Virginia for November 10th

missvirginia on Nov 9th 2009

Longaker’s biography of Whitman’s last months and days brought tears to my eyes. Since reading up on Whitman in the summer to prepare for this seminar, he and my step-father were always paralleling each other. They both were born in to poor, somewhat ignorant families, they each are/were selfless and generous, and they each were large, impressive-looking men in the height of their days. Not only that, he narrowly survived a severe staph infection in his back. While reading Whitaker, it took me back to the hospital rooms at UVA, hearing my dad’s rattled breathing as I would hug him goodbye. Thus, when reading for the entire semester I almost envisioned Whitman and my dad as friends, or parallels; I could see them doing what the other has done, whether it’s that which I’ve read about (Whitman) or which I’ve seen and lived with (my dad).

I started to get a catch in my throat while reading “On the Beach at Night”. If you couldn’t tell through my sentiments earlier (in posts, class, etc), I’m very close to my stepfather. In fact, I call him daddy and I truly feel like he was the best father anyone could have been to me. After reading Whitaker, I marked all the poems written after 1867 to read first since they were new to the 1891-92 edition. The title “On the Beach at Night” instantly intrigued me because I love the beach, my dad loves our time share and misses the beach house he used to have. Whitman’s imagery of the poem of the little girl holding onto her fathers hand sends my heart reeling.

On a more substantial note, I think Leaves of Grass was much like Whitman. Ever evolving, he did not stay the same for very long. He was more stable and consistent than say, Madonna, but I almost feel like when I am reading the different editions, he changed his persona just slightly. The reader can tell by the slight shift in style, punctuation, addition and subtraction of lines, and the tone of his later poems that he seems to have created a more appreciative persona. In the 1855 edition he is celebrating life, his words create a vigor leaping off the page to the reader. In the 1867 edition, it become slightly slower, his wording becomes more “correct” for the beat and tone of the poems. Finally, this 1891-92 version becomes a reminder to BE, to embody the vigor his 1855 edition evoked. In essence, these editions are a a sort of progression of his life. With the first, he is like an excited college roommate who can’t contain himself with his enthusiasm. You go along with their plans, no matter how hairbrained because they sweep you up into the ideas of it. The middle, 1867 edition is similar to someone realizing they can’t float along forever; at some point you must join the masses in attempts to be politically correct/accepted/maybe even sell out. The last, “death-bed” Leaves of Grass is like watching a grandparent encourage a grandchild to go out there and be crazy, but to appreciate it. To remind them that life IS precious and despite the excitement, there should always be an appreciation and acknowledgement that it is amazing. That we are amazing creatures.

I believe it would be unfair to Whitman to call one of the editions “definitive” and the others not. Despite Whitman’s advocacy for the deathbed edition, it seems impossible to me that a reader could realize all that Leaves of Grass has to offer if only reading one edition. Each edition brings a new era of Whitman and each invites a new, different vision to the reader, depending on edition read.

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6 Responses to “Virginia for November 10th”

  1. Virginia, I very much appreciate your personal anecdotes and relation to Whitman through memories of your stepfather. I, too, was getting a bit emotional while reading Longaker as over the past few years I have watched the deterioration of my grandparents, with whom I am very close. Reading Whitman’s careful notes about his ailments and fatigue hit home in an almost uncomfortable way as it brought to mind memories of my grandparents when they were in their prime. It is difficult to watch someone deteriorate before your eyes and I feel that this is what we have done with Whitman. Throughout the semester we have journeyed with him through his life and have experienced a bit of the world through his eyes and he will not let us go without having us alongside him in the grit of his disease and death. Though these emotions pang a bit, it makes Whitman and his message even more real to me. He lived his entire life for something; every day was an attempt at achieving a goal he felt was important to the success of the country or even the world. Even in his illness he wanted to ensure that we were given a proper picture of life as it is and as it ends in order to stir us and make us go after some, any goal.

  2. Virginia,

    I love the analogies you used to describe the editions; the idea of 1855 Whitman as “an excited college roommate” is so very well embodied in his sweeping ellipses and abundance of exclamation marks. I also agree with you; there can not be a definitive edition of LoG because each one speaks so much to the times and the state of the man himself. Furthermore, when we can study each one of the works, we can watch the progression of Whitman’s outlook and the outside sources that affected it. I find it fascinating though, that although Whitman changed so much and matured, at the heart of each edition is the same message, appreciating and connecting with the rest of the country.

  3. Avatar of Mara Scanlon Mara Scanlon says:

    “He was more stable and consistent than say, Madonna…” = one of the funniest things you’ve ever written.

    Thanks for being willing to write this moving, personal post, Virginia.

    When I read your and other students’ assessment of these versions of LoG, I keep wishing I could try an experiment in which I taught the Deathbed first and then went backwards, or in some disrupted order, through editions. We have all grown so attached to W personally that it’s impossible for me to see whether what we experience is the text itself or our own frameworks for the text. Maybe the cool thing for the purposes of our class is that they are inseparable.

  4. I definitely agree with your statements about finding the “definitive” edition. It just seems crazy that we could ever really regard one publishing of LoG as the one edition we hold above the rest. Maybe Whitman only advocated for the deathbed edition because he knew that people would eventually be arguing over which edition is the “right” one, so he decided to help us all out by putting out the “finalized” version.

  5. Avatar of cirvine1965 cirvine1965 says:

    Virginia, I was really touched by your personal reflections on your father and how they related to our “Whitman Experience” (as I am affectionately calling it.) I felt the same jabs of sadness when I read about Whitman’s deteriorating health and reflected back on people that I have lost. Thank you for being so candid in this post, it was really moving. I think that you really hit the nail on the head comparing the three editions of LoG to different stages in Whitman’s life and I think that you’re right to say that one cannot be thought of as being the best above all the others. I can’t help but wonder why Whitman was such an advocate for the later deathbed edition. You’d think that he could recognize the legitimacy of his youthful excitement in the earlier editions. I guess I still relate to the college roommate and prefer the 1851 above all the others.

  6. Avatar of tallersam tallersam says:

    “The middle, 1867 edition is similar to someone realizing they can’t float along forever; at some point you must join the masses in attempts to be politically correct/accepted/maybe even sell out.”

    I think that this is a very necessary statement, as well as one of the most uncomfortable statements that most people have to make at some point in their life. I think what is a great test of true skill/ability is if a writer/artist/musician can become well-known and still put out quality work. As a heavy metal fan, I hate, hate, HATE it when people get down on a band for gaining some sort of recognition/financial stability. It’s better to wait and see how that fame/new circumstance is dealt with, with regards to the music, and then make a judgement. Despite all our picked-out details about diffferences in punctuation and omitted clauses, Whitman did not change his core message and the quality of his poetry did not suffer. Sure, his vision changed and expanded, but who REALLY wishes that Metallica had simply re-made “Master of Puppets” for the past 20 years? (Fairly but not really) obscure metal analogies aside, Whitman continued to amaze throughout all the editions of LoG.

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