- “That towering bulge of pure white”: Whitman, Melville, the Capitol Dome, and Black America
Walt Whitman and Herman Melville, exact contemporaries who now tower over the literary mid-nineteenth century, seem to have spent their lives in some perversely complex dance of avoiding each other. Melville lived his childhood in New York City and left just as Whitman began frequenting it, then moved back there just after Whitman had departed to take up residence in Washington in 1863, by which time Melville had visited DC briefly twice: in 1847 and again in 1861. Only during Melville’s third visit, in April of 1864, did the two writers share the capital city, and only during that one month can we demonstrate that they were within blocks of each other. When I think of the way both writers hover over these two cities, I am drawn back to my favorite poem about the two, Ted Berrigan’s late 1970s sonnet called “Whitman in Black”:
For my sins I live in the city of New York Whitman’s city lived in Melville’s senses, urban inferno Where love can stay for only a minute Then has to go, to get some work done Here the detective and the small-time criminal are one & tho the cases get solved the machine continues to run Big Town will wear you down But it’s only here you can turn around 360 degrees And everything is clear from here at the center to every point along the circle of horizon Here you can see for miles & miles & miles Be born again daily, die nightly for a change of style Hear clearly here; see with affection; bleakly cultivate compassion Whitman’s walk unchanged after its fashion.
Berrigan evokes a number of powerful images here, as he experiences “Whitman’s city lived in Melville’s senses.” At the time Whitman and Melville passed by each other in Washington, a new panoramic point was under construction [End Page 87]
there, one that exceeded the high points in New York, a place where “you can turn around 360 degrees / And everything is clear from here at the center / to every point along the circle of the horizon.” From the new Capitol Dome, you could “see for miles & miles & miles” above the church steeples and all the other buildings of America’s ragtag capital, a messy urbanscape seen from an apex that would anticipate what Berrigan a century later would experience as the clarifying heightened perspective that gave New York its endless vista. These 1863 photographs (see Figs. 1, 2) contributed to the developing visual tradition of an urban heightened perspective. As he walked his newly designated home city of Washington in the fall of 1863, Whitman was impressed with the vistas he found there, even if he never ascended to the dome itself: “I continually enjoy these streets, planned on such a generous scale, stretching far, without stop or turn, giving the eye vistas. I feel freer, larger in them. Not the squeezed limits of Boston, New-York, or even Philadelphia; but royal plenty and nature’s own bounty—American, prairie-like. . . . I often find it silently, [End Page 88] curiously making up to me the absence of the ocean tumult of humanity I always enjoyed in New-York. Here, too, is largeness, in another more impalpable form; and I never walk Washington, day or night, without feeling its satisfaction” (“Letter from Washington” 2).
If we turn things around and look back up at the Capitol Dome from the perspective of Whitman’s compassionate walks through the city to the Civil War hospitals, what do we see? What did he see? Whitman first saw the Dome when he entered Washington in December 1862 on his way to find his injured brother George...