A few years ago, I taught a class in American Literature in Senegal. My students were from 26 African countries, spoke a variety of languages, and came from diverse social, economic and religious backgrounds.
The two-week course was supposed to have been comprised of lectures corresponding to readings the students had gotten to ahead of my arrival. However, as the books hadn't shown up, the director informed me that the students would do a week's worth of reading per night and I was to lecture on it the following day. I gave this model about two or three days before I would have to come up with a Plan B. To my surprise, the students lasted longer than I did. On the Friday of the first week, I was exhausted, having rushed through the Colonial and Transcendental periods in a blur and didn't know how I would start a conversation about Walt Whitman with them.
They were to have read "Song of Myself." I stammered through some basic stuff, general historical context, but was beginning to feel overwhelmed. I stopped and asked them what they had thought of the poem. The classroom model most of these students were familiar with did not include much in the way of student participation. They were silent for a moment and then someone spoke up and told me they had read the poem aloud in groups the night before, each group taking several sections and briefing the others. I knew at that moment how we would spend the class time. The exhaustion I was feeling even let me permit the notion that some reading like this was Whitman's secret purpose. We did what Whitman chooses for himself in section 26:
Now I will do nothing but listen,
To accrue what I hear into this song, to let sounds contribute
We sat and listened to each other. We read all 52 sections of the poem, dozens of accents finding a way to wrap around his barbaric yawp, and I wondered if there was a more fitting way to encounter the poem: a bunch of relative strangers, a few friends, from different parts of a vast continent, trying to make sense of the literature of a country they were both intrigued by and apprehensive about; a country that both inspires and confounds, arriving at destinations and conclusions collectively. I cannot read the poem without hearing echoes from that room that day.
On the PBS site accompanying AMERICAN EXPERIENCE's Walt Whitman film, there is an interactive map of Whitman's New York on which the ferry routes that brought people to and from Manhattan in those pre-bridge days are clearly marked. But I find it almost impossible to read Whitman's "Crossing Brooklyn Ferry" without seeing the bridge that replaced that ferry; the poem does nothing if not move us forward. "A hundred years hence, others will see them," he writes of the commuters making the morning sojourn from Brooklyn to Manhattan. In our own time, these ages hence, when bridges and other elements of infrastructure go unmaintained while their usefulness and deservedness of resources is debated, the notion that our descendants have a stake in our activity seems to have been diminished.
Whitman writes to his future readers:
What is it then between us?
What is the count of the scores or hundreds of years between us?
Whatever it is, it avails not -
"Leaves of Grass," Whitman's principal book was, like the country he writes of, constantly undergoing changes and expansion. First self-published in 1855, each successive edition added new poems and sections or groupings. This great creative thrust had as its backdrop the American Civil War, and Whitman's imagining of America took place while many around him predicted its demise. In one of the AMERICAN EXPERIENCE documentary's interviews, scholar Ed Folsom posits that Whitman believed "Leaves of Grass" might actually stop the encroaching Civil War. We know it did not. But it avails not. I think he imagined us in that room in Senegal still dealing with a world beset by problems like those that beset his.
Whitman offers us a view of America and the American city which sees that which is not there yet, rather than that which was there and is gone -- a view we could sorely use as we look at lower Manhattan now, where so much that was there is gone, but where many gather today to imagine America anew. Missing Whitman one place we search another. He is stopped somewhere waiting for us.
John Mulrooney is a poet, musician and filmmaker living in Cambridge, MA. He teaches in the English Department at Bridgewater State University.
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