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ELH 71.4 (2004) 921-948

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His Mind Was Full of Absences:

Whitman at the Scene of Writing

The University of Iowa

In a notebook entitled, simply, "Words"—an ensemble of variously sized and colored scraps pasted between the covers of a book from which the original pages had been torn out—Walt Whitman writes the word "absences," tags a dash onto the end of it, and then adds the parenthetical phrase, "('his mind was full of absences.')." Just below this is written the word "apostle," followed by the underscored and unclosed parenthetical expression "(literally one sent by another."1 This page is certainly no more odd than many others in the poet's writings on language, and the order of "absences" and "apostle" on the page may suggest its companionship among the numerous alphabetical lists of words and definitions that populate the notebooks. Yet there is something peculiarly significant about the juxtaposition of absence and apostle, a fortuitous placement that offers a unique opportunity for understanding how Whitman himself envisioned the relationship between the scene of writing and the scene of reading.2

Though it is a commonplace in Whitman scholarship to acknowledge that, more so than any other American writer, Whitman demands a relationship with his reader, little has been done to articulate how the scene of writing sets up this engagement with the reader. Scholars have identified carefully crafted scenes of reading in the poetry and prose, attempts by Whitman to construct a particular type of reader, one that will ultimately assume what the poet assumes. Such interpretations have left us at times with the lingering specter of Whitman's poetic totalitarianism, an effort by the poet to colonize the reader in an unceasing struggle for domination.3 Other interpretations have been more generous, reading various transgressions—whether intertextual or between poet and reader—as creative rather than invasive gestures.4 Regardless of where scholars situate themselves in terms of Whitman's engagement with his readership, a preoccupation with the poet's subtextual encodings often includes tacit presuppositions about the scene of writing. In other words, a fundamental question as to what Whitman intended in the very [End Page 921] enterprise of putting marks on a page underlies such analyses. The purpose of this paper is to uncover what Whitman himself proposes to do at the scene of writing and thus draw that scene into relationship with the scene of reading. With the aid of his writings on language and other notebook manuscripts, I will consider moments of origin in the poetry in order to understand the commerce between the scene of writing and the scene of reading. I am arguing that moments of absence and possession in the poetry and prose create a recursive relationship between these literary scenes, and that the recursivity between absence and possession offers valuable insight into Whitman's own understanding of his poetic project.

Underlying the poet's myriad attempts to articulate a theory of language is the sense of an ineluctable evolutionary progression that repeats the influx and efflux of the writer/reader engagement. Whitman's linguistic writings develop a theory of absent centers and deferred origins, mirroring the creative enterprise of his poetics. We see this most clearly in the early notebook attempts to write race into the 1855 Leaves of Grass. The early drafts that would lead to "The Sleepers" reveal the poet's struggle to empty out his poetic persona in an effort to create an absent space for the Lucifer figure to occupy. In these early notebooks, the scene of writing emerges as a site of racial crossings and poetic disembodiment. The emptying of the poetic persona allows Whitman to develop absence and passivity as the central tenets of his poetic engagement with the reader. I want to suggest that Whitman's poetic engagement with the reader also functions as a political engagement insofar as it extends the poet's interest in subjected and self-empowered subjective agency. Through writing race, Whitman learns how to create openings for the self-empowered reader...


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