Exploring Whitman

Just another Looking for Whitman weblog

Searching for Whitman in DC

Filed under: Uncategorized — November 8, 2009 @ 3:12 pm

Walking back to my apartment on October 24th, 2009 after twelve hours of “Whitman Searching” in the DC rain, my body was tired and aching but my mind was racing because I had discovered a new dimension to Whitman that I had never experienced before. Walt Whitman was once a name that I would glance over in a book, the name “Whitman” would blend into Henry David Thoreau, Ralph Waldo Emerson, and the millions of other American canonical authors. But after trudging through the streets of DC the name Walt Whitman would was no longer a historical author who wrote American poetry, but, finally for me, he was an actual human being just like you or I.

Sometimes when we talk in class about Whitman, I feel as though we are honoring this perfect nonhuman being. Prior to the field trip, it was hard for me to fathom the fact that Whitman was someone who had human faults and weaknesses. Rather, I always believed Whitman was this ideal prophet-like individual with awe inspiring ideas and who could foresee the future of America.

The picture of the Bust of Whitman created by S.H. Morse and the street sign depicted my view of Whitman prior to the field trip.


I thought of Whitman as this statue like person who was greater both physically and mentally than any other human. I associated Whitman as a Moses like figure leading his people. At the same time however, Whitman’s names was still associated as a “historical figure” who happened to be recognized for his talents and who like many other famous individuals had streets and buildings named after him.

But, this misconstrued idea of Whitman was slowly broken down throughout the day. Walking down Constitution Ave, standing at Freedom Plaza, and entering into the grand Willard Hotel I began to see how Whitman too had to walk these same streets. Although DC in 2009 is much different than the DC Whitman experienced from 1863-1873, these lines from Brooklyn Ferry stand out in my mind when trying to put into words how Whitman’s humanity was discovered.

“Just as you feel when you look on the river and sky, so I felt,
Just as any of you is one of a living crowd, I was one of a crowd,
Just as you are refresh’d by the gladness of the river and the
bright flow, I was refresh’d”

This discovery of the human Whitman continued as I saw firsthand Whitman’s personal possessions. Although I was deeply moved at the unveiling of the haversack, what captivated my attention the most was Walt Whitman’s glasses and pen.


This picture of Whitman’s glasses show how Whitman had physical ailments and was affected by the outside world around him. The right eye is frosted over and as Barbara Bair, the librarian at the Library of Congress told us, his loss of eyesight in an eye could have been due to the multiple strokes that Whitman had during the later years of his life. So seeing these glasses made me realize that Whitman although brilliant was not perfect.

The pen is a reed that was Whitman’s in 1891. The simple reed pen, changed my perception of how Whitman did not miraculously create his works, but rather, he tirelessly labored pen in hand over paper. Much like what we, as students, do today. So, although Walt Whitman’s work is under the category of canonical American literature, Whitman is no longer a name to me. After this trip Whitman is human just like you and I.

1 Comment »

  1. Mara Scanlon:

    Jess, this is a beautiful reflection on our trip. You’ve juxtaposed the images of the iconic, canonical Whitman and the personal, human Whitman very movingly. I think we could feel our group start to make that transition when Kim talked to us about Whitman’s stroke in his office, and we imagined him being helped across that short expanse of street that evening, only to lose his mobility altogether during the night that followed. For all of our talk about Whitman’s body, this was a body we hadn’t really accounted for yet. I will enjoy hearing about how this change in your relationship to WW changes your relationship to his work also.

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