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

Where is Walt Whitman?                    
Michael R. Dressman University of Houston-Downtown

 The American poets are to enclose old and new for America is the race of races. Of them a bard is to be commensurate with a people. To him the other continents arrive as contributions . . . he gives them reception for their sake and his own sake. His spirit responds to his country's spirit . . . . he incarnates its geography and natural life and rivers and lakes.  –Walt Whitman, 1855 Preface to Leaves of Grass

        Although one of the greatest attributes of Leaves of Grass is the immediacy of its engagement of the reader through direct address, one of the obstacles to contemporary readers of Leaves of Grass -- especially to students or young readers first discovering Walt Whitman -- is embedded in this first-person stance.  The speaker in Leaves claims to have been a lot of places and seen a lot of things.  He places himself in the middle of historic scenes and intimate personal moments.  A quick glance at the biography of the actual man, whom we might call Walter Whitman, Jr., would indicate, however, that he was not personally present for much of what Walt the Poet says he lived through. [1]

To experienced readers, the disjuncture between biography and poetic statement poses little problem.  But to new readers it may be enough to put them off, unless their guide to the wonderful of world of Walt Whitman strikes the right note in explaining and justifying these apparent deceptions.  As much as you or I may have come to love and understand Whitman’s persona, without a little context, new readers can possibly see him as just an old fraud, like the subject in Bruce Springsteen’s “Glory Days,” retelling achievements never achieved.

The current generation of young rap-raised, hip-hop savvy readers can appreciate someone imagining his way through adventures and posing in attitudes and roles that he never actually assumed in life, but they have to be leveled with and introduced to what he is doing.  And, above all, it is helpful to explain to them his motives and methods in doing so. Youth forgives motivated artistic subterfuge much better than it forgives hypocrisy, and some of the story about how Whitman constructed his poetry goes a long way to gaining new readers’ attention and acceptance.

This essay offers some examples of Whitman’s research into historical, geographic, and linguistic sources to build his poems and points to his developed self-image as America’s Poet as his justification.  I am working not only on the question of "Where is Walt Whitman?" but also, child of the '60's that I am, on the question of "Where is Walt Whitman Coming From?"

The general consensus is that during his lifetime, and especially before the 1855 publication of Leaves of Grass, Walt Whitman had fairly limited travel experiences.  He traveled in and around what we today think of as the New York City metropolitan area and the near northeast (i.e. Boston). He spent much of the Civil War era in Washington, DC, and environs, and his final years were spent in the Camden-Philadelphia area.  Other than this time living in the Washington-to-Boston corridor, Whitman is known to have made three major trips with the following destinations: New Orleans, Colorado, and London, Ontario.  Predating Leaves, the only major journey is the one in1848 to New Orleans where he worked briefly as a journalist.  However, this trip south and his return trip home to New York by a different route cannot be dismissed as unimportant or as having no effect.  The route has to be considered:  By boat from New York down the coast and up the Chesapeake Bay to Baltimore, then by train to Cumberland, then by stagecoach to Wheeling (then a part of Virginia), then by Ohio River boat until reaching the Mississippi, and finally by larger boat down the big river. On the way back, he came up the Mississippi but continued to Chicago, through the Great Lakes, and back to New York.  And remember what was going on historically at this very time.  It was just after Texas had been admitted to the Union; the Mexican War had concluded earlier in the year; and California and much of the American Southwest were just about to pass into US hands.  There is no doubt that experiencing the vastness of America firsthand had a profound effect on the simmering poet.  Maurice Bucke said that "Whitman believed that the New Orleans trip helped him gather 'the main part' of the 'physiology' of Leaves of Grass" (Field 742).  Still, even on that great journey, he did not venture to the places that appear discussed in detail in “Song of Myself” or in other parts of Leaves.  He never visited the eastern states south of Virginia, and his next trip away from the east coast did not take place until 1879.

Before you are tempted to dismiss the problem of having students see Whitman's persona as a character separate from his biographical identity as a non-problem, consider the fact that students seem incapable of seeing the narrators of Edgar Allan Poe's stories and poems as not actually Poe himself -- despite the fact that clearly several of Poe's narrators are insane, incarcerated, or dead.  Certain facts of Poe's life -- his drug taking, alcoholism, gambling, temper, marriage to his under-age cousin, and generally perverse life choices -- all hold students’ attention. His acumen as a critic, his career as an editor and writer, who had to make deadlines – these items pass unnoticed.  Characteristically, Poe does not call himself by name in his tales and poems.  He merely uses a first-person narrator.  Similarly, in regard to Nathaniel Hawthorne, despite the intervening of two centuries between his subjects and his own literary career and his clear disapproval of many of the practices of the early inhabitants of New England, students persist in perceiving him as a Puritan writer.  I usually introduce this question of separation of the author from the persona or narrator when we are reading Washington Irving.  His creation in The Sketch-Book of two voices (Geoffrey Crayon and Diedrich Knickerbocker) helps an appreciation of the issue, but it does not settle it for all students.

Some of the problem of Whitman’s being perceived as a fraud he creates for himself.  Jimmie Killingsworth, in his 1992 review of Whitman scholarship, notes that "no author before Whitman plays quite so elaborate a game with autobiography and poetic rhetoric" (46).  Killingsworth goes on at some length about how Whitman's "doubleness" (47) is the source of much debate among his critics.  But let us look at an example of this split between Whitman and his experience.  In the Preface to the first edition of Leaves, Whitman offers a catalog of geographic features and locales that include places he had never been, and would never go.  How is this legitimate?  How does this fit with the notion of someone who says that his themes are simplicity and directness?  In the Preface these sentences appear: “What I experience or portray shall go from my own composition without a shred of my composition. You shall stand by my side and look in the mirror with me” (Whitman 1965, 717).  When, in Section 10 of “Song of Myself,” he tells us about the marriage of the trapper to the Indian maiden “in the open air in the farwest” that he has never seen, or when he says that he is “[a]t home on the hills of Vermont or in the woods of Maine or the Texan Ranch” (Section 16), what are we to think?

Part of the answer has to lie in what is likewise untrue or demonstrably impossible, not in regard to geography, but in regard to other issues, in some of Whitman’s statements in the same poem.  If he had never been to Texas, he had also never been a 28-year-old woman.  Yet, in Section 11 of “Song of Myself,” he offers the story of the woman who is observing the young men bathing by the shore and describes her sexual fantasies about them.  I have found this section of the poem to be one of the best and most powerful to teach.  A lot of the other scenes catalogued, in the sections surrounding the tale of the twenty-eight male bathers and their 28-year-old female admirer, are full of scenes that Whitman could well have observed firsthand and participated in.  Even allowing for a transgendered fantasy or not-too-subtly veiled homosexual explanation of how Whitman’s persona can presume to know what is in the mind of the female watcher, the fact is that Walt Whitman is not a 28-year-old woman.  The only way he can tell us what she sees or what is in her mind is for him to use his sympathy and imagination.

The case with geography is similar.  How can Whitman’s poetic voice say that he has been places and done things that Walter Whitman, Jr., actually has not?  The answer comes down to this:  (I paraphrase the line John Lovitz used to proclaim in his Saturday Night Live persona, Master Thespian.) “He’s ACTING!” But if he is acting, is that not just lying by another name?  The answer to that question is that, no, he is not lying and that the difference is what makes Whitman’s poetry art.  I cannot agree with Allen Grossman's assertion (qtd. Moon 875) that Whitman's poetic persona leaves no room for "fictionality," if Grossman means that the Walt Whitman who is one with his book is the physical, living Walter Whitman, Jr.

The rapper Robert Diggs said recently in a National Public Radio (Morning Edition April 11 2005) interview that when he is on stage, he is an actor, a character -- the Rizza or Bobby Digital. (My daughter Clare serves my informant for this next bit of information:) Detroit's own Eminem, or Marshal Mathers, has at least four personae that he assumes while practicing his art.  None of them are the real person, but they all have some basis in his life or -- and here is the important point -- the life of his imagination. 

In Walt Whitman’s case, that imagination included a great deal of research.  Now that word research may seem odd when applied to Whitman because it seems to go so much against our general notion of him as the spontaneous and fearless prophet.  But the truth is that there actually was a “long foreground” to his career, and it involved more than a transcendentalist, carefully lived and observed life.  This is another pitfall of students, when approaching poetry:  They really are Romantics and think of poems as examples of self-expression, how the poet feels. [2]

The basis of the conference on Whitman and Place, held in Camden in April 2005, was that Whitman has a lot to do with geography.  He uses imagery of geography in relation to his life as in the title of his essay "A Backward Glance o’er Travel’d Roads."  My thesis is that Whitman sees the world essentially from one point of view -- from America looking out -- whether he has been to a particular American location or not.  He is, after all, America's Poet.  Betsy Erkkila points out, in regard to Whitman's notion of geography, that he “leap[s] away from the physical landscape of America” [Lauter 2923] in his later poems. Still, Whitman remains geographic in theme, as late-career titles such as “Prayer of Columbus” and “Passage to India” attest.  But even these relatively international or global poems set America absolutely in their center.

            A perfect example of the Walt character assuming the stance of America's Poet, without a basis of fact in the life of the man Walter Whitman, Jr., is his 1860 poem, "O Magnet-South."  This poem, published in The Southern Literary Messenger in July of that year is almost a nineteenth-century version of Al Jolson's "Swannee."  Here are the first few lines:

O magnet-South! O glistening perfumed South! my South!
O quick mettle, rich blood, implulse and love! good and evil! O all dear to me!
O dear to me my birth-things--all moving things and the trees where I was born--the
grains, plants, rivers,
Dear to me my own slow sluggish rivers where they flow, distant, over flats of silvery
sands or through swamps,
Dear to me the Roanoke, the Savannah, the Altamahaw, the Pedee, the Tombigbee, the
Santee, the Coosa and the Sabine,
O pensive, far away wandering, I return with my soul to haunt their banks again, ... 
(ll. 1-6, Whitman 1965, 473)


This poem shares many features with other geographically oriented Whitman poems.

·                    First, it is an American setting.  Walt speaks from an American point of view -- out to the rest of the world.  At one point in the poem, he christens the mocking bird "the American mimic."

·                    Second, it is effusive and quite personal.  The South is not some place he has just heard about or visited.  He claims to have been born there and to be returning to enjoy his memories of home.  In fact, the original title of this poem is "Longings for Home," with the new title "O Magnet-South" not being assigned to it until the 1881 edition of Leaves. 

·                    Third, it has characteristic Whitmanesque poetic and rhetorical devices, such as alliteration (in line 4, "slow sluggish ... silvery sands ... swamps"), the initial and internal repetitions (the "O" of address, the repeated phrase "dear to me"), and the catalogue of southern river names.

·                    Fourth, the focus is on the native and the natural.  It is a major principle of Whitman's geographic nomenclature that indigenous names are always the best.  As he says in An American Primer, "All aboriginal names sound good" (18).  The native American river names fit this principle precisely.  Also, all through the poem's twenty-two lines, the speaker lists wildlife, vegetation, and physical features of the landscape.  Except for a passing references to the "freebooter" and the "fugitive" who dwell in swamps, there are no human beings, no cities or towns.  This is a Transcendetalist-style appreciation of natural phenomena.  The details pile up to inspire admiration.

            The note for "O Magnet-South" in the Blodgett and Bradley edition of Leaves (1965) comments that Walt's "liking for the South, recalling his New Orleans days, is of course genuine enough; yet the passion expressed here, with its luxuriant phrasing, may seem faintly factitious, as if for the occasion" (473-4n).  Recall the situation:  The country is on the brink of civil war; the two halves of the Union are already spinning apart.  Whitman chooses this moment in history to publish a poem in a Southern periodical and to present it as written by a Southerner. As I noted earlier, Whitman had been down the Mississippi and back, but he had never seen the Carolinas or most of the Gulf Coast States.  So what is America's Poet to do?  Apparently the answer was, "Do some research."  In Samuel Griswold Goodrich's geography book, entitled The world as it is, and as it has been, or, a comprehensive geography and history, ancient and modern, Walt Whitman found exactly what he needed:  place names, remarks on animals and plants, and descriptions of coastlines, swamps, and other geographical features -- some of which he copied phrase by phrase into his poem.

            Goodrich begins his 'Lesson XXXVIII . . .The Southern States' with a description of the rivers: "Most of these are sluggish, flow through level country, and have their mouths barred with sand" (Dressman 67).  The eight rivers mentioned in line 5 -- Roakonake, Savannah, Altamahaw, Pedee, Tombigbee, Santee, Coosa, and Sabine -- are all contained in a set of notes that Whitman entitled "The States and Their Resources" and that are clearly drawn from Goodrich (Charles E. Feinberg Collection, Library of Congress, Box 40, Item 17).  Here is a further example from "O Magnet-South" (line 10):  "I see where the live-oak is growing, I see where the yellow-pine, the scented bay-tree, the lemon and orange, the cypress, the graceful palmetto."  The line, taken nearly word for word from his notes, is a pastiche of two sentences in the Geography, which in his description of the "Natural Products" of the Southern States includes these words: "The yellow pine, producing tar, pitch and turpentine, and valuable; the live oak, the gloomy cypress, the graceful palmetto, the aromatic by tree, are indigenous to this region. . . . Oranges, lemons, and figs are among the fruits" (Dressman 67).

It appears that Whitman used other parts of Goodrich's Geography to inform details of two other poems: "Starting from Paumanok" and "Our Old Feuillage."  Remarkably, he cribbed phrases from this source even for places within the realm of his experience, or at least within traveling distance, such as the eastern end of Long Island.

            Having established that Whitman uses sources for his geography, we can raise the logical question, "Why?"  Why does he create the illusion of his having been places he has not seen, and why does he seek, in a book, details for his poems?  The answer to these questions is at the heart of Walt Whitman's artistic method.  Just like his mentor, Emerson, Whitman was a man of words.  He did not have Emerson's elite education and knowledge of European philosophy and Asian theology.  But he had a sincere middle-class grasp of popular books on language, science, travel, and other topics.  He was an assiduous reader of newspapers and saver of clippings. He searched in dictionaries and in reference books.  The catalogs in his poetry are often based on long lists that he constructed based on his readings.  However, we can see the duality in Whitman just as we must in Emerson.  There Ralph Waldo Emerson, the Father of Transcendentalism, is, encouraging us to get out into nature and to take it in firsthand -- even as it is clear that a good deal of what led him to take that stance was based on his reflections on his reading.  So it is with his pupil, The Poet.  It is Whitman's hope to absorb and express the whole of America and its people, despite the fact that he did not have and could not have had the range of experience necessary to speak authoritatively and in detail about his projected poetic matter.

            To create Walt Whitman, America's Poet, the hard-working writer Walter Whitman, Jr., was obligated to do his homework.  For Leaves of Grass, he snatches ideas for the design of the book from Fanny Fern and for the length of his lines from Martin Farquhar Tupper.  He takes ideas about language from Richard Trench, Max Muller, and Maximilian Schele de Vere and ideas about places from Samuel Goodrich.  He scans textbooks and manuals.  All the while, he is centered in America and is speaking out to the world.

            Whitman sees himself as mediator for the people, but also one of the people.  He wills himself into becoming Emerson’s “transparent eyeball” and the idealized bard of Emerson’s essay “The Poet.”  In this way, Leaves becomes one with America because it and America are, by definition, the same thing.  As he proclaims in the1855 Preface to Leaves, Whitman sees the poet of America as someone who "incarnates its geography and natural life and rivers and lakes" (Whitman 1965). In his famous letter to Whitman, it is clear that Emerson sees Whitman as one of his audience who ‘gets it.’  Much of that success is attitude, imagination, pose.

            As I approach introducing my students to Leaves of Grass, I give them a glance at some of what goes into the creation of its art.  Once they catch on, they readily accept the background information and seem to enjoy being on the inside.  I guess this goes along with the contemporary phenomenon of TV shows and DVD segments that show "The Making of . . ." a show or film.  With that accomplished, they seem somehow more calm and ready to accept, understand, and appreciate Whitman's poetry.  And that is what I had been hoping for.

            So, where is Walt Whitman?  For one thing, he is standing in, and in a certain sense, over America.  His imagination operates to place the persona of the poems here in the US, looking out at others to be sure, but generally not looking at America or anything else from their point of view.  America's Poet is not xenophobic, but he is thoroughly grounded in his own continent, even if he has had to visit privately some of that continent on the pages of other authors' books.


Works Cited

Dressman, Michael R. "Goodrich's Geography and Whitman's Place Names." Walt Whitman Review 26 (June 1980),


Goodrich, Samuel G.  The world as it is, and as it has been, or, a comprehensive geography and history, ancient and

modern. New York: J. H. Colton & Co, 1855.

Killingsworth, M. Jimmie. The Growth of Leaves of Grass: The Organic Tradition in Whitman Studies. Columbia, SC:

Camden House, 1992.

Erkkila, Betsy. "Walt Whitman."  Introduction in The Heath Anthology of American Literature, Vol. 1, 5th ed. Ed. Paul

Lauter, et al. New York: Heath, 2006.

Field, Jack. "Travels, Whitman's" in Walt Whitman: An Encyclopedia. Ed. J. R. LeMaster and Donald D. Kummings.

NewYork: Garland, 1988.

Whitman, Walt. Leaves of Grass: Comprehensive Reader's Edition. Ed. Harold W. Blodgett and Sculley Bradley. New

York: Norton, 1965.

Whitman, Walt. Leaves of Grass and Other Writings. Ed. Michael Moon. New York: Norton, 2002.

[1] My mentor at the University of North Carolina, Carroll Hollis, was the first to offer this distinction of the two Walts, and I have found it an extremely useful concept ever since.


[2] A colleague of mine who teaches philosophy remarked recently, "How they can read T.S. Eliot and think that he just sat down and poured out his soul?"



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