- The Photograph and the Parenthesis: Walt Whitman, Walter Benjamin, and the Management of Time in “Song of Myself ”
In the essay that follows, I want to juxtapose what might be regarded as two distinct “moments” in the reader’s encounter with the 1855 edition of Walt Whitman’s Leaves of Grass. The first is so familiar as to be iconic: the daguerreotype portrait of Whitman that occurs at the beginning of the volume. The second is more obscure, and to my knowledge never extensively discussed: a brief parenthetical comment that occupies line 304 of the book’s first poem, eventually titled “Song of Myself.” To facilitate this analysis I’ll make use of Walter Benjamin’s meditations on technology and history. Not only does Benjamin illuminate Whitman’s use of photography, but the critic and the poet share similar commitments to the intentional conflation of certain philosophical dichotomies—contemplation versus experience, individuality versus collectivity, and freedom versus necessity. I want to examine how in Whitman’s poetry these familiar pairings are implicated in the sometimes overlooked ambiguity that almost always governs our encounter with a work of literary art: reading with the eye versus listening with the ear.
The daguerreotype portrait of Whitman taken by Gabriel Harrison in 1854 and engraved by Samuel Hollyer which appears opposite the title page in the first edition of Leaves of Grass is certainly one of [End Page 1] the most striking and noteworthy uses of early photography in American literature. Whitman is dressed in workingman’s clothing, his hat pushed back, one hand thrust into the pocket of his trousers and the other on his hip. His gaze directly engages the viewer in a manner that he apparently worried might be too confrontational for his purpose; “I look,” Whitman complained, “as if I were hurling bolts at somebody—full of mad oaths—saying defiantly, to hell with you!” (qtd. in Folsom 151). Considerations of attire and expression aside, however, what may be the most noteworthy feature of the portrait is its anonymity. The title page opposite contains only the words “Leaves of Grass,” together with the place and date of publication; the daguerreotype usurps the expected place of the poet’s name.
Ed Folsom has described both Whitman’s fascination with photography and the way in which the emerging art form was perceived as inherently egalitarian and peculiarly suited to the American scene. For the early Whitman at least, “photography was the harbinger of a new democratic art, an art that [in contrast to painting] would not exclude on the basis of preconceived notions of what was vital” (102). Folsom sees Whitman’s deployment of the daguerreotype in Leaves of Grass as deeply implicated in this socio-ideological understanding of the new technology. The prominence of Whitman’s body in the three quarter portrait, the informality of his pose, and the suggestion that he is out of doors, all play against the contemporary stereotype of poetry as a staid and purely intellectual pursuit. In the portrait’s anonymity, Folsom sees a complex negotiation between Whitman’s desire to present himself as a type of everyman and his desire to assert his own singularity. He is “representative of the new democratic man—informal, self-assured, unconventional,” yet “no one would mistake this person for someone else” (148).
It’s worth noting just how calculated Whitman’s attitude in the portrait is, given the limitations of mid-nineteenth-century technology. Graham Clarke points out that in the 1840s “sitting time was some eight minutes and, despite improvements to the technique, it was rarely less than thirty seconds,” and he observes that Whitman’s seemingly natural pose is a difficult one to maintain for the required period (133). In his calculated undermining of elitist pretensions about the role of the poet and his assertion of a kind of radical, mass equality, we can see Whitman’s anticipation of what Walter Benjamin described as the [End Page 2] aura destroying potential of the mechanical reproduction of images. Such reproduction, according to Benjamin, is a strategy employed by the masses “to bring things ‘closer’ spatially and humanly.” Thus, “to pry an object from its shell...