Commentary

Selected Criticism

Title:
"Mannahatta [I was asking...]" (1860)
Author:
Lulloff, William G.
Print source:
J.R. LeMaster and Donald D. Kummings, eds., Walt Whitman: An Encyclopedia (New York: Garland Publishing, 1998), reproduced by permission.

Walt Whitman's poem "Mannahatta," beginning "I was asking . . . ," is one of two lyrics bearing this title. It was first published in the third edition of Leaves of Grass (1860). Subsequently, it was published in Leaves (1867), incorporated in a "Leaves" group in 1871, and placed in its present cluster, "From Noon to Starry Night," in 1881. Whitman's original poem included significant closing lines that were deleted after 1871. The earlier conclusion calls "Mannahatta" "The free city! no slaves! no owners of slaves" (1871 Leaves). Additionally, Whitman lauds the women of New York, saying he is mad to be with them and promising he will return after death to be with them. Whitman also extols the young men, saying, "I swear / I cannot live happy, without I often / go talk, walk, eat, drink, sleep, with them!" (1871 Leaves).

In the opening line of the poem Whitman asks for "something specific and perfect for my city." He recalls the "aboriginal name." In his An American Primer Whitman talks about various naming words and asks, "What is there in the best aboriginal name?" (19). In an 1889 conversation with Horace Traubel about the word "Mannahatta," Whitman attempted to answer the question. Whitman told Traubel that Dr. Daniel Garrison Brinton once reported in Folk-Lore that an Indian had said that "Mannahatta" meant a place to buy bows and arrows. Whitman felt that the definition was "improbable." From his memories of other comments of "authorities" he conjectured that the word meant "a point of land surrounded by rushing, tempestuous, demonic waters" (Traubel 56).

In addition to Whitman's use of the word "Mannahatta" as a title for his poem in 1860, and as a naming word in "Me Imperturbe" (1860), his brother, Thomas Jefferson Whitman (Jeff), and Jeff's wife, Martha, named their first born daughter "Mannahatta." Biographer David Reynolds concludes that "Hattie" was "poetically named" (375).

The poem "Mannahatta," sans the flamboyant references both to men and to women, remains a tribute to Whitman's city. From the "water bays, superb," and the "flowing sea-currents" to the "down-town streets" and "carts hauling goods," Whitman seems transfixed.

Bibliography

Reynolds, David S. Walt Whitman's America: A Cultural Biography. New York: Knopf, 1995.

Traubel, Horace. With Walt Whitman in Camden. Ed. Gertrude Traubel and William White. Vol. 6. Carbondale: Southern Illinois UP, 1982.

Whitman, Walt. An American Primer. Ed. Horace Traubel. 1904. Stevens Point, Wis.: Holy Cow!, 1987.

____. Leaves of Grass: Comprehensive Reader's Edition. Ed. Harold W. Blodgett and Sculley Bradley. New York: New York UP, 1965.


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