Nine Old Bones: Walt Whitman's Blue Book

“A glimpse into the workshopis how Walt Whitman described his “blue book,the author’s own intimate copy of LEAVES OF GRASS,with his many notes, revisions, and comments on his master work. Now reproduced for the first time (in a facsimile edition), the BLUE BOOKaffords Mr. Kaplan, author of the Pulitzer Prize-winning MR. CLEMENS AND MARK TWAIN,an opportunity for a revealing reassessment of Whitman the man. Mr. Kaplan is at present working on a biography of Lincoln Steffens.

by JUSTIN KAPLAN

IT NOW seems much more than seventy-six years since the March day in Camden, New Jersey, when Walt Whitman’s disciples, after devotional readings from Buddha, Confucius, Isaiah, Jesus, Mohammed, and Leaves of Grass, deposited him in the classy sepulcher he had ordered carved after some drawings by William Blake. As a cult hero in his late lifetime the Good Gray Poet had already generated a literature of comment and biography, a little part of which he wrote himself, and since 1892 this literature has grown to a point where in bulk, but certainly not in daring or discrimination, it compares favorably with what has been written about Shakespeare, or at least Joan of Arc. Sculpted in American grandiose, with a look that is benevolent but basically vacant, Whitman has become a sort of Mount Rushmore sphinx. He has all the answers — to birth, death, love, the soul, the simple, separate self, and the democratic mass. “Garrulous to the very last,” he said. But there is a riddle he never answered. Who was he really, and how and why, in 1855, at the relatively late age of thirty-six, did this former printer, schoolteacher, journalist, carpenter, and speculator in Brooklyn real estate suddenly emerge as the poet of Leaves of Grass?

“I was simmering, simmering; Emerson brought me to a boil,” Whitman said. The wife of one of his chief partisans recalled another statement which he made a few years after that sudden emergence. “He said that very much of it was written under great pressure, pressure from within. He felt that he must do it.” And late in his life Whitman gave an even vaguer explanation: “The book arose out of my life in Brooklyn and New York, from 1838 to 1853, absorbing a million people, for fifteen years, with an intimacy, an eagerness, an abandon, probably never equalled.”

Presented with such accounts, Whitman’s biographers and critics have had to fall back on “miracle” and “mystic experience,” both of them accurate terms, no doubt, and both of them also impervious to “explanation.” Surely by now we ought to know a lot more about Whitman than we do. We ought to have some psychological and literary context for what happened to him. But we still have only the general, chronological, surface shape of the transformation by which the vagrant, purposeless Walter Whitman, Jr., began to project himself over the roofs of the world as Walt Whitman, one of the roughs, a poet.

There had been some sort of Damascene experience. We know this from several veiled references Whitman made during the 1850s. And we know this from “Song of Myself,” which was once called simply “Walt Whitman.” That dazzling poem is a chronicle as well as a celebration of a sexual and mystic revelation: the drifter’s small soul dilated, entered into a loving relationship with the universe. And Whitman began to write poetry before which criticism, or any other form of analysis, simply has to lay down its arms. There is nothing quite like it, Whitman at his best. And when he is at his awful worst, you almost love him for that too — he is so unworried and so irresponsible.

Reading Leaves of Grass barely two weeks after it was published, Emerson believed that he had been present at a miracle and that he had to rub his eyes a little “to see if this sunbeam were no illusion.” But for all his joy and wonder, his admiration for “the most extraordinary piece of wit and wisdom that America has yet contributed,” Emerson insisted on remaining a rational historian of personality. “I greet you at the beginning of a great career,” he wrote in his celebrated letter to Whitman, “which yet must have had a long foreground somewhere, for such a start.”

Still, most of the commentators say that there was no real “foreground” for Whitman’s transformation in any of the facts of his early life or in the journalism, fiction, and conventional poetry he wrote before Leaves of Grass — no apprenticeship, no line of development, not even any promise. “The poet materializes like a shape from the depths,” says Malcolm Cowley, who, along with Randall Jarrell, is among the most acute of the recent critics: “ There is no other word but miracle to describe what happened to Whitman at the age of thirty-six.” Again we are back at the word “miracle.”

ACCORDING to the official survey of the terrain, Walt Whitman’s internal foreground is about as bare as the old lady’s cupboard. It is almost impossible, at any point in his life, to find a hard core to his personality, or any hard outlines. There may not have been any, and this may be why Whitman finds it so easy, or so necessary, to merge his own with any other identity. Moreover, Whitman himself is often coy, evasive, deliberately mystifying, and, on at least one occasion, even downright mendacious. “My life, young manhood, mid-age, times South, etc., have been jolly bodily, and doubtless open to criticism,” he once wrote. “Though unmarried I have had six children — two are dead — one living grandchild, fine boy, writes to me occasionally.” This is the first and last we hear of the offspring.

Because the foreground is so bare I had hoped that the Blue Book,1 an intimate document from a period of great trial and exhaustion in Whitman’s life, would reveal something profoundly personal or new. It should, really, if anything can: it is Whitman’s own unique paperbound copy of Leaves of Grass in which, during the black Civil War years and a little after, he made many notes and revisions for a new edition. But for the most part, the Blue Book does not show anything dramatic, such as Whitman radically evolving his personality or that of the separate and distinct “I” of the poem; the Blue Book has another value altogether, which we will come to. Again, the secretive Whitman is in command, for when, at the age of seventy-one, he gave the book to Horace Traubel, a disciple, he promised far more than the book actually delivered. Here is what he told Traubel:

You Fellows value these curios more than I do. This will help you to see how the book grew, if that is anything. But I guess you would know how it grew if you never possessed this book. The book is a mile-post. . . . This gives you a glimpse into the workshop. It is wonderful to me how great a store you fellows have got to set on these things. God be with you !

Compounding all the difficulties that Whitman contributed to the record of his life is the fact that despite the blessings and the pat on the back, his biographers have been timid about using the normal tools of speculation and conjecture. They prefer to scant his edgy psychopathology (“There is nothing really abnormal in Whitman except his excess,” said one biographer) and sidestep the fact that he was homosexual, which is simply undeniable if one reads with any kind of honesty the notebooks, poetry, letters, and supporting evidence. In general the biographers, infected by Whitman’s public cheerfulness and his deliberate identification with a national oversoul, do not like the obvious truth that a lot of unpleasantness, shame, and misery can go into the making of even a little high art.

Take, for example, the crudest inventory of Whitman’s family, not necessarily as a background for the making of a poet but possibly one for the breaking of a man. The father, a failure as farmer, housebuilder, and general handyman, was bitter, tyrannical, capable of terrible rages, liable to long sick depressions, and, as his son believed at any rate, an alcoholic. And in classic opposition, the mother, semiliterate and fearful, idolized her son Walt, her second-born, pampered him, and he was bound to her for the rest of her life and his. The Whitman parents had nine children. Of the two girls, one was described as capricious and headstrong; the other was a brawler and slattern, a psychopath who married another psychopath, who beat her. Of the six sons who survived infancy, one was a hysteric who became violent in maturity and died in a lunatic asylum, very likely of paresis; one was a habitual drunkard whose widow became a prostitute; one was a mild incompetent; one was a lifelong cripple and imbecile; one rose to colonel in the Union Army; and one, of course, was the poet, who, inevitably reacting against this background and lighting his own depression and breakdowns, preached what William James called “the religion of healthymindedness.”

At the age of seventeen Whitman, backed up by his mother, had a decisive argument with his father, who had ordered him to put aside his dreaminess and vague literary yearnings and settle down to work on the family farm. For about five years after this Whitman was an occasional schoolteacher, and then a journalist in New York, where two parallel developments began to take place in him. He became a dandy, a flâneur, who was to be seen strolling down Broadway to the Battery dressed in a frock coat with a boutonniere and carrying a cane. His employers were irritated by his languor, his nonchalance about assignments. In this new manner, which he later renounced,

No dainty dolce affetuoso I,
Bearded, sun-burnt, gray-neck’d, forbidding, I have arrived,

he had got about as far away from his father and the farm as he could. And early in this New York period, when he was twenty-two or twenty-three years old, Whitman published ten stories and a novel. He had never been so productive, and he was not to be that productive again until he started to write Leaves of Grass.

REMARKABLY, Whitman’s biographers, who all recognize this fiction as dreary stuff without much promise, still refuse to look at the stories thematically in order to find some “faint clews and indirections,” in Whitman’s phrase, as to what was going on in the mind and psyche of the future poet. This neglect is even more remarkable because, at the time, Whitman was proud of the fame these stories brought him — after all, they proved that he was right when he refused to obey his father and instead struck off into literature, away from the farm and toward the big city. The conflict with his father, together with the role his mother played, is a main subject of Whitman’s fiction.

The earliest of these stories, “Death in the Schoolroom (a Fact),” is about a thirteen-year-old boy of unearthly fairness who suffers from a “fearful inward disease,” lives with his adored and adoring widowed mother, but is literally bullied to death by a despotic schoolmaster, who ends up flogging the boy’s corpse. In “Wild Frank’s Return,” another adored son, after a dispute with his harsh farmer-father over a favorite mare, goes off to sea. Two years later Frank sets out for home again, on the way falls into a semimystic repose under an oak tree, and when a thunderstorm breaks, is dragged to his death by the horse. (Whitman made an entry in his notebook about his own favorite mare, Nina, whom he had to sell in 1839 before going to New York to look for a job; and Wild Frank’s repose suggests the summer day on the grass Whitman was to write about in “Song of Myself.” Another story deals with a boy who, in order to support his widowed mother, is apprenticed to a harsh and avaricious master, “a soulless goldworshipper.” ‘The boy is picked up in a bar by a young libertine who later shares a bed with him. “Bervance: or, Father and Son” deals with a cruel father who schemes to have a rebellious son locked up in a lunatic asylum; the boy runs away from home and is never seen again. And running away from home to the big city and coming to a bad end is the main theme of Whitman’s one novel, Franklin Evans; or The Inebriate.

Of course many of these themes and situations — harsh fathers (or father figures), adoring mothers, the contrast between the city and the innocent country—appear in conventional cheap fiction of Whitman’s day, a lot of which is hardly more mawkish, melodramatic, and hackneyed than these stories. But there are some special signals here: the way Whitman insistently patterns and returns to these themes, the way he develops explicit parallels to his own situation, and the way some of the writing has a texture of reference and symbol which anticipates Leaves of Grass in striking ways. The title of one of these stories, “Tomb Blossoms,” is a central Whitman trope; and the story itself contains some familiar images — the grass as the long uncut hair of graves, the invoking of “lovely and soothing death,” the image of “the dark mother,” which later appears in the great elegy for Lincoln.

All of this suggests to me that the one-year cycle of fiction writing came out of a deeper motive and a more intense if temporary resolution than Whitman’s biographers have been willing to see, and that a real look at this writing might help us to sketch in that “long foreground.” For beneath the clichéd surfaces of the fiction are evidences of the nature and thrust of an intimate crisis, of a groping for a new identity (which also involved a sexual direction), and of a sense of shame, hiding, and fear.

Whitman’s most recent and respected biographer, Professor Gay Wilson Allen, says of the early stories: “The young author seems to have almost a compulsion to write about cruel fathers.” And, as far as biographical interpretation goes, Professor Allen leaves it pretty much at that. Another commentator says of “Death in the Schoolroom”: “He even wrote a very melodramatic story . . . to show the terrible dangers children might run from the brutality of a teacher.” The biographers back away from potential foreground facts instead of making the most of them, even though a little exploration undoubtedly involves a risk. This is the risk of reconstructing out of guesswork, intuition, inference, and limited data what Mark Twain, lampooning Shakespeare biographies, described as a fifty-seven-foot-high brontosaur skeleton which looks convincing enough in the natural history museum but is actually made out of six hundred barrels of plaster of paris and maybe only nine old bones.

Despite their scarcity, there are real Whitman bones around, enough of them to give us a more convincing reconstruction of the man than the one we have now. But the biographer has got to be willing to recognize bones as bones and be grateful for them, as he should now be grateful to the New York Public Library for issuing a facsimile of the Blue Book, a document which not only played a pivotal role in Whitman’s later life but which also puts us, briefly, in the presence of the man himself.

WHIMAN’S notes in ink and in three colors of pencil, and all the complexly folded, fragile inserts and interleavings which had made it difficult for anyone to study the original without damaging it — these are all reproduced in the Library’s facsimile, which comes with an accompanying volume of transcript and textual analysis by Arthur Golden of C.C.N.Y. One has only to open the front cover of the Blue Book to find some distinctive evidence of Walt Whitman at work: there he is, counting up the words in the Bible, The Aeneid, Inferno, Paradise Lost, and Leaves of Grass, a reminder that he thought of his book not only as the American epic but as a new Bible which would eventually have one poem for each day of the year.

In 1863, when Whitman was in Washington as an unofficial nurse and hospital visitor, he asked his mother to watch over the papers and manuscripts he had left behind in Brooklyn, “especially the copy of Leaves of Grass covered in blue paper, and the little MS book ‘Drum Taps.’ ... I want them all carefully kept.” By January, 1865, when he was appointed to a clerkship in the Indian Bureau of the Department of the Interior, he finally had “a perfect copy” of Drum-Taps ready for the printer but was still at work on the Blue Book, which he kept in his office desk. In May the new Secretary of the Interior, James Harlan, a Radical Republican (in Reconstruction terms), ordered government employees in the department checked for “loyalty,” “fidelity,” and “moral character.” Someone brought the Blue Book, with its running message of sexual freedom, to Harlan’s attention, and it was seen on Harlan’s desk, according to an informal affidavit the assistant secretary gave Whitman a few months later: “a volume of Leaves of Grass, in blue paper covers, & the pages of the poems marked more or less all through the book.” Without any warning, on June 30, Harlan notified Whitman that his services would be “dispensed with from and after this date.”

Within a day Whitman’s friends got him another government job, this time as clerk in the Attorney General’s office, but Whitman’s dismissal had an effect which outlived the immediate sense of outrage and even the poet himself. For Whitman and his disciples, whose grief over Lincoln’s martyrdom was still strong and fresh, the dismissal crystallized a messianic pattern of gospel, persecution, and passion and drove them to contrive the messianic stance of the Good Gray Poet.

As Mr. Golden says in his excellent introduction to the Blue Book, this “glimpse into the workshop” shows us a private Walt Whitman who is neither the bardic rowdy and self-promoter of the early editions of Leaves of Grass nor the Good Gray Poet and Guru of Camden who dominated the poetry and prose of the later years. Instead we see the “unassuming, forthright” poet who between 1860 and 1865, a time when he gave a major part of his energies over to nursing the sick and the wounded, wrote important new poems (among them “When Lilacs Last in the Dooryard Bloom’d”) and carefully revised most of the old ones. All but thirty-four of the 456 pages of the Blue Book show some kind of revision. Whitman worked, says Mr. Golden, “with a kind of ruthlessness, at times a frenzy, in his attempt to tighten and reshape” Leaves of Grass. He rejected forty poems, shortened others, and abridged some of the lengthy catalogues (leaving, however, enough of them to provoke Emerson’s laconic joke in 1871: “I expect him to make the songs of the Nation, but he seems to be contented to make the inventories”). He worked toward precision, toward clarifying the rhythms. Sometimes he flirts with gentility and considers flattening out some of his colloquialisms. “Life is a suck and a sell” is penciled out to “life is a hollow game,” which Longfellow could have written, and the idiosyncratic line

Washes and razors for foofoos — for me freckles and a bristling beard

becomes “Washes and razors for those that will. . . .” But by the time the new edition was ready for the printer, Whitman had changed his mind once again, and he restored the earlier reading.

Here and there Whitman mutes the sexual exuberance of Leaves of Grass. He deletes:

Thruster holding me tight, and that I hold tight!
We hurt each other as the bridegroom and the bride hurt each other.

And his response to the voice of “the trained soprano” — “she convulses me like the climax of my love-grip” — has now been stepped down to about six volts. But for the most part the Blue Book revisions attack the belief current since 1902, when one of the second-generation disciples prepared a variorum edition, that after the Harlan affair Whitman soft-pedaled the sexuality of Leaves of Grass.

Even when Whitman is revising on literary grounds, those grounds are as shifting as anything else about him. For every good reason he left comparatively untouched the towering Song of Myself.” But he also left untouched such descents into the badlands as

You working-man of the Rhine, the Elbe, or the Weser! you working-woman too!

and

O hymen! O hymenee!
Why do you tantalize me thus?

“Very well, then, I contradict myself,” Whitman said, and the Blue Book gives us a partial glimpse of the self-contradictory writer at work and at play: “unassuming” and “forthright” as a literary workman, dedicated and great-souled, but also mischievous, silly, and vain, an oaf, a prophet subject to flights of megalomania, and a poet rarely dumb but often stone-deaf. And seeing this much of the personality Whitman has arrived at, we may be able, eventually, to deduce a little more about where he came from, the “long foreground.” But it is a last glimpse that the Blue Book gives: the story of Whitman’s later years is essentially the story of a disappearing act, for now, stung by the Harlan episode, it is the public Whitman, supported by disciples, who takes over.

A few months after the “outrage,” Whitman’s close friend William O’Connor wrote an attack on Harlan and an impassioned vindication of Leaves of Grass from which the poet emerged as a world figure, a prophet of humanity as well as America, whose physical presence alone — “majestic, large, Homeric” — set him apart as an epic hero. According to O’Connor, Abraham Lincoln had gazed out a window of the White House as the poet passed by and said, “with a significant emphasis which the type can hardly convey — ‘Well, he looks like a MAN!’” This legend, the

whole overblown pamphlet (much of which sounds like Whitman himself), and its inspired title, The Good Gray Poet, seemed to answer Harlan’s demand for “loyalty,” “fidelity,” and “moral character” but went far beyond into another dimension. In 1867, another partisan, the naturalist John Burroughs, published a similar larger-than-life document, Notes on Walt Whitman as Poet and Person, at least half of which was written by the poet and person, and the following year O’Connor published a crudely allegorical story about Whitman called “The Carpenter.” As before, O’Connor “had some difficulty in distinguishing Walt Whitman from Jesus Christ,” says Mr. Golden, who should have added that Whitman himself sometimes had the same difficulty. “My spirit to yours dear brother,” the poet addressed “Him that was Crucified”—“I understand you.”

To the end of his life Whitman and the hot band of the faithful who clustered around him in Camden stimulated each other to comparable exercises in levitation, all of which had a disastrous effect. The man and the bones disappeared altogether into the rendering vat and were steamily absorbed into a sweet-smelling colloidal suspension of disbelief and borax. The incomparable poet was subordinated to the second-rate philosopher, sage, and messenger of cosmic consciousness. And the ultimate effect of this cultism, as James Huneker said, was that its “slush, hash, obscurity, morbid eroticism, vulgarity, and preposterous mouthings well-nigh spoil one’s taste for what is really great in Leaves of Grass.”

The core personality which surfaced briefly in the Blue Book will not, certainly, turn out to be the Good Gray Poet. But it may turn out to be something gray, something that was strangely plastic, passive, and spongy even when the “miracle” began to happen. In a way which may be unique, Walt Whitman’s entire life had gone into his one book, and through that book he gave himself health, created, destroyed, and resurrected himself in a different form. He is always telling us this:

If you want me again look for me under your boot-soles.

When you read this, I, that was visible, am become invisible.

The last two lines of the Blue Book are:

I depart from materials,
I am as one disembodied, triumphant, dead.

And even when Whitman says,

Camerado! This is no book;
Who touches this, touches a man,

he may mean the book was all there was of him.

  1. Walt Whitman’s Blue Book; The 1860-61 Leaves of Grass Containing His Manuscript Additions and Revisions. Two volumes. I. Facsimile, II. Textual analysis by Arthur Golden. The New York Public Library, 1968. $30.00,