SEE THE ORIGINAL WEBPAGE (v2)
In the aftermath of 9/11 Whitman re-surfaced in order to help commemorate and console over the horrible losses of that day. In The New Yorker (October 15, 2001) editor David Remnick invoked Whitman to frame his feelings:
Walt Whitman remains the singular, articulated soul of this city, and in “Song of Myself” he seems to have projected himself forward a century and a half into our present woe, our grief for the thousands lost at the southern end of Manhattan, and for the hundreds of rescuers among them, who walked into the boiling flame and groaning steel:
I am the smash’d fireman with breast-bone broken
Tumbling walls buried me in their debris,
Heat and smoke I inspired, I heard the yelling shouts of my comrades,
I heard the distant click of their picks and shovels,
They have clear’d the beams away, they tenderly lift me forth.
Largeness of empathy was Whitman’s emotional gift and legacy. It is indecent to look for the good in an act of mass murder, and yet one would have to be possessed of a heart of ice not to have felt in recent weeks the signs of Whitman’s legacy: a civic and national spirit of resolve, improvisation, and kindness when panic and meanness might also have been expected.
Finding in Whitman a timeliness—or timelessness—that allows him to touch our lives and, through him, for us to touch each others’, Remnick finds in Whitman’s sympathetic identifications—his impersonations—a model of sincerity and adhesiveness. In an entry on “Human and Heroic New York” in his diary Specimen Days, Whitman spelled out the grandeur of that city and its citizenry, hailing the “rapport” and “comradeship” he found there on his return. In fact, as I sit down to write this, I’m glancing at the latest issue of The New Yorker, which also cites Whitman as a benchmark; in a review of a post-9/11 anthology entitled Poems of New York Whitman is seen as standing out: “There are some stirring elegies here, but Whitman’s words speak most consolingly, across the century, to the city’s new sense of strength imperilled: “It is not upon you alone the dark patches fall, / The dark threw its patches down upon me also” (December 23 and 30, 2002). Of course, Whitman himself imagined his continuing presence in such poems as “Crossing Brooklyn Ferry,” where he broadcasts himself into the future, and it is the reproduction of Whitman in the twentieth and twenty-first centuries—his repetition, metaphorically speaking—that fuels this issue.
In an editorial in The Washington Post after the 9/11 attack Salman Rushdie further confirmed Whitman’s enduring legacy:
They broke our city. I’m among the newest of New Yorkers, but even people who have never set foot in Manhattan have felt its wounds deeply, because New York is the beating heart of the visible world, tough-talking, spirit-dazzling, Walt Whitman’s “city of orgies, walks and joys,” his “proud and passionate city – mettlesome, mad, extravagant city!” To this bright capital of the visible, the forces of invisibility have dealt a dreadful blow.
Of course, Rushdie knows of what he speaks, and his sense of the visibility of New York matches the new visibility Whitman has enjoyed—a recreation and remembrance of him not only in the light of 9/11 but in the ebb and flow of American cultural life since his death. In seeking to commemorate and get on with the project of rebuilding, writers have appealed to Whitman’s exuberant sense of the city and its possibilities; in the move to memorialize—through the repetition of Whitman’s word and phrases, through his body and his body of poetry—they have found a way to affectively contextualize the heroics performed on that day, the devastation that the country suffered and witnessed, and their hope for the future.
This second issue of the electronic Mickle Street Review is dedicated to the idea of the repetition, replication, and mimesis of Whitman’s persona, and to the idea of repetition in American cultural life generally. In the lead essay Ian McGuire breaks new ground, leading us away from a discussion of prosodic repetition in Whitman (his catalogues, repetends, etc.) to a nuanced philosophical discussion of repetition as it structures identity and difference. The two essays that follow, by Andrew Higgins and Reinaldo Silva, address the influence of another poet on Whitman and of Whitman on another poet, respectively. Both of these authors show the extent to which Whitman was part of the fabric of his culture—and not just an American culture but a global one; through the replication of certain aspects of poetic performance, new literary historical lines may be drawn. Next up, Joel Dinerstein examines how Big Band swing music helped a newly urbanized population cope with the increased mechanization (and repetitions) of modern life, capturing the power and rhythmic flow of an expanding industrial soundscape. He reenvisions American modernity by arguing that African American vernacular culture provided the primary means of aesthetic adaptation to the accelerated tempo of the “machine age.” Lisle Dalton confronts phrenology in America, and although his article is not about repetition or replication per se, it is about an epistemology that Whitman and the phrenologists shared—one based on correspondence, or the belief that microcosm “corresponds” to—i.e., replicates and sympathizes with—the macrocosm. Poems by Kim Benson, Alan Saitoh, Phil Dandrill, and Zoe Forney, whose two 9/11 pieces are included here, extend in creative ways the discussions inhabiting this issue.
Feature articles do as well. Whitman re-enactor Bill Koch, whose reflections on performing Whitman are included with video footage of his most recent show, explains and demonstrates what it means to impersonate Whitman, to present his persona to a live modern audience. Dramatist Kenn Pierson documents the wide range of twentieth-century Whitman performances on stage and screen, charting his diverse afterlife. Primary-school teacher Thomas Smith introduces the work of his third-graders, who through readings in Whitman and discussions with artists about Whitman, in particular sculptor John Giannotti, produced some remarkable poems and drawings that seek to re-imagine him. A roundtable discussion with prominent avant-gardists about the nature and impact of Whitman’s poetics on postmodern poetry also helps us to establish his vital legacy. Finally, Thomas Lisk seeks to recover the persona of Whitman at work in Civil War hospitals and on the way reveals uncanny intersections with the poet in the culture at large. It is our hope that this mix of perspectives will fulfill MSR’s mission to facilitate interdisciplinary exchanges among creative writers, artists, teachers, and scholars interested in American literature and culture in Whitman’s day and beyond.
In our “Documents” section, Tricia Cherin sheds light on California poet Ruth LePrade’s feminist re-tuning of Whitman, and MSR is pleased to offer readers a digitized version of the entire book of her poems, A Woman Free, originally published in 1917 and now out-of-print. In conclusion, Whitman scholar William Pannapacker reviews historian Gary Nash’s book First City, an exploration of cultural life in Philadelphia and the artifacts of memorialization.
I would like to thank Paul Wilson, MSR’s new managing editor, for his work on this issue, as well as Chiu Lam Chan, Tzu-Yun Jen, Tien Nguyen and Victor Nammour, our computer specialists, and to the other Camden On-Line Poetry Project interns. Also, I am pleased to acknowledge the Walt Whitman Program in American Studies at Rutgers-Camden, the Mid-Atlantic Regional Center for the Humanities, a joint enterprise of Rutgers-Camden and Temple universities, and the Gilder Lehrman Insititute of American History for their intellectual and financial support of this project.
– Tyler Hoffman