Courtney for 9/22

September 20th, 2009

The first thing I notice that’s different about the 1867 version of Leaves of Grass (for pretty obvious reasons) is the first poem that Whitman chooses to introduce.  The deathbed edition features “One’s-Self I Sing” about halfway through the book, under the broader section, “Inscriptions.”  In the 1867 version this poem is featured at the very beginning.  Whitman drops the title and places it under the heading, “Inscription.”  When I looked at the original pages, I noticed immediately how the inscription had become singular and was followed by an authoritative period.  It gave me the sense that Whitman’s message was going to be more urgent this time, less idealistic and more somber in the aftermath of the war.

Both versions of the poem echo themes of solidarity and the endless possibilities set out before “a simple, separate person.”  In the first version, Whitman hints that it may be necessary for people to come together.  However, in the later version he proposes that the “modern” man must learn to come together “EN MASSE.”  Times had changed, and Whitman advises his readers to change with them.  He directly addresses the “hapless war” that had been tearing the country apart.  Stylistically, this marked another change in Whitman’s work.  Instead of masking everything in ambiguity and mentions the war directly, right in the first poem of the book.

As interesting, perhaps, as the things that Whitman changed in the revised version, are the things that he left the same.  Although the American landscape had changed drastically, Whitman’s message of camaraderie and relationships (whether you believe Reynolds that they are all quite fraternal or have more raunchy ideas) still remains the same.  As the nation crumbled around its citizens, Whitman insisted that they continue to come together in intimate ways for the good of everyone.

It also seems that, in the wake of the Civil War, Whitman’s priorities have changed.  We all know now that, if Whitman believes something then we will be asked to believe it as well.  In “Leaves of Grass, part 4,” which originally appeared as “To You,” Whitman’s scope has changed ever so slightly.  In the original version he said, “They stand forth out of affairs, out of commerce, shops, work, farms, clothes, the house, buying, selling, eating, drinking, suffering, dying.”  However, in the later version he adds to the list, “law, science, medicine, and print.”  In the changing American landscape, Whitman felt the need to broaden his audience.  His message had to be heard by everyone now, not just the outdoorsy hermits looking for a prophet.

Whitman had always shown a strong sense of nationalistic pride, and throughout the early editions of Leaves of Grass he inspired his readers to improve upon the face of America through personal growth.  However, after the devastation of the Civil War, Whitman realized that maybe that was not enough to keep the country standing.

4 Responses to “Courtney for 9/22”

  1. Avatar of abcwhitman abcwhitman on September 21, 2009 6:13 pm

    I agree with a lot of your points here, Courtney. Especially this one:

    “Instead of masking everything in ambiguity and mentions the war directly, right in the first poem of the book.”

    I felt the same way when reading “Inscription.”Not that we know Walt personally (though it’s beginning to seem that way…)but it’s just out of character for him to express something so plainly.

    I must have missed the part where he adds “law, science, medicine, and print,” and what an interesting (and by “interesting” I mean boring) set of nouns to add. As for your assertion that this was to broaden his audience/ his appeal, I don’t know if I quite agree. Although that could very well be the case, it seems more to me that those four things were weighing heavily on his mind during and following the war. The insertion of these extra nouns are pieces of Whitman’s conscience post-war, and how very telling that they are four fairly colorless, restricted mediums.

  2. Avatar of tallersam tallersam on September 21, 2009 6:57 pm

    Courtney, I like what you have to say about the imperative nature of Whitman’s comments on things in these poems. I think that, in the immediate wake of the Civil War, Whitman was desperate to convey the necessity of brotherhood (hence the greater length of the poem), but that that urgency might have faded as things settled down and the country began to prosper again. In the later version of the poem, Whitman has removed the lines emphasizing friends “at last arriving,” and instead emphasizes freedom of personal action.
    However, I’m a bit confused by your references to the different versions of the poem. “One’s Self I Sing” appears in the beginning of the deathbed edition of “Leaves,” as well as in the 1867 and ’71 (the first edition containing the amended version of the poem) versions. It’s in the original, 1867, version of the poem that he addresses directly the “hapless war,” a line which is later removed from the poem. So yeah, please set me straight!

  3. Avatar of Brady Earnhart Brady Earnhart on September 22, 2009 7:32 am

    Your point about Whitman’s urgency in 1867 is well taken. Remember, though, that the 1867 came 25 years *before* the deathbed edition. (You probably get this, but in your post it seems the other way around.)

    “One’s Self I Sing” does come well into our LOA Whitman, but I think it’s the very first poem in the deathbed edition, as it is in the 1867.

  4. Avatar of Mara Scanlon Mara Scanlon on September 22, 2009 9:28 am

    Great close study, Courtney. Your comment on that list reminds me that in addition to the war, America was being changed by rapid urbanization, including in the years to come through the northern migration of thousands of former slaves into city centers in DC, Philly, NYC, Chicago, Detroit, Baltimore. The idealized vision of the American farmer, close to nature, that informs earlier visions of the country is no longer adequate, even though a poem like “Pioneers!” still invokes it.

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