New York Times
August 30, 2017
More than any other American writer, Walt Whitman seems to have presaged our present moment. He came of age in an era of unparalleled national fracture and sought desperately, although fruitlessly, to unite the country through his poems. To birth a literary equivalent of Manifest Destiny, he created a new prosody, shucked of Old World meters and rhymes, in favor of sprawling free verse built from the sturdy idiom of Manhattan’s streets, what he called “the blab of the pave.” In so doing, he also overhauled the stance and social status of our verse. Believing that “the shelves are crowded with perfumes,” he declared at the outset of Song of Myself that he would not be seduced by such finery and fakery. Instead, he invited the reader along on a journey of self-discovery that would be both revelatory and remaking. “I will go to the bank by the wood and become undisguised and naked,” he wrote. In short, Whitman can be said to have invented not only American literature but also the American author — setting the mold for generations of visionaries willing to strip bare in search of essential truths.
The pitfall for readers, of course, is in confusing an author’s persona with the author’s person. The problem is especially pronounced in Whitman’s case, because he sought to make a drama of his transformation, dividing his writing career between juvenilia published under the name “Walter Whitman” and mature works published as “Walt.” The change was made visible by dropping the fancy, dandyish attire of the formal young man, in favor of a frontispiece of the first edition of Leaves of Grass that depicted the author as a roughnecked, open-collared workman with one hand on his hip and his hat cocked back to reveal his sunburned face and mottled beard. He published the book without an author name on the title page, announcing himself only in the midst of his long opening poem as “Walt Whitman, an American, one of the roughs, a kosmos.” For generations of poets to follow, this established a myth to imitate. For biographers, this created a cottage industry, now more than a century old, of stripping away Whitman’s self-mythologizing, in order to better understand which parts of his persona were self-revelation and which were self-invention.
In recent years, the search has been aided by new technology. The Walt Whitman Archive, a decades’ long project to digitize all of Whitman’s manuscripts — as well as his published work in all of its variants — has been coupled with numerous independent projects digitizing newspapers for which Whitman wrote, books that he owned and read, manuscripts of other authors he knew and bureaucrats for whom he worked. What has emerged is not a single “song of myself” but a proliferation of selves, each revealed or concealed according to Whitman’s purposes and the occasion of his writing. Early in his career, he wrote in full obscurity as “the schoolmaster,” “a traveler,” “a pedestrian,” “you know who” or with no byline at all. At other times, he wrote under pseudonyms that seem to wink to his friends and future scholars — “Paumanok,” the ancestral name Whitman used for his native Long Island; “Velsor Brush,” a nom de plume composed of his grandmothers’ maiden names; “Mose Velsor,” a riff on that earlier name combined with a popular ruffian from the Bowery stage, with whom Whitman was frequently compared.