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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