Exploring Whitman

Just another Looking for Whitman weblog

Jess for November 10th

Filed under: Uncategorized — November 8, 2009 @ 11:46 pm

As I have argued in previous posts, I classify Walt Whitman as a perfectionist. Viewing Whitman’s journals and notebooks up close at the Library of Congress, we saw the blotches of ink that had crossed out words and phrases and places where Whitman scribbled new ideas over the paper. Even in his letters to his friends and family, Whitman wrote multiple versions. Now that we have examined the different editions of Leaves of Grass and compared the alterations that were made to each edition, these changes support my conclusion that Whitman wanted to produce the best possible version of his work. Whitman upheld the value of the 1891-92 edition and said, “I wish to say that I prefer and recommend this present one, complete, for future printing, if there should be any” (148). But, does this statement mean that readers of Whitman today should view this edition as the definitive edition?

In all three editions of Song of Myself Whitman calls himself the “poet of the soul”. But each edition is written at a different stage of Whitman’s life. So, Whitman’s own soul and ways of thinking about the world around him was changed during each stage. In the 1855 edition Whitman was a confident 36 years old full of adventure and ready to embrace the world and spread his message. But in 1867 Whitman was in his late forties and had experienced the horrors of the Civil War. This soul of Whitman was battered, bruised, and uncertain about the future of America. And finally when it came to the 1891-92 edition Whitman was nearing his death and was coming to a realization that his writings would be the only thing to outlive him. So, this Whitman was more like a reflective old man teaching the younger generations. But, throughout each edition Whitman did not lose his hope for the American people to embrace his message. And most importantly, in each edition Whitman created an intimate atmosphere for readers to connect with him.

The reading that I focused on this week was “Good-Bye My Fancy.” .In the introduction to the Second Annex; Whitman personally addresses the reader and describes his state of both his mind and body during the time he wrote this “deathbed” edition. Whitman acknowledges his failing health but also notes the “sunny –fine” days where he feels “like a kid or kitten”. In Good-Bye My Fancy on page 639, Whitman makes a note that “Good-Bye” also marks the start of a new beginning. So although Whitman is approaching his death he realizes he is not ready to die just yet, and tells readers that this poem will not be written yet. The second part to this poem is found on page 654 and is at the end of the Second Annex. Although this poem is one of his final messages to his readers, Whitman does not end in a somber tone; rather, it is filled with exclamation marks. The word Fancy in this poem can represent a love for someone or something. I would like to think that Whitman is personally addressing the readers that have been his audience for over thirty years.

Whitman never edits out his secrets of life and meaning in the different editions. Although words, phrases, punctuation, and format might be different, the overall message does not change. Whitman sees a hopeful future for his readers and wants them to continue to discover new horizons. But the perfectionist Whitman wanted his readers to be provided with the best handbook, and thus choose his last book full of old age wisdom. Whitman never forgot he was the poet of the soul. So now the question that you have to ask yourself is, what soul of Whitman do you want to read?


  1. bcbottle:

    I feel the same way about the ’92 version. Whitman spent his entire life building up his collection of poems, revising them, rewriting them, moving them around, etc. I think that this goes back to the question of why Whitman claimed that Leaves would have been impossible without the Civil War. Up until the ’92 I think that Leaves was an experiment, Whitman was trying to find the perfect combination to express his feelings about the world. I don’t believe the ’92 is truly the end of Whitman’s work, I imagine he would have revised it several times more, but it is the closest we have to an accurate representation of how he felt.

  2. abcwhitman:

    This particular sentiment in your post– “Whitman makes a note that “Good-Bye” also marks the start of a new beginning”– runs as a motif throughout all of Whitman’s poetry and, most prevalently and most surprisingly, throughout the ’91 and ’92 edition of LOG.

    Even as he nears death, Whitman proves himself an incurable optimist. Though we know via Longaker the extent of Whitman’s physical deterioration, we still find moments of life: “‘sunny –fine’ days where he feels ‘like a kid or kitten’.”

    Whitman may have edited his work many times, creating multiple editions of one book, but there’s still much consistency in his work. Whitman’s sense of life and optimism is never edited out.

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