Lincoln follows me home for Thanksgiving…

November 24th, 2009

Hey Whitmaniacs, I seriously doubted that I would be back on the blog within 3 hours of leaving class. But I couldn’t resist-

So Im sitting in my living room with my mom and sister, watching the History Channel special on the history of Thanksgiving…and who signed the proclamation establishing Thanksgiving? Old Abe.

I feel ya, Walt. Who wouldn’t have a crush on this man?

Here’s a link to the History Channel page.

Courtney for 11/17

November 15th, 2009

It has been nearly impossible for me to categorize Whitman.  One week I read a poem and find myself completely overcome by inspiration; the next week I’m totally frustrated and just want to scream, “C’mon, Walt!  Get to the point already!”  I am beginning to see that it is the confliction that has made Walt so immensely popular over the years.  He has the ability to encompass everything, giving his readers endless chances to be inspired or enraged.  He is an American poet, a nature poet, a gay poet, a war poet, or a love poet (especially in the eyes of those that are particularly fond of Abe Lincoln).

This must be the appeal.  Ezra Pound perfectly describes the conflict of interpreting Whitman, saying that he “is an exceedingly nauseating pill, but he accomplishes his mission.”  Whitman’s endless effort to encompass everything and everyone makes him difficult to grasp sometimes, but it also allows nearly any reader to find something that seems to speak to him or her directly.  Old Walt was a smart guy, though.  He probably knew better than anyone his broad appeal, like in ‘Song of Myself,’ when he says, “I am the mate and companion of all people. Just as immortal and fathomless as myself, (They do not know how immortal, but I know.)”  Whitman is immortal, his legacy lives on the lives that he has touched and the works he has inspired.

The only selection that I was familiar with from this week’s readings was that of Allen Ginsberg.  The connection between these two men is pretty obvious: the beards, the prophetic self-images, and their “possibly-romantic-or-maybe-just-platonic” obsessions with their contemporaries.  However, my favorite poem from this week was “Ode to Walt Whitman” by Frederico Garcia Lorca.

I’ve been thinking about Whitman as an “American Poet” and I’ve decided that he does indeed fit the bill.  Here is this poet, Frederico.  He is a gay Latin-American poet living in America in the 1930s.  He picked up Leaves of Grass, and it spoke to him.  Whitman truly lived up to his promises of creating a comradeship of men from all different walks of life.  In his poem, Lorca evokes Whitman in both form and content.  I know I had a fellow Whitmaniac on my hands when I read,

“Not for a moment, Walt Whitman, lovely old man,

Have I failed to see your beard full of butterflies,

Nor your corduroy shoulders frayed by the moon,

Nor your thighs pure as Apollo’s,

Nor your voice like a column of ash,

Old man, beautiful as the mist…”

He calls Whitman “old man” twice in this short passage.  A term that I too have begun to use in reverence, picturing this old gray prophet dispensing wisdom down to his followers.  The repetition in the poem is something that I can easily recognize as taken from Whitman and the declarations and explanation points also hark back to our Whitman.

It’s pretty amazing to read the scope of works that have been inspired by our Walt.  Artists spanning several decades and walks of life create echoes of Whitman’s message.  Just as he predicted, he is indeed immortal and has become the voice of America.

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.

Courtney for 11/3

November 1st, 2009

This passage occurs in both versions of ‘Song of Myself’-

Have you reckon’d a thousand acres much?

Have you practis’d so long to learn to read?

Have you felt so proud to get at the meaning of poems?

Well, have we?  I do feel like I, or I guess I should say, we, have been on a journey with the great grey poet for the past few months.  We have had to re-teach ourselves how to read in Whitman’s language, how to understand his rhetoric and how to interpret changes in his usual tone or subjects.  When we first met Walt, he was a cocky character smirking inside the cover of Leaves of Grass.  Early on it seemed as if he was his biggest fan.  In the 1855 version of ‘Song of Myself’ he admits, “I know perfectly well my own egotism, / And know my omnivorous words, and cannot say any less, / And would fetch you whoever you are flush with myself.”  This is the early Whitman, who proclaimed that America needed a great poet and that he was just the man for the job (meanwhile quietly altering the crotch region of his frontispiece.)

I know that I had trouble trudging through the idealistic language and the sprawling lists.  I mean, who exactly did this guy think he was?  I was inspired by his great hope for America and the potential he saw in the lowliest of people, but I have to admit: I wasn’t sure that I bought it.  Then, when the nation verged on falling apart and Whitman himself was surrounded by chaos, Whitman earned himself some much-needed street cred.

Sure, his early poetry is filled with language that hints at war.  He seemed to want to motivate his “troops” to join the revolution to build a new nation.  However, he didn’t seem to realize the bloody implications of such a revolution until it arrived.  His later “Song of Myself” has a certain undertone of realism, since his battle cries are laced with the real-world experience of what comes along with war.

It can feel frustrating to read as Walt tries desperately to encompass every facet of everything and everyone.  However, reading through his personal reflections I realize not just the high standards that he had for his countrymen, but for himself.  Walt didn’t paint himself as the great poet of America because he thought that he was the most qualified for the job.  He simply saw something that needed to be done and took the initiative to do it.  He explains this in his interview when he says that, “our work at present, and for a long time to come, is to lay the materialistic foundations of a great nation.”  He (shockingly) continues with a sprawling last of all that must be covered and the great scope of this challenge.

As I reflect on Walt Whitman, reflecting on Walt Whitman I am attempting to see him as he saw himself.  Somehow, the cocky, preachy sort of jargon dims in my memory as I realize what Walt was trying to do from the very beginning.  He wanted to define what it meant to be an American.  Unexpectedly, he ended up in the trenches, experiencing the darkest side of revolution during the Civil War.  As a result, Whitman was given the chance to put his money where his mouth was a write a real description of what it really means to fight for the nation that you want to see.  I’m willing to say that he succeeded.

Courtney for 9/27

October 25th, 2009

Whitman and myself have been spending a lot of time together recently.  What with a 12+ hour excursion through his old stomping grounds accompanying the usual weekend hours dedicated to him.  Although my understanding of Whitman as a man has been illuminated, there’s still one thing that I can’t quite figure out: the Lincoln crush.  President Lincoln was, by all accounts a pretty impressive man.  I can see why Whitman specifically would be fond of him.  However, I just can’t sort out the personal way that he speaks of the fallen President.  When Whitman speaks of Lincoln, it’s not with the overtly sexual language of the Calamus poems; nor is it with the lusty descriptions of the young soldiers in Drum Taps.  Whitman’s love for Lincoln seems pure and deeply personal.  In fact, I had assumed initially that Whitman and Lincoln must have been good friends to inspire the poetry and prose about Lincoln.

It of course is not hard to figure out why Whitman would admire Lincoln.  The President embodied much of what Whitman called all Americans to be.  He noted Lincoln’s “perfect composure and coolness.”  Lincoln was also a outdoorsman, a man who was familiar with the common people, had experience in nature, and valued not just academic knowledge but more importantly common logic and reasoning.  His physical stature also caught Whitman’s attention.  A tall and burly man, he resembled the ideals of what Whitman thought a man should look like.  Lincoln was a new embodiment of the great poet who would come to save the nation.

As much as I hate to admit it, I can’t help but feel that Lincoln’s love for Whitman dims a bit in comparison to his other descriptions of love for different people.  Whitman really admired Lincoln as a man and as the President, and although he crafted some powerful prose in tribute to Lincoln, I have trouble equating it to some of his other descriptions of love and admiration.  In Calamus, Whitman spoke brazenly of sex and physical attraction.  Whitman spoke intimately of relations with both men and women in a way that he only could by drawing from personal experience.  In class we have explored whether or not Whitman’s relationships with the young soldiers was appropriate, but after seeing his journals yesterday, it is clear that his concern for the broken young boys was genuine.

When it comes to Lincoln, Whitman’s tone is so intimate.  It goes beyond admiration and in to this realm where is seems that Whitman is imagining that the two have a relationship that just did not exist.  I do not understand why Whitman could not express his feeling for the President without going stepping in to “creepster” territory.  I had hoped that through writing this blog I would answer some of my own questions.  Unfortunately, I am still stumped.

Material Culture Museum Entry- Stove Pipe Hat

October 20th, 2009

lincoln in hat Atop over six feet of President Lincoln’s thin body sat what is perhaps his most recognizable feature: a top hat.  Besides his other obvious contributions to America’s history, Lincoln also started a major fashion trend.  While most top hats of the time were about seven inches tall, Lincoln urged his higher and higher, sometimes wearing one that gave him an extra thirteen inches, giving his version of the original the name “stovepipe hat.” The extra space was not just fashionable, it was also practical; Lincoln kept important letters and documents tucked up between the crown and the headband (Zaslow, Jeffrey).  He was even wearing one at Ford’s Theater on the night of his assassination.  This infamous night may not have been the first attempt on Lincoln’s life while he donned his signature headgear.  It is reported that in August 1864 a sniper shot at Lincoln as he was riding up the drive at The Soldier’s Home.  He is said to have cavalierly reported the incident as a fluke and company men found his hat on the ground the next day, with a bullet hole through it (Norton, R.J.).

Although he may have popularized the style, he did not invent it.  That credit goes to John125116 Hetherington, a hat-maker from London who designed the style in 1797.  When Hetherington debuted his prototype by wearing it out on the streets it caused such a commotion that he was arrested and fined for causing a disturbance. A subsequent law was made in London banning them after the police chief reported, “people booed, several women fainted and a small boy got his arm broken” in the riot incited by Hetherington(Scrivens, Louise).  The law was eventually abandoned and the top hat enjoyed a surge of popularity.

Originally, these hats were covered with fur.  Beaver fur was more common among the higher social classes, while the middle-class version used rabbit fur.  Covering the fur with oilcloth created a smoother look and eventually hat-makers used silk to create the style that we recognize today.   This silky style developed by Hetherington was slow to catch on until Prince Albert adopted them, making them a fashion staple in Europe and The United States(Curiosities).  As an unexpected result of the trend, the beaver-trapping trade in America greatly declined(Feinstein, Kelly).

uncle-samIn the 19th century these hats reached the peak of their popularity.  Their endorsement from admired political figures made them a status symbol among the upper class and especially those involved in politics.  However, their popularity died out due to the high costs of making the specialized product.  Eventually they became a sort of caricature.  Uncle Sam wears one and it has been depicted satirically as a symbol for capitalism.  Throughout recent memory, the top hat has retained its historical ties to nobility and class.  It is still worn at some formal functions or as part of some official uniforms.  There was brief resurgence of popularity for the style when in the 1920’s and 30’s it was associated with the pop culture of the time, prompting Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers to title one of their most popular productions, “Top Hat.”

Despite the changing attitudes of what the hat represents, Lincoln’s stovepipe will always serve2003751951 as an iconic image and the hat he was wearing on the night of his death can be viewed today at the Smithsonian. The tattered and worn relic is still encircled with the black band that Lincoln used to tribute his dead son(Harding, Allison).  There are also two finger-sized holes in the brim, where Lincoln always touched when taking his hat on or off (BBC).

The style could even be experiencing a revival in the wake of the 200th anniversary of President Lincoln’s birth.  The stovepipe hat is a vastly recognizable symbol for the president, and many quintin-abe-stove-pipe-hat-01are using it in different forms of tribute.  As part of the 21st Century Abe Project, hat distributor; Quintin produced a modern-day spin on the original.  The reproduction is modeled after today’s baseball hat but “includes a wool outer, and satin lining with a letter written to Gideon Welles by Lincoln”(Quintin,com).  In Illinois, the town of Springfield honored Lincoln with a community-wide art project featuring fiberglass recreations of Lincoln’s hat, all several feet tall and painted with historic images(Reynolds, John).

For Whitman, a man in a top hat would have been a fairly common experience, but he identifies it with President Lincoln as in Specimen Days when he recalls, “Mr. Lincoln in the saddle…wears a black stiff hat and looks about as ordinary in attire at the commonest man”(p.733).  The stoic effect of the hat has served as a symbol for success and power since its arrival on the market.  No doubt it only amplified President Lincoln’s dignified grace, making him an even more interesting character in Whitman’s eyes.  The stove pipe hat has endured a very colorful and prominent history, from inciting riots to witnessing a presidential assissination.

Works Cited

“Abe Stove Pipe Hat by Quintin.” Quintin. 4 May 2009. Web.

“Curiosties.” Civil War Times 43.3 (2004): 67-68. Print.

Feinstein, Kelly. “Fashionable Felted Fur: The Beaver Hat.” Thesis. History Department, UC Santa Cruz, 2006. Print.

Harding, Alison. “Smithsonian exhibit pays homage to Lincoln.” Web.

Norton, R.J. “A Shot Through Abraham Lincoln’s Hat.” Abraham Lincoln Research Site. Web.

Reynolds, John. “Stovepipe hats to go on display starting today.” The Stat Journal-Register. 28 May 2009. Web. <>.

Scrivens, Louise. “Changing the flaws in London’s Laws.” BBC News. Web.

Zaslow, Jeffrey. “A Hatless JFK: Inaugural Moments That Became Cultural Turning Points.” Wall Street Journal- Eastern Edition. 20 Jan. 2005. Web.

Image Citations

Allan Pinkerton, President Abraham Lincoln and General John A. McClernand, October 3, 1862. Photograph. National Archives. Web.

Men’s Fashion. Advertisement. La Mode 19 Mar. 1852. Print.

Perlman, Seth. Abraham Lincoln’s Hat. Photograph. AP, Seattle. The Seattle Times. 18 June 2007. Web.

Abe Stovepipe Hate. Photograph. Quintin Hats. Quintin. 4 May 2009. Web. <>.

Courtney for 10/20

October 18th, 2009

Whitman himself warned an admirer, “You must not construct such an unauthorized and imaginary ideal Figure, and call it W.W. and so devotedly invest your loving nature in it.  The actual W.W. is a very plain personage, and entirely unworthy such devotion.”  I think that this quote reveals a lot about Whitman and his attitudes about himself as a person and as a public figure.  Clearly not comfortable in the spotlight, Whitman struggled with his persona.  He seems like the type to shy away from the limelight.  I shutter to think how Walt would deal with today’s constant media attention.  For him though, his work was deeply personal and had such an emotional effect on his readers.   In his work he revealed a quite private part of himself, creating an intimate relationship with his readers.  He gave readers what they needed most, an honest portrayal of America’s history that they could connect with.

It seems odd to me, however, that Whitman was so fast to give out love and affection but so reluctant to accept it.  At the army hospital, Whitman gave out his affections freely.  He wrote brazenly about kissing the soldiers and touching them but also about really caring for them in a very innocent and loving way.  He calls everyone to connect with each other as comrades and lovers, yet he seems uncomfortable with the idea of people reaching out to him.  I wonder how Whitman would have felt if he had been a wounded soldier.  Some accounts of his relationship with the soldiers indicate that the feelings were not mutual.  Is it possible that Walt could dish it out but not take it?

Much like the wounded soldiers in the hospitals, the reader too does not have a choice but to accept Whitman’s ideas.  Sometimes when I’m reading a rambling list or diluted resolution I feel like I’m just laying there having it thrown at me.  There’s nowhere to go and nothing to do but listen.  Whitman, it seems, is more comfortable in the more powerful position in a relationship.  He thrives when he is a caregiver and can control his audience.  However he seems shy with anyone who can challenge him or mirror his madness.  Even with his brother George, he was far more affectionate and open about his concerns for his brother.

Whitman has the ability to capture his audience regardless of who they are.  He was magnetic in person, an excellent listener and a careful observer.  He was a classic introvert who craved relationships and interaction but needed time alone to reflect.

Courtney for 9/28

September 27th, 2009

I spent most of this weekend doing research for my oral report, which is on Civil War medicine and hospitals.  I browsed through hundreds of images:  Creepy ten-types of soldiers with vague expressions and stumps for legs.  Dozens of wounded soldiers lying under trees waiting for medical attention, their arms and legs contorted like broken twigs.  Saws and scalpels that looked more like something from a horror movie than something that should be in a hospital.  Throughout all of this I felt that I got a sense of the “real war” that Whitman spoke of.

Today, the exposure that civilians get of war is so diluted and contrived.  The bloody sheets and dead bodies are kept far from view of the public; out of sight and out of mind.  Even coffins respectfully draped with an American flag are considered too controversial for public consumption.

It is especially interesting to me that Whitman saw the importance of an honest portrayal of the war, even in a time when most people were exposed to it in a much more realistic way.  I’ve been thinking about the psychological effects of a war that takes place, not on the other side of the world, but in your back yard.  And of an enemy that is not foreign and unfamiliar but your brother or neighbor.  It’s easy to throw a blanket over thousands of fallen patriots, either “North” or “South,” “Confederate” or “Yankee.”  However, Whitman seems to see the importance in looking closely at the faces of these soldiers and contemplating their experiences and motivations.

In Memoranda During the War, when he says, “The actual Soldier of 1862-’65, North and South, with all his ways, his incredible dauntlessness, habits, practices, tastes, language, his appetite, rankness, his superb strength and animality, lawless gait, and a hundred unnamed lights and shades of camp — I say, will never be written — perhaps must not and should not be,” perhaps he’s talking about the other side of the coin.  As tragic as it may be, there is a certain amount of heroism and glory in dying on the battlefield.  I think there is validity in trying to preserve this image.

To switch gears a little, I also found out this weekend that no account of Civil War Medicine is without mention of Clara Barton.  She seems a bit like a female version of Whitman himself.  She joined the throws of women, with little to no medical training, to help assist their country in the bloodiest of ways: as nurses.  These women dropped everything to support a nation that had not even granted them the right to vote.  In Barton’s poem she says calls these women, “nurses, consolers, and saviors of men.  These women truly were angels, and our history as a nation is much more complete with their stories told honestly.

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.

Are you afraid of the dark?

September 15th, 2009

What was Walt Whitman afraid of? WW brazenly tells his readers to hit the road, love freely and explore everything openly. But what road would he have been afraid to take?