Mickle Street Review Issue 17/18: Walt Whitman and Place

Whitman’s Legacy of Love and the Challenge of Public Space
Bonnie Carr Wake Forest University

 In his essay “Solitude” from Walden, Henry David Thoreau addresses the question of sympathy and human connectedness that predominates the American outlook in an era of urbanization and social transformation.  Asked to consider his own solitude at Walden Pond, he responds, “What sort of space is that which separates a man from his fellows and makes him solitary?  I have found that no exertion of the legs can bring two minds much nearer to each other” (90).  Although it may seem odd to begin a paper on the city poetry of Walt Whitman with a quote from Walden, I think this quotation helps put into perspective Whitman’s poems of urban spaces, particularly the Calamus poems.  The “exertion of the legs” that Thoreau refers to strikes a particularly Whitmanian nerve, considering that Whitman’s city poems and the speakers who inhabit them have a rather ambulatory character.  The city and its inhabitants are always in motion, and Whitman’s reflections on them, often contained in catalogs of images, objects, and people, seem to have to run to keep up.  The public character of city life exacerbates the problem of connectedness Thoreau points out from his more rustic context:  the proximity of so many people, strangers to one another, does not assure their union, Thoreau suggests, although so much of Whitman’s poetic efforts go into establishing just the opposite claim.

In his city poems, especially those in the Calamus sequence, Whitman has been associated with the flaneur tradition.  The flaneur, Dana Brand explains, is a uniquely modern and urban individual, usually male – a bachelor – independent, unattached, and mobile.  His detachment provides a vantage point from which he is able to “read” the crowd as if it were a text, assessing strangers and identifying them, their stations in life, by the variety of social markers inscribed on their persons – clothes, gait, posture, facial expression, and so on.  Whitman explicitly identifies himself with the flaneur in his journalism, where he offers a host of observational sketches of city life.  He later incorporates the flaneur’s habits of observation and authoritative social judgment into his poetry, where he develops a persona that is at home in and makes sense of the apparent chaos of urban life. [1]

The flaneur illustrates that the challenges arising from city life are challenges of sharing public spaces with masses of strangers coming from a variety of backgrounds and representing a range of values, tastes, and beliefs.  This is especially true of the American flaneur, who encounters racial, ethnic, and class diversity in crowded city spaces.  It is exactly this diversity that Whitman celebrates in some of his most vivid streetscapes, where he offers a social panorama of New York and celebrates the city as ideally democratic.  But, as many readers have noticed, that democratic vision of city spaces and city life presents Whitman with challenges as well:  amid the spectacular and intensely stimulating city life, the individual may feel overwhelmed even to the point of crisis.  The speaker of “Crossing Brooklyn Ferry,” for instance, is nearly overwhelmed by “the curious abrupt questionings” that stir within.  These “questionings” resonate in Calamus, too, where they are expressed as the

terrible doubt of appearances,
The terrible certainty after all, that we may be deluded,
That may-be identity beyond the grave is a beautiful fable only. [2]

These two variations on an urban theme each achieves some resolution.  “Crossing Brooklyn Ferry” resolves itself with an affirmation that the individual is unified with the crowd, which itself figures past and future generations, and calls on “appearances, now or henceforth, indicate what you are!”  James Machor associates “Crossing Brooklyn Ferry” with the “urban pastoral” mode, in which Whitman manages to assert pastoral ideals of unity and integrations in the urban environment. [3]   In this response, the speaker of “Crossing Brooklyn Ferry” shows that he is not a flaneur:  although he does share public spaces, he does not, and does not wish to, maintain an attitude of authoritative detachment, but abdicates any social authority out of preference for the assurance of connectedness.

By contrast, the urban speaker of the Calamus poem “Of the Terrible Doubt of Appearances” finds resolution not by discovering an answer for his doubts, but by claiming he can get by without answers.  With his lover beside him, holding his hand, the speaker says,

I cannot answer the question of appearances or that of identity beyond the grave,
I walk or sit indifferent, I am satisfied,
He ahold of my hand has completely satisfied me. (120)

Whitman offers here a different sensibility, an affirmation of self that neither requires complete integration into the passing of time, generations, or crowds, as in the urban pastoral, nor remains emotionally detached and intellectually superior in the spirit of the flaneur.  Rather, the speaker attains a loving relationship that enables him to feel the sense of connection that he desires more than answers to his questions, while at the same time remaining a part of the world of appearances that is the flaneur’s domain.  This resolution is idealized in the loving relationships throughout Calamus, where Whitman attempts to create a model that combines the flaneur’s mastery of urban life with his intense need for loving companionship.  We see this need expressed most clearly in the Calamus poem “To a Passing Stranger”:

Passing stranger!  You do not know how longingly I look upon you,
You must be he I was seeking, or she I was seeking, (it comes to me as of a dream),
I have surely lived a life of joy with you,
All is recall’d as we flit by each other, fluid, affectionate, chaste, matured,
You give me the pleasure of your eyes, face, flesh, as we pass, you take of my beard, breast, hands, in return,
I am not to speak to you, I am to think of you when I sit alone or wake at night alone,
I am to wait, I do not doubt I am to meet you again,
I am to see to it that I do not lose you.  (127)

This poem establishes the keen sense of desire felt by the speaker, and it carries the sense of the strangers’ union as inevitable.  The poem represents the moment of connection as visual, occurring in an exchanged glance.  The exchange of glances or response to visual information fits the flaneur conventions that Whitman is working in throughout Calamus – it helps to establish the flaneur’s authoritative detachment as he observes and judges the strangers he encounters in crowded public thoroughfares.  The moment of connection is silent as well:  “I am not to speak to you,” the speaker practically admonishes himself.  This injunction on speech is apparently broken by the poem itself, which exposes the glance as the result not of the flaneur’s detachment but rather of strongly felt connection and desire between the strangers.  And so we can understand the speaker as experiencing and interpreting intense, even secret intimacy in public space.  The poem itself takes that intimacy further into public space, making it present to others, the poem’s readers, through language that, unlike the exchange of glances, is available to others.  As it makes the intimacy of the strangers public, the poem also preserves the identity of the passing stranger from the readers of the poem. 

Many of the Calamus poems play on similar notions of secret intimacy that occurs in public spaces.   The poems, in turn, reveal the intimacies while protecting the participants.  Whitman’s motif of intimacies that are hidden in plain sight, so to speak, fits into the project of homoerotic union that many readers see the Calamus sequence as elaborating:  the poems celebrate homoerotic intimacies, but by maintaining the secrecy of those intimacies – hinting at the participants shared exchanges of glances and “signs and misdirections” – the poems are able to express same-sex desire without exposing the poet to the culture’s pervasive homophobia. [4]   This reading of the Calamus poems helps to make sense of Whitman’s political project of homoerotic union, in which he regards love between men, or “adhesiveness,” as the essential emotional component of political union.  Without disrupting this important strain of Whitman criticism, I want to emphasize another aspect of the Calamus loves:  their representation of these public intimacies as acts of reading and interpretation.  In this respect, the Calamus speaker participates in the conventions of the flaneur, for whom the crowds are texts that make legible social signifiers. [5]   As a flaneur, the Calamus speaker “reads” strangers external signs of social status, but instead of using this interpretive skill to differentiate himself from the masses, he does so to identify the sympathetic individual he can accept as a lover. 

In other words, he uses his social authority and detachment in the effort to become less detached, knowing that, unlike the live oak with moss, he “could not utter joyous leaves all [his] life without a friend a lover near” (127).  Rejecting the example of the solitary live oak, the Calamus poet expresses not his preference for the city over the country, but his desire for companionship instead of solitude.  Although it expresses the desire for companionship instead of solitude in the pastoral context, this line from “Live Oak with Moss” also makes a pun on leaves that connects the poem to the flaneur motif of the urban Calamus poems and that helps to clarify the entire sequence’s oscillation between urban and pastoral contexts.  As “Live Oak” makes clear, the Calamus speaker’s desire for companionship is related to his ability to “Utter joyous leaves” – to be poetically productive – and the association of companionship with language ties the pastoral “Live Oak” to the urban themed Calamus poems.  In those poems, the flaneur’s ability to find a lover depends upon both parties’ proficiency with the signs of urban expression;  the ideal lover that Whitman envisions in Calamus is therefore also an ideal reader.  And the notion of discovering an ideal reader-lover, particularly one who remains a stranger, makes unique sense for Whitman, with his great ambitions for himself as a poet of the people:  if the union is to be held together through adhesiveness, that bond must be made among strangers who nevertheless understand themselves to be intimates;  Whitman himself acts as the agent or medium through whom those intimacies are established and felt.  Hence, Whitman projects the act of reading his poems – reading him, in the sense that Whitman consistently associates his poems with his body – as an encounter between strangers in the public space of the poem itself:

Behold this swarthy face, these gray eyes,
This beard, the white wool unclipt upon my neck,
My brown hands and the silent manner of me without charm;
Yet comes one a Manhattanese and ever at parting kisses me lightly on the lips with robust love,
And I on the crossing of the street or on the ship’s deck give a kiss in return,
We observe that salute of American comrades land and sea,
We are those two natural and nonchalant persons.  (126)

The image of himself that Whitman generates here resembles the portrait printed in the frontispiece of the 1860 Leaves of Grass.  Whitman transforms the convention of the exchanged glance – the social discourse of the flaneur – into a trope of reading Leaves of Grass itself.  The response that reading generates – a kiss – is vastly superior, the poet makes clear, to other rewards he can imagine for his efforts, such as, say, “plaudits in the capitol.”

In other words, Whitman establishes the love of his stranger-reader as his preferred model of recognition for his poetic labors in the public sphere.  We see this most clearly expressed in “When I Heard at Close of Day,” which I have just alluded to, and also in “Recorders Ages Hence,” where he claims to want to be remembered as “the tenderest lover,” one “Who was not proud of his songs, but of the measureless ocean of love within him, and freely pour’d it forth” (122).  Both of these poems emphasize Whitman’s concern for his own legacy, the reputation that will live in the public imagination after his death because the gaze of the reader-lover – projected onto the text – transcends the physical limitations of the body. 

In effect, Whitman asks that his poems be regarded as living gestures occurring in public space, like the glances and touches that pass between sympathetic strangers.  The act of reading is consistent with this visual communication, and, unlike the glance, it can become a physical encounter as well:  the speaker of one poem memorably urges his reader-lover to “thrust [him] beneath his clothing,” carrying himself, in the form of the book, in a most intimate way but concealed from the public gaze.  The suggestion recognizes that intimacies can only be sustained in privacy, even in the most public of contexts.  The poems themselves seek to establish that private exchange in a public setting, but the poet registers here that the suggestions of such intimacies are insufficient – once those expressions of intimacy are extended into a public context, as in a poem, the reader must somehow recover the privacy that makes intimacy possible. 

Calamus addresses a situation of constant exposure and concealment that both generates and threatens the intimacies that support personal and political union.  More interesting still, the poet rejects the love of those readers who do not respond appropriately to his work:

But these leaves conning you con at peril,
For these leaves and me you will not understand,
They will elude you at first and still more afterward, I will certainly elude you,
Even while you should think you had unquestionably caught me, behold!
Already you see I have escaped from you.  (116) 

In contrast to the lines from “Behold This Swarthy Face,” in which the poet provides instruction in how to read him, these lines emphasize the elusiveness of the poet and, by association, his poetry.  This elusiveness is in keeping with the flaneur’s pose of detachment.  It is also in keeping with the poet’s profound sense of his own mortality, and in proclaiming himself uncatchable, he attempts to protect his leaves against the misapprehensions of future readers.  And so he cautions the prideful reader, one who might “have practiced so long to get at the meaning of poems,” and he steadfastly maintains his own authority as the one who “possess[es] the meaning of all poems,” as he declares himself in “Song of Myself” (30).

What I am trying to point out is that the authority that Whitman maintains as The Poet – an authority that extends to social and, ultimately, political relations, not just textual ones – is expressed as the social authority of the flaneur in the Calamus poems.  In those poems, moreover, that authority involves selectivity over choice of companions, whose dual status as potential lovers and ideal readers is conveyed by the visual encounters of the gaze and reading.  Why must the self-proclaimed poet of democracy be so selective in his choice of reader-lovers?  Isn’t the point of his enterprise to “contain multitudes”?  I am arguing that the urban context of Calamus makes the speaker acutely aware of the need for authority over his own loving engagements and selectivity in his choice of companions precisely because the authority he commands as a reader of the crowd is countered by the assumptions of authority of so many others.  The subjectivity of the flaneur is characterized by the consciousness of his individualism – his separateness from others – and therefore of the individualism of so many others who make up the crowd and who claim the same authoritative detachment as he does.  The flaneur comes to regard everyone else as a flaneur as well, judging as he himself judges – and while this capacity increases the chances that the Calamus speaker might be rejected more frequently than he would like, he is actually more concerned about the alternative:  the possibility that he will be accepted by the crowds, but for reasons he cannot abide.  To be judged correctly and rejected is at least explicable by virtue of lack of sympathy, that mystical, sublime connection that, in Thoreau’s less eroticized language, “brings two minds nearer one another.”  By contrast, to be read wrong and embraced just the same is both a failure and an offense to the Calamus poet.  And the prospect of that failure is a continual threat in the public, urban spaces that, for Whitman, so aptly figure democracy itself. 

[1] See Dana Brand’s definition of the flaneur in his introduction to The Spectator and the City in Nineteenth-Century American Literature (Cambridge:  Cambridge Univ. Press, 1991), pp. 9ff., as well as his discussion of Whitman’s uses of the flaneur persona in that volume.

[2] Leaves of Grass, ed. Sculley Bradley and Harold W. Blodgett (New York:  Norton, 1973), p. 120.  Unless otherwise noted, all Whitman quotations are taken from this edition and will be cited parenthetically in the text.

[3] Pastoral Cities:  Urban Ideals and the Symbolic Landscape of America (Madison:  Univ. of Wisconsin Press, 1987).

[4] This strain of interpretation is represented by readings of Calamus in, among other critical works, Betsy Erkkila, Whitman the Political Poet (New York:  Oxford Univ. Press, 1988), Michael Moon, Disseminating Whitman:  Revision and Corporeality in Leaves of Grass  (Cambridge:  Harvard Univ. Press, 1991), Tom Yingling, “Homosexuality and Utopian Discourse in American Poetry,” in Breaking Bounds:  Whitman and American Cultural Studies, ed. Betsy Erkkila and Jay Grossman (New York:  Oxford Univ. Press, 1996) 135-146.

[5] Brand makes the connection between the urban crowd and a written text for the flaneur in general (p. 23), but in his discussion of Whitman as a flaneur he emphasizes an analogy between the crowds and visual texts, such as panoramas and photographs (164-169), claiming that Whitman’s work as a poet was to find the language with which to express this richly visual language.


Mickle Street Review Issue 17/18: Walt Whitman and Place