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Whitman's Latencies: Hegel and the Politics of Time in Leaves of Grass
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Whitman's Latencies:
Hegel and the Politics of Time in Leaves of Grass

Readers of Walt Whitman all know that something happens to Leaves of Grass after the Civil War. But no one is quite sure what this "something" is. What we do know is that Whitman's most mutable (and mutated) of books is discernibly different following 1865: its poems tend to be briefer, thinner, and more condensed; its lines are less populated by the bodies of artisans, and more replete with memories and fantasies of return; while death, which Whitman once deemed nothing but "good manure," comes to acquires a new prominence and irrepressible force (LG 1:80).

To account for this transformation, critics have described Whitman's postwar career as the fruit of a politico-aesthetic weakening or decline. Some scholars point to his additions of titles and line numbers and claim that the postbellum volumes reflect a more conventional poetic sensibility, one that is standardized rather than avant-garde. Others draw attention to Whitman's postwar politics and contend that his newfound Republicanism leads to an enervation of his verse. According to this reading, Whitman's fixation on "Unionism," which culminates in his hagiography of Lincoln, obliges a sacrifice of the very subversiveness upon which the antebellum Leaves hinged. Still other critics, in a more biographical vein, underscore the importance his wartime experiences in Washington's hospitals and argue that his tending to the sick and wounded, and his abiding attachment to the soldiers who died, engender a modified worldview, one that issues not from the [End Page 47] inviolable and satisfied self of an American Adam but, instead, from a perspective sutured through trauma and loss.1

These critical accounts elucidate important aspects of Whitman's changes to Leaves. A different perspective emerges, however, when we attend to what I take to be the animating link in Whitman's thought: the dynamic coupling of time and politics. From his 1855 depiction of the poet as a historical medium capable of resurrecting the dead and placing "himself where the future becomes present" to his 1888 vision of the rise, "inevitable in time," of "towering roofs" and "solid-planted spires tall shooting to the stars," temporality in Whitman's verse consistently functions as a crucial vehicle for his political desires, anxieties, and expectations (PP 13; LG 3:719). The volume's definitive shift—that which separates the later editions from their prewar analogues—is accordingly, I want to argue, a transformation of its temporal vision, a restructuring that takes shape as a turn away from the early verse's "now-time" in favor of a teleological "not-yet."

Propelled by the war and its aftermath (and particularly by its reforming of labor relations), Whitman goes from being a poet of the conjuncture to an oracle of the imminent. In so doing he transforms Leaves from a vast song of the present into a chant of and for the future. The vast simultaneity that floods the antebellum Leaves—and is palpable in poems like "The Sleepers," "Crossing Brooklyn Ferry," and "Song of Myself "—is by and large displaced by an anticipatory temporality, a revised framework that is predicated on a more or less Hegelian idea of fruition. My interest is in why this transition occurs, and in how this temporal refashioning—this re-forming of his verse by way of a philosophy of history—invites a different narrative for Whitman's career, a narrative not of decline but of reengagment along other lines. In fact, across the arc of his revisions, we will find Whitman not withdrawing from the realm of the political but, instead, reimagining it temporally. His idea of what a nation is, and how it develops, changes. In response to the bloodshed of civil war and the subsequent modernization of the labor force, he discards an organic idea of national synchrony and embraces a more linear, teleological model of national becoming. Whitman thereby re-adapts his poetics to a progressive philosophy of history, and this remarkable shift, we shall see, obliges a reconsideration not only of the shape of his literary career but also of the scope and orientation of his politics...