Since weâ€™re comparing 1892 Whitman to 1855 Whitman, I thought I would re-visit the subject of an earlier blog post of mine: â€śthe tale of a jetblack sunriseâ€ť (66). Earlier in the semester, I noted Whitmanâ€™s idealization of the frontiersman, as well as the anonymous nature of that very man: Whitmanâ€™s ideal did not have a face. Now, in the 1892 version, the â€śfaceâ€ť of the entire story is removed in an important way. The later Whitman seems to be more eager for readers to think about the poemâ€™s speaker, rather than the subjects of the poemâ€™s story.
Â Â Â Â In the 1855 Leaves of Grass, there are no distinct section breaks in the first, poem. Instead, there are different sections that have, throughout the years, been given unofficial names (such as the famous â€śtwenty-ninth batherâ€ť vignette). In the first edition of Leaves, â€śthe murder in cold blood of four hundred and twelve young menâ€ť is given the unofficial title of â€śthe tale of a jetblack sunriseâ€ť (66). The name is repeated at the end of the vignette as well, giving it a very â€śfolk-taleâ€ť feel.
Â Â Â Â The 1982 version of the vignette deals with titles differently. By the last edition of Leaves, the now-named Song of Myself has been divided up in fifty-two different sections. The sections, none of which have names, give the poem more of a King James Bible feeling. Of course, this fits with Whitmanâ€™s desire to write a new sort of scripture for America to model itself after. However, the unofficial, but more distinctive, name of the vignette is lost. The events lose their connection with the weather in the new version; however, this reduction to the name of â€śsection 34â€ť puts more focus on the speaker of the poem.
Â Â Â Â The only part of the 1892 version of the vignette that really differs from its earlier incarnation is the opening section. Originally, the speaker is skipped over as the subject shifts from the Alamo to our vignette: â€śI tell not the fall of Alamoâ€¦. Not one escaped to tell the fall of Alamo, / The hundred and fifty are dumb yet at Alamo. / Hear now the tale of a jetblack sunriseâ€ť (66). The only thing overtly emphasized about the speaker is what he does not know. The source of the story remains a mystery, and its credibility is questionable: if the speaker does not know about something as famous as the Alamo, why should the reader trust what he has to say about something far less well-known, whose location and date is not even given? In the storyâ€™s 1892 version, the speaker comes across as far more authoritative.
Â Â Â Â In its â€śDeathbedâ€ť incarnation, our story begins like this:
Now I tell what I knew in Texas in my early youth,
(I tell not the fall of Alamo,
Not one escaped to tell the fall of Alamo,
The hundred and fifty are dumb yet at Alamo,)
â€™Tis the tale of the murder in cold blood of four hundred and twelve young men. (226).
Here, the speaker is coming from a much more authoritative place. The author knows the vignette himself, rather than having simply heard it from someone else. In fact, the word â€śknowâ€ť is ambiguous enough that it could be taken to mean that the speaker witnessed these events himself. Now, with the unofficial title removed, the story has significance because the speaker has given it significance. The significance is shifted from the storyâ€™s connection to the weather (â€śa jetblack sunriseâ€ť) to its connection to the author (â€śWhat I knew in Texasâ€ť) (66, 226). By 1892, the poemâ€™s speaker has become specifically revealed as the source of knowledge, and the tale has become less nebulous. The earlier folk-tale has been replaced with a New Testament-style speaker that recounts events from earlier in his life.
November 01 2009 07:43 pm | Uncategorized