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Ruminations of a Whitman Re-enactor

by Bill Koch


Since 1996 I have re-enacted Walt Whitman at various Civil War encampments, Fourth of July celebrations, schools, and in two one-man shows I created (“Walt Whitman Live!!” and “Prairie Whitman”).  I’ve used the term “re-enactor” since I began this pursuit, and while the word has a certain clumsiness to it, I prefer it to the term “impersonator.”  This latter term is usually associated with dubious activities, such “impersonating an officer” or “doing comic impersonations.”  In those contexts, one is either doing something illegal or superficial.  “Re-enacting” suggests a more substantial action (e.g., “enacting a law”).  In my case, “re-enacting” attempts to make someone present, not just to re-present him. 


These ruminations will concern themselves mostly with my experiences with “Walt Whitman Live!!”  I’ve presented the show a number of times since April 1998.  Audience reaction to “Walt Whitman Live!!” has been favorable.  One woman who saw the performance on two consecutive days came up to me after the second show and mysteriously said, “You don’t know what you have here!”  The local arts critic, Harvey Hess, who recently saw the show, made this assessment: “‘Walt Whitman Live!!’ makes great company.  Koch’s strikingly American Whitman celebrates ‘the democratic averages,’ a fit figure for a time of crisis.”


I thought that it would be easy to describe my motives, my preparations, my background, but it hasn’t.  A strange and unfamiliar writer’s block has occurred. Perhaps the difficulty is rooted in the fact that Whitman is one of the most personal of poets, personal in the sense that when you read his poems, the reader gets a sensation at certain places that he or she has conjured up Whitman’s spirit: there is this feeling of presence that is hard to explain.  I had such an awareness of presence while I was studying “Crossing Brooklyn Ferry,” and the most pronounced experience of this kind prompted me to become a Whitman re-enactor (and it didn’t occur while reading his poetry).


In June 1995, I visited Usher’s Ferry living history village in Cedar Rapids for the first time.  I believe the occasion was a Brass Band Celebration, and we had arrived just as a band began playing a Sousa composition from the town square gazebo.  I stood on the dusty, gravel street and surveyed the town square, which was surrounded by nineteenth-century houses and stores that the city had wisely moved here to preserve the past.   I watched people dressed in period costumes stroll across the lawns or listen to the band play patriotic music. It was then that the thought, very distinct and plain, came into my consciousness: “Whitman would fit in here.”  It was as if Walt had materialized, leaned over, put his hand to one side of his mouth and whispered out of the other side into my ear.


Until then my familiarity with Walt had been sporadic, though at times intense. While studying music in 1980 I had read about his “Passage to India” in a book called The Transformative Vision by Jose Arguelles.  I reread this chapter numerous times, stirred by Whitman’s vision of a poet “worthy of that name,” coming to “soothe these feverish children” and “justify these restless explorations,” to take up and hook and link together “all these separations and gaps.”  Indeed, one of the reasons I pursued a graduate degree in American Studies was to discover the full meaning of “Passage to India.” My dissertation on Thomas Merton, who had died in Bangkok after extensive visits to India and other countries of the East, led me to write an article on the parallels between Whitman’s “Passage to India” and Merton’s living out of that vision. (Curiously, among their similarities, both lived in and loved New York City.)


When teaching American literature courses, I used anthologies that excerpted parts of “Song of Myself” and “The Wound Dresser.”  When I read “The Wound Dresser” passage aloud I was struck by the personal voice of those lines:  “The hurt and wounded I pacify with a soothing hand, / I sit by the restless all the dark night, some are so young, / Some suffer so much, I recall the experience sweet and sad.”  These experiences seemed to prepare me to “hear” his call.


After “hearing” Walt, then, at the living history village, I researched his life more closely than I had before and presented a proposal to the staff of the village to play the part of Whitman during their Civil War encampment.  They generously accepted and allowed me to do whatever I wanted.  Beginning shyly, I got up the courage to stop people who were walking around the encampment—older couples, young couples with kids trailing along—and ask them if they knew who Walt Whitman was.  I would say half of the time I got a positive response.  I would then say, “Well, then, you know I wrote a collection of poems called Leaves of Grass”—I would then show them the Blodgett-Bradley edition—“but I also was involved in the Civil War as a volunteer nurse.”  I would go on to explain that Walt’s brother, George Whitman, was a soldier, and that his injury led to Walt’s hospital work.  Spending only a few minutes with them, I’d end with one of the short poems of Drum Taps, such as “Bivouac on a Mountain Side” or “An Army Corps on the March.”


My article on Whitman and Merton provided me with the impetus and material to create a one-man show that I called “Walt Whitman and Thomas Merton: The Solitary Singer Meets the Solitary Explorer”; in which I examined and explained the similarities in the thoughts of Merton and Whitman in the guise of Whitman.  I presented this show in November 1997 in Atchison, Kansas, and soon thereafter, the writing coordinator at the community college where I taught invited me to do a Whitman re-enactment at the college.  I revised this Merton/Whitman show into a show exclusively about Whitman’s life and thought, and that endeavor became “Walt Whitman Live!!” which I first performed in April of 1998 and have given many times since.  The highlight so far has been presenting “Walt Whitman Live!!” at the Old State Capital in Springfield in June 2001.  To my knowledge, I was the first Whitman re-enactor (and I know there are others out there re-enacting Whitman—Bruce Noll has labored as Whitman for 30 years) to have the privilege of speaking in the very hall Lincoln worked, and where his body lay in state.  “Walt Whitman Live!!” takes 55 minutes to perform, and Whitman’s own prose and poetry constitute 95% of the script.  One of the things that has always amazed me about the creation of this show is that so little of the text is my own writing.  I was able to use Whitman’s own words—from the various Prefaces and from Specimen Days—to describe his life and explain the motivations for his poetic work.


I first read a lot of secondary literature before diving into a close study of some of Walt’s poems.  My first sources were biographies by Gay Wilson Allen, Paul Zweig, Justin Kaplan and Phillip Callow.  Later, I read the biographies by David Reynolds and Jerome Loving.  I read large portions of the works of other biographers and commentators, among them Schyberg, Canby, Schmidgall, Killingsworth, Long, Holloway.  I also read Marx, Lewis, Pearce, John Gould Fletcher, and the collections of criticism.  I read portions of The Gathering of Forces, edited by Rodgers and Black, who collected Whitman’s editorials into one book.  I dipped into Walt Whitman’s Workshop, Traubel’s volumes, the letters, the notebooks.  Of course, I continue to read and re-read both Whitman’s work and the secondary literature. 


This research led me to focus on the following themes in the show:

The importance of Personality

“Of every hue and caste am I, of every rank and religion. . . .I am large, I contain multitudes….I resist anything that denies my own diversity”

The dignity of common labor

“You workmen and workwomen of these United States, having your own divine and strong life, all else gives its place to men and women like you”

The centrality of the Soul in the development of the personality (and the close union of the Body with Soul)

“I am the poet of the body, and I am the poet of the soul …”

“Let Your Soul stand cool and composed before a million universes …”

The future of America

“In thee America, the soul, its destinies … The soul, its destinies, the real real. Purport of all these apparitions of the real”


The show’s staging seemed to create itself once I settled on the content and structure.  I decided that the first half of the show would explain major themes and showcase key poems, while the latter part of the show would deal with the Civil War and Lincoln.  I would begin the show on stage right (the audience’s left) and remain in white spotlights or floods during the first half of the show that highlights major poetic themes. The colored lighting and dramatic gestures would be reserved for the civil war/Lincoln section, on stage left.   The show would end with a return to stage right, and white lighting, as I conclude the show with Whitman’s vision of America’s future and, finally, a shift in focus from the American scene to the world as a whole.


One of the things I’ve learned is that several different programs about (and by) Whitman are possible.  I’ve created another show, “Prairie Whitman.”  In this show I portray a paralytic Whitman who describes how his nature walks help restore his strength, observes the details of the flora, praises the wonders of the night, and makes astute observations about the Great Plains. A show based on his views on democracy (suited for a 4th of July celebration) could be worked up.  Of course, a show that focuses on the Calamus poems (possibly including the Children of Adam poems) is also possible. 


Harvey Hess feels that I present a Whitman who is a “fit figure for a time of crisis.”  This Whitman is not the image I originally had of Walt.  The popular image is that he was a “rough.”  But Whitman’s contemporaries (among them Thoreau) described him as anything but a rough.  When I am reciting Walt’s early poems (such as excerpts from “Song of Myself”) I try to use a “rough” tone of voice. But I use the “blue light” section to transition into presenting Walt as John Burroughs described him: “the lover, the healer, the reconciler . . . a great tender mother-man” (qtd. in Blight 23).


Re-enacting Walt Whitman, then, has become an opportunity to re-present this Good Gray Poet to a nation more versed in his language.  And re-enacting Walt brings one closer to doing what Walt himself wanted to do.  Paul Zweig notes that Whitman conceived of his poet as being “the wander-speaker,” a singer whose poems are arias, whose audience is the people of the democracy (217-8).  More interestingly, Whitman thought he could be a “charismatic lecturer whose words, texts and gestures would transform him into a veritable ‘god’” (Zweig 8).  Whitman went so far as to write notes about the subject matter of these lectures and mused over how much to charge for them. Being a re-enactor, then, in a way fulfills one of Whitman’s own dreams (and schemes).


But I would submit that in re-enacting Walt Whitman, a special force comes into play because of the man himself.  Ed Folsom has written on the power of Whitman to make hiself “present” to us in the act of reading his poetry:  “Whitman seems to be able to present himself--make himself present--where other writers could only represent themselves. We know he's not really there, but we feel ourselves so intimately addressed in the very act of our reading that we have the uncanny sense that we are experiencing presence rather than re-presentation.”  Folsom points out that Whitman foresaw the power of the spoken poetic line to re-present his personality, which the poet felt was key to the understanding of his poetic effort. What Folsom says here about the silent reader of Leaves of Grass applies doubly (if not by more of a factor) to the person who attempts to embody Whitman:

He knew that if he were to have any readers after he died, they would have to be alive, and in that relationship between a dead poet whose body was now his book (his body of work) and a living reader who would supply all the presence that was necessary--in that relationship was the possibility of magic, of reversing the expectations of the reading act, of making the reader the voice, the agent of the moment: to be the true subject of the poem meant that the reader would also, surprisingly, be the active agent of the poem, the only living actor who could bring it into being and generate its meaning.


“The only living actor who could bring it [the poem] into being and generate its meaning”: unintentionally Folsom has described what a re-enactor does.  But the re-enactor does not only bring a literary work into being.  With skill, the re-enactor conjures up more “magic,” bringing Whitman’s persona, personality into being.  I’m not saying I am “possessed” when I don a Whitmanesque costume and gray my beard, but in losing myself in his words of poetry and prose (like any good actor would), I allow Whitman’s words to interact with people with an energy (personality) that mere silent reading cannot achieve.


Re-enactment, I would submit, brings us one step closer to making Walt “really there.”  Again, we know he is not really there, but through the skill and understanding of the re-enactor, the audience can even more dynamically “have the uncanny sense that we are experiencing presence rather than re-presentation.”  The poetry and vision of Walt Whitman, studied for re-enactment, no longer resides only on the page, no longer merely in the re-enactor’s mind, but in his heart and soul and—perhaps most importantly for a Whitman re-enactor—in his body, where, one virtually feels the promise Walt made at the end of “Song of Myself”: “I shall be good health to you nevertheless/ And filter and fibre your blood.”