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American Literature 73.1 (2001) 85-119
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Anonymity and Attachment in Whitman
“Here is adhesiveness—it is not previously fashioned—it is apropos; Do you know what it is, as you pass, to be loved by strangers? Do you know the talk of those turning eye-balls?”—Walt Whitman, “Song of the Open Road” (1860)
Is it possible to be intimate with someone you haven’t met? To those already wary of Whitman’s hyperbolically grand ambitions for himself and for poetry, the centrality to his work of this curious question will not be reassuring. Whatever forbearance one brings to Whitman’s moments of bravado, however figuratively one tries to read his boasts about the poet who would be sole arbiter of national life, a single stubborn fact persists: virtually every strand of Whitman’s utopian thought devolves upon, and is anchored by, an unwavering belief in the capacity of strangers to recognize, desire, and be intimate with one another. Whitman’s declarations of aesthetic intent, for instance, all circle back to a quality of intimate affection he promises to extend to an entire nation of readers who are, to him, perfectly unknown. In the 1876 preface to Leaves of Grass, he writes: “[W]hile I am about it, I would like to make full confession. I also sent out ‘Leaves of Grass’ to arouse and set flowing in men’s and women’s hearts, young and old, endless streams of living, pulsating love and friendship, directly from them to myself, now and ever.”1 Among its other indications, this “full confession” bears the impress of Whitman’s earliest and most lasting formal allegiances. Having begun his career as an attentive student of the forms and methods of the era’s [End Page 85] two most prominent national media—print journalism and oratorical address—Whitman soon resolved to fashion a revolutionary expressive form that would combine the two, accommodating both the physical immediacy he revered so much in oratory and the general availability of print.2 By 1855 he had developed an idiom of self-presentation capable of the most intimate prodding and solicitation yet whose often thrilling interpellating effects depend precisely upon the mutual anonymity of author and reader. “This hour I tell things in confidence,” says the narrator of “Song of Myself.” “I might not tell everybody but I will tell you.”3 Tugging flirtatiously against the generic inclusiveness of the anonymous “you” in these lines is the sly suggestion that we are, each of us, selected for the poet’s confidences. From anonymity to selective intimacy, this swift telescoping of address is perhaps the signature motion of the 1855 Leaves of Grass, and it is certainly the place where an examination of the coy solicitousness of Whitman’s carefully molded persona ought to begin. For here as elsewhere in Whitman’s corpus, we are offered the strange pleasure of being solicited by an author who, while admitting he does not and cannot “know” any of us, nevertheless pledges himself as an intimate companion, bosom comrade, and secret lover.4
Whitman’s passionate embrace of the stranger-reader also helps explain his avowedly political ambitions for the medium of poetry; indeed, Whitman’s fascination with the idea of strangers takes us directly into one of the central paradoxes of antebellum literary nationalism. Like many other nationalist authors of the period (including writers as differently inclined as Hawthorne, Douglass, Melville, and Stowe), Whitman’s passionate love for “America” only barely exceeds his vitriolic contempt for the state, its institutions, and its agents. (Lincoln was an important, and rare, exception.) “Where is the real America?” he wonders in The Eighteenth Presidency! (1856), an altogether violent polemic. “Where is the spirit of the manliness and the common-sense of These States?” Of one thing he is certain: “It does not appear in the government” (PP, 1334).5 The problem nationalist authors like Whitman must address is thus plain: if the state fails so utterly to account for, circumscribe, or accommodate true “American-ness,” of what exactly is nationality made? In...