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Maxwell 81 Barry Maxwell Whitman: Acceptance, Appropriation, Investment It is to be learned— This cleaving and this burning, But only by the one who Spends out himself again. Twice and twice (Again the smoking souvenir, Bleeding eidolon!) and yet again. Until the bright logic is won Unwhispering as a mirror Is believed. —Hart Crane, "Legend" In a half-line from "To Thee Old Cause," one of the inscriptions to the 1881 edition of Leaves of Grass, Whitman's formulation of the relation between his poem and the American Civil War is prima facie a direct and untroubled statement of identity: "my book and the war are one." On the whole, "To Thee Old Cause" sets out a relationship between "my book," the war ("all war," in fact), and the "peerless, passionate, good cause" the short poem apostrophizes. In one of his characteristic parenthetical hushes, Whitman speaks to the combatants, saying that the unitary war he has set forth in the first stanza—"all war through time was really fought, and ever will be really fought, for thee"— is "(A war O soldiers not for itself alone, /Far, far more stood silently waiting behind, now to advance in this book.)'" Far, far more what? Wars? Or something less readily given in this immediate context? Like much of Whitman's poetry, the 1881 inscription functions as pseudo-clarification. The mode of ringing declamation and orbic utterance can easily carry the auditor beyond such small, troublesome words as "one" ("my book and the war are one") and "for" ("really fought, for thee"). Like a Brechtian drinking song, the Whitmanic statement goes down easily, but is barbed, gentle reader. "One" is complicated, through a characteristic Whitmanic punning method which I shall discuss, by the aural shadow of "won"; "for" is innocuous only until we ask what precisely it means here. 82 the minnesota review Beyond these cruces, the word "cause" itself looms up problematic. Exemplified, but undefined, it stands as the sign of a cultural motive shared by the poem and its readers. The word could goad us, though, to specify our methods for assigning meaning to it.2 Altogether, the affective situation is something like what the jazz musician Rahsaan Roland Kirk told an audience they might undergo when he simultaneously played the melodies of "Sentimental Journey" and Dvorak's "New World Symphony": "It's like makin' one part of your mind say, Ooblah -dee,' and makin' the other part of your mind say, 'What does he mean?'"' Partaking of both the sentimental journey and new world symphony modes, Whitman's work, not wholly without the Master's collusion, has a long history of befogged reception on the "oo-blah-dee" level; our concern now might rather be with what he means. But if interpretive precision is difficult here, it may be because Whitman and his readers are in close quarters with a paradox of the sort James Baldwin characterized when he spoke of a writer finding "that the things which hurt him and the things which helped him cannot be divorced from each other; he could be helped in a certain way only because he was hurt in a certain way; and his help is simply to be enabled to move from one conundrum to the next."4 Precisely conundrum, a riddle to which the answer is a pun, turns out to be a valuable heuristic notion in Whitman's case. In the following, I want to point to some of the implications for Whitman's work of the riddle of war and book-making, and of the uneasy light the pun one/won admits to a dark nexus ("All of those athletes had to die young so that we might have this magnificent poem?"). In doing so, I hope that my debt to Kenneth Burke's labyrinthine address to these matters will be recognized and received critically, but in any case here stands acknowledged. I have not so much stood on Burke's shoulders to look at Whitman, though, as tried to attend to what each man has to say about, as a Burkean title has it, "The Nature of Art Under Capitalism." In addition, the specifically capitalist character of Whitman...

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Additional Information

ISSN
2157-4189
Print ISSN
0026-5667
Pages
pp. 81-93
Launched on MUSE
2011-07-06
Open Access
No
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