As I listen to a recent episode of Studio 360, an episode discussing Walt Whitman’s lasting legacy on America, a reverie of Washington, DC overcomes me. Nearly everyday for eight years I passed the Dupont Circle Metro station where a broad cylindrical granite wall—nearly 50 feet across—bears an engraving from Whitman’s poem, “The Wound-Dresser.” The sprawling quote doesn’t call attention to itself so much as it subtly creeps into the periphery of the passerby until the moment comes when she cannot help but pause in reflection:
Thus in silence of dreams’ projections,
Returning, resuming, I thread my way through the hospitals,
The hurt and wounded, I pacify with soothing hand,
I sit by the restless all the dark night, some are so young,
Some suffer so much I recall the experience, sweet and sad
The excerpt is alive with death and life, pain and tenderness. I feel Whitman’s empathy; I feel the quick of his spirit pierced. But I want to know more, not through his poetry—those sprawling lines of depth and movement—but through his prose so I might better understand the man beneath the poem. I want him to tell me the sureness of his footing in America before and after experiencing the travails of being witness to all the blood and death of the Civil War. I want to know where he ended up after he first sung his body, electrifying the poetics of America, and the world. I believe the answers rest somewhere in the two essays that bookmarked (and bookended) his life: the preface to the first edition of Leaves of Grass and his final essay, “A Backward Glance O’er Travel’d Roads.”
Appearing first as a preface to November Boughs, a short collection of essays and poems in 1888, “A Backward Glance O’er Travel’d Roads” went through several revisions, four published under separate titles: “A Backward Glance on My Road (1884),” “How ‘Leaves of Grass’ was Made (1885),” “How I Made a Book (1886),” and “My Book and I (1887).” Each of these essays contains fundamental building blocks of thought, each essay containing a sentence, or entire paragraphs, almost identical to those found in the finished product. This was not a mere exercise in cutting and pasting for Whitman. These were his attempts at the essay. Workshopping his ideas through each published work, Whitman came closer and closer to precisely what he wanted to say and how he wanted to say it. Just as he had done with his poetry each year between the first and final editions of Leaves of Grass, he also did with his prose. Continuously looking backward at his work to tweak and adjust, lengthen or shorten, Whitman was fearless when allowing his evolving sensibilities to inform and revise what he had previously written to reflect what he presently felt. Some criticized this near three-decade specular process of revision. For Sculley Bradley and John A. Stevenson, however, this was not the case:
[Whitman’s] tendency to revert to the same subject has been condemned as indicating poverty of thought. On the contrary it is consistent with his creed of progressive evolution as the means to wisdom for the individual, and to good in the whole vast visa of life.
Before his death in 1892, Whitman gave explicit directions concerning the handling of his magnum opus. His final revision was to be published unchanged ad infinitum. Upholding the importance of his revisionary style and essaying techniques, Whitman wrote: “The subsequent adjusting interval which is so important to form’d and launch’d work, books especially, has passed; and waiting till fully after that, I have given my concluding words.” To follow the final lines of Leaves of Grass, Whitman insisted that his essay “A Backward Glance O’er Travel’d Roads” be the “concluding words” of his collection. (Note: His instructions also insisted that the preface of the 1855 edition be the preface to the final edition as well.)
But where did he begin all of those years before the twilight of his life approached, before the multiple strokes, before the war wearily aged him to a wilting grey? At time Leaves of Grass was first published, Whitman was 35 years old and wrote with the force of a steam engine. Strikingly different than the essay that came 30 years later, the preface to the 1855 edition bursts with pounding energy. It’s breathless and leaves the reader breathless: “From the eyesight proceeds another eyesight and from the hearing proceeds another hearing and from the voice proceeds another voice eternally curious of the harmony of things with man.” The words want to be read until the reader becomes faint, intoxicated in the throes of diction and syntax; however, it is not just the propulsion of energy that calls our attention, but also Whitman’s prophetic earnestness. He writes:
“. . . the young man who has composedly periled his life and lost it has done exceedingly well for himself, while the man who has not periled his life and retains it to old age in riches and ease has perhaps achieved nothing for himself worth mentioning . . “
After a life spent milling through words, walking amongst the wounded, and ailing from illness and age, can Whitman say for himself that he has done well? I believe so.
The war changed him, as war tends to do with all of those who stand as its witness. The author writes in “A Backward Glance O’er Travel’d Roads”:
“I went down to the war fields in Virginia (end of 1862), lived thenceforth in camp—saw great battles and the days and nights afterward—partook of all the fluctuations, gloom, despair, hopes again arous’d, courage evoked—death readily risk’d—the causes, too—along and filling those agonostic and lurid following years, 1863-’64-’65—the real parturition years (more than 1776-’83) of this henceforth homogeneous Union. Without those three of four years and the experiences they gave, “Leaves of Grass” would not now be existing.”
He was spurred by the war, both negatively and positively. As many historians have pointedly remarked, Whitman’s health was in steady decline soon after the end of 1865. The war took a part of his vitality, surely. But in the same light, war gave him another perspective on life and experience, a side that provided a reason for being, a reason to continue the pursuit of literary toil and revision. He had something to say and he needed the time to get it all out. He professed, “Defiant of ostensible literary and other conventions, I avowedly chant “the great pride of man in himself,” and permit it to be more or less a motif of nearly all my verse.” His words are calmer than those found in the preface of 1855. His voice more deliberate, more controlled.
Maybe it was the war that changed Whitman; maybe it was his response to aging. In any case, the effect was the same no matter the cause. The writer went inward, became reflexive and contemplative. As all writers, Whitman workshopped ideas and lines and sentences all of his writing life. His essays emblematized his vision of America; they are a treatise on his nation, and thus, himself.