By Stuart Mitchner
It avails not, neither time or place; distance avails not. I am with you, men and women of a generation, or ever so many generations hence.
—Walt Whitman (1819-1892)
Facing the approach of a “grim milestone” with “U.S. Deaths Near 100,000” on the eve of Memorial Day 2020, the editors of Sunday’s New York Times produced a front page Walt Whitman himself might have conceived.
It’s as though one of the editors discussing how to convey “the vastness and variety of lives lost” had been reading Leaves of Grass. You might almost think Whitman had suggested the wording of the secondary head, “They Were Not Simply Numbers on a List. They were Us,” before putting the weight of his spirit behind the idea of culling “vivid passages” from coronavirus death notices of hundreds of newspapers around the country. No wonder the resulting inventory — “the conductor with the most amazing ear, the grandmother with the easy laugh, the entrepreneur and adventurer” — seems to echo Whitman’s “pure contralto singing in the organ loft, the carpenter dressing his plank, the connoisseur peering along the exhibition gallery.”
Always With Us
America’s poet is always with us on Memorial Day. Who else could have imagined, celebrated, or publicized such an event? He had a stake in it long before the ceremonial occasion was officially relocated from May 30 to the last Monday in May; in fact, he was there a century and a half before, having been born on the last Sunday in May 1819. He makes his generation-transcending presence vividly felt in “Crossing Brooklyn Ferry,” where time or place or distance “avails not,” and the “similitudes of the past and those of the future” are as “glories strung like beads” on his “smallest sights and hearings.” more