On July the 4th, NPR’s Talk of the Nation ran a story & call-in segment on Walt Whitman’s Leaves of Grass as it supposedly was the 150th anniversary of its first publication. July the 4th was not actually the first publication date, however…but the fact that July the 4th, 1855 has come to be thought of as the first publication date, leads us to examine Walt Whitman and his relationship to the construction of historical narratives.
First. I should say that I have been a fan of Walt Whitman’s longer than I have been studying cultural and historical memory. . . and I must admit that there is probably some unexamined, underlying connection between my obsession with the construction of historical narratives and my admiration for Whitman. “What do mean by that,” you ask? What is the connection between Whitman and cultural memory?
Aside for his reputation as the “American Bard” (or the poet of democracy, the people’s poet, etc.), Walt Whitman was a man who actively constructed and constantly reconstructed both his sole major work and his own biography to create a particular, self-conscious space for himself in the American historical narrative. He was surrounded by “a series of authorial myths, often but not necessarily contradictory: Whitman the good g(r)ay poet, the nationalist, the moralist, the advocate of the family, the prophet, the crusader for liberty, the enemy of social injustice. It is not surprising that these conceptions of Whitman have had much to do with the desires of the mythmakers” (Mitchell 1997).
I actively collect different published version of Leaves of Grass. . . nothing too expensive, of course, but there are hundreds of inexpensive versions to choose from–all communicating different feelings and messages through there formatting and illustrations.
Am I reading too much into the format of these publications?
Whitman didn’t think so. As he was somewhat of a bookmaker himself he was also obsessed with the look and feel of his work–carefully choosing the type-face, the size and binding of his folios, and so on. Of course he didn’t stop there.
Whitman only produced one major work–Leaves of Grass–but in a pretty postmodern way this is not a single work. Whitman made many major changes from its first edition in 1855 through his last Edition in 1891. What poems he kept, threw out and edited all tell a part of the story of Whitman’s own creation of his identity as he wanted it remembered in our cultural memory. He actively worked to hone a particular face for himself while deleting and reworking poems that could lead to other readings.
His editorial changes show many contradictions–he inserts lines in his earlier poems to stress his youth as he writes lines in later poems describing himself as old (inviting the reader to create a chronology), he includes aspects of Darwinism in his post-war poems which seem in conflict with his egalitarian stance in his antebellum works, and, of course, he makes changes to obscure his sexuality (this is probably the most written about aspect).
Modern scholarly opinion tends belief that Whitman “merely tried to cover up his feelings in a homophobic culture. For example, in “Once I Pass’d Through A Populous City” he changed the sex of the beloved from male to female prior to publication. He even went so far as to invent six illegitimate children to correct his public image” (Wikipedia 2005).
I’ve just scratched the surface. . . more later.