  In Walt Whitman’s America:  A Cultural Biography, David Reynolds writes, “Burroughs failed to mention Whitman’s churlish side—evidenced, for instance, by an incident on a Washington streetcar in which the poet reportedly got into an angry scuffle with a carpetbag senator” (Reynolds 460).  Burroughs also wrote reviews for Whitman’s work, often defending him from other critics.  In his review of Drum Taps, Burroughs wrote, “He has been sneered at an mocked and ridiculed; he has been cursed and caricatured and persecuted, and instead of retorting in a like strain, or growing embittered or misanthropic, he has preserved his serenity and good nature under all” (qtd. in Reynolds 459).   In other words, if Whitman needed some support from a friend, Burroughs was there—and so was the walking stick if he needed it.

This walking stick must have been very special to Whitman because it was very well preserved—and now is part of the Library of Congress’s collection.  At some point, Whitman must’ve decided to preserve the treasured gift and switch to a less precious cane:  In later years, Whitman is pictured often with a cane, but it isn’t the one Burroughs gave him.  As you can see in the pictures, the walking stick gift doesn’t have the cane shaped top, but the ones in the later photos do.  This fact—and the fact that the present is in fine condition and now a part of America’s history—indicates that Whitman valued his friend’s gift very highly, but stopped using it—if he ever used it.

Now, what does this say about America’s culture?  The gift itself is practical, thoughtful, and symbolic of the relationship between giver and receiver. Burroughs obviously put a lot of thought into the gift, by choosing something of practical use and referring to the poet’s work.  Such a practical, thoughtful, and symbolic gift indicates the importance of gift-giving in American culture.  Sometimes, we give or receive presents that demonstrate the amount of thought that went into choosing them; other times, presents illustrate little or no thought, but they are always appreciated.

The way the gift was preserved is also indicative of American culture.  Whitman chose to keep something—a material object—that he was no longer using because he considered it important to him, and his friend, that he keep it.  Americans tend to horde their belongings.  How many books and TV shows are out there about clutter, and how to organize our stuff?  Clearly, Americans like to have a lot of stuff, and keep it forever.  Whitman kept what was important to him, and I can understand this.  I still have the note from a friend that came with a vase of flowers, which have long since died.  Do I have any practical use for the note?  No, but it’s important to me because it came from a friend, and so I will probably keep it forever.  I’m sure you all have a story—and a present—similar to mine and Whitman’s.  As Americans, we place symbolic importance on material objects, and seek to preserve those objects.

The concept of a walking stick also indicates a culture that places great emphasis on mobility.  When age and/or disability keep individuals from being mobile, they rely on aids to improve their mobility.  Assuming Whitman used a walking stick during his days of hobbling, he needed that device to remain ambulatory so he could experience nature in its full glory and write poetry and prose.  The poet would have been unable to write as effectively, for as long as he did, if he couldn’t move—even if it was more of a hobble.  In our culture, our livelihoods typically rely on our being mobile—either by our own means or through the use of crutches, walking-sticks/canes, wheel-chairs, etc.

The walking stick is important in our study of Whitman, our understanding of his friendship with Burroughs, and our understanding of the importance of gift-giving, hoarding belongings, friendships, and mobility.

Works Cited

American Experience:  Walt Whitman. Dir. Mark Zwonitzer. Patrick Long Productions, 2008.PBS. Web. 22 Oct. 2009.

Morand, Augustus. Walt Whitman # 068. 1878.  The Walt Whitman Archive: Pictures and Sound. Web. 22 Oct. 2009.

Papers of Walt Whitman in the Charles E. Feinberg Collection. Manuscript Div., Lib. Of Cong.  Feinberg-Whitman Collection. Web. 20 Oct. 2009.

Reynolds, David S. Walt Whitman’s America:  A Cultural Biography. New York:  Vintage, 1995. Print.

Walking Stick. Library of Congress.  American Treasures:  Revising Himself: Walt Whitman and Leaves of Grass. Web. 19 Oct. 2009.

Walt Whitman # 002. 1848-1854. The Walt Whitman Archive:  Pictures and Sound. Web. 22 Oct. 2009.

Whitman, Walt. “A Sun Bath—Nakedness.” Whitman:  Poetry and Prose. New York:  Library of America College Editions, 1996. 830-832. Print.

One Response to “Walking-sticks, Gifts, Friends: Some Musings”

  1. s-words said:

    Our Mary Washington Whitmanians actually witnessed this little staff firsthand inside the Library of Congress on Saturday. I cannot tell you how strange it was to face the physical reality of this and other objects that float around the Whitman narrative, even though our “Material Culture Museum” purportedly concretizes what we otherwise just imagine. The intersection of Whitman, the bearded, cane-leaning corporeal fact, and his poetic persona(e) has never felt closer.

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