Posts Tagged ‘Leaves of Grass’

Whitman Making Books

Thursday, January 24th, 2013

As a visual artist, I have a fascination with typography and book making. I was interested to learn that Walt Whitman (a journeyman printer since his teenage years) was intimately involved in the actual design and making of Leaves of Grass. The topic came up today in class, during our discussion about his ‘catalog’ of Americans in Song of Myself that begins on line 257 and continues to line 325.  While we were sharing our opinions on the length and breadth of this section, I couldn’t help thinking about the tedious work involved in typesetting just one line of text— let alone an entire collection of poetry— and how Whitman must have felt a strong attachment to each and every line in this long, paratactical list (and to this long poem). Imagine the time it took to bring this book to life, in print.

I found this article at the Walt Whitman Archive website— a commentary entitled, Whitman Making Books/Books Making Whitman, which discusses Whitman’s relationship to books as both a writer and printer. There are several photos—among them one I’ve included here, showing clips from two different printings of the 1855 edition of Leaves of Grass, pointing out that there was a period punctuating the end of Song of Myself. You can barely see it in the top example, because it’s positioned too close to the “you” at the end of the sentence:


*   *   *

I found another interesting tidbit in my typesetting treasure hunt. It’s not necessarily Whitman-related (I’m not even sure if it would have been used in the 19th century) but he might very well have used this printmaking reference in a poem:

In typesetting, the phrase widows and orphans is defined as “words or short lines at the beginning or end of a paragraph, which are left dangling at the top or bottom of a column, separated from the rest of the paragraph”.

Walt Whitman Bridge

Tuesday, January 22nd, 2013

Is an actual place on I-76 in Delaware that connects New Jersey and Philadelphia.  Walt Whitman and his work has been so significant that people have wished to commemorate his honor with structures that we imagine to be as everlasting as his influence.  What made Whitman so significant is easy to see but sometimes hard to describe.

In class today we touched on a lot of aspects of Walt Whitman’s life and work.  We learned the details of his biography including his relationships and geography.  Kristina opened discussion on some major topics like mind/body relationships, epiphany, and sexuality.   Our classmates mentioned gender polarity and indulged Whitman’s homoeroticism that lead us to explore the roles of our bodies, the transcendence of our souls, and the manifestations of our desires.  I found a few quotes that we missed in class that I think have a lot to say about these topics:

“Out of the dimness opposite equals advance, always substance and increase, always sex, Always a knit of identity, always distinction, always a breed of life.”
“I have said that the soul is not more than the body,
And I have said that the body is not more than the soul,
And nothing, not God, is greater to one than one’s self is…”


One subject we didn’t cover in as much detail was the “witness”.  I find myself thinking about what it means to be a witness—to the world, to my community, to my loved ones, and to myself.  A witness holds account of things going on around them.  Based on our discussion about Whitman’s life and his experience witnessing the pain of soldiers—an experience that left him somewhat emasculated and significantly more observant— I am left to wonder how witness plays a role in our reading of the work.  Are we the intended audience, are we witnessing Whitman, or is he witnessing himself, or expecting us to witness him witnessing himself in order to inspire us to call attention to ourselves?  In my opinion it’s just his ploy to get us thinking about it

Song of Myself  is an obvious celebration of human life. Whitman’s poem provides an epic commentary on humanity as a whole and as an individual at the same time.  This is the unity we talked about.  He explores beauty and nature through the eyes of a conscious witness. It is evident in the evolution of Whitman’s writing that his experiences influenced his art.   Eventually we are left to wonder who is to bear witness to whom or to what confused by speaker and point of view.  In my opinion it’s just his ploy to get us thinking about the nature of wholeness and being which is, to me, a combination of sexuality, appreciation for nature, and giving witness or providing record.



A Whitman Coincidence…

Tuesday, January 22nd, 2013

whitmanThis must be a week for Whitman coincidences. In class today, Katie mentioned she’d just come across a pop-up book related to our discussion about Walt Whitman and his visit to Chatham Manor during the Civil War. This afternoon, while trying to organize several boxes full of old books that our family has had in storage for a few years, I discovered a small stack of Scribner’s Monthly Illustrated Magazines. The first one I picked up was published in November, 1880— I opened it directly to this engraving of Whitman (page 48) and an article entitled Walt Whitman, by Edmund Clarence Stedman.

It was interesting to read this lengthy article (published as part of a series in Scribner’s on American poets of the 19th century), especially since it was written by one of Whitman’s American contemporaries—  Stedman was a poet, essayist, and critic (as well as a banker and scientist).

Stedman touches on many of the topics we discussed today in class. He makes several references to the sexual nature of Leaves of Grass (in its various editions), as well as Children of Adam as “… a trait of Whitman’s early work that most of all has brought it under censure. I refer to the blunt and open manner in which the consummate processes of nature, the acts of procreation and reproduction, with all that appertain to them, are made the theme or illustration of various poems…. It made the public distrustful of this poet, and did much to confine his volumes to the libraries of a select few…. The fault was not that he discussed matters which others timidly evade, but that he did not do it in a clean way, — that he was too anatomical and malodorous withal…. His pictures were sometimes so realistic, his speech so free, as to excite the hue and cry of indecent exposure…”

Stedman also considers Whitman’s choices regarding writing style: “He sees that he has been feeling after the irregular, various harmonies of nature, the anthem of the winds, the roll of the surges, the countless laughter of the ocean waves. He tries to catch this under-melody and rhythm. Here is an artistic motive, distinguishing his chainless dithyrambs from ordinary verse, somewhat as the new German music distinguished from folk melody….” Stedman, on one hand, seems to criticize Whitman for the narrowness in his theories on metrics and form, noting that, “Whitman’s irregular, manneristic chant is at the other extreme of artificiality, and equally monotonous. A poet can use it with feeling and majesty; but to use it invariably, to laud it as the one mode of future expression, to decry all others, is formalism of a pronounced kind.”

In the last section of the article, Stedman even touches on Whitman’s ‘serious man crush’ on Abraham Lincoln. He describes hearing Whitman deliver a lecture on Abraham Lincoln. “His reminiscences of the martyr President were slight, but he had read the hero’s heart, had sung his dirge, and no theme could have been dearer to him or more fitly chosen…. His delivery was persuasive, natural, by turns tender and strong…. Something of Lincoln himself seemed to pass into this man who had loved and studied him.

He concludes: “…Of our living poets, I should think him most sure of an intermittent remembrance hereafter, if not of a general reading. Of all, he is the one most sure… to be now and then examined; for, in any event, his verse will be revived from time to time by dilettants on the hunt for curious treasures in the literature of the past…”

Images of the complete article can be viewed here.