The Miracle of Walt Whitman

by Malcolm Cowley | March 26, 2014

"Walt Whitman: The Miracle"

March 18, 1946

photo credit: Hulton Archive/Getty Images

THERE was a miracle in Whitman's life; we can find no other word for it. In his thirty-seventh year, the local politician and printer and failed editor suddenly be­came a world poet. No long apprenticeship; no process of growth that we can trace from year to year in his published work; not even much early promise: the poet materializes like a shape from the depths. In 1848, when we almost see sight of him, Whitman is an editorial writer on salary, repeating day after day the opinions held in common by the younger Jacksonian Democrats, praising the people and attacking the corporations (but always within reasonable limits); stroking the American eagle's feathers and pulling the lion's tail. Hardly a word he publishes gives the impres­sion that only Whitman could have written it. In 1855 he reveals a new character that seems to be his own creation. He writes and prefaces and helps to print and distributes and, for good measure, anonymously reviews a first book of poems, not only different from any others known at the time, but also unlike everything the poet himself had written in former years (and only faintly foreshadowed by three of his experiments in free verse that the New York Tribune had printed in 1850 because it liked their political sentiments). It is a short book, this first edition of Leaves of Grass; it contains only twelve poems, including the “Song of Myself"; but they summarize or suggest all his later achievements; and for other poets they are better than those achievements, because in this first book Whitman was a great explorer, whereas later he was at best a methodical exploiter and at worst a mere expounder by rote of his own discoveries.

At some point during the seven "lost years," Whitman had begun to utilize resources deep in himself that might have remained buried. He had mastered what Emerson called the "secret which every intellectual man quickly learns”—but how few make use of it!—"that 'beyond the energy of his possessed and conscious intellect he is capable of a new energy (as of an intellect doubled on itself), by abandonment to the nature of things; that beside his pri­vacy of power as an individual man, there is a great public power on which he can draw, by unlocking, at all risks, his human doors, and suffering the ethereal tides to roll and circulate through him; then he is caught up into the life of the Universe, his speech is thunder, his thought is law, and his words are universally intelligible as the plants and animals.” Whitman himself found other words to describe what seems to have been essentially the same phenomenon. Long afterwards he told one of his disciples, Dr. Maurice Bucke: "Leaves of Grass was there, though unformed, all the time, in whatever answers as the laboratory of the mind." The Democratic Review essays and tales, published before 1848, "came from the surface of the mind and had no connection with what lay below—a great deal of which, indeed, was below consciousness. At last the time came when the concealed growth had to come to light, and the first edition of Leaves of Grass was pub­lished."

Whitman in these remarks was simplifying a phenome­non by which, quite evidently, he continued to be puzzled until the end. The best efforts of his biographers will never fully explain it; and a critic can only point to certain events, or probable events, that must have contributed to his sudden discovery of his own talent. The trip to New Orleans in 1848 was certainly one of them. It lasted for only four months (and not for years, as Whitman later implied), but it was his first real glimpse of the American continent, and it gave him a stock of remembered sights and sounds and emotions over which his imagination would play for the rest of his life.

A second event was connected with his interest in the pseudo-science of phrenology. The originators of this doc­trine believed that the human character is determined by the development of separate faculties (of which there were twenty-six according to Gall, thirty-five according to Spurzheim, and forty-three according to the Fowler brothers in New York); that each of these faculties is localized in a definite portion of the brain; and that its strength or weak­ness can be ascertained from the contours of the skull. Whitman had the humps on his head charted by L. N. Fowler in July, 1849, a year after his return from the South. In these phrenological readings of character, each of the faculties was rated on a numerical scale running from one to seven or eight. Five was good; six was the most desirable figure; seven and eight indicated that the quality was dangerously overdeveloped. Among the ratings that Whitman received for his mental faculties (and note their curious names, which reappeared in his poems), were Amativeness 6, Philoprogenitiveness 6, Adhesiveness 6, In­habitiveness 6, Alimentiveness 6, Cautiousness 6, Self-esteem 6 to 7, Firmness 6 to 7, Benevolence 6 to 7, Sublimity 6 to 7, Ideality 5 to 6, Individuality 6 and In­tuitiveness 6. It was, on the whole, a highly flattering report, and Whitman needed flattery in those days; for he hadn't made a success of his new daily, the Brooklyn Freeman, and no other position had been offered to its editor. Apparently the phrenological reading gave him some of the courage he needed to follow an untried course. Seven years later he had Fowler's chart of his skull repro­duced in the second or 1856 edition of Leaves of Grass.

Another event that inspired him was his reading of Em­erson's essays. Later Whitman tried to hide this indebted­ness, asserting several times that he had seen nothing of Emerson's until after his own first edition had been pub­lished. But aside from the Emersonian ideas in the twelve early poems (especially the "Song of Myself"), there is, as evidence in the case, Whitman's prose introduction to the first edition, which is written in Emerson's style, with his characteristic rhythms, figures of speech and turns of phrase. As for the ideas Whitman expressed in that style, they are chiefly developments of what Emerson had said in

"The Poet" (first of the Essays: Second Series, published in 1844), combined with other notions from Emerson's "Compensation." In "The Poet," Emerson had said:

I look in vain for the poet whom I describe. …We have yet had no genius in America, with tyrannous eye, which knew the value of our incomparable materials, and saw, in the barbar­ism and materialism of the times, another carnival of the same gods whose picture he so much admires in Homer; then in the Middle Ages; then in Calvinism. …Our log-rolling, our stumps and their politics, our fisheries, our Negroes and Indians, our boasts and our repudiations, the wrath of rogues and the pusil­lanimity of honest men, the northern trade, the southern plant­ing, the western clearing, Oregon and Texas, are yet unsung. Yet America is a poem in our eyes; its ample geography dazzles the imagination, and it will not wait long for meters.

…Doubt not, O poet, but persist. Say "It is in me, and shall out." Stand there, balked and dumb, stuttering and stam­mering, hissed and hooted, stand and strive, until at last rage draws out of thee that dream-power which every night shows thee is thine own; a power transcending all limit and privacy, and by virtue of which a man is the conductor of the whole river of electricity.

Whitman, it is clear today, determined to be the poet whom Emerson pictured; he determined to be the genius in America who recognized the value of our incompar­able materials, the Northern trade, the Southern planting and the Western clearing. "The United States themselves are the greatest poem," he wrote, he echoed in his 1855 introduction, conceived as if in answer to Emerson's sum­mons. At first balked and dumb, then later hissed and hooted, he stood there until he had drawn from himself the power he felt in his dream.

There was, however, still another event that seems to have given Whitman a new conception of his mission as a poet: it was his reading of two novels by George Sand, The Countess of Rudolstadt and The Journeyman Joiner. Both books were written during their author's socialistic period, before the revolution of 1848, and both were translated into English by one of the New England Transcendental­ists. The Countess of Rudolstadt was the sequel to Consuelo, which Whitman described as "the noblest work left by George Sand—the noblest in many respects, on its own field, in all literature." Apparently he gave Consuelo and its sequel to his mother when they first appeared in this country, in 1847; and after her death he kept the tattered volumes on his bedside table. It was in the epilogue to The Countess of Rudolstadt that Whitman discovered the fig­ure of a wandering musician who might have been taken for a Bohemian peasant except for his fine white hands; who was not only a violinist but also a bard and a prophet, expounding the new religion of Humanity; and who, fall­ing into a trance, recited "the most magnificent poem that can be conceived," before traveling onward along the open road. …The Journeyman Joiner was also listed by Whit­man among his favorite books. It is the story—to quote from Esther Shephard, who discovered his debt to both novels—"of a beautiful, Christlike young carpenter, a proletary philosopher, who dresses in a mechanic's costume but is scrupulously clean and neat. He works at carpenter­ing with his father, but patiently takes time off whenever he wants to in order to read, or give advice on art, or share a friend's affection."

Both books helped to fix the direction of Whitman's thinking; for they summarized the revolutionary ideals that prevailed in Europe before 1848. But the principal effect of these novels was on Whitman's picture of him­self. After reading them, he slowly formed the project of becoming a wandering bard and prophet, like the musician in the epilogue to The Countess of Rudolstadt. He stopped writing for the magazines and, according to his brother George, he refused some editorial positions that were offered him; instead he worked as a carpenter with his father, like the hero of The Journeyman Joiner (and also like Jesus in his youth; for Whitman was planning to found a religion). About this time there is an apparent change in his personality. Whitman as a young editor had dressed correctly, even fashionably, had trimmed his beard, had carried a light cane, had been rather retiring in his manners, had been on good but not at all intimate terms with his neighbors and had shown his dislike for their children. Now suddenly he begins dressing like a Brook­lyn mechanic, with his shirt open to reveal a red-flannel undershirt and part of a hairy chest, and with a big felt hat worn loosely over his tousled hair. He lets his beard grow shaggy, he makes his voice more assured and, as he wan­ders about the docks and ferries, he greets his friends with bear hugs and sometimes a kiss of comradeship. It is as if he has undertaken a double task: before creating his poems, he has to create the hypothetical author of the poems. And this author bears a new name: Walter Whitman, as he was always known to his family and till then had been called by his friends, now suddenly becomes:

Walt Whitman, a kosmos, of Manhattan the son,

Turbulent, fleshy, sensual, eating, drinking and breeding.

The world is his stage, and Whitman has assumed a role which he will continue to play for the rest of his life. Some­times, in his letters, we can see him as in a dressing-room, arranging his features to make the role convincing. In 1868, for example, he sent his London publisher a long series of directions about how his portrait should be engraved from a photograph that he rather liked. "If a faithful pre­sentation of that photograph can be given," he said, “it will satisfy me well—of course it should be reproduced with all its shaggy, dappled, rough-skinned character, and not attempted to be smoothed and prettified…let the costume be kept very simple and broad, and rather kept down too, little as there is of it—preserve the effect of the sweep­ing lines making all that fine free angle below the chin. It is perhaps worth your taking special pains about, both to achieve a successful picture and likeness, something characteristic, and as certain to be a marked help to your edition of the book." There is more in the same vein, and it makes us feel that Whitman was like an actor-manager, first having his portrait painted in costume, then hanging it in the lobby to sell more tickets.

He had more than the dash of charlatanism that, accord­ing to Baudelaire, adds a spice to genius. But he had also his own sort of honesty, and he tried to live his part as well as acting it. The new character he assumed was more, far more, than a pose adopted to mislead the public. Partly it was a side of his nature that had always existed, but had been suppressed by social conventions, by life with a big family of brothers and sisters and by the struggle to earn a living. Partly it represented a real change after 1850: the self-centered young man was turning outwards, was trying to people his loneliness with living comrades. Partly it was an attempt to compensate for the absence in himself of qualities he admired in others; for we know that Whitman at heart was anything but rough, virile, athletic, savage or luxuriant, to quote a few of his favorite adjec­tives. Partly his new personality was an ideal picture of himself that he tried to achieve in the flesh and came in time to approximate. You might call it a mask or, as Jung would say, a persona that soon had a life of its own, developing and changing with the years and almost superseding his other nature. At the end, one could hardly say that there was a "real" Whitman underneath the public figure; the man had become confused with his myth.

We might find it easier to picture the complexities of his character if we imagined that there were at least three Whitmans existing as separate persons. There was Whit­man I, the printer and politician and editor, always de­scribed by his acquaintances as indolent, shy (except when making public speeches), awkward and rather conventional in his manners. He disappeared from public sight after 1850, yet he survived for thirty years or more in his inti­mate relations with his family. Then there was Whitman II, the persona, who characterized himself as "One of the roughs, large, proud, affectionate, eating, drinking and breeding, his costume manly and free, his face sunburnt and bearded, his posture strong and erect, his voice bring­ing hope and prophecy to the generous races of young and old." This second Whitman, ripening with age (and becoming a great deal more discreet after he moved to Washington and went to work for the government), at last merged into the figure of the Good Gray Poet. He wrote poems too, as part of his role, but they were windy and uninspired. The real poet was still another person; let us call him Whitman III. He never appeared in public life; he was hardly more than a voice from the depths of the subconscious; but the voice was fresh, moving, candid; and it spoke in different words and in different tones not only from Whitman the editor but also from Whitman the self-styled bard of democracy. Whitman III was sometimes boastful but also tender and secret where Whitman II was bluff and lusty; he was feminine, maternal, rather than physically adventurous; at the same time he was a revolu­tionist by instinct where Whitman I was liberal and Whit­man II merely sententious. He appeared from nowhere in 1855; he had little to say after 1860 and fell silent for­ever in 1873; yet during his short career he wrote (or dictated to other Whitmans) all the poems that gave Leaves of Grass its position in the literature of the world.

But what explains the mystery of the poet's birth? There was an apparently very ordinary fellow named Walter Whitman, who wrote editorials and book reviews and moral doggerel; then there was an extraordinary showman named Walt Whitman who peddled his personality as if it were a patent medicine; but there was also for six years, and at intervals thereafter, a poet of genius known by the same name. How did he come to exist? Was it merely because Whitman the editor visited New Orleans, had a phrenological reading, was inspired by Emerson's doctrine of the representative individual, and tried to make himself over into a character by George Sand? Is there some other cause for what we must still regard as the Whitman miracle?

The only evidence that bears on this question consists of Whitman's early notebooks and the poems themselves, which are not often a trustworthy guide. Still, they return so often to one theme that its importance in his life seems fixed beyond dispute. Whitman had apparently been slow to develop emotionally as well as intellectually. The poems suggest that, at some moment during the seven shadowy years, he had his first fully satisfying sexual experience. It may have been as early as his trip to New Orleans in 1848, to judge by what he says in a frequently quoted poem, "Once I Passed through a Populous City," which, incidentally, has more biographical value in the early draft discovered by Emory Holloway than it has in the altered and expurgated version that Whitman published. Or this Louisiana expisode, if real, may have been merely an intro­duction to his new life, and the decisive experience may have come later, during his carpenter years in Brooklyn. Whenever it occurred, the experience was so intense that it became an almost religious ecstasy, a moment of vision that wholly transformed his world. Whitman describes such a moment in the fifth section of the "Song of Myself”:

Swiftly arose and spread around me the peace and knowledge that pass all the argument of the earth,

And I know that the hand of God is the promise of my own,
And I know that the spirit of God is the brother of my own.
And that all the men ever born are also my brothers, and the

women my sisters and lovers,

And that a kelson of the creation is love,

And limitless are leaves stiff or drooping in the fields,

And brown ants in the little wells beneath them,

And mossy scabs of the worm fence, heap'd stones, elder, mul­lein and poke-weed.

 After this experience, Whitman had to revise not only his philosophical picture of the world but also his personal and private picture of himself. "I am not what you sup­posed," he would say in one of his 1860 poems, "but far different." The discovery of his own sexual direction must have been a shock to him at first; but soon he determined to accept himself with all his vices and "smutch'd deeds," just as he accepted every thing in an imperfect universe. He wrote: "I am my self just as much evil as good, and my nation is—and I say there is in fact no evil." All his nature being good, in the larger view, he felt that all of it should be voiced in the poems that he now determined to write.

At first his revelations concerning one aspect of his nature were made obliquely, in language that could be easily understood only by others of his own type. By 1860, however, when be was preparing the third edition of his poems, the impulse to reveal himself had become so strong that he was no longer willing to speak by indirection. "Come," he said, "I am determin'd to unbare this broad breast of mine, I have long enough stifled and choked." And in the first of his "Calamus" poems, written for that edition, he proclaimed his resolve "to sing no songs today but those of manly attachment":

I proceed for all who are or have been young men,

To tell the secret of my nights and days,

To celebrate the need of comrades.

There has been a long argument about the meaning of the "Calamus" poems, but it is or should be clear enough from the title under which they were published. Whitman is sometimes vague and a little hard to follow in his meta­physical symbols, but his sexual symbols are as simply con­ceived as an African statue of Potency or Fertility. The calamus root is one of these symbols, even though Whit­man disguised the fact when writing to William Michael Rossetti, his English editor, who had asked him for an ex­planation. "‘Calamus' is a common word here," Whitman replied: "it is the very large and aromatic grass, or root, spears three feet high—often called 'sweet flag'—grows all over the Northern and Middle States—(see Webster's Large Dictionary—Calamus—definition 2).—The recherché or ethereal sense, as used in my book, probably arises from it, Calamus presenting the biggest and hardiest spears of grass, and from its fresh, aromatic, pungent bouquet." But if Rossetti had referred to Section 24 of the "Song of Myself," he would have discovered what the poet really meant. In that section, Whitman exults in his own body and describes the various parts of it in metaphors drawn from the animal and vegetable world. The calamus plays its proper part in the description:

Root of wash'd sweet-flag! timorous pond snipe! nest of guarded duplicate eggs! it shall be you!

The sweet-flag or calamus root, the "growth by the margin of pond-waters," was simply Whitman's token or symbol for the male sexual organ. "This," he said in a poem, "O this shall henceforth be the token of comrades, this calamus-root shall." The poems under this general title were poems of homosexual love, in its phys­ical aspects and with its metaphysical lessons. They were "blades" or "spears" or "leaves" of the calamus, to use another of Whitman's favorite symbols; and, as he said in his letter to Rossetti, they were the biggest and hardiest of the grasses; in fact they were bigger and hardier than all the other leaves of grass.

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