May 29, 2019

Memorial Day Celebrations and Elegies on Walt Whitman’s 200th

By Stuart Mitchner

Meantime, in Washington, among the great persons and their entourage, a mixture of awful consternation, uncertainty, rage, shame, helplessness, and stupefying disappointment,” with “the worst not only imminent, but already here.”

When he wrote those words, Walt Whitman, born 200 years ago Friday, was not casting a prophetic glance toward Memorial Day 2019, he was responding to the calamitous aftermath of the Battle of Bull Run on July 22, 1861, Union forces having “exploded in a panic and fled from the field.” Writing in Specimen Days in America (1881), Whitman describes defeated troops pouring into the city over the Long Bridge — ”a horrible march of twenty miles, returning to Washington baffled, humiliated, panic-struck.” The sidewalks of Pennsylvania Avenue are jammed with “lookers-on” as “swarms of dirt-cover’d return’d soldiers (will they never end?) move by; but nothing said, no comments.” Half the lookers-on are confederate sympathizers “of the most venomous kind—they say nothing; but the devil snickers in their faces.” There is “loud and undisguised” talk around Washington “for yielding out and out, and substituting the southern rule, and Lincoln promptly abdicating and departing.” If the Rebel officers and forces “had immediately follow’d, and by a bold Napoleonic movement had enter’d Washington the first day (or even the second), they could have had things their own way, and a powerful faction north to back them.” It was a “bitter, bitter hour — perhaps proud America will never again know such an hour. She must pack and fly — no time to spare. Those white palaces — the dome-crown’d capitol there on the hill, so stately over the trees — shall they be left — or destroy’d first?”

With America facing “a bitter, bitter hour” amid presidential stonewalling and the targeting of the free press, it’s worth recalling  Whitman’s tribute to “the great New York papers” whose headlines “rang out over the land with the loudest, most reverberating ring of clearest bugles, full of encouragement, hope, inspiration, unfaltering defiance,” especially “those magnificent editorials! they never flagg’d for a fortnight…. They came in good time, for they were needed.”

Our National Healer

Introducing the Penguin Classics 150th anniversary edition of Leaves of Grass (2005), Harold Bloom says that absorbing Whitman has taken him a lifetime, “and it is not over yet. I have murmured his longer poems out loud to myself, while recovering from major surgery, in hospital and at home. There is, I think, little sentimentality in my conviction that reciting him, and brooding alike upon his celebrations and elegies, helped heal me, hastening a little the terribly slow pace of recovering from trauma.”

Bloom’s personal experience with “our national healer” underscores Whitman’s “beautiful daily service” to thousands of “ill and wounded soliders, Union and Confederate, white and black” in the war hospitals of Washington, D,C., from 1861 to 1865. Walt was “wound-dresser, comforter, bringer of little gifts (clean underwear, letter-writing paper, fruit, brandy, and some hope),” spending “what money he could earn and cadge” and “more of his self than he had known he possessed.”

Knowing Evil

So here we are celebrating Memorial Day and the bicentenary of a great American poet from Long Island while a greatly flawed American head of state from Long Island is bringing Washington’s unsavory “mixture of awful consternation” to a boil with the help of his sous chef, the Attorney General. You know the man in the White House would relate to the opening lines of  Leaves of Grass: “I celebrate myself/And what I assume you shall assume,” but he’d skip over the part about how “every atom belonging to me as good belongs to you,” preferring instead “to lean and loafe at his ease.” Never mind, Whitman’s America has room for everyone. In “Crossing Brooklyn Ferry,” the poet channels the “extremely stable genius” 100 years before he was born: “I am he who knew what it was to be evil,” who “Blabb’d, blush’d, resented, lied, stole, grudg’d,/Had guile, anger, lust, hot wishes I dared not speak,/Was wayward, vain, greedy, shallow, sly, cowardly, malignant,/ The wolf, the snake, the hog, not wanting in me,/The cheating look, the frivolous word, the adulterous wish, not wanting,/ Refusals, hates, postponements, meanness, laziness, none of these wanting …”

“The Judiciary is Tainted”

After the war, Whitman worked briefly in the Office of Indian Affairs, briefly because he was fired when the newly appointed Interior Secretary discovered “outrageous and offensive” passages in the copy of Leaves of Grass he found in Whitman’s desk. Before an issue could be made of the incident, a friend in high places saw to it that Walt was given a place in the Justice Department, where he was working in 1871 when he published Democratic Vistas. In one of the essays in that collection, he refers to an “atmosphere of hypocrisy” and the fact that the “depravity of the business classes of our country is not less than has been supposed, but infinitely greater.” Although he doesn’t include his employer the Attorney General among the branches and departments of the government “saturated in corruption, bribery, falsehood, mal-administrating,” he ultimately allows that the “judiciary is tainted” as well. Even so, he got along famously with the AG, giving him a copy of Leaves of Grass for Christmas “with best esteem & love.”

Smoking a 75-Year-Old Camel

In “The Wound-Dresser,” Walt writes, “I am faithful, I do not give out,” describing himself “Returning, resuming, I thread my way through the hospitals,/The hurt and wounded I pacify with soothing hand,/I sit by the restless all the dark night.” It’s a consoling image on this day of remembrance, the bedside presence, watchful, waiting, Whitman as a benign Big Brother looking out for us even as he looks into us: “Closer yet I approach you,/What thought you have of me now, I had as much of you—I laid in my stores in advance,/I consider’d long and seriously of you before you were born.”  Now comes the equivalent of a smile and a nudge: “Who knows but I am enjoying this?/Who knows but I am as good as looking at you now, for all you cannot see me?”

I wonder if Walt sees me taking down my uncle’s dog-tag, which hangs from a push-pin on the bulletin board over my desk next to a photograph of my soulful, sad-eyed mother, who looks as if she’s recalling the day the woman from the Red Cross came to our door. I was there, I saw her recoil and cry out. She was only 32, he was her younger brother and best friend, they’d helped each other and their big family get through the Depression, and she never really recovered from his death. She saved the dog-tag and the half-full pack of Camels found on his body beside the wreckage of the plane brought down after a mid-air collision on a training flight near Las Vegas.

So, on this bright, balmy, Walt-Whitman-haunted Memorial Day, I put the dog-tag around my neck and light up one of those 75-year old Camels. Not having smoked a real cigarette since I was in my early twenties, it feels strange, as if it were my first. It’s a fragile object, the delicate paper slightly torn, the tobacco loose; the only way to get it to draw is to close my thumb and forefinger over the tear in the middle. I imagine the old poet “enjoying this” as I exhale the smoke and admire the battered package, the camel in the center with the palm trees and pyramids, one close, one in the distance, a city of golden mosques and minarets on the back. The line of smoke drifts straight up as the cigarette burns, the live coal of the tip glowing, as if breathing on its own, smoking itself. I thought it would be harsh to inhale after all these years, but the taste is mild and the smell is rich and dusky and somehow Whitmanesque. The most satisfying part of the ceremony is the way the cigarette keeps on smoking. Left to its own devices in an ash tray, it’s still alight, the small red coal still glowing.

The Marathon Reading

A crowd of readers and listeners faithful to the last lines of Walt’s “Song of Myself” — “Failing to fetch me at first, keep encouraged;/ Missing me one place, search another;/I stop somewhere, waiting for you” — will be gathered this Sunday, June 2, along the stadium steps of the Granite Prospect at Brooklyn Bridge Park, Pier 1, for a 200th anniversary marathon reading of all 52 parts of Whitman’s signature “Song.” In the past, participants have recited their passages in costume, in other languages, to music, in dramatic performance, by heart, with lassos, in yoga positions. The free rain or shine event will begin at 4 p.m. For details email