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

Where Are We Now?: Whitman, Place and the Memory of the Heart
Rosemary McAndrew Rutgers University-Camden

“…the little thrill which memory will send along my nerves…” 
--Walt Whitman, November Boughs

Reading Whitman is to engage in his metamorphoses, reflect on his memories, and create our own “patterns of attachment.” It is no small contradiction that Whitman establishes a robust sense of place, while he pulls us, his traveling companions, to other sites with his reflections. We have taken “solitary rambles” with this writer, only to discover ourselves taken to another country, another life. We are rewarded for our diligence as readers, with scenes painted in panoramic color and experiences dipped in the cool waters of familiarity. When Whitman remembers, his sense of place is at once democratic and self-centered. When we read Whitman, we are at once reflective of other universal experiences and “in the moment” with the poet in his place.

In J. Gerald Kennedy’s Imaging Paris: Exile Writing and American Identity, the experience of place is described as an “elusive and perplexing phenomenon,” because modern society works against it and yet, he claims, there are clear “patterns of attachment” that form the basis for the experience of place for individuals. Lawrence Buell, in Writing for an Endangered World, echoes this thought, claiming that place is so integral to the human condition that it “shapes human character.” 

            As Kennedy explains, patterns of “geographical association … reveal the human tendency to regard places as focuses of activity and purpose.”  Whitman draws on his memories of place to show the reader the “ties that bind,” those elusive, fleeting, but nonetheless startling recognitions of place that inform us.  For Whitman, these deep associations are recollections that have shaped his life, each place an episode particularly moving and persistent.

            In the summer of 1880, Whitman left Philadelphia and journeyed to London, Ontario, where he would make his temporary home with Dr. Richard Maurice Bucke, a Canadian psychiatrist, social reformer, and mystic, and his wife, Jessie. His time in Canada would include a trip down the St. Lawrence to the Thousand Islands, Montreal and Quebec, then up the Saguenay to Chicoutini and Ha!Ha! Bay. He also visited and commented on the Asylum for the Insane where Bucke was the Superintendent. Dr. Bucke later became Whitman’s first biographer, edited an edition of Leaves of Grass, and acted as Whitman’s literary executor.

            On June 20th of that summer, while in Ontario, Walt Whitman read a New York Times account of the demise of a church in Brooklyn. St. Ann’s Church, although 1,000 miles from Whitman on that day, was near to his heart, as he recalled a memory from his childhood. Fifty years before, he had attended services, at Sands and Washington Streets, for the men killed in the Brooklyn Navy Yard explosion. Whitman was at his elementary school that day and heard the rumble which “jarred half the city,” when the U. S. steamer Fulton exploded. The “strange and solemn military funeral” started from St. Ann’s with what Whitman remembered as “impressive services...dead march of the band…old soldiers and salutes over the grave, in the ancient cemetery.” The child Whitman was moved to tears. In the summer of 1880, although in Canada, memory placed Whitman in the New York of his boyhood.

Later that month, the New York Times carried another piece. This one, entitled “Walt Whitman at Niagara,” chronicles “some lucky five minutes” at the falls, and becomes the entry “Seeing Niagara to Advantage” in Specimen Days. In this piece, Whitman takes in the scene of the falls, not up close, but purposefully “a mile off.” The reader sees with him the vista that includes “the river tumbling green and white…dark high banks…plentiful umbrage…bronze cedars, in shadow…and tempering and arching all the immense materiality, a clear sky overhead.” [T]his “short, indescribable show” unfolds for Whitman from a train platform, as it crosses a bridge. As this experience “lay[s] away with [his] life’s rare and blessed bits of hours,” we find we have traveled with him back in time to Fire Island and a “wild sea-storm” Whitman witnessed “one winter day.” With this, the first of the remembrances of place in this piece, he begins to catalog for us the special place that the view of Niagara will have for him henceforth.  The view, “[N]ot the great majestic gem alone by itself, but set complete in all its varied, full, indispensable surroundings,” will take its place in a  set of six other place memories brought on by his encounter with it.

“Seeing Niagara to Advantage”

For really seizing a great picture or book, or piece of music, or architecture, or grand scenery -- or perhaps for the first time even the common sunshine, or landscape, or may be even the mystery of identity, most curious mystery of all -- there comes some lucky five minutes of a man's life, set amid a fortuitous concurrence of circumstances, and bringing in a brief flash the culmination of years of reading and travel and thought. The present case about two o'clock this afternoon, gave me Niagara, its superb severity of action and color and majestic grouping, in one short, indescribable show. We were very slowly crossing the Suspension bridge -- not a full stop anywhere, but next to it -- the day clear, sunny, still -- and I out on the platform. The falls were in plain view about a mile off, but very distinct, and no roar -- hardly a murmur. The river tumbling green and white, far below me; the dark high banks, the plentiful umbrage, many bronze cedars, in shadow; and tempering and arching all the immense materiality, a clear sky overhead, with a few white clouds, limpid, spiritual, silent. Brief, and as quiet as brief, that picture -- a remembrance always afterwards. Such are the things, indeed, I lay away with my life's rare and blessed bits of hours, reminiscent, past -- the wild sea-storm I once saw one winter day, off Fire island -- the elder Booth in Richard, that famous night forty years ago in the old Bowery -- or Alboni in the children's scene in Norma -- or night-views, I remember, on the field, after battles in Virginia -- or the peculiar sentiment of moonlight and stars over the great Plains, western Kansas -- or scooting up New York bay, with a stiff breeze and a good yacht, off Navesink. With these, I say, I henceforth place that view, that afternoon, that combination complete, that five minutes' perfect absorption of Niagara -- not the great majestic gem alone by itself, but set complete in all its varied, full, indispensable surroundings.

When Whitman refers to the winter sea storm off Fire Island, we are reminded of a poem in Leaves of Grass. In “From Montauk Point,” Whitman stands again from some vantage point that allows a special view:

I stand as on some mighty eagle’s beak,
Eastward the sea absorbing, viewing, (nothing but sea and sky,)
The tossing waves, the foam, the ships in the distance,
The wild unrest, the snowy, curling caps -- that inbound urge
     and urge of waves,
Seeking the shores forever.

The geography is not quite right, of course, Fire Island being somewhat south of Montauk Point, but the poem gives the reader a time to see a similar event through Whitman’s eyes and acquire another clue about how events are stored away in memory.

            The theatrical world of the Old Bowery is our next stop in his sequence of place memories. In December 1832, at a performance of Richard III, starring British actor Junius Brutus Booth, the line between audience and actor blurred as it would do on occasion in the nineteenth century.  The New York Mirror reported that a holiday crowd of over three hundred overflowed the stage and entered into the spirit of the play. According to Lawrence Levine, in Highbrow Lowbrow: The Emergence of Cultural Hierarchy in America, the audience governed the stage as they made a dance in this performance repeat twenty times and, in another scene, a few helped themselves to items from a supper-table. Perhaps this is why, when Whitman saw the elder Booth perform a few years later at the Old Bowery theatre, he wrote, “He illustrated Plato’s rule that to the forming an artist of the very highest rank, a dash of insanity or what the world calls insanity is indispensable.”  In any case, there is no doubt that Whitman relegates Mr. Booth and the Old Bowery to the place where memories of the heart live. In November Boughs, another prose piece by Whitman, he says “To me, too, Booth stands for much else besides theatricals. I consider that my seeing the man those years glimps'd for me, beyond all else, that inner spirit and form -- the unquestionable.”  When Whitman recalls “the elder Booth in Richard, that famous night forty years ago in the old Bowery” in this section of Specimen Days, the memory of place is rich with “patterns of attachment.”        
            Another memory is of opera, an art that Whitman proclaimed the “sublimest and most spiritual of the arts.” When he refers to “Alboni in the children’s scene in Norma,” he is referring to Marietta Alboni, the Italian operatic contralto known for her classic Italian bel canto. In the final year of his life, Whitman, commenting on his youthful days from 1835-1860, wrote that he “should like well” if the contralto Marietta Alboni or the tenor Alessandro Bettini, or “the old composer” Giuseppe Verdi “could know how much noble pleasure and happiness they gave me, and how deeply I always remember them….”  In Leaves of Grass his tribute to Alboni is in a section called “Proud Music of the Storm”:

(The teeming lady comes,
The lustrious orb, Venus contralto, the blooming mother,
Sister of loftiest gods, Alboni's self I hear.)

Kennedy makes a distinction between the “psychic or emotion conditions” of place and the “mental images” of place. For Whitman, the place of opera is emotional, as he assigns Booth and Alboni to “life’s rare and blessed bits of hours.” It is, as Kennedy reminds us, “less the retrieval of a bygone time than a recovery of symbolic place” that Whitman undertakes here.

            When next Whitman remembers from his Niagara perch, it is the “night-views,” “on the field, after battles in Virginia,” a scene that reminds us of the power nature has to transform disaster into hope with its beauty. In the section on Virginia, in Specimen Days, Whitman tells of how “The nights are often unsurpassable. Last evening (Feb. 8,) I saw the first of the new moon, the outlined old moon clear along with it; the sky and air so clear, such transparent hues of color, it seem'd to me I had never really seen the new moon before. It was the thinnest cut crescent possible. It hung delicate just above the sulky shadow of the Blue mountains. Ah, if it might prove an omen and good prophecy for this unhappy State.” Virginia may be “[D]ilapidated, fenceless, and trodden with war,” but Whitman sees the natural beauty of the landscape as a symbol of its potential for healing.

            That same reverence for nature is available to us in Whitman’s next memory of the “great Plains, western Kansas.”  In “New Senses, New Joys,” he uses place in the way Edward Relph describes it, as that “projection of human sensibility upon the natural or built environment”:

Talk as you like, a typical Rocky Mountain
canyon, or a limitless sea-like stretch of the
great Kansas or Colorado plains, under favoring
circumstances, tallies, perhaps expresses,
certainly awakes, those grandest and subtlest
element emotions in the human soul…

Here, although grounded in a place, we are transported to a transforming experience of a spiritual nature, or “maybe even the mystery of identity.” Whitman claims that Specimen Days is meant to “illustrate one phase of humanity,” and his references, to specific memories in the Niagara section sometimes look like what Hemingway called “accidents of terrain;” however, place memories run deep and, in Whitman, we can see these specific memories repeated in his poetry and prose.

The last memory of Whitman’s Niagara piece has us “scooting up New York bay, with a stiff breeze and a good yacht, off Navesink.” Navesink, a seaside elevation, on the New Jersey coast, at the lower entrance of New York Bay, is the topic of one of the poems in the “Sands at Seventy” book of Leaves of Grass. The first of eight poems in the “Fancies at Navesink” section begins with “an old St. Lawrence reminiscence.”  The reader has traveled from New York Bay to the St. Lawrence and back; memories of “steaming the northern rapids” come to Whitman in New York Bay, while the Navesink memory comes alive in Niagara. Whitman calls it “a sudden memory-flash,” but later in the poems he describes how memory is as unrelenting as the waves, “in every crest some undulating light or shade—some retrospect.”  

             With Whitman, we appreciate the immense and expanding civilization of his vision, while we are drenched in a specific place. Sometimes it is the physical place in which he stands; other times, it is a memory of place to which he takes us. Yi-Fu Tuan makes the distinction between “space,” which defines distance and allows movement, and “place,” which is experienced and remembered. As we move among Whitman’s works, we can see the emotion and memory that makes place possible. We can also feel the commitment and attachment that are integral to place. Place lives in Whitman’s heart, until he gives it the language of memory.

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