Sam Krieg for September 22

     We have talked at great length in class about how Whitman worked to construct a public image of himself as the great American poet: When I Read the Book seems to be a reflection by the poet on the fact that his control over his image is really quite limited. Just as Whitman rails against the foreign (read: traditional) styles of literature in other poems, he mocks the traditional form of biography in the opening lines here:

When I read the book, the biography famous;

And is this, then, (said I,) what the author calls a

man’s life?

And so will some one, when I am dead and gone,

write my life? (268)

These lines remain the same in the later version of the poem, showing that Whitman’s conviction about biography (and biographers) does not change. However, there is more of Whitman’s trickery afoot here!

     Through Leaves of Grass, and all its editions, Whitman is constructing a new sort of biography: it is both autobiography and biography of the Union (but I will just be looking at it as autobiography here). By creating a private conversation with the reader, through parenthetical revelations, Whitman seeks to draw the reader into accepting his new biographical form. Confusion arises in the following line though: “(As if any man really knew aught of my life…” (268). On the surface, it seems to be discounting what other men might write about him, but it forces the reader to wonder if Whitman himself, as autobiographer, really knows about his own life.

     In the 1867 version, the poem ends with the line “As if you, O cunning Soul, did not keep your secret well!)” (268). This distances the reader, by turning the parenthetical information into a dialogue between Whitman and the soul. It also gives Whitman the appearance of knowing more about himself than other men possibly could: who else could know the secret of his soul? So, again, Whitman is tearing down barriers with one hand, while at the same time he builds them back up with the other hand. The changes made in the later edition of When I Read give a very different picture though:

Why even I myself I often think know little or nothing of

my real life,

Only a few hints, a few diffused faint clews and indirections

I seek for my own use to trace out here.) (171)

     Here, Whitman is almost on the same level as the reader: there is no dialogue between him and the source of secrets. This also comes close to putting him in the same boat as the traditional biographer that he blasts in the earlier part of the poem. Whitman still stands out though; while his knowledge may be incomplete, his chosen biographical form is not confined to mere retellings of historical facts. Poetry can see history call within its walls, but it extends far beyond textbooks. Poetry is open in a way that allows for “diffused faint clews and indirections” (171). That openness can lead to frustration if one is searching for specific answers, but Whitman sure does love his mysteries. What is the use that he refers to in the last line? At the very least, it notes more separation between author and reader and tempts the reader to search for them in the rest of his writing.

September 20 2009 09:24 pm | Uncategorized

4 Responses to “Sam Krieg for September 22”

  1. Brady Earnhart Says:

    Nice point–he comes back again and again to this quandary. It’s interesting to read this poem in cahoots with the introduction (online–see Readings) to _Memoranda During the War_ and with the section of that book entitled “The Real War Will Never Get in the Books” (802 in our edition). Can life be captured on the page, or not? He seems ambivalent on this.

  2. chelseanewnam Says:

    Sam, you bring up some interesting concepts about biography and autobiography here. I agree completely with what you say about Whitman constructing a “new sort of biography” which becomes both. I also think that Whitman’s continued construction and reconstruction of Leaves of Grass not only develops and fortifies this point, but it also completely embodies it. As Whitman creates his autobiography, the text changes as he changes, it varies as the world around him varies – when the world around him is chaos, the text is arranged chaotically, when death approaches him, death is personified more delicately (see my response to Erin’s post for this week), etc. Therefore, Leaves of Grass becomes, as he desired it to, a living text. Leaves of Grass is Walt Whitman and Walt Whitman is Leaves of Grass. This is mind-blowing to me.

    Also, when you mention the text as a biography of the Union, it encourages readers to question historical documentation and where authority comes from. What makes a history book more important than a collected poems? The nature of the beast – the nature of all written tradition – is that it is most likely always colored by some semblance of subjectivity. With that in mind, (and I think Whitman was getting at this when he asked us to be literary “gymnasts”) we may look upon any biography or history book or scroll and question it. The very act of questioning an authoritative text also allows Whitman to create a “new biography,” one that speaks of its subject in a way that allows it to exist in its time as well as the present.

  3. Mara Scanlon Says:

    Sam, your post makes me wish we were reading some of the Horace Traubel books– maybe the Camden classes are? You can read about them and in them on the Whitman archive. Traubel was a fan of WW’s and visited with him in Camden, getting WW to relate things about his life and ideas, which is the first layer of the life story. Then Traubel, who apparently had a audiographic memory, would go home and write it all down. The result is at least 7 full volumes of stuff– a mediated autobiography posing as an unmediated transcription of honest reflection and memory.

  4. s-words Says:

    “Whitman sure does love his mysteries,” and so does Bob Dylan. Your thoughts on Whitman’s various attempts to situate him either in- or outside the role of the informed biographer, and especially your appreciation of the biographer’s “frustration” at “searching for specific answers,” create for me yet another resonance in “Leaves” with the shape- (and voice-box-)shifting that has characterized Dylan’s output. To be sure, you do not need to listen that hard to hear Whitman (“Now I face home again, very pleas’d and joyous, / (But where is what I started for so long ago? / And why is it yet unfound?) –“Facing West from California’s Shores”) in Dylan (“How does it feel / to be on your own / with no direction home / like a complete unknown / like a rolling stone?”). But I mention this to point out that “I’m Not There,” a film about Dylan by Todd Haynes, provides a good sense of what a Whitman biography would look like: six different semi-discrete narratives (Richard Gere plays a “Billy the Kid” Dylan, Heath Ledger an insufferable, neurotic movie star Dylan, etc.) that bleed into each other in ways that show how Dylan has variously defined himself, and how those definitions inform and/or contradict each other. I guess I’d like most to see the Christ-like Whitman striding alongside the naked rogue Whitman in the middle of the kosmos Whitman. Er… right?

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