The Real Me

Walt Whitman: The Making of the Poet

by Paul Zweig
Basic Books, 372 pp., $18.95

As poet and as person, Walt Whitman remains large and evasive. We cannot know, even now, much that he desired us not to know, despite the best efforts of many devoted and scholarly biographers. The relation between the life and the poetry is far more uncertain than most of his readers believe it to be. Yet Whitman is so important to us, so crucial to an American mythology, so absolutely central to our literary culture, that we need to go on trying to bring his life and his work together. Our need might have delighted Whitman, and might have troubled him also. Like his master, Emerson, Whitman prophesied an American religion that is post-Christian, but while Emerson dared to suggest that the Crucifixion was a defeat and that Americans demand victory, Whitman dared further, and suggested that he himself had satisfied the demand. Here is Emerson:

The history of Christ is the best document of the power of character which we have. A youth who owed nothing to fortune and who was “hanged at Tyburn”—by the pure quality of his nature has shed this epic splendor around the facts of his death which has transfigured every particular into a grand universal symbol for the eyes of all mankind ever since.

He did well. This great Defeat is hitherto the highest fact we have. But he that shall come shall do better. The mind requires a far higher exhibition of character, one which shall make itself good to the senses as well as to the soul; a success to the senses as well as to the soul. This was a great Defeat; we demand Victory….

Journal, April 1842

This grand journal entry concludes, magnificently: “I am Defeated all the time; yet to Victory I am born.” And here is Whitman, “he that shall come,” doing better:

That I could forget the mockers and insults!
That I could forget the trickling tears and the blows of the bludgeons and hammers!
That I could look with a separate look on my own crucifixion and bloody crowning.

I remember now,
I resume the overstaid fraction,
The grave of rock multiplies what has been confided to it, or to any graves,
Corpses rise, gashes heal, fastenings roll from me.

I troop forth replenish’d with supreme power….
(“Song of Myself,” 963-970)

This is Walt Whitman “singing and chanting the things that are part of him, / The worlds that were and will be, death and day,” in the words of his involuntary heir, Wallace Stevens. But which Walt Whitman is it? His central poem is what he finally entitled “Song of Myself,” rather than, say, “Song of My Soul.” But which self? There are two in the poem, besides his soul, and the true difficulties of reading Whitman begin (or ought to begin) with his unnervingly original psychic cartography, which resists assimilation to the Freudian maps of the mind. Freud’s later system divides us into the “I” or ego, the “above-I” or superego, and …

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