Sam Krieg for November 3

Since we’re comparing 1892 Whitman to 1855 Whitman, I thought I would re-visit the subject of an earlier blog post of mine: “the tale of a jetblack sunrise” (66). Earlier in the semester, I noted Whitman’s idealization of the frontiersman, as well as the anonymous nature of that very man: Whitman’s ideal did not have a face. Now, in the 1892 version, the “face” of the entire story is removed in an important way. The later Whitman seems to be more eager for readers to think about the poem’s speaker, rather than the subjects of the poem’s story.

     In the 1855 Leaves of Grass, there are no distinct section breaks in the first, poem. Instead, there are different sections that have, throughout the years, been given unofficial names (such as the famous “twenty-ninth bather” vignette). In the first edition of Leaves, “the murder in cold blood of four hundred and twelve young men” is given the unofficial title of “the tale of a jetblack sunrise” (66). The name is repeated at the end of the vignette as well, giving it a very “folk-tale” feel.

     The 1982 version of the vignette deals with titles differently. By the last edition of Leaves, the now-named Song of Myself has been divided up in fifty-two different sections. The sections, none of which have names, give the poem more of a King James Bible feeling. Of course, this fits with Whitman’s desire to write a new sort of scripture for America to model itself after. However, the unofficial, but more distinctive, name of the vignette is lost. The events lose their connection with the weather in the new version; however, this reduction to the name of “section 34” puts more focus on the speaker of the poem.

     The only part of the 1892 version of the vignette that really differs from its earlier incarnation is the opening section. Originally, the speaker is skipped over as the subject shifts from the Alamo to our vignette: “I tell not the fall of Alamo…. Not one escaped to tell the fall of Alamo, / The hundred and fifty are dumb yet at Alamo. / Hear now the tale of a jetblack sunrise” (66). The only thing overtly emphasized about the speaker is what he does not know. The source of the story remains a mystery, and its credibility is questionable: if the speaker does not know about something as famous as the Alamo, why should the reader trust what he has to say about something far less well-known, whose location and date is not even given? In the story’s 1892 version, the speaker comes across as far more authoritative.

     In its “Deathbed” incarnation, our story begins like this:

Now I tell what I knew in Texas in my early youth,

(I tell not the fall of Alamo,

Not one escaped to tell the fall of Alamo,

The hundred and fifty are dumb yet at Alamo,)

’Tis the tale of the murder in cold blood of four hundred and twelve young men. (226).

Here, the speaker is coming from a much more authoritative place. The author knows the vignette himself, rather than having simply heard it from someone else. In fact, the word “know” is ambiguous enough that it could be taken to mean that the speaker witnessed these events himself. Now, with the unofficial title removed, the story has significance because the speaker has given it significance. The significance is shifted from the story’s connection to the weather (“a jetblack sunrise”) to its connection to the author (“What I knew in Texas”) (66, 226). By 1892, the poem’s speaker has become specifically revealed as the source of knowledge, and the tale has become less nebulous. The earlier folk-tale has been replaced with a New Testament-style speaker that recounts events from earlier in his life.

November 01 2009 07:43 pm | Uncategorized

3 Responses to “Sam Krieg for November 3”

  1. abcwhitman Says:

    I also noticed this difference of the Alamo section but I didn’t quite know what to make of it. I agree that the speaker of the 1891 version comes from a place of greater authority, it’s a sense that derives from the details. In my post, I talked about his change of capitalization– from “en-masse” to “En-Masse,” from “reality,” to “Reality”– creating a sense of personal knowledge and experience. What was previously not-so-important is now Capitalized. It’s hard to read the 1891 version any way but retrospectively and, similarly, I think Walt Whitman could not re-write Song of Myself any other way but retrospectively.

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