Conversations With Whitman
Peter Gibian, McGill University

          We must not begin by talking of pure ideas—vagabond thoughts that tramp on the public roads without any human habitation—but must begin with men and their conversation.
                                                                                                                          (C. S. Peirce)

          One Sunday night, . . . I spent one of the most agreeable evenings of my life amid . . . a group of seven convalescent young soldiers from a Maine regiment. We drew around together, on our chairs, in the dimly-lighted room, and after interchanging the few magnetic remarks that show people that it is well for them to be together, they told me stories of country life and adventures, &c., away up there in the Northeast. . . . I shook hands with them all around at parting, and I know we all felt as if it were the separation of old friends.
      (Walt Whitman, veterans’ ward, Broadway Hospital, New York, 1862)
          Stranger, if you passing meet me and desire to speak to me, why should you not speak to me?
          And why should I not speak to you?
                                                                                                   (Walt Whitman, “To You”)

Flipping our way through the nine thick volumes of Horace Traubel's With Walt Whitman in Camden, leaping from page to page of these devotedly extended and obsessively recorded personal interviews between Whitman and his coterie of disciples in the hope of landing upon an axiomatic nugget that distills the poet's central conceptions in poetics, politics, or metaphysics, we tend to ignore or take for granted what is most fundamental here: the expressive form of these encounters—intimate, interactive conversation. We should not be too quick, though, to divorce Whitman’s one-line aphoristic utterances from the dialogic verbal ground out of which they arise. In their written recreation of conversational form, Traubel’s volumes show that the young follower had absorbed a basic lesson from the Good Gray Poet, enacting some of Whitman’s fondest dreams for his own poetic writing. These collected interviews construct a print replica of the life of talk in Whitman's home space to present an image of the Whitmanian writer not as an isolated lyric voice but as a living figure embedded in and embraced by a responsive speech community, and then to offer likeminded readers of any region or era the sense of a sort of virtual engagement in an expanded version of that original talk circle—the possibility of continuing the conversation. [1] In this model setting, we see how the poet's words trigger those of active, eager listeners who will carry his impulses into the future, living out the ideal of creative readership described in “Out of the Cradle Endlessly Rocking,” where the affective tones of the “singer solitary” in “colloquy” with one responsive aspiring poet are seen to lay the foundation for a new sort of writerly collectivity that spans the ages, generating a compensatory vision of a future in which “already a thousand singers, a thousand songs, . . . A thousand warbling echoes have started to life.” [2] In the Camden colloquies transcribed by Traubel, each one of the poet's sayings plays its role in the turns of talk of an ongoing dialogue; each voicing emerges as it is triggered by the multivocal, interpersonal interchanges of this especially close, supportive, devoted talk circle.

Too often we forget how much of Whitman's life revolved around talk—in a variety of such talk circles, and a variety of talk modes. He was fascinated and exhilarated by the boisterous conviviality he found in saloons or Firemen's Halls—taking the loud, lively talk in these exuberant settings as the ideal image of a populist public sphere that might serve both as the source for the voicings of a vital new poetry and as the model of its readership. He found his own equivalent to the highbrow writers' salon or publisher's club in a series of alternative talk circles organized by progressive women in New York, or in the raucous, sometimes bawdy repartee of artists' gatherings such as the Bohemian Circle at Pfaff's Restaurant on Broadway—public dialogues that provided an aesthetic sounding board and moral support at a crucial moment in his poetic development, when Whitman was most worried about whether his poetry would ever find a public role and a responsive audience. In the grim years of the Civil War, Whitman found a role for himself—living out the vision of “Song of Myself” amidst flesh-and-blood interlocutors—as a sort of missionary of conversation, serving as a nurse, companion, and secular confessor at veterans’ hospitals in New York and Washington, and surprising himself with the positive joy that arose out of his attempts to bring healing talk to sick, wounded, or dying soldiers. When, for one Sunday evening session at the Broadway Hospital, the veterans’ chairs were placed in a circle to set up a homespun, workingman’s version of a Victorian salon—as we see in the quotation cited above as motto for this essay—Whitman experienced the ensuing interactive dialogue as “one of the most agreeable evenings of my life”; he was thrilled to see how this simple ritual of civility could bring a sense of collective belonging to a group of diverse strangers, personalizing an anonymous, abstract public institution through the sharing of intimate stories and emotions and providing a crucial example of how a poet’s “magnetic” words might break the ice and set the scene to stimulate a healthful, much-needed “conversation of the culture” in a war-torn nation. [3] In a more private vein, as the war progressed Whitman found himself inexplicably drawn to the solemn, searing psychodramas of his bedside conversations with individual soldiers; these demanding hospital talk visits became his central activity almost every day for several years, and thereafter they stood as his model of the intimate, one-on-one bond of comradeship—the “interchange of adhesiveness, so fitly emblematic of America”—that he saw both as the paradigm for a potential dialogic interaction between poem and reader and as the most basic building-block of democratic union (1011). Even when he turned from such humble exchanges to take his place in the emerging culture of celebrity, Whitman clearly reveled in the verbal testing and negotiation that were a part of his one-on-one encounters with recognized authors—such as Ralph Waldo Emerson, Amos Bronson Alcott, Henry David Thoreau, or Oscar Wilde—who would make increasingly frequent calls at his home to enact quasi-public, carefully recorded rites of literary homage. During these complex oral and gestural performances of literary and psychological self-identity, Whitman could work to live out his poetics in the living figures of his talk—once again turning life into expressive art. And then Whitman was also happy to be able to return to a verbal home space, where he could feel secure enough to unwind in free speculation amidst close, like-minded friends—the sort of verbal home-feeling made available in the last years of his life through the discussions of the disciples' talk circle in Camden.

Especially in the realms of poetics and politics, Whitman's conceptions are often crucially shaped by these experiences of talk, and grounded in his idiosyncratic notions of the dynamics of spoken conversation. Modern readers who note the influence of speech models on Whitman’s writing generally point to his more overt imitations of the bardic or bombastic voicings of Golden Age oratory. [4] But in fact Whitman's subtle experiments in translating the dynamics of contemporary American conversation into writing lead to some of his most surprising, distinctive, and influential inventions in poetic form, defining the tone, the texture, and the rhetorical structure of many of his most characteristic passages. [5]


The Culture of Conversation: A World of Parlors

In this domain as in many others, then, Whitman’s aesthetic innovations came out of his grounding in the common life all around him. His efforts to produce a revitalized poetry representative of the energies of the new nation proceeded through immersion in, and then experimental transformations of, the expressive dynamics of everyday life practices that were pervasive in the popular culture of his day. For the mid-nineteenth century was America’s “Age of Conversation” as well as its “Golden Age of Oratory”; from the 1830s through the 1850s, dialogic talk became one of the activities most central to the nation's social, intellectual, and literary life. [6] The Whitman talk circle described by Traubel was not a fringe group engaged in bizarre behavior at the margins of society, but operated alongside many thousands of other such talk circles that had sprung up in this era across the country, as part of an explosion of interest in conversation that touched every region and every social class. This was the era of the elite salon and the working-class saloon, of the drawing-room and the firemen's hall, of the literary society and the voluntary association, of metropolitan conversation groups on the celebrated model of the Saturday Club, and of organized, solemn Public Conversations sponsored throughout the Northeast by professional conversationalists like Margaret Fuller or Bronson Alcott. Even small towns with any pretensions had their reading circles, tea tables, reform meetings, or Shakespeare Clubs. In this period, meeting and talking with others became not only a fundamental aspect of everyday private life but also a dynamic central to the workings of a number of public activities at the heart of civil society.

First of all, of course, this was an era that epitomized many of its cultural ideals in the image of the Victorian parlor. Aptly named from the French—for parler—the “parlor,” designed as a speech-space in the private home, became a necessary element in even very modest domestic designs of the mid-century. Even if they could not fully equal the decorous, feminized badinage of newly fashionable salons, or the freewheeling festival repartee of the most famous metropolitan conversation clubs, almost every family now aspired to have its parlor-room filled with “salon style” conversation—or at least with stilted, self-serious attempts at such talk. Within the walls of an increasingly self-enclosed domestic sphere, the parlor-room was set apart as an arena for sociability and public-oriented activity—the scene in which the family could interact with the larger public and represent itself to that public. And this talk-based “parlor culture” was certainly not restricted to the domestic sphere. Mid-century America was, as historian Katherine Grier observes, “a world full of parlors.” [7] Indeed, in this era many public and commercial meeting places—waiting rooms at the fanciest photographers' studios, public rooms at the newest city hotels, meeting rooms of leading social clubs and associations, and group seating areas on the most advanced steamboats and trains—were made over as breathtakingly extravagant versions of the domestic parlor, thus making the model parlor experience accessible even to those who could not afford a full-scale parlor at home. And these hybrid “public parlors” were very popular attractions.

Americans in this period thus found themselves faced with a huge expansion in the possibilities for entrance into public talk—in fact they could hardly avoid these possibilities. Tongue-tied newcomers, unaccustomed to these newly available speaking roles in the era's social theater, then created a booming new market for a host of prompt-books and other formulaic guides to “The Art of Conversation.” And those still too timid to talk could at least read about it, contenting themselves with the casual company of great minds in written form; Coleridge, Goethe, Hazlitt, and Madame de Staël were but a few of the authors now often more celebrated for their published table-talk than for their literary writings. Fuller translated Eckermann's Conversations with Goethe in 1839, and Horace Greeley published a transcript of his talk with Brigham Young in 1859—in what is seen as the first journalistic “interview”—but perhaps the clearest sign of the times was the American popularity of Hazlitt’s 1846 translation of The Table-Talk of Martin Luther: the mid-century wanted to know the doctrine in the life, the religion in social relations. And Traubel’s With Walt Whitman in Camden follows directly along these lines: the age of conversation responded most strongly to the voice—in Wordsworth’s or Emerson’s terms—of a man speaking to men, revealing in the homely dress of his extemporary reactions his character, his affections, his readiness, his mind in its intercourse with the immediate world.


Writing in an Age of Conversation: Transcendentalist Talk Circles

Surrounded by and embedded in this increasingly pervasive “culture of conversation,” a broad range of mid-century writers—from humorists, journalists, and popular novelists to belletrists, philosophers, and the major now-canonized writers of serious fiction—then made the dynamic of talk basic to the form and theme of their writing, or used their writing to develop a critical analysis of talk. Indeed, many contemporary writers and thinkers came to celebrate conversation as in itself a fundamentally progressive form: some (like Oliver Wendell Holmes or Emerson) seeing in the ongoing turns of talk the movement basic to intellectual progress and ideological experimentation, a fundamental challenge to static, monolithic, or monological notions of selfhood or of culture, while more activist figures (such as Fuller, Alcott, Frederick Douglass, or Sojourner Truth) looked to conversation as a privileged vehicle for their efforts at personal and political emancipation, community conscious-raising, or social change.

Figures associated with Transcendentalist circles were often especially quick to pick up on the contemporary craze for talk, sensing a profound potential available in the workings of common, contemporary conversation. Alcott, for example, wanted to put in a patent claim on the domestic form of dialogue:

            Emerson made the Lecture,
Alcott is making the Conversation. [8]

Having considered the path of oratory, Alcott was sure that spontaneous, interactive talk offered a more powerful and more democratic means for establishing a true, heart-to-heart collaboration between speaker and audience: “The lecture is too formal. It is, beside, presuming. Man doth not meet his fellow on equal terms . . . Only the living, spoken, answered word is final.” At peak moments, such conversation could open out of the prosaic world of monological truths uttered by monadic selves into an experience of communal inspiration—developing as a multivocal sharing of spirit, an ecstatic “pentecost of tongues, touching the chords of melody in all minds.” [9]

Sharing the mid-century mania for self-culture through conversation, Alcott set up an experimental nursery school centered on vaguely Platonic teacher-pupil dialogues that broke the ground for a broad cultural shift towards the educational uses of dialogue. And Alcott then also applied this same revolutionary method in the many adult education groups he sponsored. In the late 1830s and 1840s both Alcott and Fuller began to travel widely as “professional conversationalists” offering to lead Public Conversations—in which talk begins to become a form of show—and found large audiences ready to buy pricey tickets to attend these solemn, organized “panel discussions” now being tested as a new forum for intellectual development. Thrilled with the financial and philosophical success of these early talk sessions, Alcott came to believe that his “parlour teaching” would emerge alongside the lyceum lecture as a powerful new force for cultural reform, a vehicle for awakening the masses, and so extended his “ministry of talking” in demanding, months-long tours that had him conversing in cities and towns across the Northeast and the Midwest during the 1840s, 1850s, and 1870s. [10] Soon, high-minded public exchanges were set up in Academies or Music-Halls across the country so that eager citizens could strain to utter profundities in imitation of these Transcendentalist experiments.

One of the most important Transcendentalist experiments came with Fuller's leadership of the landmark Boston Conversations for Women of 1839-1844. Though they were set up in some ways as a serious philosophical alternative to the social chatter dominant in many genteel ladies' groups, Fuller's Boston Conversations nonetheless epitomized the fundamental aspiration shared by many mid-century women's societies: they were meant to help women come to see their own conversation not as decorative but as critical and consequential. The searching, effusive, and self-serious “consciousness-raising” Conversations led by Fuller broke the ground for modern feminism, exploring both the issues and the dialogic meeting mode that would define a new women's movement to come. And many of Fuller's best-known written works—such as Woman in the Nineteenth-Century (1845)—can be seen to have been modeled upon the theory of dialogic form she developed during a period of intense conversational interactions with Ralph Waldo Emerson and then tested during her leadership of the feminist Conversations in Boston.

Emerson himself, though profoundly influenced by this period of interaction with Fuller, finally took the possibilities of conversation in a different direction. In “Circles” and other essays, he articulates a radical vision of “conversation as a game of circles”—a model of multi-vocal, interruptive, and non-synthetic dialogue that becomes the core dynamic element in his thought and in the rhetorical form of his writing. While Emerson recognized that on most days the talk at the sitting-room tea parties of Victorian America was stiff and stilted—”In common hours, society sits cold and statuesque. We all stand waiting, empty”—he nonetheless dreamed, like Alcott, that multi-voiced conversation could potentially become a sort of Pentecostal talking-in-tongues, the vessel for an eruption of the divine within everyday parlor life: “Then cometh the god and converts the statues into fiery men, . . . and the meaning of the very furniture, of cup and saucer, of chair and clock and tester, is manifest.” [11] Helping us to rise above ourselves, to interact with others, to recognize our places as parts in a larger whole, the back-and-forth “wave” movements of such dialogue open access for Emerson into an oceanic spiritual experience:

“The Beatitude of Conversation. . . . I have no book & no pleasure in life comparable to this. Here I come down to the shore of the Sea & dip my hands in its miraculous waves. Here I am assured of the eternity, & can spare all omens, all prophecies, all religions, for I see & know that which they obscurely announce. [12]

We miss fundamental aspects of Emerson's thought and writing if we define him too simply as the promoter of an atomistic self-reliance and fail to note that, throughout his career, he celebrates the rhetorical movement of multivocal talk—with its enforced alternations between successive speakers—as a necessary counter to the spiritual and political oppression inherent in oratorical monologism. “Conversation is a game of circles,” he writes in the key passage in “Circles”: “When each new speaker strikes a new light, emancipates us from the oppression of the last speaker, to oppress us with the greatness and exclusiveness of his own thought, then yields us to another redeemer, we seem to recover our rights, to become men.” [13] Emerson's two essays on “Eloquence” are then balanced by those on “Clubs” and “Domestic Life” that promote “society” as a necessary complement to self-reliant (and self-enclosed) “solitude.”

“For . . . Alcott, Fuller, and Emerson, conversation was not just a pastime but also a fine art and fit subject for philosophy,” observes Lawrence Buell: “As an art form, the conversation came as close to a truly transcendental utterance as the movement ever attained.” And Mason Wade provides a succinct summary of this Transcendentalist enthusiasm for the workings of talk:

To the intellectual New Englanders of the forties conversation was indispensable and a weighty matter. Conversation was the method of Transcendentalism, the animating spirit of the age, and the great conversationalist was as manifestly a genius as a great writer, preacher, or orator. [14]


Parlor Culture and Its Discontents: Dickinson, Thoreau and Whitman

But while some literary figures were excitedly rushing to carve out a place for themselves within the era's talk, or to transform its dynamics for their own uses in their writing, for others this proved almost impossible. Whitman certainly shared with Emerson, Alcott, and Fuller a great fascination with the access to subtle, interpersonal forces seen to be available through the turns of talk in multivocal conversation. But if he perhaps defined one end of the spectrum with his enthusiastic immersion in popular talk forms, Emily Dickinson, Henry David Thoreau, and Nathaniel Hawthorne stood at the other end—each becoming in their own idiosyncratic way obsessively fearful of conversation, finding it to be fraught with problems both in everyday life and as a model for writing. The sharp contrast between Dickinson and Thoreau, on the one hand, and Whitman on the other, is one of the best ways of bringing into focus the complex of philosophical issues and aesthetic concerns at play in Whitman's experiments with the development of a conversational poetics.

Emily Dickinson would have fervently seconded the questions raised by Ellen Olenska, in Edith Wharton's The Age of Innocence, about the quasi-public modes of intercourse that had become pervasive in upper-middle-class American homes by the 1870s: “Is there nowhere in an American house where one may be by one's self? You're so shy, and yet you're so public.” [15] A hyper-sensitive barometer registering in exaggerated form the pressures and discomforts felt by many fundamentally “shy” mid-century Americans feeling themselves thrust into the scene of social talk, Dickinson was known to flee upstairs to hide on the arrival of visitors to her family home—refusing to appear even when these callers were her special friends. At other times, she would only agree to join in the conversation as a disembodied voice—listening or speaking to visiting interlocutors obliquely, from around a corner or behind a door, while she remained invisible in an adjoining room. [16] When Thomas Wentworth Higginson, reflecting the conventional mid-century notion that literature arises out of the dynamic discussions of talk groups, suggested that she seek out friends or join a writer's club, and asked about her seeming tendency to “shun Men and Women,” Dickinson replied, “They talk of Hallowed things, aloud—and embarrass my Dog.” And in another letter, responding to similar questions from Higginson, she repeated her aversion to the casual voicing of sublime insights: “You ask my Companions. Hills—Sir—and the Sundown—and a Dog—large as myself . . . They are better than Beings—because they know—but do not tell—and the noise in the Pool, at Noon—excels my Piano.” [17] Though her family's household was in fact frequently full of lively visitors and gay talk, Dickinson told Higginson that at some moments this surrounding conversation could arouse deep anxieties for her: “Women talk; men are silent: that is why I dread women” (Letters 208). Of course she was also known on occasion to be willing to talk with some intimates far into the night, and reportedly could be “brilliant and fascinating” when forced into conversation; [18] indeed, her fascinating self-presentation during one face-to-face “interview” with Higginson in 1870, which became the center of a portrait of Dickinson (the “eccentric poetess”) that he published in the Atlantic in 1891, was what brought her into the public spotlight and defined the terms for the reception of her poetry for many decades to come. [19] But even this now-famous star turn before the visiting critic really showed Dickinson avoiding interactive talk by giving an oral performance in monologue, with the poet playing a role as ecstatic visionary, speaking like a book, and reciting a rapid-fire succession of well-honed aphorisms—from “Is it oblivion or absorption when things pass from our minds?” to “If I feel physically as if the top of my head were taken off, I know that is poetry”—clearly not intended to be immediately understood or responded to by her listeners (Letters 210, 208). (Recognizing that her gnomic, unanswerable utterances often puzzled people, she told Higginson, “All men say 'What' to me, but I thought it a fashion” [Letters 178].) Faced with this barrage of remarkable talk, the intrigued but uncomprehending Higginson just sat still, listened, and recorded Dickinson's words for posterity, sensing the futility of interrupting her with any attempts at more dialogic interplay: “She was much too enigmatical a being for me to solve in a hour's interview, and an instinct told me that the slightest attempt at direct cross-examination would make her withdraw into her shell.” [20]

But Dickinson's dread of direct, face-to-face, interactive dialogue was not simply a psychological peculiarity; it was based in her notions of the fundamental differences between speech and written language, and basic to her goals as a writer. For most of her communications with Higginson and others, Dickinson was most satisfied to be not a talker but an “unseen correspondent” in letters, and she came to value the letter as a model form of verbal interaction, as she wrote to Higginson: “A Letter always feels to me like immortality because it is the mind alone without corporeal friend. Indebted in our talk to attitude and accent, there seems a spectral power in thought that walks alone” (Letters 196). While many authors celebrate the letter for its close relation to intimate, spontaneous conversation, Dickinson stresses its opposition to talk: to her, words fixed on the page of a letter, addressed across a gap between a writer and reader who are not present to one another, can seem to operate as signifieds freed from the overly material sounds and forms of the signifiers that are so present in speech; here we confront ideas freed from their ties to the person of the speaker, to the world of body and breath, or even to one moment in organic time—rather than communicating their full sense immediately, carefully honed written letters can be read and re-read many times until multiple layers of meaning are uncovered. And finally much of Dickinson's best poetry develops its rich “spectral power” through this sort of communicative indirection, taking the form of a written “letter to the World” sent out by the lone, now-withdrawn poet across gaps in time and space to be opened and read by readers whose “Hands I cannot see.” [21]

If Dickinson was incapacitated for everyday talk in part by her overwhelming sense of its immense possibilities, Thoreau found it very easy to remain blithely aloof from any attraction to conversational interaction. Though he had his own theory of ideal friendship, the self-styled “hermit” of Walden Pond saw almost any interlocutor as a “bloodsucker,” resented the eternities lost when he was forced into small talk with the immigrant Irish or French-Canadian farmers living near his hut, always expressed bitter contempt for writers who felt the need to join talk groups like the Saturday Club, and was well-known for his cold, contrary spirit in any dialogues with his Transcendentalist comrades. (Though he was assiduous in attending meetings of the Transcendental Club in Concord—clearly finding something of value in these high-flown philosophical dialogues involving Emerson, Alcott, Fuller, Elizabeth Peabody, George Ripley, Theodore Parker, and W. E. Channing, among others—he remained silent at almost all of these sessions, despite the many openings offered him by this liberal talk community.) When he couldn't avoid a talk situation, his interventions often took the form of blunt, biting, and unbending opposition to whatever was being said. [22] But his even more characteristic response was complete unresponsiveness, a flinty passive resistance—giving others the “silent treatment” to discomfit them and show that he saw through the triviality of their chatter: Emerson observed that Thoreau “saw the limitations and poverty of those he talked with, so that nothing seemed concealed from his terrible eye,” and noted how these tendencies in his talk expressed Thoreau's profoundly anti-social being: avoiding “commonplace, [he] talks birchbark to all comers, and reduces them all to the same insignificance.” With a Bartleby-like austerity, Thoreau was very strong in the ability to renounce; as Richardson writes, this tendency “to say no, to prefer not to, created a wall around” him. And this lack of everyday human warmth could exasperate Emerson to the point that he would exclaim, “As for taking Thoreau's arm, I should as soon take the arm of an elm tree.” [23] Then, if he felt little personal need to communicate with others, Thoreau could also expand upon that to question more generally the need to improve the sense of communication or association between the discrete, self-sufficient parts making up the social whole. For him, the post-office is simply a Dead Letter Office: “I could easily do without the post-office. I think that there are very few important communications made through it” (Walden 84). And, when the advent of the telegraph suggested to many the possibility of establishing a new network of rapid communications opening up hitherto undreamed-of connections between distant cities and regions, facilitating a continent-wide conversation of the culture and thus perhaps helping to forge a more cohesive American union, Thoreau responded with one of the great, all-encompassing anti-conversation aphorisms of the era: “We are in a great haste to construct a magnetic telegraph from Maine to Texas; but Maine and Texas, it may be, have nothing important to communicate” (Walden 47).

In fact, this opposition to talk became a favorite topic for Thoreau; returning to it again and again in his letters, journals, and published writings, he makes it central to his self-definition, and to his definition of the literary. Thoreau very much shared with Dickinson the sense of the necessary distance between carefully crafted, multi-leveled literary writing and everyday conversation. When he recognized Fuller's Woman in the Nineteenth Century as “rich, extempore writing, talking with pen in hand,” he was also quick to add that true literature could aim much higher: “In writing, conversation should be folded many times thick.” [24] Like Dickinson, Thoreau felt that talk is ephemeral, produced and received only in the one moment of its delivery, while written words may stand apart from temporal flow as their many meanings are unfolded over successive rereadings. If talk seems shallow, simple, one-dimensional, writing should be a deeper distillation, more thickly layered, with its intricate folds full of hidden “suggestions and provocations.” Again like Dickinson, Thoreau associates speech with breath and body and the materiality of sound, as when he distinguishes “the noblest written words” from “the fleeting spoken language”: “They are not exhalations like our daily colloquies and vaporous breath.” He urged aspiring writers to develop a sense of the literary by studying classical authors in their original, written language—here stressing the difference between the organic life of a spoken “mother tongue” and the regenerate spiritual life of a written “father tongue”:

The one is commonly transitory, a sound, a tongue, a dialect merely, almost brutish, and we learn it unconsciously, like the brutes, of our mothers. The other is the maturity and experience of that; if that is our mother tongue, this is our father tongue, a reserved and select expression, too significant to be heard by the ear, which we must be born again in order to speak (Walden 91-92). 

These distinctions become crucial when, in the chapter on “Visitors” in Walden, Thoreau whimsically imagines his hut as a pastoral substitute for the conventional Victorian parlor—a sort of "anti-parlor"—with his backyard woods reserved as the formal “best” room or “withdrawing room” for conversations with larger groups of callers. Imagining the ideal situation for a form of philosophic dialogue here that might rise above the brutish limits of body and breath and voiced sound, Thoreau then stresses what is for him a crucial starting point: the interlocutors must stand as far apart from one another as possible.

If we are merely loquacious and loud talkers, then we can afford to stand very near together, cheek by jowl, and feel each other's breath; but if we speak reservedly and thoughtfully, we want to be farther apart, that all animal heat and moisture may have a chance to evaporate. If we would enjoy the most intimate society with that in each of us which is without, or above, being spoken to, we must not only be silent, but commonly so far apart bodily that we cannot possibly hear each other's voice in any case. Referred to this standard, speech is for the convenience of those who are hard of hearing; but there are many fine things which we cannot say if we have to shout.

Speaking for the key Thoreauvian desire to see spirit rise above bodily life, and words cast off their vocal or “animal” nature—so that the scene of social communication dissolves into communion with Inner Light—this tour-de-force of paradox and word-play also reflects Thoreau's acute sense of the need to guard the integrity of his own strongly bounded personal space: “Individuals, like nations, must have suitable broad and natural boundaries, even a considerable neutral ground, between them.” He tells us that two serious talkers should find, then, that they will naturally begin to move farther and farther apart from one another as their talk assumes a “loftier and grander tone”—to the point that they eventually bump up against the opposed corners of the room. To transcend the limits of these parlor-room walls, the ultimate dialogue situation would involve two interlocutors standing on opposite sides of Walden Pond, each in isolation, almost invisible to one another, sending bodiless words out over long distances across the transformative medium of those purifying waters (Walden 127-128). Thoreau tells us that Walden Pond is “walled-in,” self-contained, with no “inlet nor outlet”; its waters remain pure as its only communication is vertical, with the heavens—rain falls, mist rises; light falls, reflections rise—and not horizontal, with other streams or ponds (Walden 175). Thoreau's ideal talker, modeling his sense of self on the image of that pond, would similarly be careful to wall himself in, protecting the boundaries of his personal sphere against the “communication” of corrupting outside influences, and always working to translate the moist bodies of the words of spoken intercourse into the hardened inscriptions of literary writing.


The “Pressure of Bodies”: Whitman and the Life of Talk

            It is fascinating, then, to imagine Thoreau's response when, in 1856, Alcott took him along for a conversation with Walt Whitman—the celebrator and practitioner, in life and in writing, of a diametrically opposed vision of talk. If Thoreau had hoped to transcend the scene of common talk in which speakers “stand very near together, cheek by jowl, and feel each other's breath,” at Whitman's house he confronted a figure with a very different sense of personal space—in fact tending in his talk to dissolve any boundaries between himself and others. Talk for Whitman could involve a lot of touching. A dialogue with Whitman was an intimate interaction at very close range, involving not only words but the whole organic life of body and breath. (He had, after all, introduced his just-published “Song of Myself” as an intimate, even erotic, teacher-pupil dialogue between “I” and “you,” with the poet taking for granted a sharing of basic assumptions between himself and his readers, since the interlocutors in such an exchange are seen as porous selves sharing through this interpersonal chemistry not only ideas but the molecular building blocks of physical life: “And what I assume you shall assume, / For every atom belonging to me as good belongs to you” (188).) Even for this semi-formal visit, the Brooklyn poet did not want to converse with his Concord guests in a parlor mode of speech—whether that of the genteel literary salon or of Alcott's philosophical Conversations—so he led them not to a larger, more public room of the house but instead directly up some narrow stairs into the cramped attic bedroom he shared with his mentally-deficient brother Edward. Though Thoreau might have felt the need to push his chair further and further away to gain some distance from this interlocutor, in such a tight private space all exchanges were literally face-to-face. Here there was no avoiding the touch, look, and smell of the body: Alcott's notes on an earlier scouting mission to Whitman’s home dwell on the immediate physical impression made by the poet, stressing that the “broad-shouldered” and bearded Whitman was “rouge-fleshed” and “rank,” and that he wore his undershirt jauntily “open-breasted,” exposing his “brawny neck” and chest hairs. During the meeting with Thoreau in Whitman’s bedchamber, Alcott also noted that the “pressure of . . . bodies was still apparent in the unmade bed standing in one corner,” with the chamber pot “scarcely hidden underneath.” (The Marquise de Rambouillet had inflected the tone of her salon circle by arranging meetings not in a formal reception hall but in her bed-chamber, guiding the talk while reclining in her “lit de parade”; Whitman, in a common man's radical transformation of this practice, liked to invite the souls of intimates through tender, lazy talk around a bed or a couch: “When talking [he] will recline upon the couch at length, pillowing his head upon his bended arm, and informing you naively how lazy he is.”) And if the “pressure of bodies” was evident in Whitman's unmade bed, it was also central to the confidential revelations of the poet's talk in this bedroom. Contrary to Dickinson, who cherished a vision of written words representing “the mind alone without corporeal friend,” Whitman dreamed of incorporating the pressures and motions of bodily life into the motions and textures of both his written and spoken words. Indeed the Concord visitors found that he always seemed to bring the conversation around to the subject of his own body: at the earlier meeting with Alcott, Whitman bragged that he had never been sick, nor taken medicine; he insisted on telling Thoreau all about his regimen of taking daily public baths.

Noting that Thoreau was at a loss to respond in such an audience with this “savage sovereign of the flesh,” Alcott finally succeeded in moving the two writers downstairs, hoping to lead into a different mode of conversation in the parlor. [25] But in ceremonial dialogue here the two simply seemed to harden into polarized positions: “I did not get far in conversation with him,” wrote Thoreau. Alcott had noted that at close quarters in his humble bedroom Whitman’s talk tended to hushed confidences, modestly opening to interactive exchange rather than pontificating—“Listens well; asks you to repeat what he has failed to catch at once”—but once the group moved downstairs, to the more formal salon space, Whitman shifted from the quiet “Calamus”-style intimacies of the bedroom to the more public (and self-assertive) talk-tones of loud democratic celebration to describe his joy in riding “up and down Broadway all day on an omnibus, sitting beside the driver, listening to the roar of the carts, and sometimes gesticulating and declaiming Homer at the top of his voice”—envisioning the poet not isolated in nature but enthusiastically merging his oral song with the sights and sounds of the city crowd. When Whitman began to warm to the theme of the poet as a para-political “representative” of all America, though, Thoreau interrupted in his usual contrary spirit: “I chanced to say . . . that I did not think much of America or of politics, and so on, which may have been somewhat of a damper on him.” But if Thoreau was left “in a quandary” after meeting with this “strange” and “coarse” writer (with “his skin (all over (?)) red”), he was nonetheless “interested and provoked” enough to want to plunge into a fuller reading of Whitman's book—and soon was urging it on friends in surprisingly strong terms: though some of the writing still retains the brutish quality of its oral sources—”He does not celebrate love at all. It is as if the beasts spoke”—Whitman “is the most interesting fact to me at present . . . He has spoken more truth than any American or modern I know . . . We ought to rejoice greatly in him.” [26]


The Cultural Work of Intimate, Interactive Talk

            Even if they did not result in a full meeting of the mins, such conversational exchanges were always of great interest to Whitman. Along with poetry and journalism and lecturing, talk was one of the key areas for his experiments in the verbal performance of self—and in the interaction of self and other. And he experimented with diverse forms of talk in a variety of venues as part of his lifelong effort to discover alternatives to the high-brow salon style increasingly associated with the literary. Vigorously opposed to the “stifling atmosphere” of dialogues in literary parlors—”There are certain recognized parlor laws of propriety which are remembered and allowed. But to carry their notions of suitor drawing-room proprieties into poetry . . . it's too absurd!”—Whitman believed that a new sort of “pome” (as he pronounced it) might be forged out of the interactive talk of the masses of people who do not necessarily “use the bath frequently”—who “laugh loud” and “talk wrong.” [27] Insisting that our notion of culture should not be restricted to “a single class alone,” or to “the parlors or lecture-rooms,” he felt that his own writing was vitalized by his everyday verbal contacts with longshoreman, sailors, mechanics, ferry pilots, and stage drivers, at workingmen's taverns or clubs (961-62, 950-51). When Alcott invited Whitman to one of his “Conversations” at the home of Samuel Longfellow (brother of the eminent poet), he observed that Whitman was “not at home, very plainly, in parlours”; but when they dined together at Taylor's Saloon, he then found him very expansive, stimulated by the boisterous voices of the “public” all around them to attack the government in Washington and to begin to declaim about the future of American “men and institutions.” [28] Similarly, when Emerson made his own pilgrimage to speak with the Brooklyn poet, Whitman shocked the gentlemen quietly dining at Emerson's elegant Astor House hotel by loudly shouting “for a 'tin mug' for his beer” and heatedly arguing for his own sense of American writing, and then invited the Concord philosopher for a visit to his own talk-turf—a “noisy fire-engine society”: perhaps the Bohemian Circle at Pfaff's Restaurant, or more likely the Firemen's Hall, a handsome workingmen’s social club recently opened on Mercer Street—which Whitman clearly saw as a more fitting venue in which to develop further his own notions of the literary. Not deeply angry, Emerson was simply mystified by the Brooklyn poet's enthusiasm for such “noisy” new talk institutions: “[He] was like a boy over it, as if there had never been such a thing before.” [29]

Though Emerson had trouble fathoming it, Whitman's excitement reflected his sense that in these popular talk settings he had found both a source for a newly dynamic and democratic poetic language and a model readership for his work—at a key transitional period in his development, just as he was deeply pondering his psychological and literary “need for comrades” (272) and beginning to forge connections allowing him to enter the literary world in his own way. In the mid-century, competing literary critical movements or schools were usually organized around and identified with competing writers' circles. Whitman was more comfortable in taverns or Firemen's Halls than in the drawing-room settings of many literary clubs or publishers' dinners, but, feeling a strong need to develop his literary ideas in company, he found what served for him as the equivalent of a writers' salon in the Bohemian Circle at Pfaff's Restaurant, a basement beer-cellar that had built up an artsy clientele of journalists, artists, writers and theater people drawn by the loud talk and general carousing that also made it notorious and much-sought-out by visitors to the city. [30] Henry Clapp, the socialist editor of the influential Saturday Press, made one large table at Pfaff's the meeting-place for his coterie of authors, an informal club that saw itself as irreverent, unconventional, worldly, and was proud of its reputation as shockingly “Bohemian.” Unlike most literary salons (or taverns), this literary saloon opened its talk to writers of diverse social classes (though most of the poorly paid Bohemians were closer to the working class) and welcomed women to join in the mix. One female Pfaffian, the extravagantly impassioned, unconventional actress and poet Adah Isaacs Menken—several times married, and deserted by her most recent husband, a famous prize fighter, to much public scandal—became a great admirer (and imitator) of Whitman’s poetry, and wrote an ecstatic review celebrating him as a philosopher “for the cause of liberty and humanity!” Another central female figure here, Ada Clare, the “Queen of Bohemia,” developed an especially close relation with the poet. A flamboyantly dressed, sexually liberated beauty from a distinguished South Carolina family, proud of her illegitimate child fathered by the musician Louis Gottschalk, Clare was a sometime actress, novelist, and Press columnist who set the tone and defined the themes for much of the Club talk, assuring that aesthetic discussions here always had their playfully risqué or passionate side. In the truly mixed company of Clapp’s table, no one would be afraid to merge speculation about new forms of literary expression with frank expressions of sexual needs and desires, or to consider that a transformation in gender relations might be fundamental to efforts at sweeping cultural and political reform. The diversity of contributing voices that made possible dialogues between sexes and social classes also opened up new ground for cross-fertilizing discussions between diverse arts, and between artists and political progressives—as poets rubbed up against journalists, humorists, and theater people, while writers could debate the relevance of aesthetic experimentation with reformers urging economic or political change. In this atmosphere that stretched boundaries, challenged conventions, and welcomed radical or irreverent behavior, the tone of Bohemian Club talk sessions was of course also mixed—and frequently ranged far from the restrictive salon ideal. With a good number of hard-drinking humorists (such as Artemus Ward) on hand, the sessions usually exploded overly self-serious or pompous effusions with raucous laughter.

Whitman later compared the cramped subterranean scene at Pfaff’s to his Mickle Street bedroom, suggesting the home-comfort he came to feel in this setting for spirited public talk. He seemed to be in his element, to come alive, here. William Dean Howells, for example, remembered that, on his first trip to New York, when he met the poet during one evening amidst the Bohemian Club crowd, Whitman “reached out his great hand to me, as if he were going to give it me for good and all”—startling the suspicious visitor with the direct, earthy gestures of bodily closeness and open welcome that speak for the poet’s ease in this informal atmosphere, and for the notion of sympathetic comradeship inspired in Whitman by the warmth of the talk at Pfaff’s. Though Whitman apparently was not often loudly vocal in these proceedings, the Bohemian Club’s discussions often revolved around his work—including no-holds-barred critiques of his ideas, burlesque parodies of his style, or spirited live readings of hostile reviews from the establishment press along with cordial expressions of support. Participation in these free talk sessions thus gave Whitman an encouraging sense of belonging to a lively literary community, a sense that was especially crucial during the difficult period, in the late 1850s, when he was preparing new works for the important third edition of Leaves of Grass (1860)—including “Out of the Cradle Endlessly Rocking” and the “Calamus” cluster—exploring with a new self-consciousness the dependence of his “songs” on their reception by active readers. And if the Bohemian Club served the poet as a sort of proto-public, providing a glimpse of the sort of audience that could be receptive to his poetry, it also helped him to publish this work: Henry Clapp gave the poem later titled “Out of the Cradle Endlessly Rocking” its first printing on the front page of the special Christmas issue of the Saturday Press in 1859, and he subsequently opened his pages to a number of the poet’s experimental new “Calamus” and “Children of Adam” poems, as well as to many reviews of Whitman’s works (including some by the poet himself). As Whitman told Traubel, his life story “could not be written with Henry left out.” [31]

 “Because the ‘art of talking’ is so ephemeral . . . it has been easy to dismiss its viability as an agent of change,” writes Lois Rudnick, in a study of the key role played by women intellectuals and salonniers in shaping the modernist culture of early-twentieth-century America. [32] Certainly Henry Clapp’s Bohemian Club functioned as one of the many the nineteenth-century forerunners of these modernist salons—serving as a cultural catalyst, shaping new writing and new thought not only for Whitman but for many others. And other alternative New York salons, often organized by women intellectuals, artists, or reformers, played a similarly vital role for Whitman in the 1850s and afterwards. He became a great friend of Abby Price, who made her Brooklyn home into what Jerome Loving describes as “a salon of sorts for social idealists and reformers,” working like many women salonniers to transform the parlor-room talk spaces of her own private, domestic realm into a sort of cultural center generating discussions with a claim to some voice and some leverage in the political and cultural debates of the larger public sphere. But certainly the participants in Abby Price’s gatherings were members of a counter-public, testing experimental visions far from the mid-century status quo. She herself was a longtime women’s rights activist who had spent many years living in a Fourierist conclave in New Jersey and then in a Christian socialist community in Massachusetts dedicated to radical reform of American political, economic, and spiritual life. Enjoying many long evenings at her home, Whitman could argue about politics and current events with a Swedenborgian neighbor and discuss music and books with Price’s daughter Helen, but Helen recognized that he “took special delight” in “talking with my mother on the spiritual nature of man, and on the reforms of the age.” In Price’s company he could also enter into dialogue with her fellow feminists and women’s rights conventioneers, such as Lucretia Mott, Paulina Wright Davis, Anna Q. T. Parsons, and Sarah Tyndale, a Philadelphia abolitionist. As Loving suggests, Whitman was apparently inspired by these meetings to incorporate key proto-feminist themes in his new poems for the 1856 edition of Leaves of Grass, such as “Broad-Axe Poem” (envisioning a utopian place “Where women walk in public processions in the streets the same as the men”) and “Poem of Women” (“every jot of the greatness of man is unfolded of woman”). Though Whitman could discourse in this talk circle about Cupid and Psyche and the theme of friendship, Helen Price noted that he was not “a smooth, glib, or even a very fluent talker,” but rather preferred to listen more than to speak, giving openings to others during his hesitations—apparently interested more in cordial interactions than in one-sided parlor-room wit. The unpretentious, progressive talk circle formed by Abby Price—neither a colorful young bohemian beauty nor a high society art matron but simply a good-hearted, sincere, middle-class soul whose husband owned a pickle factory and who was a friend of Whitman’s mother—made an apt setting for the sort of sympathetic, interactive reflection the poet most valued. As Gay Wilson Allen observes, the Prices “gave Whitman a substitute home, an affectionate circle.” [33]

From 1876 to 1878, Whitman would find a similar home away from home with the family of Anne Gilchrist, an Englishwoman—the widow of a Blake biographer, and herself an essayist on women’s issues, well-connected in British literary circles—who had fallen in love with the poet upon a first reading of Leaves of Grass, becoming so fanatically devoted to his ideal of sympathetic friendship that she decided in 1876 to pack up her three grown children and move with them across the Atlantic to a house in Philadelphia so as to be near to her poet-hero. Taking advantage of Gilchrist’s offer of a permanent room in her home, Whitman became a very frequent visitor (sometimes staying for weeks)—and here met for talk with the Gilchrist family, with the Gilchrists other literary visitors, and with his own invitees, including John Burroughs, the poet and playwright Joaquin Miller, and the English writer Edward Carpenter. Even when the newly-arrived Gilchrists were still in a boardinghouse, Burroughs remembered that “Walt came over every evening from Camden, and took supper with us and we had much talk.” After the house was set up as a literary salon with a distinctly familial style, observers noted that Whitman took a characteristic approach to conversation: for him dialogue was as much about interpersonal affect as about the rational articulation of ideas. While he was no “great talker,” wrote Carpenter, the poet possessed a great personal magnetism in group discussions, communicating on the “basis of personal affection.” Though conversations here covered the standard range of salon subjects—art, history, politics or poetry, with Whitman occasionally launching into recitals of Shakespeare or Tennyson from memory—the speakers could open up in an atmosphere of homey conviviality that took them (sometimes literally) outside the limits of the drawing-room. Gilchrist’s daughter Grace remembered that often, after the “tea-supper” ended, the group would decide to “take our chairs out, American fashion, beside the ‘stoop,’—that is, on to the pavement, below the front steps of the house,” to continue the table-talk in an informal, open-air, quasi-public, popular setting: “The poet sat in our midst, in a large bamboo rocking-chair, and we listened as he talked, on many subjects—human and literary.” And Carpenter too remembered coming upon his first sight of Whitman in his rocker at this porch-stoop outside the Gilchrist home—“his white beard and hair glistening in the young moonlight, looking like some old god”—with the poet clearly at home in a talk circle so perfectly suited to him. [34]  

In later years, especially after he moved to Camden, New Jersey, Whitman found that his own home space also became more and more a sphere for talk. Visiting dignitaries from the U.S. or foreign countries were increasingly likely to seek the poet out, requesting an audience and then traveling over from Philadelphia to pay their respects. And Whitman also found that each of his humble Camden homes became more and more a sort of verbal safe house—like the Bohemian Circle or the talk circles of Abby Price or Anne Gilchrist, but with a different orientation and tone—for conversations with a coterie of devoted disciples who came individually or in groups to sit at the wise man's feet, organizing parties for him or helping him with everyday necessities while listening reverently to his every word. The members of this developing clan, often social radicals committed to various reformist projects and cherishing a utopian idea of themselves as an expanding brotherhood following Whitman’s lead, often felt it a duty to record the poet’s sayings, usually retaining the dialogic form of these intimate sessions in their transcriptions. Herbert Gilchrist—a visual artist, and one of the sons of Anne Gilchrist—completed a detailed journal of Whitman's talk during the winter of 1876-77. But, as we have already noted, the socialist Horace Traubel produced the ultimate record of the poet’s later life in conversation, as he made himself Whitman’s Boswell during the last three and a half years of the poet’s life (1888-1892), collecting elaborate notes on daily interviews for what would become a nine-volume diary, tracing the formation through these talk sessions of a loose brotherhood of especially loyal disciples, and forming an conversational story of the poet’s life parallel to that presented in the written poetry of Leaves of Grass. [35] Though Whitman’s last years were often hard—with tight finances and many severe health problems—the poet could also be reassured, through daily converse with reverent followers, that his voice was being heard. Sensing the end of his career approaching, Whitman added a concluding poem to his 1888 collection, titled “After the Supper and Talk,” that captures the scene of these later discussions between the Good Gray Poet and these groups of younger friends: “After the supper and the talk—after the day is done,/ As a friend from friends his final withdrawal prolonging . . . / Good-bye and Good-bye with emotional lips repeating,/ . . .  Garrulous to the very last” (636). And the sometimes spirited and substantial talk sessions transcribed by Traubel show that Whitman was, indeed, “garrulous to the very last.”

One much-reported late-life visit with Whitman in Camden—his two hours of one-on-one talk with Oscar Wilde—developed as a version of this sort of reverent, sympathetic interchange, though the visit with the poet-esthete involved a much more ritualized, hieratic expression of Whitman’s characteristic impulses to affective intimacy in talk with his disciples. Arriving in 1882 in his trademark velvet suit, the Irish dandy who had made his life into art, becoming a well-recognized celebrity, met his American forerunner in this regard, who had become the iconic image epitomizing his own poetry—with his white beard, his slouching hat worn indoors or out, his red shirtfront always open, and his baggy pants developing a jaunty dandyism of the street and making him a well-known public figure. As he had with Thoreau, Whitman set the tone for the talk with Wilde through his characteristic gestures of simple, homely intimacy: inviting the visitor into a cramped den, filled with a mess of scattered books and papers, where the two could meet close-up, on “thee and thou terms”; calling him by his nighest name, “Oscar”; offering his family's homemade elderberry wine and later mixing a milk punch to loosen tongues and break the ice; and then having Wilde find his place at Whitman's feet, sitting on a low stool, with his hand on the poet's knee. (In the report of the Philadelphia Press the next day, when Whitman suggested they shift to a first-name basis, Wilde is said to have answered, looking up from his position on the stool, “I like that so much.”)Newspapers and magazines eagerly snapped up all details of this encounter and reported them widely, rightly recognizing that this sort of interview is not simply a spontaneous, informal, or private chat. Through these simple, seemingly homespun gestures the two celebrated writers here were enacting a highly formalized declaration of allegiances: the younger figure named as a boy, and sitting at the feet of the master; the older figure, through his gifts of humble, home-produced wines and repeated uses of a humble expression common as a marker of sympathy in American talk—”Go ahead”—both inviting the foreign disciple to continue speaking and giving his blessing to the visitor's future artistic work. Here, the Quaker use of “thee and thou terms” is not only tender and familiar but also intensely formalized. And the two authors known for their challenges to conventional codings of gender and sexual orientation seem to come together through the alternative codings of this conversational performance, exchanging not only words but also a series common, bodily gestures transformed into symbolic, ritual acts—the placement of a hand upon a knee, the address by the first name, or the kiss on the lips (that Wilde suggested marked a later meeting of these two)—of the sort that Whitman had explored in his “Calamus” poems imagining close, one-on-one bonds of comradeship or disciple-ship between men. The next day, the poet told a Philadelphia Press reporter that he felt sure Wilde had been “glad to get away from lecturing, and fashionable society, and spend a time with an ‘old rough.’” [36]


“Soldiers and Talks”: The Poet as Missionary of Conversation in Civil War Hospitals 

All of these experiences of talk—in a variety of venues set up as alternatives to the parlor-rooms of “fashionable society”—clearly contributed to the voicings and rhetoric of Whitman's writing. But one other set of talk experiences—involving dialogic encounters taking the poet far from any connection to the literary world of the metropolitan centers—seems, surprisingly, to have most profoundly shaped his vision of poetic process, forcing a radical shift in his notions of the potential relation between his writings and his readers. During the Civil War, Whitman gave himself over to an intensified exploration of the “Calamus” mode of tender, man-to-man talk as he served for three years in the role of wound dresser in army hospitals, eventually ministering to an estimated 100,000 sick, wounded, or dying soldiers on both sides of the conflict. Making his rounds six or seven days a week, often for both morning and afternoon sessions, Whitman had no official position and served no specific medical or nursing function, but simply arrived at the bedsides bringing humble gifts of jellies, fruit, tobacco, pens, stationery and, most important, “cheering talk” to his suffering countrymen, seeing himself as “a self-appointed missionary to these thousands and tens of thousands of wounded and sick men.” [37] In his capacity as an especially devoted volunteer visitor, Whitman must have appeared to these bedridden young soldiers as a sort of bedraggled, secular Saint Nick—passing through the wards with his long gray hair and full beard, his bag full of treats, and his words of comfort and cheer. But for Whitman the stakes in these experiments with bedside conversation were very high. At great sacrifice to his own physical health, the poet who had earlier celebrated the healthy body politic of America now went forth to try to soothe American bodies torn asunder by fratricidal war; the writer who had hoped his “Song of Myself” might serve as a visionary site bringing together varied national voices for a great conversation of the culture now turned to a series of quiet, private dialogues with humble men, again face-to-face discussions around the bedside about intimate emotions and bodily health.

Some critics now raise questions about Whitman’s hospital visits, wondering if the poet was not here taking advantage of these poor, helpless, immobilized boys hardly able to resist his conversational advances, using them as a captive audience before whom he could self-indulgently act out his poetics or play out his fantasies of a close comradeship with working-class men. Clearly it is true that, since Leaves of Grass had not yet found a large audience of responsive readers, Whitman was excited to forge a role for himself during the Civil War years as a dispenser of healing words to real-life interlocutors who could flesh out his dreams of the apparitional “you” he had hoped to be addressing in “Song of Myself” and the Calamus poems. But letters from the soldiers suggest that most of these young men were extremely grateful for Whitman’s bedside ministrations. And Whitman’s articles and journals from the period show that during these dialogic interactions he could sense the urgent call for this sort of talk and witness its positive effects. In the wretched wartime hospitals of Washington, D.C., Whitman felt there was a real need for “friendly words” to offset the “despair and hopelessness” brought on in wounded soldiers by “heartless” or “unfeeling speeches” from rushed, impersonal doctors and administrators. “The doctors tell me I supply the patients with a medicine which all their drugs & bottles & powders are helpless to yield,” he wrote to one friend. Acting as a proto-psychologist, he searched out patients for whom there was “a case for ministering to the affection first  .  .  . and medicines afterward,” as with one glassy-eyed soldier he found neglected on his cot: “I sat down by him without any fuss; talked a little; soon saw that it did him good; led him to talk a little himself  . . . (He has since told me that this little visit, at that hour, just saved him.)” Bringing such patients back into verbal expression was a key goal of Whitman’s bedside visits; in a letter home, he wrote, “Mother, I have a real pride in telling you that I have the consciousness of saving quite a number of lives by saving them from giving up—and being a good deal with them; the men say it is so, and the doctors say it is so—and I will candidly confess that I can see it is true.” [38] During these moments of nurturing talk, the poet did not just perform before the bedridden soldiers but also tried to recognize and bring out their own need to speak. Whitman’s Specimen Days records details of the battlefield stories he heard from one badly hit soldier who “likes to have some one to talk to, and we will listen to him” (715); his notes on his ministrations to an even more critically wounded patient show how these hushed talk sessions involved not only speaking but also deep listening—as confidential dialogues for Whitman meant caressing whispers, physical closeness, and a lot of what he called “magnetic” touching, with the poet-nurse carefully attending to his interlocutor’s bodily energies as well as his words: “I talk with him often—he thinks he will die—looks like it indeed . . . . I let him talk to me a little, but not too much, advise him to keep very quiet—do most of the talking myself—stay quite a while with him, as he holds my hand—talk to him in a cheering, but slow, low and measured manner—talk about his furlough, and going home as soon as he is able to travel” (726). In such intimate dialogues, Whitman would be fascinated to explore a mode of communication in which speaking to a friend truly could serve as an equivalent to speaking for him.

            Sitting close by these wounded men, Whitman felt he was taking the pulse of the nation at a crucial period, gaining a unique access to firsthand stories speaking for the interior, oral history of the war always neglected in official reports. “Soldiers, soldiers, soldiers, . . . I often have talks with them, occasionally quite long and interesting. . . . I have found some man or other who has been in every battle since the war began, and have talk’d with them about each one in every part of the United States,” he exclaims in an unusually upbeat, retrospective section of Specimen Days, titled “Soldiers and Talks,” recognizing all that he has gained though his hospital interactions—and stressing most especially the discovery here, amidst the wounded bodies and the human casualties of war, of a vital, healthy, bodily, spoken language: “[This soldier] was there, . . . has been through a dozen fights, the superfluous flesh of talking is long work’d off him, and he gives me little but the meat and sinew. . . . The vocal play and significance moves one more than books. . . . I now doubt whether one can get a fair idea of what this war practically is, or what genuine America is, and her character, without some experience as this I am having” (734-35). Whitman sent a similar report in a letter to Emerson on the value of what he found expressed in his years of talks in army hospitals: “I find the best expression of American character here in these ranks of sick and dying young men. I find the masses fully justified by closest contact, never vulgar, ever calm—responding electric and without fail to affection.”

If there was a single theme to Whitman’s bedside talks, it was “affection.” As a secular confessor, he saw himself as “ministering to the affection,” hoping that he was bringing words to the sick and dying that would restore faith in “human sympathy and boundless love,” reviving the possibilities for expression of intimate attachment—friendship in the highest sense. Indeed, the ideal of friendship developed in these talks with severely wounded soldiers involved a bond seen to be eternal; the poet frequently promised his closest charges that his love for them would continue even after the end of bodily life. But this love was also seen to embody supreme values relevant to personal and political life in this world. Whitman felt he witnessed again and again the medical benefits of his version of a “talking cure”—his dialogic efforts to get “on intimate and soon affectionate terms with noble American young men”: that, he wrote, is “where the real good begins to be done. . . . I can testify that friendship has literally cured a fever, and the medicine of daily affection, a wound.” Preparing for his hospital visits, the poet simply worked at “emanating ordinary cheer and magnetism” (727), since he came to feel that talk could be a privileged vehicle with what he called an invisible “magnetic” power to tap into latent reservoirs of human “affection,” bringing out recognition of unexpressed interpersonal bonds. He had discovered earlier, when he set chairs up in a circle for the successful soldiers’ discussion group at New York’s Broadway Hospital, that the trick was always to guide the talk with “magnetic remarks that show people it is well for them to be together.” In Washington’s Armory Square Hospital, his bedside conversations combined quiet words and “magnetic” touching, and he was happy to find that

the boys . . . welcome a magnetic personality (some are so fervent, so hungry for this); . . . O how one gets to love them, . . . so manly and affectionate!. . .  Lots of them have grown to expect as I leave at night that we should kiss each other. . . . Poor boys—there is little petting in a soldier’s life in the field, but . . . I know what is in their hearts—always waiting—though they may be unconscious of it themselves. . . . These soldiers know how to love, too, when once they have the right person and the right love offered them.

In the extreme, post-traumatic situation of intensive care in a war hospital, at a forced remove from the workaday world or the domestic sphere, Whitman came to feel that he had discovered in bedside talk a verbal medium opening up a channel of almost unworldly self-revelation and interpersonal communication, tapping into a profound human interconnectedness, as he and his working-class soldier comrades stripped away self-protective poses to experience moments of face-to-face communion built around bodily care and hushed assurances of eternal, unconditional love. In a letter to his own mother, the poet writes ecstatically of the sort of “mother-and-child” union discovered or recovered in these moments of intimate conversation: “I believe no men ever loved each other as I and some of these poor wounded, sick and dying men love each other.” [39]

For the rest of his life, Whitman remembered the affectionate exchanges of his ministry to the Civil War wounded as models for what he called “fraternalism,” or “adhesiveness,” or “sympathy”—defining and enacting the democratic cameraderie he felt was so necessary as a balance to the centrifugal forces of America’s atomistic individualism. In the Drum-Taps poems that developed out of these experiences, he came to see the interpersonal bonds formed in such one-on-one verbal interactions as the bedrock of democratic union—a cure not only for wounded soldiers but also for a divided nation, and perhaps in fact the last hope for holding America together. [40]


Whitman's Conversational Poetics: The Living, Spoken, Answerable Word—and the Printed Page

Whitman’s hospital dialogues shaped not only the themes but also the form of his poetic experiments in the years after the Civil War, as he sought to adapt the dynamics of face-to-face conversational intimacy to the printed page, producing written texts that test experimental combinations of closeness and distance, reaching out to “you, whoever you are”—the now unseen, and barely known, reader/interlocutor/friend—across gaps of space and time. “How Solemn as One by One,” a Drum-Taps poem inscribed as having been written in Washington City, 1865, begins with a vision of the poet as wound-dresser tending to the interior life as an army passes by in an anonymous mass march, a “whispering soul” able to pierce through military masks and the loud pomp of official discourses, communicating in hushed tones with the “kindred” soul of each individual soldier in the ranks—with “what you really are, dear friend.” But then, in an aside within a parenthesis (often the private, protected, privileged realm for the conversational sharing of confidences in Whitman) the poem opens into a separate, parallel scene—suggesting an analogy between the poet’s “whispering” communion with individual soldiers singled out from within the ranks of a Civil War military procession and the printed poem’s direct address to individual readers singled out from among the procession of faces passing by before the open book: “(As I glance upward out of this page studying you, dear friend, whoever you are,).” While raising the hope that the poem on the printed page might connect with “you” the reader just as the poet speaks to “you” the soldier, establishing links like those forged in oral intimacy with a “dear friend,” the poem is also clear about the differences between these two scenes and between these two modes of communication. While the poet can “see” the souls of the soldiers by studying their “faces,” the reader cannot be encountered face-to-face but remains bodiless, invisible—in fact fearfully distant, unknown, unnamed: “you, dear friend, whoever you are.” And while the poet contacts his soldier friends as they pass by in real time, his written page reaches out to reader friends across the ages—attempting to establish connections beyond the reach of time, with elements that “the bullet could never kill, / Nor the bayonet stab” (453-54).

A similar intensifying translation of everyday spoken talk is evident in Whitman’s post-Civil War modifications to the drafts of one of his three short poetic invitations to conversation titled “To You.” In the original manuscript of 1860, this poem addressed the reader in the casual tones of a pick-up line spoken to a stranger passing on the street, a breezy attempt to strike up a momentary (perhaps amorous) relationship through a real-time sharing of confidences. But after the war, in the early 1870s, the poet added the references to death that suddenly and dramatically change the register of the conversational interaction, offering to take us out of this banal everyday street scene, indeed out of the wordly or the temporal altogether: “Now we are together privately, do you discard ceremony; / Come! . . . Tell me the whole story, / Let us talk of death—unbosom all freely, / Tell me what you would not tell your brother, wife, husband, or physician.” [41] Taking on some of the extreme, liminal quality of Whitman’s hospital interactions with lonely, desperate soldiers on their death-beds, referring to ultimate absence as well as to bodily presence, the poem invites entrance into a mode of intimate, transformative talk that might transcend everyday familiarity, opening into a profound expression of spiritual ends. Here, characteristically, the conversational mode for Whitman centers here not on his own speech so much as on an urgent request to be spoken to—to have his words answered. And now the poem is offered as a special channel for an almost unworldly self-revelation, a secular form of soul-baring confession, where “you” can tap into a close communicative communion beyond that available even in the most confidential daily converse with siblings, spouse, or doctor.

But the desire to develop written forms based upon such moments of dialogic communion is fundamental even in Whitman's earliest works. Unlike Dickinson, who saw her poetry as a "letter to the World . . . that never wrote to me," and as a printed book addressing readers whose "Hands I cannot see," Whitman—while recognizing the gap between writer and reader communicating through poetry on the printed page—grounds his art in the perhaps utopian conversational faith that his poetic words might be, in Alcott's phrase, "living, spoken, answered." [42] Two other poems titled “To You”—added to the second and third editions of Leaves of Grass—introduce Whitman’s poetry as a privileged realm for free dialogic interchange with “you,” the reader. The poem “To You” of 1860, placed since 1881 as one of the final, summary “Inscriptions” presenting Whitman’s book to the reader, not only clearly likens the experience of poetry to the everyday experience of spoken dialogue but also suggests that the poem might function for poet and reader as a special site, bracketed off from the pressures and repressions of the actual social sphere, where obstacles that in everyday life commonly silence or repress free conversational exchanges between strangers could be overcome: “Stranger, if you passing meet me and desire to speak to me, why should you not speak to me? / And why should I not speak to you?” (175). Modeled on the casual talk of the street, the printed poem might also transcend the limits of that talk. On the street, people are always “passing,” always on the go—like the poet in “Poets to Come,” placed just before “To You,” who presents himself as “a man who, sauntering along without fully stopping, turns a casual look upon you and then averts his face” (175). In “To You,” as in the Drum-Taps poem addressing both individual soldiers and individual readers who flow by as part of a mass procession, potential readers flipping through the pages of the book are compared to strangers passing by in a city crowd. Amidst an unceasing procession of such passing faces, emotional and verbal contact becomes difficult or impossible. But the poem is then put forth as a still point surrounded by that human flow, a place where “speaking” connections might be established, where the urge to camaraderie between strangers might be recognized and acted upon, where the free-floating affection that remains unexpressed on city streets might find expression. Singling out its interlocutor for one-on-one dialogue at a remove from the continual crowd flow, “To You” counters the anonymity of urban mass movements by offering openings to intimate, interactive talk. And once again the potential connection offered here is clearly seen as a medium for two-way communication—with the reader urged not only to listen to the poet but also to speak to him. Indeed the vision of poetry as an ideal medium for verbal interchange here puts a strong stress on the action, agency, and answering expression of the reader, as in “Poets to Come,” which ends with the withdrawn poet “expecting the main things from you” (175).

A similar celebration of the reader’s potential power is also the main theme in Whitman’s poem “To You” of 1856, which again grounds its vision in a moment of intense connection between the poet’s printed words and “you”—an intimacy established through a mode of hushed, physically close, interior communication that defines one prime form of conversation in Whitman: “I whisper with my lips close to your ear, / I have loved many women and men, but I love none better than you” (375). Developing as a sort of complement or afterword to the “Song of Myself” of 1855, the “To You” of 1856 stresses (for those who missed this message in the earlier epic) that all that is claimed for the “I” in 1855 is also claimed for “you” (“I should have blabb’d nothing but you, I should have chanted nothing but you”) and that, through a relation with the poetic “I,” “you” becomes the hero of Whitman’s songs (“I sing the songs of the glory of you”) (375). But if the true subject of Whitman’s poetry, then, is the intimate interaction between “I” and “you,” this interaction itself is not “sung” or “blabb’d” or “chanted”; not developed through loud, public, bardic pronouncements, it must be established through a private, conversational “whisper.”

Written conversation in Whitman mines a complex mode of “privacy,” though, combining a desire for closeness with acknowledged distance, and a desire for the loving fusion of “I” and “you” with a clear recognition of their separation. While a great stress is placed on the uniqueness and tenderness of this confidential communication in the 1856 “To You,” the “you” called to here—playing upon the potential for a confusion between or a merging of the intimacy of the second-person singular pronoun and the generality of the second-person plural, and characteristically addressed as “whoever you are” (375)—is at the same time clearly not unique, not singular, but multiple. Through print, this special contact is offered promiscuously to a multitude of readers, in a multitude of different times and places. And though the wished-for speaking connection might have the affective power of words spoken in physical intimacy, mouth to ear, no addressee is in fact physically present. This is not face-to-face talk—indeed the addressee’s bodily “features” are seen to “dissipate away” as soon as the poem’s conversational interaction begins; that is one primary effect of entrance into this special form of written talk. In such talk the figure of “whoever you are” cannot be represented with any particular, defining appearance, but must remain resolutely abstract. Whitman’s poem, then, again typically opens outward, offering affective comradeship to each unknown, unnamed, and unseen stranger in the crowd. Weirdly merging the private and the public in this way, “To You” can seem strangely off-key—like a declaration of intense love sent out as a mass-reproduced, mass-mailed, fill-in-the-blank form letter addressed “To Whom It May Concern.” But through such experiments Whitman attempts to base his conversational poetics on a form of love that is truly unconditional—a love indeed not conditioned on any specific behaviors or attributes of the “you” to whom it is offered. By this means, the poet hopes to explore a new mode of dialogic connection that is both intimate and open, and to introduce a written voice that might serve as a vehicle for two-way communication. Not working to shape and define the content of the character of “whoever you are,” or to dictate the content of the message passed on to any of its multiple interlocutors, the “To You” of 1856 situates each reader as a figure who receives the poet’s voice and shares his “love” but at the same time remains an independent and equal partner (or “comrade”) in the poetic production. Not made a specific object of representation here, “whoever you are” can be hailed as the potential subject of answering words that would carry this dialogue on into the future. Each reader is put in the position of the young boy in “Out of the Cradle Endlessly Rocking,” and can potentially respond as he does when faced with the strangely open-ended lover’s colloquy poured forth by a solitary singer: [43]

          Is it indeed toward your mate you sing? Or is it really to me?
          For I, that was a child, my tongue’s use sleeping, now I have heard
Now in a moment I know what I am for, I awake,
          And already a thousand singers, a thousand songs, clearer, louder,
                   and more sorrowful than yours,
A thousand warbling echoes have started to life within me, never to
                   die. (392).

In the highly self-reflexive “Calamus” cluster of poems added to Leaves of Grass in 1860, Whitman makes clear his recognition—and exploitation—of the key differences between everyday spoken conversation (with the partners in dialogue physically present to one another, speaking in the same time and place) and the special dialogic connections potentially available through his printed poems (in which the writing and the reading do not necessarily occur in the same time or place, and poet and reader—not physically present to one another—must communicate across a decisive gap through the mediation of the poem on the printed page). And he suggests more clearly what is at stake in the shift to a written “conversational poetics.” The “Calamus” and “Children of Adam” poem clusters show Whitman working through a schematic definition of the bases of his art: while the “Children of Adam” poems study the production of poetry by analogy to the procreative urges of “amative love” or heterosexual reproduction, the “Calamus” cluster can be seen to analyze the reception of poetry—the relation of poems to readers, and the reproduction of poems through creative readership—by analogy to the “adhesive love” of male comradeship. Developing this schematic vision of his poetics, Whitman again stresses his desire to establish close bonds with readers across the ages, but several “Calamus” works highlight an awareness that the ideal conversational interchange involves a highly mediated interaction between each individual reader and the printed page. In “Whoever You Are Holding Me Now in Hand,” the characteristically Whitmanian invitation to a special moment of intimacy—again typically addressed to a multitude of unnameable strangers, “whoever you are”—imagines this carefree afternoon of shared physical affection as a relation between one active reader and his favorite book. Whitman here plays out an idiosyncratic experiment in ekphrasis, where the poem about poetry is spoken not by the poet but by the artifact itself; as Allen Grossman observes, this poem “pronounces a stern ars amatoria—the ‘art of love’ of the body of the book considered as a person.” [44] And if the “I” of the book suggests that the true “candidate for my affections” might achieve in his relation to this speaking book something like the bodily closeness that Whitman associated with erotically charged, face-to-face talk, the strangeness of the translation of these dynamics of talk into writing is strongly foregrounded. The comrade’s gesture of holding hands while exchanging words, and the lover’s gesture of placing “hands on my shoulders,” here are converted into a reader’s relation to the printed page—holding the two covers of an open book; the strongly sexual suggestions of “thrusting me beneath your clothing, / Where I may feel the throbs of your heart or rest upon your hip” are transformed when we realize this is the plea of the book itself to be “carried with” you—in the pockets of the voyaging reader (270-71). In this lesson in Whitmanian reading, the reader’s relation to this book is to be like but not like the loving relation between friends. When it is removed from the everyday scene of direct talk, though, communication becomes mediated, complicated, indirect—and understanding is no longer easy. But while this changed reading situation brings dangers to the fore—“these leaves conning you con at your peril, / For these leaves and me you will not understand” (271)—it may also bring compensatory benefits. In a written, conversational poetics, a gap opens up between the intended message of the poet and the creative reading of the reader; the reader can never be sure he has “caught” and fixed the meaning of the author; the author can never assume that his meanings have been directly internalized and accepted. But in Whitman’s vision the poem does not so much aim to transmit a set message or theme—“it is not for what I have put into it that I have written this book” (271)—as to open up a potential channel of communication: to transmit a notion of a poetic mode and so to make possible the production—or reproduction—of future poems in this mode. The reader, then, is given an important, active role to play in this scene of instruction. While the book “sleeps” and is “carried,” the reader is seen to “go forth over land and sea” (271). If a reader is stimulated by this interaction with the book to “carry” it with him on his life’s voyage, fleshing it out with the forms of his own experience, then he becomes an equal, a comrade in the making of “Calamus” poems.

The concluding poem in the “Calamus” cluster, “Full of Life Now,” brings these implications in Whitman’s poetics to the foreground most schematically. Characteristically, the vision of poem/reader interactions here combines a desire for tender, one-on-one, conversational closeness (again within the intimate confines of a parenthesis)—(“Be it as if I were with you. Be not too certain but I am now with you”)—with a simultaneous stress on the separation between the two parties. Two separate stanzas mark the spatial and temporal distance between the two partners in this dialogic form of poetic communication—the poet writing his poetic words “seeking you,” and the reader “realizing my poems” (287). On the one hand, this space between the stanzas speaks for a potentially fearful gap between writer and reader: in written talk, the interlocutors are not physically present to one another; when one is visible, the other is invisible; the communication can only be mediated, indirect. Though the partners here mirror one another in their desires, each “seeking” the other across this gap, it is clear that each remains alone—calling out for love but recognizing that a loving fusion can never literally be achieved; calling out “as if” for the face-to-face exchange of spoken talk but recognizing that no answer will ever come in real time. On the other hand, though, these are not simply seen as failings or limits. For one thing, because written conversation is not bound to the moment of a single utterance or a single exchange, it can open to allow entrance to a multitude of interlocutors across the ages, in many future moments. Also, the separation between interlocutors in written dialogue helps to assure that the interaction will be more truly conversational—not one-way or one-sided or one-voiced but a game involving two players, a collaboration between two separate, independent comrades. In “Full of Life Now” the reader is not put in the dependent position of some wounded soldiers listening to Whitman’s talk from their beds in Civil War hospitals, but is forced to assume responsibility as an equal. And if in actual spoken interactions—with Thoreau, for example—the poet’s close, physical, intimate mode of conversation might have seemed to smother an interlocutor, invading his or her space, threatening domination by a single speaker with the talk partners tending to merge into one voice and one identity, here the reader is left alone in self-reliant isolation, with clear spatial, temporal, and stanzaic boundaries protecting his own personal integrity. It is up to the reader to decide whether or not to respond to the poet; it is up to the reader to find the will to produce answering words. Indeed, “Full of Life Now” places more stress on the “now” of each reading, on the activity, voice, agency, and “realizing” potency of “you,” the reader—“Now it is you . . . realizing my poems” (287)—than on the productive power of the poet. Focusing less on assertions of the poet’s voice than on the conversational project of creating an opening for the voice of the reader, “Full of Life Now” is also remarkably silent as to the specific message conveyed in the imagined exchange. The poem offers itself as a site for a possible conversational communication without dictating the content of that communication; to “realize” here does not mean to understand a concept, to receive a message, or to accept a vision—there is nothing specific to understand, receive, or accept—but simply to flesh out, to bring life to, to make real. The overall goal of this form of written talk, then, would be to address the reader without oppressing the reader—and so to outline a democratic poetics that might suit Whitman’s desire to promote both sympathy and freedom. “You” must be not only an object of address but a potential “I,” a subject capable of producing speech.  And this poem indeed leaves us with the sense of a poet—far from an oppressive, imperial ego—who is highly dependent on his interlocutor’s response; his poem stimulates, calls out to, shapes, but also desperately needs the voice of this conversational partner. 

This sort of conversational poetics plays a crucial role as one pole in an expressive dialectic that structures two of Whitman’s major early long poems. While the “barbaric yawp” of “Song of Myself” and the ode-like public pronouncements of “Crossing Brooklyn Ferry” are clearly formed by a strong oratorical impulse, a complementary verbal dynamic expresses itself in quieter moments apart from the loud and crowded catalogues in these poems, emerging in the hushed tones of direct address to “you” the reader that punctuate and ground each poem’s progress. If in one expressive mode “Song of Myself” addresses a public of masses of readers in the elocutionary style of Golden Age political oratory, other equally important moments evoke a conversational interchange with an individual reader singled out for the sharing of special, whispered confidences: “This hour I tell things in confidence, / I might not tell everybody, but I will tell you” (287, 206). “Crossing Brooklyn Ferry” is structured around alternations between imperious, bardic pronouncements addressed in formal language to the entire universe—”Flood-tide below me! I see you face to face!”—and a different sort of “face-to-face” address, reaching out in direct, informal language to each singular reader among the floods of passing human crowds: “Closer yet I approach you” (307, 311). (Indeed the question of “face-to-face” verbal interaction can be seen as the crux around which this poem turns: the gnawing problem that seems to trigger the poet’s meditation is his “curious,” uneasy, unresolved relation to surrounding crowds of potential comrades tempting him with the possibility of intimate talk, calling him by his “nighest name” in “clear loud voices”; but then the return to and acceptance of the vision of these “gods” who “clasp me by the hand, and with voices I love call me promptly and loudly by my nighest name” also brings about the solution to this problem (311-12).) The “plot” of “Crossing Brooklyn Ferry” then follows the progress of this interaction between poet and individual reader as it comes ever closer to realizing a print version of “face-to-face” human conversation. And it is the achievement of such a moment of intimate communion between “I” and “you,” making it possible for the poet to speak for the first time of “I” and “you” as “we,” at the poem's climax in section 8, that is seen to enable the final return of the poet's public, bardic voice in section 9, now speaking for the entire human community in the confident, celebratory, triumphant tones of the poem's conclusion: “Flow on, river! flow with the flood-tide, and ebb with the ebb-tide!” (312).

Certainly one of Whitman's most important and idiosyncratic areas of literary invention lies here, in his development of a sense of poetry as an eerily close conversational interchange between the poet and each individual reader, attempting to translate the unmediated, face-to-face, bodily and emotional contact of spoken talk into the quasi-amorous relation of “I” and “you” enacted through the printed page:

          What is more subtle than this which ties me to the woman or man that
                    looks in my face?
          Which fuses me into you now, and pours my meaning into you?

          We understand then do we not?
          What I promis'd without mentioning it, have you not accepted?
          What the study could not teach—what the preaching could not accomplish
           is accomplish'd, is it not?” (312)

In this peak moment from section 8 of “Crossing Brooklyn Ferry” there is nothing to understand except the possibility of opening up the lines of this privileged form of communication; in fact such a conversational “understanding” does not involve communication of a paraphrasable, preacherly message so much as an almost non-verbal communion between poet and reader. [45] This impossible dream of a powerful interpersonal exchange that flows across the boundaries of our porous selves might seem to some readers to threaten a dangerous imposition of the poet's imperial ego. But while the poet may seem too simply to assume here the affirmative response that breaks down the barriers of space, time, and identity and makes possible the quasi-sexual, pre-verbal, unmediated “pouring” of his meaning into the consenting reader, it is important to note that this climactic moment is still phrased as a series of questions. Though the “you” may seem here on the verge of dissolving into the “I,” and the poet's “we” may seem to be veering dangerously toward monologue, the questioning rhetoric of each phrase assures that the relationship will always be, at its base, fundamentally dialogical. By framing his most far-reaching assertions in the form of a catalogue of repeated questions, the poet puts his project on the line, making each phrase an opening to, indeed a plea for, reader response. Without an affirmative response from the “you” here, the house of cards of the poem's metaphysical and poetic claims would come crashing down. In this climactic scene of “Crossing Brooklyn Ferry”—the moment that makes or breaks the entire poetic construct—everything is seen to depend upon the achievement of a conversational connection.

Like “Crossing Brooklyn Ferry,” “Song of Myself” builds out of a complex negotiation between impulses to oratory or to conversation, with monological and dialogical passages working in opposed but also complementary modes. Certainly “Song of Myself” speaks strongly for the poet's fascination with the era's oratorical model of visionary social union. The dream of one lone speaker bringing a diverse collectivity together as a seamless whole simply through the ravishing power of one verbal performance—of an entire polis uniting as it finds its life expressed in one voice—is fundamental to Whitman's conception here of the colossal, bardic Self who emerges to speak for all America through his “barbaric” form of lecture-address: “A call in the midst of the crowd, / My own voice, orotund sweeping and final . . . Now the performer launches his nerve, he has pass'd his prelude on the reeds within”; “It is time to explain myself—let us stand up”; “I am an acme of things accomplish'd, and I an encloser of things to be”; “Magnifying and applying come I, . . . Taking myself the exact dimensions of Jehovah” (234, 238-239, 233). Along these lines Whitman's new epic form is inspired by what Robert Ferguson describes as the “aesthetics of cohesion” and control central to mid-century oratorical theory. The Golden Age orator's theme is always Union; his power rests in his “powers of integration”; and if he successfully presents himself as a whole self fervently imagining a whole society, he hopes that he will then bring at least a momentary sense of communal wholeness to his listeners: “The unity of a listening audience was simultaneously a type for and a step toward a unified country.” [46]

But by the mid-century these hopes that oratory alone could consolidate a more perfect union in an expanding and increasingly diverse America had become more and more an impossible dream. For Whitman, then, conversation emerges as an alternative verbal model that might more fully reflect contemporary social realities, giving voice to all that the oratorical model cannot comprehend: multiple languages and discourses that cannot always be resolved into one; multiple truths that cannot always be resolved into one Truthsayer's final Word; visions of cultural pluralism or multiplicity instead of singular Union. In “Song of Myself,” between the lines of the poet's bardic pronouncements of a generalized merger—”And mine a word of the modern, the word En-Masse” (209)—the poet offers his alternative, more radically innovative, notion of the poem not as the expression of a single lyric or oratorical voice but as a gathering of voices—a privileged site for interactions between the multiple languages of the nation's multiple constituent cultures: “Do I contradict myself?/ Very well then I contradict myself,/ (I am large, I contain multitudes.)” (246).  Reconceiving “Song of Myself” as an aesthetic simulacrum of the contemporary public sphere—not the seamlessly integrated public of the oratorical dream but the public life represented through the back-and-forth of ongoing dialogue in the many talk circles of civil society in this conversation-crazed era—Whitman takes as his model for this poetic experiment not the parlor or salon but the marketplace, Fireman's Hall, or saloon, with their more democratic diversity of languages vitalizing the verbal mix: “The butcher-boy puts off his killing-clothes, or sharpens his knife at the stall in the market, / I loiter enjoying his repartee and his shuffle and breakdown” (198). If the butcher-boy’s verbal “repartee”—incorporating the active bodily impulses of outdoor work into the rhythms of his “shuffle and breakdown”—works in a dialogic form far removed from the restrictions of the indoor salon, the poet also constructs his catalogues to build upon collisions between a variety of such voices, high and low, radically expanding the range of participants invited to contribute to the talk at this poetic transformation of the conventional Victorian dinner-table. At his “meal equally set,” Whitman declares his openness to President as well as prostitute: “I will not have a single person slighted or turned away” (205). And at these moments the goal is fundamentally conversational: not to promote the eventual melting of all these collected voices into one homogenized whole but—in a last-ditch effort just as debates in the actual public sphere were breaking down in these years before the Civil War—simply to use the poem’s open-form “magnetic words” to try to imagine an ideal, common forum in which Americans could come together to begin a discussion. [47]   

“Song of Myself” begins with the inspiration of an ecstatic, visionary moment of inner dialogue, when two aspects of the poet's self—“you my soul” and the “other I am”—achieve the sort of preverbal, quasi-sexual communion envisioned in section 8 of “Crossing Brooklyn Ferry”:

         Loafe with me on the grass, loose the stop from your throat,
         Not words, not music or rhyme I want, not custom or lecture, not even the
Only the lull I like, the hum of your valvèd voice.” (192)

Unlike Thoreau or Dickinson, Whitman seeks to base both the rhetorical structure and the style of new forms of writing on this oral mode of intimate colloquy—with the hope that even words on the printed page will still somehow speak not only for a “lecture”-like abstract message but also for the grain of the “valvèd voice,” retaining in their sounds and physical form (accented, even in the phrase "valvèd voice," by Whitman's characteristic alliterations, diacritical marks, and special spellings) traces of an original moment of close, passionate, interactive expression: movements of lips, tongue and saliva; pulses of the heart; the sharing of breath. [48] While Dickinson may have at times preferred written modes that seem to represent the "spectral power" of a "thought that walks alone . . . without corporeal friend" (Letters 196), the “tongue” that enables speech in the dialogic communion of soul and body in sections 4 and 5 of Whitman's "Song of Myself" is meant to generate a new sort of text that can incorporate the workings and impulses of an expressive corporeality:

          The smoke of my own breath,
          Echoes, ripples, buzz'd whispers, love-root, silk-thread, crotch and
My respiration and inspiration, the beating of my heart, the passing
                    of blood and air through my lungs. (189)

The organic form of such free verse—structured around alternating, in-and-out movements of breath and blood, and building upon an imagery of quasi-erotic sites of conjuncture in the natural world (“love-root, silk-thread, crotch and vine”)—makes it an apt medium through which to offer openings to interactive encounters between “you my soul” and the “other I am.”

And then, as “Song of Myself” develops out of these beginnings, the speech mode that defines the relation between the two aspects of Whitman's self in that special moment of communion on the grass becomes the model for one sort of ideal relation between “I” and “you,” poet and reader. With the porous interpenetration of bodies and identities imagined here challenging notions of a bounded, proper selfhood—“every atom belonging to you as good belongs to me” (188)—the reader is urged to realize that “I act as the tongue of you, / Tied in your mouth, in mine it begins to be loosen'd” (243). But even in such peak moments envisioning a potential fusion of the voices of “you” and “I,” the poet is always quick to stress that the text here is speaking not for but with the reader—as the experience of the poem should finally release the reader's own independent voice. If the “you” addressed in Whitman’s oratorical mode is meant to accept the poet’s voice as his own, in complementary passages exploring a conversational dynamic the “you” is meant to answer the poet’s voice with his own words. Nearing the end of “Song of Myself,” the poet is especially keen to emphasize that the relation between poet and reader is to be seen not as monologue but as interactive dialogue: “(It is you talking just as much as myself . . .)”; “Will you speak before I am gone?”; “Listener up there! what have you to confide to me? / . . . (Talk honestly, no one else hears you, and I stay only a moment longer)”; and again, “You are also asking me questions and I hear you, / I answer that I cannot answer, you must find out for yourself” (243, 246-47, 242). In fact, Whitman's poetics and his politics both rest on the conversational faith that his printed poems of direct address to the reader might be returned, directly, even across large gaps of space and time, by the intimate, responsive voices of those looking back from their own independent lives being lived further along down the open road.





[1] Traubel's nine volumes, based upon his almost daily visits to Whitman from the mid-1880s until the poet's death in 1892, are especially concerned with minute recording of the talk in the Camden circle from March 1888 to 1892. Horace Traubel, With Walt Whitman in Camden 9 vols. Vols. 1-3 1906-14 (New York: Rowen and Littlefield, 1961); vol. 4 ed. Sculley Bradley (Philadelphia: U. of Pennsylvania P, 1953); vol. 5 ed. Gertrude Traubel (Carbondale: U. of Southern Illinois P, 1964); vol. 6 ed. Gertrude Traubel and William White (Carbondale: U. of Southern Illinois P, 1982); vol. 7 ed. Jeanne Chapman and Robert MacIsaac (Carbondale: U. of Southern Illinois P, 1992); vols. 8-9 ed. Jeanne Chapman and Robert MacIsaac (Oregon House, CA: W. L. Bentley, 1996). See also Gary Schmidgall, ed. Intimate with Walt: Selections from Walt Whitman's Conversations with Horace Traubel, 1888-1892 (Iowa City: U of Iowa P, 2001).

[2] Walt Whitman, Complete Poetry and Collected Prose ed. Justin Kaplan (New York: Library of America, 1982) 392. All subsequent citations from this edition of Leaves of Grass will be noted parenthetically within the text.

[3] Whitman’s article in the New York Leader of 1862 cited in Walter Lowenfels, ed., Walt Whitman’s Civil War (New York: Knopf, 1961) 118-119. See also Jerome Loving, Walt Whitman: The Song of Himself (Berkeley: U of California P, 1999) 10-11.

[4] On oratory as a model for Whitman's poetry, see: Peter Gibian, “Defining the Oratorical Culture of Victorian America: Elocutionary Style and Political Stance in Walt Whitman and Edward Everett,” Intellectual History Newsletter vol. 16 (1994): 18-37; David S. Reynolds, “American Performances: Theater, Oratory, Music,” in Walt Whitman's America (New York: Knopf, 1995) 154-93; C. Carroll Hollis, Language and Style in Leaves of Grass (Louisiana State UP, 1983); and James Perrin Warren, Culture of Eloquence (University Park, PA: Penn State UP, 1999). For a rough approach to these oral dynamics in Whitman under the general heading of “performance,” see Stephen Railton, “As If I Were With You”—The Performance of Whitman’s Poetry,” in Harold Bloom, ed. Walt Whitman (Philadelphia: Chelsea, 2003) 99-121.

[5] For a helpful article that highlights the centrality of a talk ideal in Leaves of Grass, and begins to probe the peculiar, complex effects of Whitman’s effort to translate the dynamics of face-to-face, oral dialogue into “the semblance of conversation” in the reading experience of poetry on the printed page, see: Mitchell Robert Breitwieser, “Who Speaks in Whitman’s Poems?,” Bucknell Review 28:1 (1983) 121-43. “Leaves of Grass calls attention to itself as writing at the same time that it mounts the ruse of spoken conversation,” writes Breitwieser. “Whitman wanted his poems to foster the illusion of conversational intimacy—the sense of a shared moment between Americans” (131-32).

[6] On the mid-century American “culture of conversation,” see Peter Gibian, Oliver Wendell Holmes and the Culture of Conversation (Cambridge: Cambridge UP, 2001). On the key role of “the art of conversation” in the moral and professional self-culture of middle-class males at mid-century, see: Thomas Augst, The Clerk’s Tale: Young Men and Moral Life in Nineteenth-Century America (Chicago: University of Chicago, 2003) 93-104.

[7] For the phrase “a world full of parlors” and a survey of “public parlors” in mid-century hotels, steamboats, and trains, see Katherine C. Grier, Culture and Comfort: People, Parlors, and Upholstery 1850-1930 (Rochester: Strong Museum, 1988) 53.

[8] Alcott cited in Lawrence Buell, Literary Transcendentalism: Style and Vision in the American Renaissance (Ithaca: Cornell UP, 1973) 77.

[9] Alcott “Diary for 1838” cited in Buell 81; Alcott, Tablets (Boston: Roberts, 1868) 76.

[10] For published accounts of the conversations in Alcott's school, see Alcott, Conversations with Children on the Gospels, 2 vols. (Boston: Munroe, 1836-37) and Elizabeth Palmer Peabody, Record of a School (1836; New York: Arno, 1969). For details about Alcott's “parlour teaching” and “ministry of talk,” see Frederick C. Dahlstrand, Amos Bronson Alcott (Rutherford, N. J.: Fairleigh Dickinson UP, 1982) 156-57, 215-19, 224-25, 250-53, 300-13.

[11] Emerson, “Circles,” The Complete Works of Ralph Waldo Emerson ed. Edward Waldo Emerson (Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1904) II: 311. 

[12] Emerson, 1848 journal entry, in The Journals and Miscellaneous Notebooks of Ralph Waldo Emerson, ed. A.W. Plumstead, Harrison Hayford (Cambridge: Harvard UP, 1969) IX: 28-29.

[13] Emerson, “Circles,” Complete Works II: 310-11.

[14] Buell 79, 92; Wade, Margaret Fuller: Whetstone of Genius (New York: Viking, 1940) 78. For a general treatment of the Transcendentalist's interest in conversation, see Buell, “From Conversation to Essay,” in Literary Transcendentalism 77-101.

[15] The Age of Innocence (1921; New York: Scribner's, 1970) 133.

[16] Richard B. Sewall, The Life of Emily Dickinson (New York: Farrar, Straus, Giroux, 1974) 494, 510.

[17] Thomas H. Johnson, ed. Emily Dickinson: Selected Letters (Cambridge: Harvard UP, 1958) 178, 172-73. Hereafter cited parenthetically in the text as Letters.

[18] Sewall 564, 510.

[19] Higginson, “Emily Dickinson's Letters,” Atlantic Monthly 68 (October 1891) 444-56.

[20] Higginson, “Emily Dickinson's Letters,” 453.

[21] Thomas H. Johnson, ed., The Complete Poems of Emily Dickinson (Boston: Little, Brown, 1951) 211.

[22] Thoreau, Walden and Other Writings ed. William Howarth (New York: Modern Library, 1981) 127, hereafter cited parenthetically within the text as Walden; F. B. Sanborn, ed., Familiar Letters of Henry David Thoreau (Boston: Houghton, Mifflin, 1894) 401; Robert D. Richardson, Jr., Emerson: The Mind on Fire (Berkeley: U of California P, 1995) 281, 548.

[23] Buell 81; Richardson 549, 462-63.

[24] Sanborn, ed., Familiar Letters of Henry David Thoreau 112.

[25] Alcott Journals cited in Gay Wilson Allen, The Solitary Singer: A Critical Biography of Walt Whitman (New York: New York UP, 1967) 202-5.

[26] Alcott Journals cited in Allen 202; Thoreau, Familiar Letters 341, 345-47.

[27] Whitman cited in Edmund Wilson, ed. The Shock of Recognition (New York: Farrar, Straus, Cudahy, 1955) 277-78, 287.

[28] Alcott cited in Allen 204-6.

[29] Emerson cited in Wilson 278; for Whitman on this occasion, see Wilson 280. See also Allen 206.

[30] The talk at Pfaff's Restaurant also proved a key stimulus to other authors not in Clapp's circle. In Diversions of the Echo Club (1876), for example, the cosmopolitan poet Bayard Taylor brings us back to the formative scene of literary life in Bohemian New York in the 1850s through a series of dialogues built on the model of the parodic language games he had played with his own poet's group on Saturday nights at Pfaff's. Setting his parodies of the range of contemporary poetic voices in dialogue, Taylor recreates the club debates among increasingly serious and self-conscious authors that were central to the mid-century development of American writing and of American literary-critical opinion.

[31] Allen 228-31, 262; Loving 235-39; Horace L. Traubel, With Walt Whitman in Camden (Boston: Small, Maynard, 1906) 2: 375. On questions about whether Howells ever actually visited Pfaff’s, see Loving 235.

[32] Lois Rudnick, “Modernizing Women: The New Woman and Modern American Culture,” unpublished manuscript, 2003, forthcoming in Marion Wardle, ed., Robert Henri’s Female Students (New Brunswick: Rutgers UP, 2005).

[33] On Whitman at Abby Price’s salon, see Loving 215-17; Allen 199-200.

[34] On Anne Gilchrist’s salon, see Loving 377-79 and Allen 475-77; Grace Gilchrist cited in Allen 476; Carpenter cited in Loving 378-79.

[35] Traubel, With Walt Whitman in Camden.

[36] On the Wilde-Whitman meeting, see Allen 502-3; Richard Ellmann, Oscar Wilde (London: Hamish Hamilton, 1987) 159-63. Philadelphia Press cited in Allen 502 and Loving 412.

[37] Walter Lowenfels, ed., Walt Whitman’s Civil War 92-94, 123. On Whitman’s experiences as a nurse during the Civil War, see also his Specimen Days; Justin Kaplan, Walt Whitman: A Life (New York: Simon and Schuster, 1980) 276-78; Loving 262-74.

[38] Lowenfels, ed., Walt Whitman’s Civil War 89-91, 145-46.

[39] Lowenfels, ed., Walt Whitman’s Civil War 102, 94, 118-19, 104-5, 143.

[40] On the fundamental role of Whitman’s ideas about comradeship during and after the Civil War experience, see Betsy Erkkila, Whitman the Political Poet (New York: Oxford UP, 1989).

[41] Walt Whitman, Leaves of Grass ed. Sculley Bradley and Harold Blodgett (New York: Norton, 1973) 603-04.

[42] Alcott, Tablets 76.

[43] For a stimulating, speculative reading of one “Calamus” poem along these lines, see Allen Grossman, “Whitman’s ‘Whoever You Are Holding Me Now in Hand’: Remarks on the Endlessly Repeated Rediscovery of the Incommensurability of the Person,” in Betsy Erkkila and Jay Grossman, eds., Breaking Bounds: Whitman and American Cultural Studies (New York: Oxford UP, 1996) 112-122.

[44] Grossman 114-18.

[45] In Whitman's Drama of Consensus (Chicago: U of Chicago P, 1988), Kerry C. Larson offers an acute discussion of this key passage, stressing concerns that this tendency to substitute communion for communication, and contact for (a rational, social) contract, might define a visionary union that evades actual politics.

[46] Robert A. Ferguson, Law and Letters in American Culture (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1984) 79-84.

[47] For one perhaps extreme version of the opposed argument, reading “Song of Myself” as the epitome of an oppressive, authoritarian, dogmatic, unifying monologue designed to squelch all openings to dialogue, see Dana Phillips, “Whitman and Genre: The Dialogic in ‘Song of Myself,’” in Harold Bloom, ed. Walt Whitman's Song of Myself (Philadelphia: Chelsea House, 2003) 195-221. Making unsubtle use of quasi-Bakhtinian notions of “monologue” and “dialogue,” Phillips writes that although Leaves of Grass may in some passages appear to engage in dialogue—with its rhetorical questions, its calls to or catalogues of other voices—this appearance is “false”: the ambition of these poems is to be, in Bakhtin’s terms, “a self-sufficient and closed authorial monologue . . . that presumes only passive listeners beyond its own boundaries” (198-99).

[48] In Democratic Personality: Popular Voice and the Trial of American Authorship (Palo Alto, CA: Stanford UP, 1998), Nancy Ruttenberg bases a provocative and differently inflected reading of this tendency in Whitman on a sense that the ground for all of Whitman's work is a state of pure wordlessness: "the paradox of inarticulate innocence as that which legitimated . . . the nation's enduring silence about itself" (348). Reading what she sees as Whitman's privileged non-verbal state in the context of Melville's Billy Budd, Ruttenberg then finds this "black hole of purity" to be a late eruption of the sort of untheorized, irrational, and uncontrolled antinomian impulses that link the American "popular voice" to a Nietzschean "nihilism" and prevent the rational articulation basic to development of humanistic values or liberal democracy (378). One might well question, though, how much of Whitman's work is indeed based in a vision of an ideal source in "speechlessness." Certainly it is clear that he did not remain firmly rooted in immersion in this original moment—since he fell into impure articulation often enough to produce many volumes of articles, essays, speeches, poems, and so on—including developed theories about the workings of a democratic popular voice. It might be worthwhile to consider, then, that what Ruttenberg terms an irrational "speechlessness" in Whitman's vision of the source of poetic and political language—the undeniable stress upon a sort of preverbal, passional, and quasi-sexual mode of communion not through words but through the "hum of your valvèd voice"—might be more precisely seen as a "dialogic" or "conversational" speech situation. Even in sections 4 and 5 of "Song of Myself," the lone poet is seen not as a self-contained monolith but as the site of an interior dialogue between "Me myself" and "the other I am," soul and body. And this inner dialogue then serves as a model for the intended dialogic relation of poem and reader—the basis for Whitman of a conversational poetics. In Whitman's idiosyncratic view, conversation describes a verbal ground for his poetry that involves not only a theory of an ideal, wordless language (the pure being of a beautiful body) but a vision of actual oral practice, a form of intimate address between a speaker and a listener through which the physical pulses and pressures of bodily life can be incorporated into the material form of words. Rather than an antinomian denial of the give-and-take of liberal politics, this dialogic speech situation would form the basis of Whitman's democratic, communitarian social vision.