November 10, 2009

Ben for 11/10

Filed under: Uncategorized — wordbreaker @ 11:00 am

The definitive Walt Whitman, or How to name a Kosmos.


Walt Whitman provides a wonderful complication when attempting to box him in to a specific anthology.  One could almost say that he includes multitudes, that is if he did not already say it himself.  We have spent the entire semester looking for Whitman, a sometimes daunting, sometimes frightening, although mostly entertaining venture that has led us the one question that was both bound to happen, and rather impossible to answer.  Which Walt do we put down for the annals of history?  Or we could even attempt to simplify the question and say, ‘which is the definitive edition of Leaves of Grass?’

The answer that immediately comes to mind for that question the Deathbed Edition.  This version certainly has its merits.  It is perhaps the most accessible of all the versions, as it lacks the breathlessness of the 1855 version or the stifling structure of the workbook edition, some how finding a happy medium between the two.  Also,  if academia is keeping with Whitman’s authorial intent, this was the final version, the last revisions of his living breathing on going work.  Also it is the biggest revision to come out of the Civil War, which Whitman credits with giving him LoG.  However, something strikes hollow with just looking at the Deathbed edition.

I think this hollowness stems from the fact that I am a bit biased towards the Deathbed edition for two reasons.  First, it is the last version we are reading as a class, and because of this, it is the version I read with the best understanding of Whitman’s work.  The 1855 (which in a vacuum is probably my favorite) hit me over the head like a brick the first time I read it, having not read much Uncle Walt before hand it was a daunting text.  Now, having wrestled through so much more of Whitman’s writing, there is a sense of accomplishment at having made it this far.  The second one walks hand in hand with the first, though, as we have seen Whitman expand and grow as a writer and the bias towards chronology says that his last version should be his magnum opus.

The problem with this though, is, as those of you who have been following my blog know, I am obsessed with the different faces of Whitman.  The prophet, the witness, the disciple, the storyteller.  With this eye then to the body of Whitman’s work, the voice of the story teller in the deathbed edition only functions so well because it is based off the other phases of Whitman’s voice.  Whitman posits that he could not have had Leaves of Grass without the Civil War, which I can follow, but the deathbed edition could not have existed without the voice of the prophet in 1855, or the voice of the disciple of himself in 1867, or even without the voice of the mourner in the Lincoln poems.  So, while I guess my vote on the definitive edition goes to the Deathbed edition, my real sense is that you can’t come close to touching the Kosmos without reading much much more of his work.  That being said, I think the definitive edition should be the Bible edition, but that is most because I want the Whitman Bible.

One response to “Ben for 11/10”

  1. Avatar of s-words s-words says:

    I suppose this question of a particular edition’s “definitiveness” fascinates (plagues?) us so much because of our familiarity with an entirely different model for “collected works” compendia: one that comes together after the fact, when the writer has died and his/her complete writings might confront readers in a single assembled volume for the first time. “Leaves” satisfies that function by presenting us with the chief mass of Whitman’s poetic writings, but upsets that function’s expectations in the amount of revisional control Whitman exerted over his own legacy, his own “en masse” literary identity. Because of the broad differences between editions that you mention, and which any Whitmaniac (that’s Scanlon talking) would notice, the only possible “complete Whitman” volume would be one that reprinted every “Leaves” version consecutively. The Whitman Archives satisfies that completist vision, but I still kind of wish I had a book that bulkily Whitmanic. I’d carry the Uncle’s weight any day.

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