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.

Emily for Oct. 6

October 6th, 2009

Whitman’s “Drum-Taps” is a complete portrayal of war—the triumphant and the non-triumphant, the lovely and the ugly.  Every aspect of war is represented—and with equal energy and zeal.  While I say Whitman wrote with equal energy, I do not mean that he celebrated every moment:  He wrote “triumphant songs” and “cold dirges of the baffled/ And sullen hymns of defeat” (“Year that Trembled” 4-6).  By this I mean that he gave everything equal attention and drove his images home, making his audience feel the full range of emotions that come in a war.

One effect of covering one topic so completely is the blending of loveliness and ugliness—sometimes within the same line.  For example, in “As Toilsome I Wander’d Virginia’s Woods,” Whitman repeats the line “Bold, cautious, true, and my loving comrade” (7).  This line is italicized, and it is the makeshift tombstone for a dead soldier:  a “tablet scrawl’d and nail’d on the tree by the grave” (6).  This image is both lovely and ugly.  The words used to describe the fallen soldier are indicative of a comradery between the men of the unit, but the fact that those words were written quickly on a piece of paper and nailed to a tree illustrate how quickly events transpire in a war—and how even the mourning process must be sped up.

Whitman addresses the constant motion of the world in these poems.  These reminders of the on-going motion of life serve to link those fighting in the war with those waiting at home.  Life goes on for the wound-dresser nursing the dying, the mother back on the farm who just lost her only son, and the men on the frontlines.  Whitman illustrates this in “The Wound-Dresser:” “While the world of gain and appearance and mirth goes on,/So soon what is over forgotten, and waves wash the imprints off the sand” (21-22).  In other words, life will go on for those alive, seeking to move forward and triumph, but the dead will be forgotten, their mark on the world washed away and replaced by the marks of the living.  This isn’t necessarily a bad thing, just a fact of life.  The ones who live have a responsibility to go on, as the nurse in “The Wound Dresser” does:  “On, on I go” (39).  There are many wounded and dying men who need attention from the nurse, so he must keep going on.

Because the world keeps moving forward, those lucky enough to survive a battle or war are able to experience a moment of triumph.  Whitman describes these triumphant moments in celebratory images.  In “Cavalry Crossing a Ford,” Whitman creates the image of a flag waving triumphantly through the air:  “Scarlet and blue and snowy white,/The guidon flags flutter gayly in the wind” (6-7).  This is a moment of celebration and a lovely image.

Sometimes Whitman provides lines that explain his intentions as poet.  Some lines apply to more than just the poems in which they are featured, but in the entire section of poems.  In “City of Ships,” he provides a few such lines:  “I chant and celebrate all that is yours—yet peace no more,/In peace I chanted peace, but now the drum of war is mine,/War, red war is my song through your streets, O city!” (15-17).  These lines indicate that Whitman will write of the entire human experience—including war and death—with equal energy.  He might not find every detail pretty, or worthy of celebration, but he will sing the songs of existence.