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The Free State of Whitman: Enthusiasm and Dismemberment in the 1860 Leaves of Grass
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This essay reexamines the short-lived Walt Whitman of “the fractured state,”1 who primarily surfaced in the 1860 Leaves of Grass on the eve of the American Civil War. I contend that this Whitman must be understood in the context of radical abolitionism’s willful fomentation of the sectional crisis in the late eighteen-fifties. In particular, I read this version of Leaves of Grass in relationship to another popular work published in the same year and by same publishers—James Redpath’s Echoes of Harper’s Ferry, an anthology of speeches, poems, essays, and letters mostly devoted to defending and eulogizing the recently-executed John Brown after his infamous attempt to liberate slaves with an attack on Harper’s Ferry, Virginia. Despite their many differences, Brown and Whitman share a legacy of political enthusiasm as Abraham Lincoln polemically defined it in his criticism of Brown: “An enthusiast broods over the oppression of people until he fancies himself commissioned by Heaven to liberate them.”2 For Whitman, 1859–1860 was the year of the enthusiast. In “Year of Meteors. (1859–1860.),” a poem that depicts John Brown’s execution, Walt Whitman dubs 1860 a “brooding year!” and a “year of forebodings!” for a United States that was trying to save its name (and claims to democracy) from irony. That “Year of Meteors” was published in Drum-Taps (1865) as a “retrospective,” foregrounding the pivotal “contest” for the presidency and John Brown’s “unheal’d wounds,”3 points to Whitman’s adoption, even if ambivalently, of a controversial idea—namely, that Lincoln and Brown were active prefigurations of the Civil War and that the Civil War was fought to liberate an oppressed race rather than to save the Union. In this poem, Whitman thinks of Brown as a “meteor of the war,”4 in Herman Melville’s famous words.

In 1859–1860, however, when it was far from clear that the oppressed would be freed, Walt Whitman was forced to confront the possibility that his poetic vocation of chanting triumphant Liberty would come to an end: “Must I change my triumphant songs? said I to myself; / Must I indeed learn to chant the cold dirges of the baffled? / And sullen hymns of defeat?” (DT, 54). Hence the significance of John Brown’s execution—it was a historical sign of the crucifixion of democracy in the United States. In “Year of Meteors,” Whitman announces that he “stood very near” John Brown at the scaffold and remained silent, “cool and indifferent” as Brown himself to his death. Now Whitman “sings” of Brown as part of the “deeds and signs” of a critical historical moment, the portent of which nobody knows. Yet, as he “gleams” with these deeds and signs, Whitman becomes a John Brown meteor himself, falling from the heavens if not commissioned by them: “Year of comets and meteors transient and strange!—lo! even here, one equally transient and strange! / As I flit through you hastily, soon to fall and be gone, what is this book, / What am I myself but one of your meteors?” Meteors “dropt in the night,” Whitman’s self and book are vertiginous fragments born along by convulsive events and shooting through space as part of the chaotic “meteor procession” (DT, 51-2). But if Brown’s death made the “gallows as glorious as the cross,”5 as Emerson put it, an image that Whitman celebrated,6 then, in the context of the poem’s publication in Drum-Taps, Brown arguably becomes the first of many broken soldiers in Whitman’s phalanx of the dead to wear “the face of the Christ,” “Dead and divine, and brother of all” (DT, 46). As a hymn for the year of

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The Last Moments of John Brown (Leaving the Jail on the Morning of his Execution). Etcher: Thomas Hovenden, 1840–1895. Courtesy of Library of Congress, Prints and Photographs Division. LC-DIG-pga-01629.

meteors, the 1860 Leaves of Grass conceptualizes democratic politics, not in terms of manifest destiny and American progressivism as in Whitman’s previous work, but in terms of rare and contingent meteors of liberation that land and die instantaneously without any promise...

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