Commentary

Selected Criticism

Title:
Leaves of Grass, 1867 edition
Author:
Mancuso, Luke
Print source:
J.R. LeMaster and Donald D. Kummings, eds., Walt Whitman: An Encyclopedia (New York: Garland Publishing, 1998), reproduced by permission.

The fourth (1867) edition of Leaves of Grass was actually published in November of 1866 as the third installment of Whitman's Reconstruction project. Following closely on Drum-Taps (1865) and the Sequel to Drum-Taps (1865–1866), the first of at least four different formats of the text were available from the presses of a New York printer, William E. Chapin. In various permutations, Whitman circulated this fourth edition as four separately paginated books stitched together between two covers: a vastly re-edited version of the 1860 Leaves, a reissue of Drum-Taps, a reissue of the Sequel to Drum-Taps, and a striking coda called Songs Before Parting. This most chaotic of all six editions of Leaves contains only six new poems ("Inscription" [later "One's-Self I Sing" and "Small the Theme of My Chant"], "The Runner," "Leaves of Grass" number 2 [later "Tears"], "Leaves of Grass" number 3 [later "Aboard at a Ship's Helm"], "When I Read the Book," and "The City Dead-House"), but its significance lies in its intriguing raggedness, which is embedded in the social upheaval in the immediate aftermath of the Civil War.

The 1867 Leaves has been designated the "workshop" edition, and as such, has been relegated to the status of a curiosity in the ongoing evolution of Leaves of Grass. However, as a text that circulated in the midst of an unsettled cultural "workshop" that was reconstituting the ruins of postwar America, this edition provides a fertile site in representing the incipient nationalist ideology that intensified in the years following Appomattox. On publication, the scant critical attention devoted to this edition underscored Whitman's nationalism and his exuberant democratic instinct. The images of a coherent Union proliferate throughout all parts of the 1867 edition, but the physical "dismemberment" of the book mirrors not only the fracturing of the North from the South, but also bears the same stress marks as the contentious rhetoric across America concerned with reinstating rebel states and racial differences between whites and newly-emancipated slaves. For instance, with the legislative tide turning toward the ratification of the Fourteenth Amendment in 1868, which guaranteed African Americans citizenship on a national scale, Whitman's poetics sought at every turn to reinforce the fragile coalition between sectional and racial factions. Through several strategic revisions of his antebellum poems, along with his new 1867 insertions, Whitman urgently accented democratic nationality, while carefully superintending his earlier images of cultural diversity on the Union landscape.

For the first time, the 1867 Leaves opened with the poem "Inscription," which would thereafter introduce the work to subsequent readers. It has been suggested that "Inscription" contains in its six verses the skeletal purpose of the final edition of Leaves of Grass. The dominant image of "ONE'S-SELF" as the subject of the chant "for the use of the New World," quickly becomes an exchange between the individual self and the collective self: after announcing "Man's physiology complete," the speaker continues to exert a larger scheme, which moves from "One's-Self" to "En-Masse." In a single line, the slippage in the movement from the isolated individual to the collective body politic underwrites Whitman's commitment to sing of his historical position in postwar America. The image of "One's-Self" has been conventionally read as a call for the sovereignty of the individual, the irreducible agent of democracy. But the egotistical sublime fails to account for the movement from "single" to "unitary" (collective) self.

Several revisions of earlier poems in the rearranged 1867 version of Leaves help the reader to map out the increasing emphasis the poet places on collective identity. In the second poem of this edition, "Starting from Paumanok," Whitman modifies the autobiographical references in the 1860 version and gives the poetic persona a continental identity. The federalizing spirit that was emanating from Washington, in its legislative attempts to reconstruct the Union, finds an echo in "Paumanok" through the embrace of diverse geographical sites. Also, there is an echo of Whitman's elegy, "When Lilacs Last in the Dooryard Bloom'd," where the "hermit thrush" moves the speaker to inaugurate a "New World" out of the ashes of the war. In addition, the renovated world that Whitman was inaugurating had already begun its reversal of the effects of the war, through the 1865 abolition of slavery, and therefore, the "Paumanok" speaker can reincorporate the ex-Rebel states as potential readers of Leaves. There is an explicit mention of the racial politics of 1866 when Whitman cites the "comity clause" of the Constitution (Article 4, Section 2) in section 6. This clause entitles all citizens of an individual state to the privileges and immunities of every other state. Abolitionists had since the 1840s widened the scope of the comity clause to include free blacks and slaves under these protections. In July 1868, with the ratification of the Fourteenth Amendment, Whitman's 1866 "Paumanok" text intersects with this understanding of that constitutional diction as applying to the renovated concept of national citizenship. After 1868, the federal government had the right to preside over the states' conduct in the forum of civil liberties, beyond local and regional custom, especially in relation to ex-slaves as they laid claim to authentic status as descendants of the Constitution. In the 1867 Leaves, Whitman debuted the poem "Tears," which offers the enigmatic spectacle of a weeping "muffled" figure on a "white" shore. Given the color coding ("white"/"shade") and the undeniable remorse expressed in this text, "Tears" may well have resonated with the concurrent debates over the incorporation of African Americans into the national family. Therefore, when read as a cultural text, Whitman's antebellum frankness in depicting blacks (most famously, in "Song of Myself," speaking in the voice of the slave) has receded into indeterminacy. But the sentimental "lump" suddenly takes on a threatening persona and wills a strong storm to engulf the "white" shore. Thus, read allegorically, the text has enacted the race hatred that greeted ex-slaves at every turn in their bid for postwar equality. Whitman's poem points threateningly to the result of such hatred if the cultural inequalities between races persisted indefinitely.

Whitman's texts of social solidarity, the "Calamus" cluster, comprise the longest cluster of poems in the 1867 Leaves, and the poet has moved them closer to the front of the volume. Along with the "Children of Adam" cluster, these two groupings, centered on social relations, are the least destabilized of any clusters from the 1860 edition. The growing coherence of a popular awareness of national identity may have pushed Whitman to foreground these "Calamus" poems, which represent comradeship among strangers from diverse backgrounds, as opposed to local, ethnic, and even racial allegiances. Whitman seems to have learned this lesson in his wartime hospital visits to thousands of wounded veterans from the four corners of the Union (witness his intercalation of Drum-Taps and Sequel to Drum-Taps in the 1867 edition). The poet also deleted three of the most privatized confessions which had appeared in the "Calamus" cluster of the 1860 edition, and thereby enabled the cluster to be read better as a manifesto of public solidarity among citizens. Rather than the pull of local family ties, then, in the 1867 "Calamus," it can be argued that Whitman was announcing a model of national solidarity built on affiliations between strangers enlisted in the quest for a revivified Union.

In this moment of an explosion of discourse on civil rights, Whitman registered his regret over the continued insistence that marginalized citizens could be discarded through social exclusion in the new poem, "The City Dead-House." At the heart of this text, the issue of disposable persons in a flawed democracy is argued with as much rhetorical force as it was by the Radical Republicans in the houses of Congress, on behalf of African Americans; only Whitman's marginal figure is a dead prostitute lying within sight of the United States Capitol. Socially outcast, the body of the prostitute requires the intervention of the poet's speaker in order that she may be represented visibly, in a democracy in which many are invisible. If persons were rotting on the pavement within sight of the Capitol, this compelling poem enacts a recovery of the rightful place of human solidarity among strangers. Another of the new 1867 compositions, "The Runner," could be read as an allegorical snapshot which represents the athletic determination required to bring coherence to a postwar Union weakened by sectionalism and racism. Without such athletic vigilance, the inherent danger to the Union lay in its static attachment to a failed social compact that had come undone in the firing on Fort Sumter. In "Aboard at a Ship's Helm," another of the new compositions of the 1867 Leaves, Whitman's figure of the "ship of state" avoids wreckage on the shore of history only through the alarm-bell aboard which warned of continued social divisions. Only by engaging in an egalitarian revision of social relations, to become more inclusive rather than exclusive, would the Union avoid another cataclysm like the Civil War, only this time along the racial divide rather than the sectional divide.

With the legislative tide turning toward "equal protection" for black and white citizens, Whitman coerced several poems from previous editions of Leaves into a new book, appended to the end of the 1867 edition. Called Songs Before Parting, this coda resonates with the same federalizing motifs that were rife in public debate as the Fourteenth Amendment made its rough passage to its port in the Constitution. Obviously, these songs represent Whitman's desire for the prevention of "parting" the newly-recovered Union, but they were also written "before" the 1861 "parting" of the South from the North. In 1867, these songs can be re-heard in the context of the "parts" becoming united again. To reinforce such a representation of national unity, Whitman opens these songs with "As I sat Alone by Blue Ontario's Shore," which announces that a nation is emerging from its lines. The poem is divided into two voices: alongside the exuberant call for the formation of national identity there is a parenthetical voice which sounds portentous warnings concerning the racial and sectional strife of the Union, still caught in the "throes" of giving birth to democracy. By extending eligibility to "all" persons desirous of equality, the poem reminds the reader that Whitman had not abandoned his dream of a "Radical Democracy." The representative who stands in for the people becomes the "bard" who can still be the agent for democratic change.

Therefore, Whitman offered Songs Before Parting as the incipient representation of a national compact, in which images of federal affiliation were enlisted to perform the cultural work of enlarging national consciousness and racial sympathy and the dismantling of sectional malice, which sought a return to antebellum black subjugation. America would be reconstructed at some deferred future moment, for these "Songs" never tire of their gestures toward the "great Idea" of democratic equality. When the political foundation of America recovered the "inalienable rights" promised in the Declaration of Independence, then the temporary aberrations of social divisions would cease, not before. The end of democracy is always a beginning, in a circular movement between resistance and surrender to empathy to strangers in our midst. Whitman's announcement of a nation, which was the reconstructive purpose of this cluster, is represented by any desire for "libertad," the poet's curious expression for liberty, from whatever point of origin in the field of social relations. The 1867 Leaves announces, in newly-added lines to "On the Beach at Night Alone," that "A VAST SIMILITUDE" conjoins all races (and sections) within the borders of the United States. In 1867, such an "interlocking" required Whitman's intervention with a radically altered Leaves of Grass, always on the verge of dissolution in its disarray, and yet always shoring up the productivity of reconstructive solidarity, active in binding together factions at multiple points in the disquieting months after Appomattox.

Luke Mancuso

 

Bibliography

Allen, Gay Wilson. The New Walt Whitman Handbook. 1975. New York: New York UP, 1986.

Erkkila, Betsy. Whitman the Political Poet. New York: Oxford UP, 1989.

Mancuso, Luke. "'The Strange Sad War Revolving': Reconstituting Walt Whitman's Reconstruction Texts in the Legislative Workshop, 1865–1876." Diss. U of Iowa, 1994.

Moon, Michael. Disseminating Whitman: Revision and Corporeality in "Leaves of Grass." Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard UP, 1991.

Whitman, Walt. Walt Whitman's Blue Book. Ed. Arthur Golden. 2 vols. New York: New York Public Library, 1968.

See also : "City Dead-House, The"; Drum-Taps; Leaves of Grass; "One's-Self I Sing"; Reconstruction; Sequel to Drum-Taps; Walt Whitman's Blue Book; "When I Read the Book"; "When Lilacs Last in the Dooryard Bloom'd"


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