Commentary

Selected Criticism

Title:
Leaves of Grass, 1871-72 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.

As early as the summer of 1869, Walt Whitman had been preoccupied with a revised edition of Leaves of Grass to follow the publication of the fourth (1867) edition. When the poet escaped the summer heat of Washington, D.C., to return to New York in July 1870, having secured a substitute in his clerkship at the attorney general's office, he was determined to publish the fifth edition with J.S. Redfield of New York. By the winter of 1870–1871, the fifth edition of Leaves was on sale in New York, Boston, Philadelphia, and Washington. Despite this signal moment, Whitman was virtually ignored by the critics, though the handful of reviewers noted his universality and his personal incarnation of American democracy. The complicated publishing history of the fifth edition includes at least three rearrangements of the book, perhaps signaling his displeasure over the absence of an audible response from the public to what, for him, was a major publishing event. In any case, Whitman reissued Leaves with the Passage to India annex, adding 120 pages with 74 poems, 24 of which were new texts, while the others were culled from earlier editions of his work. In 1872, this bifurcated edition was reissued, directly from Washington, D.C., dated 1872 but copyrighted in 1870. Still another issue of the book contained the Passage to India annex, with separate pagination, as well as the additional supplement After All, Not to Create Only (later "Song of the Exposition"), with 24 additional pages, also published as a separate pamphlet with separate pagination. In short, the fifth edition of Leaves contained in its format three separate books of poetry, as well as the related publication of a pamphlet called As a Strong Bird on Pinions Free, and Other Poems in 1872. The latter As a Strong Bird booklet also contained the significant prose Preface, now known as the 1872 Preface.

This convoluted series of editions adds up to a massive displacement of Whitman's work as the reading public had known it up to that time; in effect, Whitman was pointing to a reassessment of how his evolving project would speak to postwar America, at the moment when he was announcing a companion volume to Leaves which he labeled a book of " democratic nationality " (Whitman 1005). The most significant innovation of the 1871–1872 Leaves, aside from the obvious fact that Whitman took nearly a third of his published poems and shifted them into the Passage to India annex, amounts to the poet's dispersal of the Drum-Taps collection throughout the body of Leaves. Thus, while Drum-Taps appeared as a part of Leaves for the first time in this fifth edition, the Civil War texts have been scattered and re-edited into three clusters: "Drum-Taps," "Marches Now the War is Over," and "Bathed in War's Perfume." This textual multiplication underscores Whitman's assertion that he owed the existence of Leaves to the creative energy he found in the war itself.

The cluster "Marches Now the War is Over" enlisted images of nationalism in the pursuit of civil restoration immediately after the war years. One of the poems that points the way for the reconstruction of the social order, "Pioneers! O Pioneers!," reinforces this containment of social disruption in its traditional form, complete with trochaic meter and conventional stanzaic patterns. While the title echoes the westward migration, the word "pioneer" traces its etymological roots back to include "foot soldier," and thus connotes an imagistic parallel to the martial images of the war troops. Thus, while the "Pioneers!" text points backward as an echo chamber of the war memory, the poem also points forward to the reconstructive energies of creating a future that will recast soldiers as pioneers. Clearly, Whitman's pioneers were moving forward, as originators of a new social order, in order to prepare the way for an inclusive, socially diverse citizenry fit for Reconstruction America. Whitman's "foot soldiers," like his conventional poetic "feet," were stepping into the postwar urge for forging a future out of social solidarity. Such solidarity stressed the extension of democratic identity beyond the neighborhoods, towns, and states which had contributed self-understanding to Americans before the Civil War. Such provincial identity had to include national allegiance as well, which was one of the high-profile controversies in the extension of civil liberties to African Americans through the ratification of the Fifteenth Amendment in 1870 (enfranchising African-American males). An earlier poem, "Respondez!," also makes its debut in this cluster of war marches. In "Respondez!" Whitman appeals for a "new distribution of roles" in the social relations of the United States. Like "Pioneers!" this march enables readers to unmoor themselves from the outmoded past in order to be empowered to rewrite their social roles on a more egalitarian basis than had been the case in antebellum America.

The dominant image of the second Civil War cluster, "Bathed in War's Perfume," constitutes Whitman's metonymic representation of the United States in the flag, the "Stars and Stripes." In fact, the "delicate flag" embodies the referent of the title, which is washed in the aroma of the Civil War. The most significant text that appears in this cluster of poems made its debut in the 1871–1872 Leaves as the first attempt by Whitman to address explicitly the subject of African Americans since the 1855 edition of Leaves spoke, in "Song of Myself" and in "The Sleepers," in the voice of the slave. "Ethiopia Saluting the Colors" centers on the bewildered confrontation between a "dusky" African-American woman and a soldier in Sherman's army during the Civil War. Situated in a poetic cluster of "flag" poems, the affront of the African-American woman's salute to the Stars and Stripes takes on pointed significance in the soldier's inability to recognize her selfhood except as a "hardly human" object. Sherman's underling calls her only "Ethiopia," and thus strips her of any legitimate identity within the boundaries of American civil liberties, despite the newly-minted Civil War amendments to the Constitution which ratified African-American citizenship for the first time. In effect, the black woman reaches out to the flag in a gesture of inclusion, interracial comradeship, and political citizenship; the soldier's inability to recognize her finds its analogue in the historical agitation in 1871–1872 over the inability of the white majority to cede its social authority over African Americans.

Curiously, the 1871–1872 Leaves struggles with this question of liberation from domination in a cluster of poems that appeared only in this edition, called "Songs of Insurrection." The insurrection of African-American struggles for recognition, as well as the revolt of Southern whites against federal interference with their local racist customs, lends this cluster a material value in its historical context. In his textual production, Whitman came closest to overcoming the incessant struggles for power that marked his moment. In the syntax of his Reconstruction poems, he enacted a model of the poet as the legislator of social solidarity across lines of racial and sectional fighting. Hence, in 1871, Whitman accented the federalization of America, represented in this pastiche of mainly earlier "Insurrection" poems, now given a new thematic identity in a turbulent postwar setting. This cluster recognizes that "democratic nationality" might be deferred, but could not be defeated.

Whitman's construction of a book of "democratic nationality" took more coherent form in the first annex to the 1871–1872 Leaves, namely Passage to India, which contained 75 poems, mostly lifted from earlier editions but including 23 new texts. The poet's centralizing imagery takes on an added urgency here, just as the national Capitol sought to federalize civil liberties for African Americans. Whitman deemphasizes the autonomous sovereignty of the individual in favor of a composite image of national identity, which finds an allegorical echo in the two dominant images of this annex: voyaging ships and death. Each of these images has a dual significance, at once both literal and allegorical. Whitman's willingness to abandon the shoreline, evident in the Passage cluster called "Sea-Shore Memories," opened a newer ocean-going preoccupation for a poet who had heretofore stood on the shore. Such a departure pointed to Whitman's willingness to hazard uncertain future destinations, as well as to suggest that the "Ship of State" had to unmoor itself from older models of self-understanding in favor of an accent on centralized notions of democratic nationality. Of course, the most recognizable image of the "Ship of State" had been published in the popular 1865–1866 text, "O Captain! My Captain!," which Whitman reprinted in Passage to India in the cluster called "President Lincoln's Burial Hymn." In addition, the death that Whitman was dispersing in Passage included both the actual deaths of Civil War soldiers on the battlefields, and the death of the antebellum notions of local self-understanding, in favor of the dissolution of outmoded social relations unsuited to the new demands of postwar America. Such a dissolving of the crippled inheritance of the political past, broken by the Civil War, signaled the desire to set out on the open road of reconstructing America.

Again and again, the 23 new texts in the Passage to India annex return to the preoccupation with letting go of the past, in order to stretch out toward the possibilities for unprecedented social solidarity in the future. Significantly, the "Passage to India" text has landed on the shores of America, and not the shores of India. As a prototype of the Western migration to the New World, Columbus inaugurates the historical narrative which would culminate in Whitman's dream of a reconstructed America. Like Columbus, the text is grounded in a transcontinental passage across the United States in order to arrive at the Pacific shoreline. After such a continental passage, the social solidarity of Whitman's Reconstruction project would be accomplished through the departure of the "Ship of State" from the shores of racism and sectionalism. Syntactically, Whitman repeatedly collapses plural images into singular ones (for example, "ourselves" into "all"). In such new clusters as "Whispers of Heavenly Death," the poet continually positions the national Soul as surpassing the possibility of its dissolution. Read allegorically, a new composition called "A Noiseless Patient Spider" casts the agency for social reform into the future. The spider represents a compelling emblem for the Reconstruction poet, though apparently isolated and casting filaments into an unpromising future, who will continue to desire to connect the present social turmoil to the unwritten national future.

The second annex appended to the 1871–1872 Leaves extends Whitman's desire to construct a book of "democratic nationality" in its celebration of the technological ingenuity of American industry. After All, Not to Create Only (later "Song of the Exposition") was recited by Whitman himself at the fortieth annual exhibition of the American Institute in New York on 7 September 1871 and was issued in pamphlet form by the Robert Brothers of Boston. The text provides a kind of coda to the poem "Passage to India," insofar as Columbus's abrupt landing in 1492 on the shores of America had provided the opportunity for the muse of invention to import the cultural artifacts of the Old World, in order to imprint them on native genius. By 1871, Whitman represented industrial products as agents of rehabilitation from the trauma of the cultural vertigo induced by the Civil War. Whitman extols the centralizing image of national identity in the imperial Union, for he celebrates "Our freedom all in Thee!" (section 9). Once again, Whitman is stylistically enacting his centralizing strategy by the movement from the plural ("Our") to the singular ("Thee"). As the newly-appointed arbiter of civil liberties, the federal government represents an absolute Union ideology, and Whitman, as a representative poet, seeks to further the consolidation of national energy with an enthusiasm that has hardly been noticed by either Whitman's readers or his critics. Perhaps, the strange critical silence surrounding the contemporary reception of this fifth edition of Leaves of Grass can be read as an (unconscious) resistance of Whitman's egalitarian solidarity against the white majority, who were resisting the widening of liberties for marginalized minorities. Indeed, Whitman qualifies as an "unacknowledged legislator" of the world of Reconstruction culture. Most Americans were not ready to admit that the dismemberment of discrimination through federal surveillance of civil rights was a justifiable intervention in the evolution of an interracial democracy.

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.

Szczesuil, Anthony. "The Maturing Vision of Walt Whitman's 1871 Version of Drum-Taps." Walt Whitman Quarterly Review 10 (1993): 127–141.

Whitman, Walt. Complete Poetry and Collected Prose. Ed. Justin Kaplan. New York: Library of America, 1982.


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