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Reproducing Walt Whitman: The Camera, the Omnibus and Leaves of Grass

Published online by Cambridge University Press:  30 July 2009

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We have thought of whitman as an urban poet for so long-noticing how integral his Manhattan is to the imagery of Leaves of Grass – that we have lost sight of the deeper structure of urban popular culture lying behind the poem. As Remy G. Saisselin has recently argued, the city in the nineteenth century transformed the eye of the observer, and new kinds of urban spaces and entertainments—like the arcade, the panorama, and the department store—were created to satisfy a growing population of consumers. Saisselin affirms, moreover, that an unprecedented variety of aesthetic observer evolved along with these changes in urban experience: No longer was he “the man of taste in contemplation before a picture or a landscape. … He was the flaneur in the modern city.” And he associates this new observer with the photographer, whose urban gaze was also ubiquitous, surveying urban types and spaces. Saisselin is speaking here primarily of the European city, of Paris especially, but his observations are valuable in considering anew the sources of Whitman's art, for they point to a relationship between poetry and the urban milieu that has been generally overlooked. More specifically, they lead us to see the invention of Leaves of Grass as a way of organizing and perceiving reality that was new in the arts of the nineteenth century, yet one that was rooted in the popular urban culture of the time.

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Copyright © Cambridge University Press 1987

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1. Saisselin, Remy G., The Bourgeois and the Bibelot (New Brunswick: Rutgers University Press, 1984), pp. 2123.Google Scholar

2. Grier, Edward F., ed., Walt Whitman: Notebooks and Unpublished Prose Manuscripts (New York: New York University Press, 1984), vol. 1, p. 277Google Scholar; see also “I Was Looking a Long While” (1860).

3. Sontag, Susan, On Photography (Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 1977), pp. 27ff.Google Scholar

4. Whitman, later, in Democratic VistasGoogle Scholar, celebrated the artist's “imagemaking faculty, coping with material creation, and rivaling, almost triumphing over it.” He used the image of photography at that time derogatorily as a symbol of merely literal creation: The artist should make “no useless attempt to repeat the material creation, by daguerreotyping the exact likeness by mortal mental means”; instead, he urged the poet to work by “analogies, by curious removes, indirections.” Photography by then had come to stand for a kind of limited seeing, for the literalism of “realism” that Whitman associated with the materialism and commercialism of the country. We should note too the disappointment Whitman had expressed in Specimen Days that existing portraits of Lincoln-including photographs-had failed to capture the greatness of the inner man. All this is true, but the camera had by then already served its purpose in his development.

5. “Notes on the Meaning and Intention of ‘Leaves of Grass,’” in Bucke, Richard Maurice, ed., The Complete Prose Works of Walt Whitman, Camden edition (New York: G. P. Putnam's Sons, 1902), vol. 9, p. 10.Google Scholar

6. See Orvell, Miles, “Reproduction and ‘The Real Thing’: The Anxiety of Realism in the Age of Photography,” in De Laurentis, Teresa et al. , eds., The Technological Imagination: Theories and Fictions (Milwaukee: Center for Twentieth Century Studies, 1980), pp. 4964.Google Scholar

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10. The daguerreotype process itself resulted in a unique image on a copper plate, but paper was also used in early photographic experiments and dominated the market in the late 1850s as the wet-plate collodion process replaced the daguerreotype.

11. “‘There Was a Child Went Forth,” in Bradley and Blodgett, eds., Leaves of Grass, p. 364Google Scholar. Future page references to Whitman's poems will be to this edition and will be incorporated into the text.

12. See Beaver, Joseph, Walt Whitman-Poet of Science (New York: King's Crown Press, 1951), pp. 6870Google Scholar, who takes these lines as a reference to the ether of interstellar space.

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17. Traubel, Horace, With Walt Whitman in Camden, (New York: Mitchell Kennerley, 1914), vol. 3, p. 553Google Scholar. The passage was cited by Trachtenberg, Alan, “The Photographic Portrait as Cultural Artifact,” American Studies Association Convention (Minneapolis), 09 28, 1979.Google Scholar

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21. Furness, Clifton Joseph, eds. Walt Whitman's Workshop: A Collection of Unpublished Manuscripts (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1928), p. 65CrossRefGoogle Scholar. Whitman clearly knew what the conventions were and in 1890 gave us a good generalized portrait of the genteel poet in his normal habitat: “Longfellow, reminiscent, polish'd, elegant, with the air of finest conventional library, picturegallery or parlor, with ladies and gentlemen in them, and plush and rosewood, and ground-glass lamps, and mahogany and ebony furniture, and a silver inkstand and scented satin paper to write on.” (Whitman wrote this during his Camden years, when visitors to his Mickle Street house were struck by the extraordinary clutter of manuscripts, books, newspapers, magazines, and photographs littering his simply furnished rooms.) See Stovall, Floyd, ed., Prose Works 1892, 2 vols., New York University Press edition of The Collected Writings of Walt Whitman (New York: New York University Press, 1963), vol. 1 (Specimen Days), p. 285.Google Scholar

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23. Anon., from the Critic (London), in Murphy, , ed., Walt Whitman, p. 58.Google Scholar

24. Anon., from the London Leader, ibid., p. 62.

25. Allen, Gay Wilson, A Reader's Guide to Walt Whitman (New York: Noonday/Farrar, Strauss and Giroux, 1970), p. 49.Google Scholar

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28. Leaves of Grass was first sold at Fowler and Wells, a phrenological bookstore, which coincidentally was located in the same building as the country's largest seller of photographic supplies, Edward Anthony. Whitman's own exhortation to the reader-“Undrape! you are not guilty to me, nor stale nor discarded” (p. 35)-went beyond such phrenological tracts as Combe, George's, The Constitution of Man (1834)Google Scholar, which counseled that we must exercise our bodily organs and external sense.

29. Zweig, Paul, Walt Whitman: The Making of the Poet (New York: Basic Books, 1984), pp. 88100Google Scholar. See also Hungerford, Edward, “Walt Whitman and His Chart of Bumps,” American Literature 2 (05 1931): 350–84CrossRefGoogle Scholar. Wrobel, Arthur, “Whitman and the Phrenologists: The Divine Body and the Sensuous Soul,” PMLA 89 (01 1974): 1723.CrossRefGoogle Scholar

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33. See Arnheim, Rudolph, “On the Nature of Photography,” in Petruck, Peninah, ed., The Camera Viewed (New York: E. P. Dutton, 1979), vol. 2, p. 149Google Scholar: “The I was fully authorized to stare at the Thou as though it were an It.”

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39. On the catalog form, see Coffman, Stanley K. Jr., “‘Crossing Brooklyn Ferry’: A Note on the Catalogue Technique in Whitman's Poetry,” Modern Philology 51 (05 1954): 225–32CrossRefGoogle Scholar; Buell, Lawrence, “Transcendentalist Catalogue Rhetoric: Vision Versus Form,” American Literature 40 (11 1968): 325–39CrossRefGoogle Scholar; Chari, V. K., “The Structure of Whitman's Catalogue Poems,” Walt Whitman Review 18 (1972): 317Google Scholar; Mason, John B., “Walt Whitman's Catalogues,” American Literature 45 (03 1973): 3449CrossRefGoogle Scholar; Reed, Michael D., “First Person Persona and the Catalogue in ‘Song of Myself,’” Walt Whitman Review 23 (1977): 147–53.Google Scholar

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48. Christman, Henry M., Walt Whitman's New York (New York: Macmillan, 1963), p. 19.Google Scholar

49. See Marsh, , “Drama and Spectacle,” p. 588.Google Scholar

50. Quoted in Novak, Barbara, Nature and Culture: American Landscape and Painting, 1825–1875 (New York: Oxford University Press, 1980), p. 27.Google Scholar

51. Bodgett, and Bradley, , eds., Leaves of Grass, pp. 711, 713Google Scholar. Although we have no record of Whitman's having seen panoramas, his writings contain abundant references to them. See Zarobila, Charles, “Walt Whitman and the Panorama,” Walt Whitman Review 25 (06 1979): 5159.Google Scholar

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55. Bradley, and Blodgett, , eds., Leaves of Grass, pp. 279, 713.Google Scholar

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58. Holloway, Emory and Schwarz, Vernolian, eds., I Sit and Look Out (New York: Columbia University Press, 1932), pp. 129–30.Google Scholar

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61. Stovall, , ed., Prose Works, 1892, vol. 2, p. 681Google Scholar, quoted in Allen, Gay Wilson, The Solitary Singer (New York: New York University Press, 1967), p. 120.Google Scholar

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