Commentary

Selected Criticism

Title:
Walt Whitman's Blue Book
Author:
Golden, Arthur
Print source:
J.R. LeMaster and Donald D. Kummings, eds., Walt Whitman: An Encyclopedia (New York: Garland Publishing, 1998), reproduced by permission.

The Blue Book (bound in blue paper wrappers) was Whitman's personal, annotated copy of the 1860 (third) edition of Leaves of Grass. Over the span of the Civil War (1861–1865), Whitman carefully revised the bulk of the poems in the third edition, bringing them more closely in line with his on-the-spot responses to the war. The Blue Book was to serve as the revised text of the next (1867) edition of Leaves, but Whitman, for the most part, rejected many of these revisions in favor of the 1860 text. For this reason, the Blue Book enables one to recover Whitman's overall poetic strategies for Leaves of Grass under the urgent pressures of war during this crucial period of his career.

Whitman had termed the third edition of Leaves of Grass his "New Bible" (Blue Book 2:xxxi). To the thirty-two poems of the 1855 and 1856 editions Whitman added 146 new poems to Leaves. These included most of the poems that formed the programmatic-nationalistic "cluster," or grouping of poems, "Chants Democratic and Native American"; the "Children of Adam" cluster, celebrating heterosexual love; the "Calamus" cluster, in which Whitman often interwove an intense homosexual emotion with the general theme of the "Brotherhood of Man"; and various miscellaneous clusters. Very little had escaped Whitman's attention in the Blue Book. All but 34 of its 456 pages often show heavy revisions, excisions, paste-on slips containing fresh lines, marginal notations, and erasures, all variously in ink and pencils of different colors.

Throughout Leaves of Grass, Whitman's integral nationalist bonding metaphor was that of the celebration of the "divine average," of the American people "en-masse." The war stifled this idea of the organic oneness of the states. In the Blue Book, Whitman's aim was to bring the divided nation to a prewar visionary nationalistic homogeneity. In effect, his revisory strategy was to hold in suspension two separate attitudes toward the South. For example, in his heavy revisions for the "Chants Democratic" poem "By Blue Ontario's Shore," it was as though the South, not mentioned by name, was some foreign aggressor attacking the United States. In a paste-on addition, we get these lines, retained in 1867: The menacing, arrogant one, that strode and advanced with his senseless scorn, bearing the murderous knife! Lo! the wide swelling one, the braggart that would yesterday do so much! Already a carrion dead, and despised of all the earth—an offal rank, This day to the dunghill maggots spurn'd. (Blue Book 2:114) But for the "other" South, the South of the "people," in the 1860 poem "Longings for Home" ("O Magnet-South"), Whitman in light revision retained almost intact his antebellum romantic view of the South.

In this connection, faced at the early stages of the war with the possible dissolution of the Union, and with such foreign powers as England and France antagonistic to the Union cause, Whitman's intense nationalism at times shifted during this period to the xenophobic. In the poem "Our Old Feuillage," Whitman wished to "demain [or cut America off from the rest of] the continent!" (Blue Book 2:160). With a Northern victory, he rejected this revision in 1867. Following the end of the war, with an occasional exception (e.g., "By Blue Ontario's Shore") Whitman rejected in 1867 most of his harshest nationalistic revisions.

In the Blue Book Whitman was also preoccupied with subjecting the 45-poem "Calamus" cluster to heavy revision. The calamus image derives from the calamus plant, a phallic-shaped, aromatic plant found in remote marshy areas. It served Whitman as the combined metaphor for the themes of the "Brotherhood of Men" and the often intense homosexual emotion. Elsewhere in the Blue Book, Whitman in revision regularly interwove the "Calamus" theme with the nationalistic theme, as, for example, in "Starting from Paumanok," thus giving its initial democratic motif a more intense bonding of "manly love."

In this connection, in the revised "Calamus" grouping, Whitman often considerably strengthened the homosexual motif. In an apparent effort to tighten matters and avoid repeating the same theme and emotion he had explored variously in 1860, Whitman initially had rejected no fewer than thirteen poems, later restoring four. Had he followed through on his Blue Book revisions in 1867, one-fifth of the "Calamus" cluster would have disappeared. Had Whitman intended to suppress passages or entire poems that delineated his homosexual sensibility, he certainly would have done so in the extensively revised "Calamus" group. That is, any logical assumption of suppression would presuppose the outright elimination, or the watering down, of the "Calamus" metaphor in poems, stanzas, lines. On the contrary, in poem after poem Whitman retained through extensive revision passages as revealing in the intensity of the "Calamus" emotion as anything he had rejected. And, for example, in "Whoever You are Holding Me Now in Hand," the revised version was, if anything, even more intensely evocative and personal than in 1860. On the other hand, the quietly suggestive "A Glimpse" remained more or less as in 1860. Whitman saw fit to reject most of the "Calamus" revisions in 1867. The three 1860 "Calamus" poems he dropped from the 1867 edition were certainly highly personal, but no more so contextually than the revised Blue Book "Calamus" poems, or the sexually explicit "Calamus" poems he retained in 1867. In all, forty poems were variously rejected, with six restored. It appears to have been Whitman's aim not merely to revise the poems, but also to achieve overall a broader economy of statement. Only six new poems appeared in the 1867 edition. During this period, Whitman had also completed the Drum-Taps (1865) poems.

The Blue Book had gained notoriety over the years as the volume that led to Whitman's dismissal in 1865 from his clerkship in the Indian Office of the Department of the Interior. Whitman had kept the book in his desk. Secretary of the Interior James Harlan somehow got hold of the copy, was scandalized by its openness, and fired Whitman. Through the influence of friends, Whitman was hired the next day in the Attorney General's Office, where he remained free from official smut-hounds until 1873, when he suffered a stroke and left government service.

One of Whitman's literary executors, Horace Traubel, tried unsuccessfully over the years to issue a facsimile edition of the Blue Book. In 1968 the noted Whitman collector Oscar Lion, who gave to the New York Public Library his important Whitman collection, generously made possible the publication of an exact facsimile edition of the Blue Book and an accompanying introduction and analysis of all the revisions. Both the print facsimile edition and the Whitman Archive online edition now allow one to follow Whitman's advice to Traubel and take "a glimpse into the workshop" without being put off by the myths that had obscured its importance over the years.

Bibliography

Golden, Arthur. "New Light on Leaves of Grass: Whitman's Annotated Copy of the 1860 (Third) Edition." Bulletin of the New York Public Library 69 (1965): 283–306.

Killingsworth, M. Jimmie. Whitman's Poetry of the Body: Sexuality, Politics, and the Text. Chapel Hill: U of North Carolina P, 1989.

Miller, James E., Jr. A Critical Guide to "Leaves of Grass." Chicago: U of Chicago P, 1957.

Whitman, Walt. Prose Works 1892. Ed. Floyd Stovall. 2 vols. New York: New York UP, 1963–1964.

____. Walt Whitman's Blue Book. Ed. Arthur Golden. 2 vols. New York: New York Public Library, 1968.

____. Walt Whitman's Civil War. Ed. Walter Lowenfels. New York: Knopf, 1960.

____. Whitman's Manuscripts: "Leaves of Grass" (1860). Ed. Fredson Bowers. Chicago: U of Chicago P, 1955.


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