Courtney for 9/1

September 1st, 2009



As Walt Whitman stares at me nonchalantly from the first page of “Leaves of Grass,” I feel that he is taking subtle revenge on every picture-taker that has forced a smile out of his subjects.  I am reminded of picture day at school and I think how much happier I would have been had I been allowed to present myself in a way that was representative of myself.  Instead, I like most kids was dressed up in frills and sent grinning in the cafeteria. 

With his picture, Whitman says a thousand words.  He presents himself immediately as an outdoorsmen, someone who has no use for fashion or pretense.  He clearly does not care about presenting himself in a manner that would make him look professional or more like the other authors in his day.  He seems to be saying that while he did indeed write this book, he in no way considers himself to be an author any more than he considers himself an adventurer.  The clothes that he chose were probably what he wore on any given day; in choosing them he made a conscience effort to identify himself with the working class.

His stance reveals a certain amount of disinterest.  With his hand in his pocket and his weight shifted on one hip, he seems almost like he is being bothered by this whole photographic endeavor.  However, regardless of any appearance of nonchalance, all of these elements were still carefully chosen by Whitman to make a statement.

Whitman was perfectly aware that his work shirt and crooked hat was not the usual wardrobe for someone hoping to be viewed as a serious author. But, the expression of cadence on his face reveals that this calculated effort to appear effortless was exactly the point. 

“Leaves of Grass” was unlike the other books being released in its time and likewise, Whitman had to appear to be a different kind of author.  Although he indeed was going against the mainstream with his choice of this particular portrait, I think that the effect was carefully thought out.  His appearance and ambiguity immediately distinguished him as different.  He immediately set his work apart, shifting the attention from him as an author an allowing the book to speak for itself.

Whitman found magnificence in the simple things around him, and through “Leaves of Grass,” he inspires the reader to simplify his or her viewpoints and quietly examine all the beauty in the world.  Likewise the image that Whitman chose to represent himself is a simplified version of himself.  He presents himself with no context, no flashy persona, and with no attempt to appear to be something that he is not.  The smirking face that greets the reader when he or she first opens “Leaves of Grass” provides a hint to what can be expected in the following pages, a close examination of the world as it is, not as some professional-looking author views it.

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