Walt Whitman, Poet of a Contradictory America
During the Civil War era, the writer emerged as an emblem of the country’s dissonance. Now, in the midst of another all-consuming national crisis, his work feels uncannily relevant.by Jesse Green
Race and America
APRIL 18, 1861
SIX DAYS AFTER the first cannonades of the Civil War boomed out at Fort Sumter, S.C., Walt Whitman, the great ennobler of the American soul, made a resolution: to go on a diet. He scribbled the plan in his notebook. “By ignoring all drinks but water and pure milk” — and by avoiding fatty meats and late suppers as well — he would “inaugurate” for himself a “great body,” a “purged, cleansed, spiritualized, invigorated body.”
It was not in hopes of reaching fighting trim that Whitman decided to cut back on evenings like those he spent at Pfaff’s bohemian rathskeller in what is now the NoHo neighborhood of Manhattan. At 41, though robust, he was too old and certainly too much of what he called a “loafer” to join the Union effort as a grunt. Nor was he merely seeking to express in flesh, as he had so often done in type, an ideal of physical vigor for its own sake: an ideal that for all its Olympian language seemed carnal at its core. The 13-part newspaper series on manly health he wrote a few years earlier, in 1858, under the pseudonym Mose Velsor, is full of epigrammatic dictums — “the beard is a great sanitary protection to the throat” and “we have spoken against the use of the potato” — but for long passages comes off as unintentional gay porn.
Of course, so do long passages of his signed work. Six years before the war, in June 1855, Whitman published the first edition of “Leaves of Grass,” a book of poems he would prune and shape, like a massive topiary, until his death in 1892 at the age of 72. That he believed it to be not just his masterpiece but America’s, and that America somehow came to agree, seems so wildly unlikely when you actually read it that the reading throws you into a time warp. Are we in classical Greece, as the antique cadences and references sometimes suggest? Adamic Eden? The Summer of Love in San Francisco’s Haight-Ashbury? Pre-Columbian America? Or tonight on Grindr? (Polar Bear, highly verbal, Masc4Masc.) Not many other masterpieces of the 19th century fill their pages with kisses among “camerados,” testicular gropes (“the sensitive, orbic, underlapp’d brothers”), hydrothermal ejaculations (“the pent-up rivers of myself”) and the scent of armpits “finer than prayer.” Even in the unlikely event that Whitman merely imagined such things, they have the authenticity of aspiration. You can see it in the portrait he chose for the frontispiece of the first edition: an engraving of the author with his hips, hat and eyebrows all cocked, with his lanky frame in a louche slouch that any gay man in Brooklyn Heights today (I live a quarter-mile from the printing house where it was typeset) would take as a welcome, a come-on, a song of himself.
We moderns are always being warned not to impose our words on old worlds or scrutinize the past through our progressive lenses. That warning wouldn’t be necessary if the urge weren’t so pressing to rescue from history the heroic forebears it so often hides from us. Whitman, for all his faults, has surely become one of those heroes: not just as “The Good Gray Poet” — as his disciple William Douglas O’Connor dubbed him — or as an aesthetic radical whose verse experiments announced a new American art form, but as a touchstone for hippiedom, women’s lib, self-actualization, environmentalism, bootstrap pride and Brooklyn beard culture.
It is only as an icon of queerness that Whitman’s legacy is sometimes denied, as if gay people, rooting through the crypts of time, had dug up the wrong body. For decades, heterosexual critics commonly treated the homoerotic passages as metaphor or, like Harold Bloom, asserted that all those loving comrades were actually just platonic friends. (Bloom called Whitman’s sexuality “onanistic.”) And though it’s true (as Justin Kaplan tells us in “Walt Whitman: A Life,” his 1980 biography) that in old age the poet casually, even cruelly, dismissed an anguished acolyte’s plea to acknowledge the actual sex shadowing the metaphysical sex in his work — “morbid inferences,” he answered in an 1890 letter, “disavow’d” and “damnable” — that hasn’t stopped gay men since liberation from celebrating the truth for what it is and making Walt their poster boy. After all, how metaphysical can an erection be? (In the preface to the 1856 edition of “Leaves of Grass,” Whitman pledges to restore the “desires, lusty animations, organs, acts” that had been “driven to skulk out of literature with whatever belongs to them.”) Whether or not he sired six children, as he sometimes claimed, though none are known to have come knocking in search of a handout or benediction, they would not be dispositive anyway: Most homophile men have until recently also had wives and children — and Whitman called at least one of his likely young lovers “dear son.”
But even if you deny that Whitman the man had sex with men, you have to accept that Whitman the poet did. His verse is what we would now call queer, its fleshliness vital to his vision: “I too had receiv’d identity by my body,” he writes in “Crossing Brooklyn Ferry,” first published in 1856 as “Sun-Down Poem.” What he isn’t, at least at the time he went on his milk diet, nor during the years when he produced the first editions of “Leaves of Grass,” is amatively mature. “The best I had done seem’d to me blank and suspicious,” he admits in the same poem. “Many I loved in the street or ferry-boat or public assembly, yet never told them a word.” Despite their enthusiastic (and unquestionably transporting) wide-world embraces, these early writings often suggest high school aesthetes pining in diaries for high school athletes. They want more from others than they dare say directly. Surely the pen name Mose Velsor was no accident; a man who had juggled type since becoming a printer’s apprentice at age 12 would have lost no time making an anagram of “some lovers.”
Velsor was also his mother’s name; born Louisa Van Velsor, she kept Walt in what one critic called “debilitating filial bondage.” Or did he keep himself in that state? (After she died, the nearly 54-year-old poet moved into her room and slept in her bed.) In any case, his need for the “comradeship and sometimes affection” of stevedores, farmhands and omnibus drivers begins to make sense when you recognize that unresolved split in him. Here was a nascent voice of the common man but also a mama’s boy, theater buff and opera freak who shared elderberry wine with Oscar Wilde. Wobbling like an adolescent between wanting to possess the other and be him, Whitman — and, because he represented America, America — did not yet know what destiny held or how to find it. In that way, his diet was spiritual: a means of annealing his body for the great work ahead. Which was a good thing, because it would take disasters of the body to teach him and America what that destiny was. It would take such disasters to teach us, too.
APRIL 1, 2020
NINETEEN DAYS AFTER an 82-year-old Brooklyn woman became the first to die of Covid-19 in New York City, a field hospital opened to modest fanfare in Manhattan’s Central Park. Can you remember that far back through the fog of social distancing? Fourteen white tents with 68 beds and 10 ventilators were pitched in the East Meadow, across Fifth Avenue from Mount Sinai — the medical Mount Sinai, that is, which oversaw the facility. From the outside and, no doubt, from the inside, it resembled a war encampment, the tents arranged like barracks within an ellipse of barricades.
On their roofs was a curious symbol: a jaunty blue cross, resembling a sword, embraced by green swooshes. Medical institutions throughout history have been linked to religions; Mount Sinai itself was established in 1855 as Jews’ Hospital. The Central Park tents, imported on trucks from North Carolina, seemed to express that tradition. They belonged to Samaritan’s Purse, an evangelical Christian charity named for the New Testament parable of the man left for dead by the roadside and the lone “neighbor” who stopped to help. But these North Carolina neighbors, unlike the biblical one, came with a catch. Doctors and nurses and other medical personnel who work for Samaritan’s Purse must pledge allegiance to a statement of faith that holds, among other things, that “God’s plan for human sexuality is to be expressed only within the context of marriage.” The statement defines marriage as “exclusively the union of one genetic male and one genetic female.”
New York City was facing an emergency: “attack,” “onslaught” and “invasion” were just some of the battlefield terms deployed at the time to describe the expected caseload. The tents, like the Navy hospital ship Comfort docked in the Hudson, were thus welcome at first, despite their militaristic and doctrinal baggage. But the idea of celebrating diverse identities that had been growing slowly for decades — in a way, since Whitman — had now come too far to allow New Yorkers to tolerate for long the contradiction of a charity built on a gospel of condemnation masquerading as love. It did not help that Franklin Graham, the president of Samaritan’s Purse and son of the evangelist Billy, had likened adoption by gay parents to recruitment and compared transgender people to pedophiles. And so even though the organization had signed a pledge of its own — to treat all comers equally — Mount Sinai announced that the field hospital, having treated just 190 patients, would shut down on May 4. The surge in hospital admissions had supposedly reached “manageable levels.” Days later, the tents flapped away, a flock of banished ghosts.
NOVEMBER 25, 1864
HISTORY WALKS the same ground as the present. A three-minute stroll from the vanished Covid-19 tents takes you to a spot near the Central Park Butterfly Gardens where, from 1862 to 1865, a field hospital for Civil War casualties once stood.
On the day after Thanksgiving, as the war’s fourth winter approached, Whitman visited that hospital, run by the Sisters of Charity. “It seems to be a well-managed institution,” he wrote blandly, though he did not think nuns, as a rule, made good nurses. To serve wounded soldiers — many of whom, he noted, were “between 15 and 20 years of age” — mothers were best, bringing “reminiscences of home” and “the magnetic touch of hands.”
Well, maybe not quite best. Though his diet apparently went by the wayside, Whitman did remake himself during the war as a kind of ministering angel — while the war remade him as America’s poet.
Slavery itself was not his motivation; however fervent Whitman’s Unionism, he was an indifferent abolitionist. (In later versions of “I Sing the Body Electric,” which first appeared, untitled, in the 1855 “Leaves of Grass,” he writes that he would “often go to the slave-mart and watch the sale.”) You can argue that racism among supposedly progressive Northern whites was endemic then as now, and that’s true; earlier generations of his family, Dutch and English immigrants who settled on Long Island in the 1600s and soon prospered, owned slaves. That the Whitmans and Van Velsors lost their wealth — to entropy, improvident speculation and, in the case of Walt’s father, drink — did not leave them any more progressive. Much of the poet’s brief youth, essentially over at 11, when he started work as an office boy, was spent shuffling from house to house in Brooklyn with his mother and seven siblings as his father’s own work came and went, giving his reflexive racism the same stamp as that of many downwardly mobile white people today.
Yet a more enlightened attitude might reasonably be expected from a man who envisioned an otherwise egalitarian paradise. Unlike women, emancipated slaves, “with about as much intellect and calibre (in the mass) as so many baboons,” he writes in an 1874 essay, do not make the cut in his purified America. Nor, despite glorifying the names that Indigenous people gave to its landforms — calling Manhattan “Mannahatta” and Long Island “Paumanok” as if he were a member of the Lenape tribes that had lived in the region for centuries — did he hesitate to predict, with some accuracy if no apparent regret, that they would be “eliminated.”
That contradiction — “I contain multitudes,” he famously wrote — is the source of our multiple impressions of him. The man who helped turn America’s attention to the grandeur of its living environment was also the house poet of an imperialist mission that murdered the people already living in it. The man for whom “every atom belonging to me as good belongs to you” didn’t much mind that some of those atoms were enslaved. This brings Whitman down to our age as a singularly unstable and capacious figure, the kind that inspires artists of very different (if mostly gay male) stripes. Twenty-first-century works by the poets Mark Doty (“What Is the Grass: Walt Whitman in My Life”) and Jericho Brown (“The Tradition”), the novelist Michael Cunningham (“Specimen Days”), the playwright Donald S. Olson (“Oscar & Walt”), the photographer John Dugdale (“Lengthening Shadows Before Nightfall”) and many others have little in common except Whitman himself, who was all of those things: a poet, a devotee (and frequent subject) of photography, a sometime theater reviewer, a printer and even, unsuccessfully, a novelist.
Perhaps he wasn’t boasting but complaining, then, when he said he contained multitudes; sometimes he seems like a medium through whom too many different spirits are trying to speak. His life was a frantically busy replica of the American experiment, which his work made concrete in all its oppositions. He voyaged both outward toward the hoped-for soul of a people and inward toward the hardly nameable needs of the heart, somehow making it seem possible — and even a form of moral bravery — to assert one’s primary loyalty to both. Such concepts were separately in the 19th-century American air, in Ralph Waldo Emerson’s transcendentalism and Edgar Allan Poe’s sensuousness and Herman Melville’s obsessive combing of the self. But Whitman refused to choose between the flesh and the spirit; not until James Baldwin, a century later, did the country produce another literary figure who was both a hero to the individual and the conscience of a nation.
But Baldwin was more coherent; his Blackness in a racist country organized him. Whitman embodied cognitive dissonance. His freethinking coexisted with a lifelong project of self-editing, literal and otherwise, in service not just to his art but his ambition. “Leaves of Grass” was no less ruthlessly pruned and reshaped over the decades than his own public persona; he could not have become The Good Gray Poet without sanding down his pervy edges in deference to prejudices he may or may not have outgrown himself. It remains impossible to say whether his denial of gay affairs, like his denial of full personhood for Black and Indigenous people, was unexamined prejudice or savvy self-promotion.
That he cannot be pinned down is part of what keeps him vivid 201 years after his birth, like a restless ghost with more work to do on Earth. We know him. He talks about what we talk about. He is sometimes wrong, sometimes right, often in the same line and always with full fervor; that’s what stays beautiful, or at least inescapable, about him as we face our own impossible times. How else to explain that while some antiracist students at the Camden campus of Rutgers University petition to have his statue removed from in front of the student center there, the gay Moroccan artist Soufiane Ababri honors him, among others, in a series of portraits of idols? The caption: “I Am a Faggot Like Walt Whitman.”
But in his time, Whitman’s trajectory moved only in one direction: The man who started his artistic life as an outsider oddball appreciated by the aesthetic elite (and not even most of them) would wind up a popular poet. By the end of the war in 1865, he was already set to become something greater, the country’s foremost chronicler of the transfiguring power of sacrifice. Mostly what transfigured him was the suffering he saw, the suffering he sought. Starting in December 1862, and continuing for the next two years, he made, by his own count, more than 600 visits “in the hospitals and upon the field,” usually in the vicinity of Washington, D.C., where he supported himself as a part-time clerk in the army paymaster’s office. “Among 80,000 to 100,000 of the wounded and sick” — white Union boys mostly, but also a few Confederate prisoners and Black men injured defending the North — he served “as sustainer of spirit and body in some slight degree, in their time of need.”
What did the sustenance of spirit and body consist of? Whitman described his work in an article that ran to five full-page columns in The New York Times on Dec. 11, 1864. His visits sometimes lasted an hour or two, at other times, “all day or night.” Acting as “an Independent Missionary, in my own style,” he toured the wards of the injured and sick, finding ways, when possible, to make a connection to each man he encountered. For some this meant talking, for others listening, for others providing paper and postage so they could write “to folks home” or, Cyrano-like, writing love letters for them. To those having come from the battlefield penniless, he distributed alms collected from rich friends. As the food was poor and meager — at one hospital in Brooklyn, Sunday dinner consisted of “nothing but rice and molasses” — he gave out oranges, berries, peaches, gingersnaps, ice cream, lemonade and, “as I thought judicious,” tobacco.
He held hands, kept death vigils and, of course, read aloud, “careful to sit away from the cot” — if there was one — “of any one who is very bad with sickness or wounds.” Declamatory verse, probably Shakespeare, was much enjoyed, as were the humorous Civil War sketches of the pseudonymous Miles O’Reilly, another Pfaff’s regular. Perhaps Whitman forbore, among the sick men, to trot out his own verse, still considered blasphemous if considered at all. (A review of the 1860 edition of “Leaves of Grass” suggested that a better title would be “Squeals From the Sty.”) The privilege of being let into their hearts evidently melted his own, dissolving the narcissism of taste and ideology. He would be for them, for America, whatever they needed him to be. Indeed, when one soldier, Oscar F. Wilber, of the 154th New York Infantry Regiment, asked Whitman to read from the New Testament, the skeptic if not exactly atheist poet, raised amid Quaker ideas but a believer more in man than in God, obliged with a passage describing Christ on the cross. After which:
The poor, wasted young man asked me to read the following chapter also, how Christ rose again. I read very slowly, for Oscar was feeble. It pleased him very much, yet the tears were in his eyes. He asked me if I enjoyed religion. I said: “Perhaps not, my dear, in the way you mean, and yet, maybe, it is the same thing.” He said: “It is my chief reliance.” He talked of death, and said he did not fear it. I said: “Why, Oscar, don’t you think you will get well?” He said: “I may, but it is not probable.” He spoke calmly of his condition. The wound was very bad; it discharged much. Then the diarrhea had prostrated him, and I felt that he was even then the same as dying. He behaved very manly and affectionate. The kiss I gave him as I was about leaving, he returned fourfold.
But this kiss, howeverfold, feels different from earlier ones. Whitman’s “Calamus” poems, for instance, which first appeared in the 1860 edition of “Leaves of Grass,” portrayed the love between men as if that love were democracy itself: a bounding and binding (or “adhesive”) philosophy befitting a lusty young country. “I will give an example to lovers to take permanent shape and will through the States,” he writes in “Scented Herbage of My Breast” — an ode, it would seem, to his chest hair.
Though it is heresy for a devout homosexual to say so, I don’t love these poems; they turn yearning into bombast and throttle you in their bear hug. (There are 45 in the originally published sequence.) Reading them with the help of revisionist gay scholarship at your side — especially Jonathan Ned Katz’s “Love Stories: Sex Between Men Before Homosexuality,” published in 2001 — you can also see them as the trailing shadow of an affair Whitman had in the late 1850s with Fred Vaughan, a Broadway coach driver nearly two decades his junior. The men lived together in Brooklyn and dined together at Pfaff’s and evidently experienced together something life-changing; the “Calamus” poem “Long I Thought That Knowledge Alone Would Suffice,” likely inspired by Vaughan, has the unmistakable air of unruly infatuation:
One who loves me is jealous of me, and withdraws me from all but love,
With the rest I dispense — I sever from what I thought would suffice me, for it does not — it is now empty and tasteless to me,
I heed knowledge, and the grandeur of The States, and the example of heroes, no more,
I am indifferent to my own songs — I will go with him I love,
It is to be enough for us that we are together — We never separate again.
Such a love, renouncing all other ties of affection and vocation, seems destined to burn out, as indeed it did; Vaughan, a boozehound, heeded society’s call to settle down in a proper marriage, and Whitman removed the poem from later versions of “Calamus.” His 1861 diet proclamation now appears in another light: as a farewell to the habit of overindulgence that makes “Calamus” feel bloated.
Then came the war, with the carnage and sacrifice Whitman witnessed. We should not, as he did not, elide or understate it. At the base of a tree near the battleground in Fredericksburg, Va., he saw “a heap of amputated feet, legs, arms, hands, &c., about a load for a one-horse cart.” At a field hospital in nearby Spotsylvania, he noticed that men arriving after delays in transport were not only wounded but “very many of the wounds had worms in them.” Those worms were apparently working his wounds as well. In June 1864, Whitman suffered what seems like an emotional collapse, though he did not report it as such: “For the first time in my life, I began to be prostrated with real sickness, and was, before the close of the Summer, imperatively ordered North by the physicians.”
Perhaps the physicians had by then had enough of the poetical gentleman handing out sweets and kissing their patients. (He would soon lose his government job for writing supposedly obscene poetry.) Or perhaps they feared that a man so adhesive — though by now he seemed more porous — might become another of their casualties. In any case, once sent back to Brooklyn, he started readying what he’d been writing during his hospital years for publication under the title “Drum-Taps”: 53 poems about war and sacrifice and death.
It is with “Drum-Taps,” published in May 1865, that Whitman becomes most recognizably Whitmanesque. His all-stretching vision at last feels fully fitting, congruent with the scope of the tragedy he recounts. He has seen something big enough to warrant his extravagance. That extravagance is kept in check by his technical control, evident even in the new work’s first stanza, in which long taut lines, pushing back from the frontier of prose, are relieved by percussive and alliterative effects that poke up from the horizon like mountaintops:
First O songs for a prelude,
Lightly strike on the stretch’d tympanum pride and joy in my city,
How she led the rest to arms, how she gave the cue,
How at once with lithe limbs unwaiting a moment she sprang,
(O superb! O Manhattan, my own, my peerless!
O strongest you in the hour of danger, in crisis! O truer than steel!)
How you sprang — how you threw off the costumes of peace with indifferent hand,
How your soft opera-music changed, and the drum and fife were heard in their stead,
How you led to the war, (that shall serve for our prelude, songs of soldiers,)
How Manhattan drum-taps led.
Here is the classic Whitman flamboyance: the clash of short words, the awed interjections, the tender and martial — opera and soldier-song — sung together. Here, too, is his distinctively modern way of opening poems to everyone, even grammatically, in just a few lines deploying first person (“my city”), second person (“you sprang”) and third person (“she led”) as if organizing a parade. How different he sounds from his contemporaries, even American ones, except for Emily Dickinson, whose similarly pioneering and proto-queer work would not become widely known until after her death in 1886. Gone in Whitman are the clomp of pentameter, the winking rhymes. Instead, he perfects what would later be called free verse, in which utterances find their natural shape, not the shape imposed by Europe, in just the way he supposes his country will.
But the bigger change is one of perspective: While owning that he is the recorder of the scenes being described, he embraces the rest of the world without fighting it for dominance. This is the characteristic note of empathy, which Whitman retains no matter how high he ascends. He seems to float above the landscape at just the right altitude to take in its overall contours while maintaining his connection to each person in it.
This, as well as grief, is what first invited Americans to see Whitman as their national poet, and what still catches our breath and stops our hearts today. The country, needing a way to understand its losses, found solace in his steady, long view. His love, too, had steadied, especially in comparison to the “Calamus” series. Though it is, if anything, more intense, his affection for comrades is less philosophical; it is humbler, concrete, sacrificial. In “The Wound-Dresser,” when he comes to soldiers to clean and bandage war’s marks upon them, it is with “hinged knees” and “steady hand” — an acceptance, in his mid-40s, of both maturity and mastery:
I am firm with each, the pangs are sharp yet unavoidable,
One turns to me his appealing eyes — poor boy! I never knew you,
Yet I think I could not refuse this moment to die for you, if that would save you.
This note is new. If he now consecrates himself to the care, not possession, of those he loves, it is because he has seen what hatred has done to their bodies.
MAY 25, 2020
DARNELLA FRAZIER, HER lawyer says, is a regular teenager “with a boyfriend and a job at the mall.” In one of the few images I have seen of her, she wears a T-shirt celebrating the murdered Tejano singer Selena and dramatic false eyelashes that only in hindsight would come to emphasize the terrible burden of witness that befell her.
Terrible and necessary. Frazier is the 17-year-old who, happening upon the horror of a policeman kneeing George Floyd’s neck into the pavement on a muggy Minneapolis evening last May, thought to take out her purple iPhone and film it. Before Floyd, who was Black, lost consciousness, around minute six of his ordeal, he could be heard repeatedly crying “please” and “I can’t breathe” and, like many a soldier dying in battle, those heartbreaking final two syllables: “Mama.”
Frazier, also Black, posted her 10-minute video on Facebook that night; the white policeman, Derek Chauvin, was fired the next day, along with three other officers, in part on the strength of her evidence. For her nerve and bravery (would you have done it?) she was threatened by Chauvin with mace at the time, and later abused on the internet for not intervening — as if she owed the world not just her eyes but the rest of her body.
Over the last several years, many others have recorded the deaths of Black women and men at the hands of police officers. They are spouses, girlfriends, strangers, filmed while being killed in cars and parking lots and subway platforms — even when already constrained in handcuffs. Many others, male and female, gay and straight, cis and trans, have died without benefit of visual evidence, outside grocery stores or in their own bedrooms. But Floyd’s killing and Frazier’s video, coming as they did in the midst of a disaster that was already changing the way Americans think about death, ignited a movement where so many other matches had fizzled. More people — I mean especially white people like me, since Black and brown people already knew too well — had no choice but to see, through Frazier’s unimpeachable proxy eyes, what hatred was doing to the bodies of Americans.
APRIL 14, 1865
FIVE DAYS AFTER Robert E. Lee surrendered to Ulysses S. Grant at Appomattox Court House, ending the Civil War, Abraham Lincoln was assassinated during the third act of the English farce “Our American Cousin.” Also in the audience at Ford’s Theater that night was a 21-year-old Irish immigrant named Peter Doyle, who had served 17 months in the Confederate Army but now worked two jobs in Washington, as a smith’s helper and a horsecar conductor. Doyle heard John Wilkes Booth’s pistol shot but “had no idea what it was”; later he also failed to distinguish Booth’s infamous cry (“Sic semper tyrannis!”) “for the hub-hub.”
If he was an imperfect earwitness to the epochal event, no matter; Whitman would do better, turning his accounts into prose and — indirectly — poetry. The two men met earlier that year, when the poet, then 45, happened to board Doyle’s car during a storm. That Whitman was drawn to the driver is no surprise: Doyle, a “young Apollo” according to an acquaintance’s description, was “as uninformed as he was handsome.” That Doyle, whose niece later described him as “a homosexual,” was drawn to Whitman must be taken on faith. “We were familiar at once,” Doyle said later. “I put my hand on his knee — we understood.”
For Whitman, the death of Lincoln, whom he had come to idolize despite earlier ambivalence, was devastating but also clarifying: a single blow that served to counterweigh the thousands suffered in the war itself. The two disasters, one sharp and one diffuse, effected a change in him that neither alone would have fully accomplished. His experiences among the wounded had disciplined the narcissism that a decade earlier had led him to see in the sunlit East River “the fine centrifugal spokes of light round the shape of my head,” as if he were Jesus or the unbuilt Statue of Liberty. And the loss of Lincoln, the man who had saved the country from disunion, had honed his sense of history as something written not just in bodies of land and water but on the human body itself.
Published the autumn of the assassination, the two Lincoln elegies that appeared in the hastily assembled “Sequel to Drum-Taps” became perennial bullets on Whitman’s Top 10 list. The popularity of “O Captain! My Captain!” is easier to fathom: It is a short, formal ode that, rare in Whitman, is at least somewhat rhymed. (“The ship is anchor’d safe and sound, its voyage closed and done, / From fearful trip the victor ship comes in with object won.”) It manages a stirring finale, resolving the dispute between loss and gain in favor of gain — which may be why, decades later, when he had become a Great Man and was expected to read the poem at all his lectures, he said he was “almost sorry” he’d written it. The popularity of “When Lilacs Last in the Dooryard Bloom’d,” so strange and gorgeous and grim, is harder to fathom until you realize that the war’s toll of 750,000 deaths amounted to 2.4 percent of the United States population — the equivalent of 8 million today. (Covid-19 had killed nearly 170,000 Americans as of mid-August.) In 16 irregular, unrhymed sections, “Lilacs” praises omnipresent death, suggesting that without the heartache of loss, there can be no heart to lose.
IF IT IS presumption to scrutinize forebears through modern lenses, what is it for those forebears to scrutinize us? More than any poet I’ve read, Whitman dedicated himself to that retroflex scrutiny, writing directly to future readers. He sees us — “you men and women of a generation, or ever so many generations hence” — walking the same streets he walked, watching the same sea gulls, boarding the same ferries. And, often enough, we see him back. Before the pandemic, when my husband and I visited Fulton Ferry Landing for ice cream, we watched the sea gulls and the run of the flood tide just as he said we would, and from the same spot as in “Crossing Brooklyn Ferry.” Even the ice cream spoke of Whitman, being the product of Ample Hills Creamery, a name likewise drawn from that poem.
History walks the same ground as the present, I said earlier. But history is also the ground itself. The dirt beneath our feet, Whitman often observed, is the residue of our elders; the flowers we lay on graves are born of the bodies interred there. If the Civil War was won by the Union at the cost of a generation of young men he loved, so too was his vision of a greater American people — a casteless, democratic American people — built from loves, like Doyle’s, he eventually outlived. Yet flowers, or at least grass, grew from all their graves.
Now we are engaged in another great civil war, the unfinished business of the first one. Our enemies — injustice, brutality, hatred — are familiar, the horsemen of unlove. We are called, like Whitman, to pay attention: “Now be witness again,” he wrote. “Of hard-fought engagements or sieges tremendous what deepest remains?”
If poetry was the social media of Whitman’s time, Darnella Frazier’s Facebook video is the poetry of ours, having galvanized what may be the largest civil rights movement in American history. That it is taking place in the midst of a pandemic throws it into bright relief — and is no coincidence, any more than Lincoln’s death was coincidental to the Civil War. Sometimes, suffering lets us see other suffering, and certainly, now, our bodies are suffering. I say “our” bodies at Whitman’s insistence: We “interpenetrate” each other. If we are not all Oscar F. Wilber and George Floyd and the anonymous 82-year-old Brooklyn woman who died of Covid-19 in March, who are we? When we emerge from our social-distancing slumber — “purged, cleansed, spiritualized, invigorated” — how many people will we be willing to love?
Models: Malik Anderson at the Society Management, Somali Findlay at IMG Models, Alden Nichols at New York Model Management and Huxley Kuhlmann at DNA Model Management. Hair by Tamas Tuzes at L’Atelier NYC using R&Co. Grooming by Emi Kaneko at Bryant Artists using 111Skin. Set design by Jesse Kaufmann at Frank Reps. Casting by Rachel Chandler at Midland Agency. Production: Hen’s Tooth Productions. Digital tech: Jarrod Turner. Photo assistants: Max Dworkin, Ariel Sadok and Chen Xiangyun. Hair assistant: Karla Serrano. Makeup assistant: Rose Grace. Set assistant: Murrie Rosenfeld. Stylist’s assistant: Szalay Miller.