Ok so since the beginning of the course, I have been searching for Uncle Walt. It has been a bit of an arduous journey. I’ve found Walt Whitman, the cocky eyed rambling prophet with the rakish tilt to his hat and the slightly expanded crotch of the 1855 edition. I’ve found the gospel according to Walt, the 1867 workshop edition, which is set up by chapter and verse. I’ve found the grieving Walt and the nurse Walt, the Good Grey Poet Walt and soldier-eyed Walt, the gay Walt and the ‘we swear that he is homosocial’ Walt. What has been missing though is the Walt Whitman referenced in the scene in ‘Dead Poets Society’ where Robin Williams makes the shy kid get up to write poetry. We have been missing our snaggletoothed mad man.
Thank you death-bed edition for finally finding Uncle Walt for me. While not my favorite version, of ‘Leaves’, that honor goes to the rambling chaos of the 1855 edition, I can see why this is the authoritative text that most scholars go to. This has the feeling of a more polished laid back Whitman. Where as the 1855 version takes the reader by the collar and drags him or her through the poem, kicking and screaming if necessary, and the 1867 version preaches from Whitmanic heights. The death-bed edition is one where the speaker Whitman is sitting in a rocking chair on a front porch somewhere telling a listener everything he has seen, and we know he’s seen it because the wrinkles in his face tell us so, and this is cosigned by the slight limp in the left side of his face from the stroke. He does not need to be prophet or witness or mourner, here I think we see some of a columniation of Whitman’s voice in Whitman the storyteller.
Now this is not to deny Whitman some of the boyish excitement that he had in the 1855 version, there is still plenty of that now; the cocky sparkle never quite left the eye. There is still the crazy listing and the deluge of exclamation marks. Also he has not abandoned all the control he grasped for in the workshop edition. There is still structure, but it is not near the extreme level seen there. The biggest change though is how I feel about the ego in the older Whitman. Whitman the young prophet wears his confidence a bit like locusts and honey; he is there, he is in your face, smirking, and there is a certain roguish charm in his arrogance. There is not the overbearing necessity to the voice that the workshop edition saw. Uncle Walt the Storyteller carries his arrogance at a nice middle, and although I tend to avoid reading to much of the author into his work, as I feel that if you don’t look at the work and the author separately in addition to as a unit, something can get missed (blame Professor Harding for that one), I am willing to give Walt his confidence based on age for this. He has lived his long life, and now nearing the end, this good grey old man sitting on a rocking chair is telling his story.