Leaves of Grass (Oxford World's Classics)

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Love Letters to Walt Whitman

Maria Popova over at Brain Pickings recounts the enduring friendship—one that often bordered on infatuation—between Anne Gilchrist and Walt Whitman. The pair exchanged letters for years, after Gilchrist praised Leaves of Grass as “truly a new birth of the soul.” The two eventually met in person, enjoying a life-affirming friendship, and their letters have been collected in a long out-of-print volume. Read about their epistolary relationship, and see that, sometimes, it is worth it to meet your heroes.

Image Credit: George C. Cox (1851–1903, photo) Adam Cuerden (1979-, restoration)

An Essential Human Respect: Reading Walt Whitman During Troubled Times

We live in contentious times.  In these frenzied days, it’s worth returning to Walt Whitman’s book of Civil War poetry, Drum-Taps.  First published in 1865, Drum-Taps reflects on the confrontation of grand visions and the human costs of realizing them.  It suggests the importance of empathy in the face of significant ideological disagreement.

The Civil War was in part a great clash of ideas and of visions for what the American republic would be.  Abraham Lincoln underlined the stakes of this disagreement in the Gettysburg Address:
Four score and seven years ago our fathers brought forth on this continent, a new nation, conceived in Liberty, and dedicated to the proposition that all men are created equal.

Now we are engaged in a great civil war, testing whether that nation, or any nation so conceived and so dedicated, can long endure.
What the “new birth of freedom” called for in Gettysburg meant might have evolved over time; for instance, the abolition of slavery became increasingly central to the Union’s rhetorical self-defense as the war continued.

But, whatever the evolving notion of the Union, it certainly differed in major ways from how many top Confederates saw secession.  In March 1861, in Savannah, Ga., Confederate Vice-President Alexander Hamilton Stephens, a former congressional colleague of Lincoln, outlined his vision for the stakes of the war.  Stephens argued that many of those who founded the nation believed that slavery was “in violation of the laws of nature; that it was wrong in principle, socially, morally, and politically.”  According to Stephens, Thomas Jefferson and others believed that slavery would, eventually, end because it violated the principle of equality among men and women.  Stephens claimed the Confederacy offered a corrective to this belief in human equality:
Our new Government is founded upon exactly the opposite idea; its foundations are laid, its corner-stone rests, upon the great truth that the negro is not equal to the white man; that slavery, subordination to the superior race, is his natural and normal condition. This, our new Government, is the first, in the history of the world, based upon this great physical, philosophical, and moral truth.
Stephens found that the “cornerstone” of the Confederacy was the commitment to racial inequality, and this radical philosophical principle justified, in his view, the dissolution of the Union.

Whitman took the side of the Union, the vision of which played a major role in both his poetic and political thinking. In his original preface to Leaves of Grass, Whitman called the United States “essentially the greatest poem,” and the visionary project of a poet for Whitman involved the creation of a broader fellowship that transcended the conventional boundaries of society.  He viewed the United States as a vehicle for this enterprise of fellowship.

In its record of the Civil War, Drum-Taps homes in on the juxtaposition of vision and the flesh, of aspiration and suffering.  For all the great ambition of the antebellum United States, it contained great pain, and the carnage of the Civil War painted in red, white, and gangrene the price of maintaining the hope of the Union.  Ideas clashed in the Civil War, but men and women bled.  Harvard president Drew Gilpin Faust’s 2008 study This Republic of Suffering argues that the magnitude of suffering and death during the Civil War sent shockwaves through American culture; the equivalent of over 600,000 war deaths in 1861-1865 would be over 6 million deaths in 2016.

The horror of this legacy of pain influenced Whitman’s life and poetry. His brother George served in the Union army throughout the war, and Whitman himself had a front-row-seat for the carnage of the Civil War during his time as a medical orderly.  He spent countless hours comforting the wounded and sick soldiers in Washington D.C. and elsewhere.  In an 1863 report, he reflected on visiting the wounded at the capital’s Patent Office, which had been converted to a hospital:
A few weeks ago the vast area of the second story of that noblest of Washington buildings, the Patent Office, was crowded close with rows of sick, badly wounded and dying soldiers. They were placed in three very large apartments. I went there several times. It was a strange, solemn and, with all its features of suffering and death, a sort of fascinating sight.
Whitman attended to that magnitude of suffering in Drum-Taps.  In one of his notebooks, he claimed that “the expression of American personality through this war is not to be looked for in the great campaign, & the battle-fights. It is to be looked for…in the hospitals, among the wounded.”  In many respects, the poems of Drum-Taps are songs for and of the wounded.

One of the most famous poems of the collection, “The Dresser” (later titled “The Wound-Dresser”), narrates the experience of tending to those injured in battle:
Bearing the bandages, water and sponge,
Straight and swift to my wounded I go,
Where they lie on the ground, after the battle brought in;
Where their priceless blood reddens the grass, the ground;
Or to the rows of the hospital tent, or under the roof’d hospital;
To the long rows of cots, up and down, each side, I return;
To each and all, one after another, I draw near — not one do I miss;
An attendant follows, holding a tray — he carries a refuse pail,
Soon to be fill’d with clotted rags and blood, emptied, and fill’d again.
That refuse pail, ever filling and emptying, implies the seemingly endlessness of tending to bodies and spirits ravaged by war.  The figures of these soldiers are sacred and exalted — that “priceless blood” — but still they suffer.

Whitman’s verse does not hide that suffering, or the price it exacts:
From the stump of the arm, the amputated hand,
I undo the clotted lint, remove the slough, wash off the matter and blood;
Back on his pillow the soldier bends, with curv’d neck, and side-falling head;
His eyes are closed, his face is pale, he dares not look on the bloody stump,
And has not yet looked on it.
With grim irony, these lines attend to amputations suffered in the name of preserving the Union.  Beyond the specific details of this wound-dressing, we see also the signs of the psychological pain of the amputee, who cannot even bear to look at the site of his dismemberment.  In “The Dresser” and elsewhere, the poetic speaker does not profess an ability to end this suffering or nullify the pain of the sufferers.  Instead, he can only act as a witness to this suffering.

While a book of poetry about war, Drum-Taps offers relatively few presentations of battles.  Rather than versifying military maneuvers, Whitman offers a broader catalogue of perspectives — of mourning parents, thriving cities, moonlit nights, and ford crossings.  This catalogue presents the greater context within which the violence of the war occurs.

Short poems — like sudden perspectival knives — cut in between many of the longer poems of Drum-Taps.  Some of these poems might not even seem to be about the war at first:
Solid, ironical, rolling orb!
Master of all, and matter of fact! — at last I accept your terms;
Bringing to practical, vulgar tests, of all my ideal dreams,
And of me, as lover and hero.
But this sudden flourish of reflection has clear connections to the war.  The ideal dreams and fancies of Whitman and his fellow Americans have become subject to the hard trials of gunpowder, bayonet, and surgeon’s saw.  And these tests of dreams pierce human hearts.

Some of Whitman’s early poems about the Civil War at times adopt a triumphalist, celebratory mode.  Written in 1861, “Beat! Beat! Drums!” conjures the explosive excitement of the coming war.  The poem opens with the exhortations “Beat! beat! drums! — Blow! bugles! blow! / Through the windows — through doors — burst like a force of ruthless men.”  With the force of blaring trumpets, tidings of war come to disrupt the conventional comforts of civilian life in peace.

We risk simplifying this poem, however, if we view it only as a gilded celebration of war.  The diction of the final stanza, for example, suggests an undercurrent of horror in the thrill of the pounding drums.
Beat! beat! drums! — Blow! bugles! blow!
Make no parley — stop for no expostulation;
Mind not the timid — mind not the weeper or prayer;
Mind not the old man beseeching the young man;
Let not the child’s voice be heard, nor the mother’s entreaties;
Make even the trestles to shake the dead, where they lie awaiting the hearses,
So strong you thump, O terrible drums — so loud you bugles blow.
The drums and bugles have no time for argument or sorrow or prayer.  They break up families — splintering old from young, parents from children — and seem a prelude to a multitude of bodies, which lie awaiting hearses to bear them away.

Near the end of the book, especially with the “sequel” tacked on like a mournful suffix in October 1865, Whitman reflected in depth on the devastation of the war.  After the electric pounding of the visionary drums, the verse surveys a battlefield littered with broken bodies, severed limbs, and pale corpses.  Abraham Lincoln — especially in a poem such as “When Lilacs Last in the Dooryard Bloom’d” — becomes a representative figure: an emblem of the Union’s cost.  Whitman, though, did not stop with Lincoln.  Many of the poems of Drum-Taps reflect on the suffering of the simultaneously anonymous (because unnamed) and personalized (because shown as people with essential dignity) soldiers.  In part through this assertion of common suffering, Drum-Taps aims to unite a divided nation.

“Reconcilitation,” the penultimate poem of the original 1865 version of Drum-Taps, offers a meeting of North and South, of living and dead:
Word over all, beautiful as the sky!
Beautiful that war, and all its deeds of carnage, must in time be utterly lost;
That the hands of the sisters Death and Night, incessantly softly wash again, and
ever again, this soil’d world:
…For my enemy is dead — a man divine as myself is dead;
I look where he lies, white-faced and still, in the coffin — I draw near;
I bend down and touch lightly with my lips the white face in the coffin.
In this moment, Whitman’s verse presents a scene of recognition of an essential humanity across radical differences: that enemy is “a man divine as myself.”  Whatever the differences of cause between these two men — and these differences may yawn chasm-wide — they have a common human fellowship.

Rather than succumbing to self-righteous demonization, Whitman illustrated the power of a human empathy that transcends ideological bellicosity.  This empathy does not ultimately nullify ideological difference — Drum-Taps does not call for the defeat of the Union in order to end the war — but empathy does situate this difference in a more complicated context.

There were huge differences between the visions of the Union and the Confederacy, but those differences did not nullify the fact that partisans of both sides were human beings, with the inherent worth shared by all men and women.  Though he opposed the Confederacy, Whitman also sought to show the dignity of the Confederate soldiers not because he believed in their cause but because they were human beings.  In his time nursing wounded soldiers, Whitman cared for both Union and Confederate men.  He wrote, for instance, of watching over a Confederate prisoner of war whose leg was amputated.  Whitman’s empathy as both an artist and a man was not only a gift for those with whom he agreed or whose cause he applauded.  Whitman’s project in Drum-Taps reminds us of the way that poetry (and literature in general) can strive to keep us alert to our deeper bonds.

Whitman’s poetry chose the harder path of empathy.  In its portrayal of human suffering, Drum-Taps notes the price exacted by grand — even noble — visions in this “soil’d world.”  The collection suggests the importance of leavening a thirsty idealism with an essential human respect.

Previously: “Embracing The Other I Am; or, How Walt Whitman Saved My Life

Image Credit: Wikimedia Commons.

Is It Really So Wrong to Kill a Mockingbird?

When Harper Lee’s Go Set a Watchman was published last summer, fans were disturbed at its depiction of Atticus Finch, which seemed to warp an iconic hero of American fiction beyond recognition. Go Set a Watchman shows Atticus as a hidebound defender of Southern tradition who mingles with white supremacists — a far cry, many felt, from the lawyer and family man who took a courageous stand against racism in To Kill a Mockingbird.

We might have been less surprised by the unsavory aspects of Atticus’s character, however, if we paid closer attention to the birds in Lee’s work. Animals are central to the novel’s message; this is, after all, the story of a family of Finches whose protracted battle against Jim Crow is captured in a metaphor about mockingbirds. A better understanding of the cultural significance of the birds in the book suggests what so many readers otherwise miss: that Atticus’s noble actions are inseparable from his investment in the romantic glory of the American South.

The phrase “to kill a mockingbird” comes from a bit of fatherly advice that Atticus delivers to his children, Scout and Jem. When they receive a pair of air rifles as a gift, Atticus lays down some strange rules about how to use their weapons responsibly: “Shoot all the blue jays you want, if you can hit ‘em, but remember it’s a sin to kill a mockingbird.” Why it is acceptable to shoot blue jays, but not mockingbirds? Miss Maudie, a neighbor, tries to clarify:

‘Your father’s right,’ [Miss Maudie] said. ‘Mockingbirds don’t do one thing but make music for us to enjoy. They don’t eat up people’s gardens, don’t nest in corncribs, they don’t do one thing but sing their hearts out for us. That’s why it’s a sin to kill a mockingbird.’

Miss Maudie’s explanation helps direct Scout’s developing moral understanding. For Scout and for the novel’s many young adult readers, killing mockingbirds becomes shorthand for any gratuitous violence directed at innocent, unassuming individuals like Tom Robinson.

Yet there is something off about Miss Maudie’s explanation. As any amateur birder could tell you, mockingbirds are neither innocent nor unassuming. Although it’s true that they don’t destroy seed crops the way a jay might, mockingbirds are hardly models of civility themselves. Like jays, they have a variety of abrasive, grating calls. Their songs can be melodious, but they can also be infuriating; they consist of snippets of other sounds repeated multiple times at high volume. These snippets may include borrowed birdsongs, door hinges, car alarms, or any other ambient noise. They perform these soliloquies all day and often deep into the night.

Another trait mockingbirds share with jays is aggression. What sets the mockingbird’s aggression apart from the jay’s, however, is a tendency to extend its ferocity to almost any species. Mockingbirds happily attack all “intruders” unlucky enough to stumble into their supposed territory. As Mark Cocker notes in his encyclopedic Birds & People:

They are well known for fiercely defending their nests and young from all comers including humans, but also from birds of prey, cats, raccoons and snakes. Sometimes the species extends these violent assaults to almost any small bird straying into its territory…Mockingbirds are sometimes so aggressive they can even kill snakes by pecking out their eyes.

In short, the mockingbird is a remarkable animal, but not exactly an ideal neighbor. Nevertheless, Atticus’s preference for it is so pronounced that it leads him afoul of the law.

Atticus’s advice to his children actually condones what an accomplished lawyer should have recognized as a federal offense. Since the passage of The Migratory Bird Treaty Act of 1918, it has been illegal “to pursue, hunt, take, capture, kill, attempt to take, capture, or kill…any migratory bird” in the United States. Under this statue, both the Blue Jay and the Northern Mockingbird qualify as migratory birds; shooting either one is punishable by fines of up to $500 or up to six months imprisonment. Yet Atticus takes the trouble to draw nice distinctions between species to clarify what sorts of crimes his children can commit with a clear conscience. If the law does not discriminate between blue jays and mockingbirds, why does Atticus Finch?

The answer lies in the Northern Mockingbird’s unusual place in American cultural history. The mockingbird has an elaborate literary pedigree, one that stretches across the Atlantic through the bird’s longstanding association with the European nightingale. That relationship helped enshrine the mockingbird as a symbol of the faded magnificence of the American South — a meaning it retains to this day.

The mockingbird’s rise to prominence began with the Romantic movement. In the late-1700s, a number of writers, artists, and intellectuals sought to escape the corruption of European society through a return to nature. In the process, they founded what is now known as the Romantic movement. As they praised nature in poetry, painting, and music, the Romantics sometimes singled out particular species for special symbolic significance. One species beloved by the Romantics was the Common Nightingale.

To the Romantic poet John Keats, the Common Nightingale was anything but common. As Leonard Lutwack points out in his study of Birds in Literature, admiration for the nightingale’s song dates back to Ancient Greece. The bird’s beautiful music — and its classical associations — awed Keats. His 1820 “Ode to a Nightingale” depicts the bird as enviably happy, the symbol of a golden age in Western Civilization lost to modern man. The nightingale’s music contrasts sharply against the song of the melancholy modern poet; as night falls and the poet’s vision fails, the bird warbles “of summer in full-throated ease,” spurring its lonely listener to meditate on the grandeur of “ancient days” and pine for “the warm South” of the Mediterranean.

Although they were separated from the main currents of Romanticism by the Atlantic, American writers welcomed the new cult of nature worship. After all, the Romantic fondness for wild places promised to redeem America’s sprawling tracts of uninhabited land, recasting the new country’s wastes and deserts as sources of cultural pride. There was only one problem: the iconic species featured in so many Romantic poems — nightingales, song thrushes, skylarks — were Old World species, confined to Eurasia and Africa. In order to adapt Romantic nature worship to their national landscape, American writers needed to find native species that could stand in for their more storied European cousins. They needed creatures that would tap into the glories of Old World traditions, but that remained distinct enough to symbolize the natural purity and power unique to the American continent.

Luckily, European explorers and naturalists had already begun that work for them. A glance through the ornithological writings collected in Donald Culross Peattie’s A Gathering of Birds, for example, shows foreign-born writers freely equating the species they encountered in the New World with better-known ones back home. So, the 19th-century Englishman Thomas Nuttall begins his writings on the Northern Mockingbird by immediately equating it to a European counterpart. He repeatedly characterizes its appearance (drab plumage) and behavior (nighttime singing) as “like the Nightingale.” Both the jarring mockeries of the mockingbird’s song and its unpredictable aggressions are softened by this comparison to a more timid, musical corollary from the Continent.

When they sought to construct their own natural iconography, then, American writers like Walt Whitman had such associations ready-to-hand. Oceans may have divided Whitman’s Long Island from Keats’s Hampstead and Homer’s Greece, but Whitman could still frame his poetic engagement with nature in familiar terms, because he, too, found inspiration in solitary encounters with birdsong at night. Whitman’s “Out of the Cradle Endlessly Rocking” depicts the poet as a boy, wandering the shore and listening to a bird sing mournfully in the darkness. The experience moves Whitman as it moved Keats and the Greeks before him. In Whitman’s case, though, the conventional nightingale is replaced by the American mockingbird, which sets the young boy on his path to develop a uniquely American literary voice.

The final fruit of that effort was Whitman’s oft-revised masterpiece, Leaves of Grass. Composing this collection of national poetry entailed treating the United States as, well, united. But “Out of the Cradle Endlessly Rocking” first appeared in 1859, when tensions over slavery were tearing the young nation apart. Whitman was a Northerner who would go on to champion Abraham Lincoln and the Union cause. He stressed American unity in his poem, however, by building it around admiration for the mockingbird, a species powerfully associated with the slaveholding states; like its counterpart the nightingale, the mockingbird was an emissary of “the warm South.” In fact, from an ornithological perspective, one of the most striking features of Whitman’s poem is his claim to have seen mockingbirds breeding as far north as Long Island; Whitman acknowledges them as an oddity by hailing the mated pair as “Two feather’d guests from Alabama.”

The mockingbird’s range has expanded northward in the intervening years, obscuring the bird’s deep regional associations. But a glance at the list of U.S. state birds shows how strongly those associations persist. Indeed, the Northern Mockingbird’s name is something of a misnomer; all of the states that have declared it their official bird (Mississippi, Tennessee, Texas, Florida, Arkansas, and — formerly — South Carolina) lie well below the Mason-Dixon Line. The seemingly pointless practice of selecting state animals turns out, then, to provide a useful index of this bird’s ongoing importance to a certain kind of regional pride — an affection that persists long after most Southerners could rationally explain it.

Despite Miss Maudie’s claims, then, the mockingbird is no innocent entertainer. It has long served as a rallying point for a very specific vision of American communal identity — one intertwined with the romantic glories of the Old South. Its associations with the nightingale allow the mockingbird to suggest a vision of the South as a lost idyll, the mythic location of a golden age we can no longer inhabit. At the same time, the contrast between the mockingbird’s symbolic traits and its real-world behavior remind us of just how misleading that vision can be.

Like the Old South itself, Atticus’s beloved mockingbird has been sanitized of all its obnoxious traits and associations. The song of his mockingbird is pure, joyous entertainment; in reality, the mockingbird’s song weaves borrowed sounds together into a patchwork melody both beautiful and jarring, an assertive boast the disturbing elements of which keep conscientious listeners awake at night. Atticus’s mockingbird behaves with pure courtesy; in reality, the mockingbird combines charming bluster with surprising violence in defense of its self-proclaimed territory. Neither Atticus nor Miss Maudie bothers to mention the bird’s unimpressive plumage. If they did, though, they might praise it as a staid Confederate gray — a sharp contrast to the jay’s flashier Union blues.

The mentality of the Old South infiltrates even the apparently positive application of the mockingbird metaphor to Tom Robinson. Although Scout understands the metaphor as an injunction to protect all forms of innocence and goodness, its actual implication is far more specific: Miss Maudie explains that protecting mockingbirds is an exercise in benevolence towards harmless, joyful, music-loving souls.

Tom Robinson is innocent, but this image of him isn’t. It reproduces stereotypes of blackness popularized by the minstrel shows of the antebellum South. The black characters in minstrel performances — really white actors in blackface makeup — were clownish and lazy, but otherwise harmless and musical. The devastating cultural legacy of these characters is visible in the term “Jim Crow” itself. The phrase that now designates the pervasive racism of the post-Reconstruction South originated with Thomas Dartmouth Rice’s “Jump Jim Crow,” a song-and-dance routine that popularized Jim Crow as a stereotypical minstrel figure.

As Miss Maudie explains it, then, the mockingbird metaphor deals in the same oppressive stereotypes that Atticus appears to fight. Readers are free, of course, to reject Miss Maudie’s interpretation in favor of Scout’s more expansive moral understanding. But the heavily symbolic mockingbird retains its deeply entrenched and unsettling associations with the slaveholding South.

Idolizing Atticus as a paragon of moral decency requires passing over these things in silence — as Atticus himself does when he expresses a preference that is, finally, unjustifiable. Reading into his silence reveals the hidden complexity of Atticus’s character, suggesting the tensions between real progress and Romantic regionalism at work in his psyche. For many readers, that tension was imperceptible until the publication of Go Set a Watchman. But if we listened a little closer, we might have heard what a little bird was telling us all along.

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