Courtney for 11/10

November 8th, 2009

Before I get in to my official post, I’d like to make a quick comment about Longaker’s “The Last Sickness and the Death of Walt Whitman.”  First of all, definitely one of the creepiest things I’ve read in awhile.  It was so eerie following the process of Whitman’s slow decline.  In one passage, it would seem as though Whitman’s demise was waiting just around the corner, then there’d be a miraculous recover and he would hold on a for a few more weeks.  Longaker’s medical jargon contrasts strikingly with Whitman’s typical descriptions.  What Longaker describes as, “little or no athermanous degeneration ascertainable in the temporals or radials,” was in Whitman’s words, “a great wet, soggy net were spread out over me and holding me down.”  Anyone who has ever spent any sort of time in the care of medical professionals has probably experienced the confusion of feeling as though the doctors are speaking an entirely different language.  It is no surprise to me that Whitman did not allow himself to get lost in translation and instead found a way to express himself to his doctors in a way that they could both understand.

OK, now on to Leaves of Grass.  The Whitman that I see this week is an old, gray man.  He is losing his health and his cognitive abilities but clearly has no intention of throwing in the towel no matter how badly his health fails him.  I see his determination and possibly a hint of stubbornness in his refusal to give up and go quietly, although he has clearly accepted his mortality by the end of his life.  Whitman clearly began to see himself as a patient, recording his ailments with exactly the same poetic descriptiveness with which he had used to describe the ailments of his beloved wounded soldiers.

I was saddened to read that he could no longer handle going outside, and instead spent his hours in his bedroom, or as he referred to it, his “den,” surrounded by papers and notebooks.  I see this picture of Whitman, shuffling around his dark bedroom, sorting through papers and talking about his work with his aides and friends with steadily declining mental awareness.  I think that Whitman was at this time basically the same as he had always been in at least one major way: he was obsessed with his work and making something as perfect as it could possibly be.

I see the deathbed edition of Leaves of Grass as Walt’s final masterpiece.  I think that even at the end of his life, as loopy as he may have been, he was still thinking of Leaves as a work in progress.  I think that we can assume that the finished product was the result of a lifetime of careful tinkering and reworking.  Although Walt grew old and faded away, his work has lasted because of his obsessive attention to detail and his unwavering commitment to perfecting it throughout the entire course of his life.

3 Responses to “Courtney for 11/10”

  1. Avatar of Mara Scanlon Mara Scanlon on November 10, 2009 11:19 am

    Courtney, I was also very shaken by the fact that Whitman could no longer handle the outdoors– the urban environment, the sun– things that so completely shape his world in the early years.

    What fascinates me in that Longaker piece is the detail that Whitman would seem to be sleeping (his “somnolency”)or even semi-conscious but would hear everything, would actually be awake. Wouldn’t we give anything to know what he was thinking?

  2. Avatar of jpike1 jpike1 on November 10, 2009 12:03 pm


    I know what a disturbing article Longaker wrote. I felt as though I was watching a CSI episode when it began to discuss the actual autopsy report. I was also troubled over how Whitman did not want any visitors at all during his last few months. Although I know this is common for someone that is very sick, it was hard to picture Whitman wanting to be so secluded from his close personal friends.

  3. Avatar of lisar lisar on November 12, 2009 11:34 am

    The Whitman House in Camden has done a nice job of recreating that image of the dark bedroom and its many papers scattered around the floor. According the biography our class read by David S. Reynolds, the famous Emerson letter was among those papers. Mary Davis would often try to clean up the piles or organize them in some way, but Whitman didn’t like that. The curators at the Walt Whitman House certainly do a good job of representing this somewhat charmingly “messy” and unorganized Whitman at the end of his life.

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