Isn’t Where the House Is: Whitman’s Camden Exile
From the homes and apartments in Edith Wharton’s House of Mirth to the mansions of The Great Gatsby to the Joad family’s farmhouse in The Grapes of Wrath to Toni Morrison’s “spiteful” 124 in Beloved, houses often provide the catalyst for action or the symbolic backbone of novels in American literature, particularly when characters feel exiled from the structures that they have considered their homes. In poetry, Sylvia Plath and Robert Frost often use the idea of home to explore domestic depression, describing places that have become uncomfortable because of marital trauma or death.
the Civil War, Walt Whitman’s life was filled
with a large amount of domestic trauma and ill health. In
an effort to recover from the many shocks he suffered, Whitman
Pinning down Whitman’s idea of ‘home’ is tricky, however, since the bulk of his poetry praises the outdoors, people, ideas, and intimate experiences. Very little poetry discusses a clear idea of home or even the structure of houses. In the few cases that Whitman mentions a house, it is usually in the context of an upper-class life, as in the opening lines of “Song of Myself”: “Houses and rooms are full of perfumes” (LG 27). Whitman, who loved the pure smells of the body, sees perfumes as a veiling of human experience. The pure fragrances of the skin, the hair, the sweat are blocked by artificially created scents that would speak to an upper-class desire for what one could call ‘hygienic decorum.’ Later on, the lady who “owns the fine house” watches twenty-eight young men on the shore and is unable to frolic with the working-class bathers due to gender constraints and class differences (LG 32).
On the other hand, in “My Picture-Gallery” Whitman’s mind is a “little house” where he keeps “the tableaus of life” and “the groupings of death” (524). Essentially, Whitman’s memory is his home, not really a house, since it retains experiences instead of veiling them. “There Was a Child Went Forth” offers a simple, domestic scene in a house where a mother is “at home quietly placing the dishes on the supper-table” (492). Whitman equates the soothing motherly image with the kitchen and the word ‘home,’ adding in the particular smell of a mother, as if her own fragrance supersedes the smells of nourishment provided by that room. Here we have clear distinctions between house and ‘home’--the first a structure associated with class and restraint, the second an experienced place, understood through memories and senses, not measurements and location.
Bachelard argues that the childhood home is ideal in many
surprisingly, Bachelard suggests that the protective nature
of one’s childhood home is motherly, and I believe it
is the connection with his mother that is key to understanding
Brooklyn of the 1840s and 50s,
from his mother’s death, Whitman’s relationship with the
With a surrogate family just a short distance away in the rural heart of New Jersey, Whitman was able to replicate the life of his youth, wrestling with Harry Stafford like a brother, taking long walks through the woods, floating in creeks, and listening to the birds sing. Whitman credits the Staffords with helping to restore his health after the depressions and illnesses leading up to and following his mother’s death.
these similarities to the many parts of New York Whitman called
home, however, he only once refers to
addition, there is an 1872 letter to Anne Gilchrist in which
Whitman writes that he is “home with my mother,” without clarifying
which home he means (SL
160). At the time of the letter, he is visiting his mother
the 1880s, as Whitman notes in his poem “Thanks in Old Age,”
houses are simply “shelter,” as important as, but not nearly
as satisfying as, “wine and meat” (629). In another late-life
poem, “Of Him I Love Day and Night,” a house has become a
crypt, once “full of life” and now “equally full of death”
(561). In letters to friends, including one to Mary Whitall
Smith in 1885, he sometimes uses the word “premises” when
referring to his Mickle Street house (C3
401). If his
“we know perfectly that we feel calmer and more confident
when […] in the house we were born in, than we do in the houses
on streets where we have only lived as transients,” it is
not surprising that Whitman’s daybooks are filled with depressed
comments about his Mickle Street residence, particularly between
the years 1887 and 1890 (Bachelard 43). The most intriguing
facet of these entries is his tendency to juxtapose comments
about his ill health, the bad weather, and the house. A December
10 entry reads: “in
Poetry from around this time elaborates on the claustrophobia first discussed in his daybooks. A brief poem called “Life and Death” calmly mentions that “[t]he two old, simple problems[…] close home” (629). Despite the fact that the battle is about to overcome him, Whitman writes very plainly that he will “pass on” just like “each successive age” (629). The feeling of imminent death, though, is pressing in on all sides. The poem itself is brief--four lines in a tight box with none excessively long. Visually, the reader feels the pressure, even though the words are meant to console. “To The Sun-set Breeze” is more positive, describing a “whispering, something again, unseen” that has entered his window. Whitman describes himself as defenseless with a trademark list ending with the palpable phrase “melted-worn with sweat” (644). While this may seem like a poem resenting death, or at least resenting confinement, there is a more positive unseen presence that is a “companion better than talk, book, art” (645). This companion takes Whitman outside of his room to see “the sky, the prairies vast” and to “feel the mighty northern lakes” (645). Whitman does not feel sorry for himself but yearns to get out of his bedroom to traverse the country the way he did for so many years.
1888 and 1889, Whitman’s letters to William O’Connor, Alma
Calder, Susan Stafford, and William Sloane Kennedy all seal
the image of the second story room as a “sick room” and “prison
cell” (C3 196, 199, 201, 203). A September 1 letter to Kennedy reads, “I
am still imprisoned in my sick room [….] It is all tedious
& long drawn out” (C3
203). In a letter to Mary Whitall Smith, Whitman describes
a baby’s attack of cholera right after mentioning how he is
in his “den in
way to better see the poetry of these years is through the
idea of exile and nostalgia. In his book Imagining
These concepts help explain Whitman’s numerous references to seafaring in his late work. In the poem “Twenty Years,” for instance, Whitman describes a sailor who has returned home after years at sea to a changed place: “all the old land-marks gone--the parents dead” (632). The sailor is looking “to lay in port for good--to settle” but ultimately has no idea what the future holds (632). The “restless keel” suggests that the decision to settle in one place is wrong, that the boy’s ship wants to keep going. The reference to the sailor’s dead parents indicates that the sailor is a version of Whitman, trying to remember and experience a place that was home twenty years ago but is fading from his mind. Whitman is urging this younger version of himself to sail on.
Ultimately, Kennedy finds that the exiled writer strives to “discover the ‘good place’ or the ‘high place’ wherein the ungrounded self might at last escape homelessness and find bliss” (28). Therefore, while Whitman seems to be wallowing in useless nostalgia, the poems of his later life are actually attempts at achieving bliss, at keeping those connections to place vibrant. Whitman confirms Bachelard’s and Kennedy’s views of dreams and nostalgia as attempts for the poet to experience what can no longer be experienced as a result of the passage of time or changes in place. He tries to recreate his home by translating memories into poetry, even writing about the power of those “sweet silent backward tracings” in “Memories” (616). Memories are “wanderings as in dreams--the meditation of old times resumed--their loves, joys, persons, voyages” (616). Although the poems of his final years seem to wallow in death and may lack the details we prefer, they provide us with a more complete understanding of Whitman’s perspective about home, houses, and, most importantly, his aged self.
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