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Searching for Whitman in DC

Walking back to my apartment on October 24th, 2009 after twelve hours of “Whitman Searching” in the DC rain, my body was tired and aching but my mind was racing because I had discovered a new dimension to Whitman that I had never experienced before. Walt Whitman was once a name that I would glance over in a book, the name “Whitman” would blend into Henry David Thoreau, Ralph Waldo Emerson, and the millions of other American canonical authors. But after trudging through the streets of DC the name Walt Whitman would was no longer a historical author who wrote American poetry, but, finally for me, he was an actual human being just like you or I.

Sometimes when we talk in class about Whitman, I feel as though we are honoring this perfect nonhuman being. Prior to the field trip, it was hard for me to fathom the fact that Whitman was someone who had human faults and weaknesses. Rather, I always believed Whitman was this ideal prophet-like individual with awe inspiring ideas and who could foresee the future of America.

The picture of the Bust of Whitman created by S.H. Morse and the street sign depicted my view of Whitman prior to the field trip.


I thought of Whitman as this statue like person who was greater both physically and mentally than any other human. I associated Whitman as a Moses like figure leading his people. At the same time however, Whitman’s names was still associated as a “historical figure” who happened to be recognized for his talents and who like many other famous individuals had streets and buildings named after him.

But, this misconstrued idea of Whitman was slowly broken down throughout the day. Walking down Constitution Ave, standing at Freedom Plaza, and entering into the grand Willard Hotel I began to see how Whitman too had to walk these same streets. Although DC in 2009 is much different than the DC Whitman experienced from 1863-1873, these lines from Brooklyn Ferry stand out in my mind when trying to put into words how Whitman’s humanity was discovered.

“Just as you feel when you look on the river and sky, so I felt,
Just as any of you is one of a living crowd, I was one of a crowd,
Just as you are refresh’d by the gladness of the river and the
bright flow, I was refresh’d”

This discovery of the human Whitman continued as I saw firsthand Whitman’s personal possessions. Although I was deeply moved at the unveiling of the haversack, what captivated my attention the most was Walt Whitman’s glasses and pen.


This picture of Whitman’s glasses show how Whitman had physical ailments and was affected by the outside world around him. The right eye is frosted over and as Barbara Bair, the librarian at the Library of Congress told us, his loss of eyesight in an eye could have been due to the multiple strokes that Whitman had during the later years of his life. So seeing these glasses made me realize that Whitman although brilliant was not perfect.

The pen is a reed that was Whitman’s in 1891. The simple reed pen, changed my perception of how Whitman did not miraculously create his works, but rather, he tirelessly labored pen in hand over paper. Much like what we, as students, do today. So, although Walt Whitman’s work is under the category of canonical American literature, Whitman is no longer a name to me. After this trip Whitman is human just like you and I.

Washington D.C. through new eyes

All I was able to think about during our trip to Washington D.C. was how much Whitman would be smiling if he knew how devoted we were to uncovering his life’s work.  Walking through D.C., a place I have been many times in my life, became a new experience for me as I looked at the area through “Whitman-colored” glasses.  Buildings, grassy areas surrounding buildings, even roads became something new that I had never seen before.  Things I had previously taken for granted as ordinary became fascinating as I thought about the ways that particular place functioned for Whitman. 

Whitman was not merely ”under [our] bootsoles” (88), he was everywhere – Lafayette Park, the White House, Department of the Treasury, the Washington Monument, Hotel W and the Red Robin Bar, Constitution Ave., etc.  Everywhere we went he was around the corner, or he was the corner:

Fall 2009 464 Fall 2009 435Fall 2009 420Fall 2009 441

Being in these places made me a believer in Whitman’s insistency that time need not be as much a disconnector as we would often have it.  In “Song of Myself” he writes, “Distant and dead resuscitate, / They show as the dial or move as the hands of me….and I am the clock myself” (63).  If Whitman is the clock, then we were keeping time through and by him as we journeyed through D.C.

This particularly hit home for me while visitning the Library of Congress, an experience which render even words insufficient descriptors of its impact.  As our class greedily gathered around the tables to see handwritten letters, pictures, books, a pen, a watch, a “Calamus” staff, glasses, his haversack, etc. it struck me that Whitman’s historical preservation consciousness was one of, if not the only, reasons why we had the fortune of viewing any of those things.  Whitman transcended time; he was aware of his surroundings, his potential legacy, and he succeeded in sharing them with others, even across a century.  A group of undergraduate students “oooh”ed and “aahh”ed over artifact after artifact because Whitman cared enough about preserving history to give us that.  We have become the ‘gymnastic learners’ he desired and we, in many ways, are forever connected to him because of that.

I thought Whitman would appreciate this sign:

Fall 2009 561

Frederickburg Battlefield / Chatham Manor field trip post…

As other people have been posting a lot of pictures of places themselves, I thought it would be interesting to post a few that had our class interacting with and existing in them.  A lot of my thinking about the field trips have been in how much going to the same places Whitman himself occupied and wrote about was fulfilling his vision that everyone is connected through space and time through place.

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These are both the lovely Meghan Edwards examing the bullet holes at the Innis House. 

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My attempt at artistry: The information sign at the Innis House.  The house was probably owned by Martha Stephens who refused to leave her home (the Stephens’ House marked by the foundation nearby the Innis House) during the battle.  She provided drink to both Union and Confederate soldiers, an act of promoting peace between the two sides during a time of war.

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“Leaves of Grass” near the Confederate Cemetery.  Looks like a beard to me… 

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Walt Whitman gang sign? (outside Chatham Manor)

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Ouside Chatham toward what was originally the front of the house.  The entrance was eventually changed to the garden side, the side we entered before our tour.

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Jim Groom examining one of the catawba trees Whitman wrote about in Specimen Days.

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Whitman, nestled in the crook of the catawba tree.  The passage in the second picture is from “Down at the Front” in Specimen Days.  It reads, “Out doors, at the foot of a tree, within ten yards of the front of the house, I notice a heap of amputated feet, legs, arms, hands, &c., a full load for a one-horse cart.  Several dead bodies lie near, each cover’d with its brown woolen blanket” (736).

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Ben Brishcar & Sam Protich: a new kind of frontispiece (near the catawba trees at Chatham) 

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The ghost of Whitman? or Erin Longbottom? (looking out from a window at Chatham Manor toward the catawba trees)

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Whitman, are you under my Converse-soles too?

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Sam Krieg looking out over the Rappahannok a few hundred yards away from the Chatham House.

Erin for 11/4 (in which I get a little blubbery)

In reading the deathbed version of Song of Myself, I don’t know how much the speaker had changed in actuality from the 1855 speaker, and how much change I was simply adding in from my knowledge of Whitman, and the relationship I now have with him and his work.

In reading the 1855 version, I had no real preconception of Whitman, no real knowledge of who he was, and what little I did know of him had no bearing on what I thought of the poem, or how I interpreted it.  I read Song of Myself viewing the speaker as an anonymous being; since I had no real idea of Whitman, I only placed him as a name in the narration. In reading the deathbed edition however, it’s just the opposite. I have a very definite idea of who Whitman is, and I can’t help but let my feelings and thought about Whitman influence how I see the speaker. So it’s hard to say how much of the changes I noted were actually changes, or me just viewing things differently.

 I noticed that even though many of the powerful lines are the same, I read them in a completely different way in the DB edition. I often would read a line, and then double check the 1855 edition just to see if it had been changed at all. I was somewhat surprised that the lines and images jumping out at me were often the same in the 1855 as in the DB edition. It was interesting to me though, that many of the lines and verses I underlined or took special notice of in the DB edition were completely different from ones I had taken note of in my reading of the 1855 version. Knowing all the things I do now about Whitman’s life, different things stuck out to me.

“I am an acme of things accomplish’d, and I an encloser of things to be.” (239)

This line appears in both the 1855 version and 1891 version. At first when I read this line in the 1891 version, I thought perhaps he had added it in, and then found out the same line, unchanged, was in the 1855 version. I couldn’t believe how differently I interpreted it. In the 1855 version I see a young Walt, a little bit pompous, exalting himself, his poetic career in front of him. In the 1891 version, I see the older Whitman, looking back on his career, greeting the future of America, himself, poetry, anything. I want to know if Whitman reread these lines and thought of his younger self, or if he, like me, saw that he had changed, and yet the line still meant the same thing really. Maybe this is why Song of Myself still speaks to me, over 150 years after it was published. Because it could still speak to, speak of, Whitman, even 40 years after he had written it originally. It occurred to me around this point that not only was I projecting my knowledge of Whitman onto this reading, but also the knowledge that he was near his death. That line definitely stuck out for that reason.

As far as the actual changes I saw in the poem, most of them seemed to give the speaker more confidence. Whitman eliminated the ellipses (something which I saw changed in other poems) and some of the commas as well. He also compacted the stanzas and lines from the earlier edition. There were less lines just free floating. At times in the 1855 version, while the speaker was very sure of himself, it seemed that often there were time when the speaker was testing the waters; it didn’t seem like he was always completely behind the ideas being thrown out. This speaker is confident and wise in everything he says. There are no drawn out pauses of consideration, just a straight forward laying out of what he is trying to say to his audience.

There also seem to be less references to God, possibly in relation to this confidence. Instead of in the 1855 edition where Whitman says

“Shall I pray? Shall I venerate and be ceremonious?” (45)

In the DB edition he asks

“Why should I pray? why should I venerate and be ceremonious?” (206)

This more direct tone seems to be in connection with the more knowledgeable and wise speaker of this edition.

There were other small changes that influenced by interpretation of the speaker. On 214, the line

“I hear the chorus, it is a grand opera,

Ah this indeed is music—this suits me.”

felt very powerful to me. I immediately looked it up in the 1855 edition, to see that the last half of the second line “—this suits me” (54) had been added on. I could very much see the speaker I had been envisioning—the aged, wise Whitman—saying this line. Maybe it just seems like something an old man would say, I don’t know. To me it seemed like something Whitman would say, from what I know of him anyway. It gives me this very relaxed, accepting sense of the speaker, falling in line with what I have been thinking of Whitman.

Even reading the last section of the poem, about looking for Whitman under our boot soles, etc., gave me a completely different feeling. I knew they were the same lines that I had read from the beginning of the semester, but it didn’t change the fact that I felt them so strongly this time around. Not to say they weren’t strong from the beginning, because they were, but imagining the good grey poet instead of the young, well, also grey poet made me a bit emotional. It was then that I finally concluded that I would never know for certain how much the speaker had actually changed.

            I don’t really know how to end this, other than to say that this is probably an awful mess that doesn’t make much sense. I tried. Perhaps I will post more on this later, since I am already at a very substantial amount of words. There were a lot of other small changes I wanted to talk about. So in conclusion, I need a follow-up post.

Chelsea for November 3

All right, this post might be a bit of a stretch, but bear with me on some ideas I had/have about a difference between the 1855 Leaves of Grass and the 1892 Leaves of Grass, particularly in nuances between the two versions of “Song of Myself.”  In the 1855 version of this poem, Whitman names the months and days just as we would name them today: January and February and March, Monday and Tuesday and Wednesday, etc.  However, in the 1892 version, Whitman rejects the use of these common names and instead replaces them with First-month, Second-month, First-day, Second-day, and so on.  In no place in the 1892 version of “Song of Myself” can be located the actual name of a month or day.

After noticing this, I started to poke around about the etymology and history of the months and days.  Although it seems that much is unknown about the history of these names, the most well-accepted origin and explanation is that the calendar as well as these divisions was established by the late Roman Empire, furthered by the Christian church, and widely assimilated into standardized use by the British Empire.  The days were originally named after Greek (and later substituted for Roman) gods.  Later, Germanic groups substituted similar gods for the Roman gods until the list became something like, Sun’s day, Moon’s day, Tiu’s day, Woden’s day, Thor’s day, Freya’s day, and Saturn’s day.  The Christian church maintained and encouraged the division of the seven day week as biblically, God created the world in six days and rested on the seventh, the Jewish holy day the Sabbath, which is observed on Saturday. 

As for the months of the year, the calendar used today is often referred to as the “Christian calendar” although it was developed in pre-Christian Rome.  There are two main versions of the Christian calendar: the Julian and the Gregorian calendars.  Before this, the original Roman calendar had ten months: Martius, Aprilis, Maius, Junius, Quintilis, Sextilis, September, October, November, and December.  The second king of Rome, Numa Pompilius, added January, or Januarius, and February or Februarius around 700 BCE.  The names January, March, April, May, and June were, like the days of the week, developed from the names of gods.  The names of the other months developed as follows: February stems from Februa, the Roman festival of purification, July, which Julius Caesar named after himself, August, which Augustus Caesar named after himself, and September, October, and December which (less creatively) simply mean seventh month, eighth month, ninth month, and tenth month, after their original placements on the Roman calendar. 

Head spinning yet? Good, mine too.  Now, for where I’m going with all of this; I find it fascinating that Whitman would reject the use of these common names in his final version of “Song of Myself.”  Perhaps I’m overanalyzing the heck out of this, but I feel that if I am right about this conscious effort to change the names, a probable motive could be Whitman’s attempt to wipe the slate clean of all history that America took from Europe, even something as seemingly mundane as day and month names.  It could also be a try at truly encouraging religious freedom.  By rejecting the use of one historical religion (whether the polytheistic Roman faith or the monotheistic Christian one) as a governance over society in any way, even in a mere commonly assimilated set of names, Whitman opens the door wide to a nation of true religious tolerance.  In naming the days and months by numbers instead of by gods or by Christian systems, Whitman is sets at accomplishing this little by little.  

Furthermore, God seems to play a very different role for Whitman in the 1892 version and thereby furthers my argument that Whitman is truly attempting widespread religious freedom.  In many of the places where God was aiding Whitman in the 1855 version, He is either completely removed or replaced by something or someone else.  For instance, in the 1855 “Song of Myself,” Whitman writes, “As God comes a loving bedfellow and sleeps at my side all night and close on the peep of the day,” (29) but in 1892 the passage is altered to, “As the hugging and loving bed-fellow sleeps at my side through the night, and withdraws at the peep of the day with stealthy tread” (191).  Similarly in 1855 he writes, “I visit the orchards of God and look at the spheric product” (63) and in 1892, “I visit the orchards of spheres and look at the product.”  Removing God in these ways, as well as reshaping Him throughout the text allows Whitman to, again, open up LoG to become something relatable to all individuals, no matter what faith or cultural background.  It is not so much that I think Whitman has altered his beliefs about religion as it is that I believe he is attempting to do a better job of disallowing the way he was religiously educated to interfere with the true religious freedom America was supposed to be founded on.


If you are interested in information about the days and calendar, I got a lot of my information from these sites:

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