Due November 9, 2018
Legacy in Leaves
In Leaves of Grass, Walt Whitman sets forth his vision for his legacy in literary writing. Preoccupied with the notion of legacy, we find his words reflecting an issue with death and his own mortality. Many believe these reflections of Whitman’s are pure vanity or an obsession of his legacy. This write off is irresponsible readership, and is unfortunate because there is much more in the depth of his obsession with death and legacy. Whitman’s relationship with these large themes is his way of claiming authority and enabling the reader of his work to see past his mortal life and body, allowing us to see that his work lives on forever even after he has departed the body. It is unusual for a person to be preoccupied with literary longevity. Whitman’s occupation however with authority and poetic legacy are returned to again and again throughout his work, enforcing it to be important and worthy of our attention.
From the beginning of his work in Leaves of Grass, Whitman assumes the position as an authority figure aside from his position as narrator and writer. This position of authority is assumed early in his work, and is carried out until the last lines of his writing. Leading early in the contemplation of his legacy both mortal and literary, Whitman assumes a sameness with the reader from the third line of the work. “For every atom belonging to me as good belongs to you.”
Rather than focusing on physical properties, Whitman jumps into anatomical and chemical properties. Removing the image of physicality, Whitman draws us smaller into saying that from the deepest levels of function in the human body, we are the same. This sameness is Whitman’s way of associating himself with the reader, as to create a bond eventually used to assume authority to guide the reader. This connection breaks boundaries separating us by skin tone or gender. Atoms are found in every living thing, and the atoms composing us are found in Whitman and are the very same. This connection created by Whitman is powerful and intentional. Finely crafted to draw the attention and focus of the reader into these subjects, Whitman asks of us our full attention.
A preoccupation during one’s life with death and potential legacy is not uncommon. In fact, everyone who has ever lived or will live, will question their impact on the lives of others and find themselves contemplating this larger than life concept. It is uncommon however to write about this topic in grave detail, with an obsession like attention to subject. Whitman effuses this concern in a playful manner but with rich imagery when he says, “I pass death with the dying and birth with the new wash’d babe, and am not contained between my hat and boots.” The containment of the spirit and physical body are completely different according to Whitman. This containment however is represented both physically and spiritually. Referring to articles of clothing, Whitman allows the reader to imagine a pair of boots and hat. A hat is used to cover the head of a person, but it is also used to cradle the brain. The brain being the primary center for creative activity in life, Whitman tells us that a hat can’t control the brain nor contain it, it is a
physical covering which doesn’t bar creativity. The reference to boots is also full of rich imagery. Boots are a covering that are in constant contact with the feet, but most importantly the
grass or whatever surface you are walking on. This connection by an article of clothing to nature is a representation of the separation and togetherness of the two. Rather than saying from head to toe, Whitman asks the reader to imagine a worn pair of boots and hat. The impressions left on these articles are permanent even after the person has left their physical body. Leaving a legacy or reminder of the wearer for generations to come. Whitman’s play on articles of clothing also refer the reader back to his illustrated signature on the title page of the work. Uncommon during this time, Whitman didn’t sign his name like authors of the time period. Rather he included a rendered drawing of himself wearing the very boots and hat he refers to in the passage. This physical representation of the body is his way of impressing his work onto the minds of his readers by assuming an authority on the topic of poetic legacy and spiritual containment.
With a preoccupation on eternity and death regarding his poetic legacy, Whitman uses the word death occasionally as if death itself has a personage. Saying, “and as to you death, and you bitter hug of mortality it is idle to try and alarm me,” Whitman gives death a literal form, almost as if death is a person. Addressing death directly Whitman warns death that it is of no use to alarm or rush him. Whitman seems unphased by death because he knows of an afterlife for body and his work. I believe if we examine this passage carefully we can uncover the hesitation in Whitman’s poetic voice. A hug is a temporary action as is mortality when viewed with an eternal perspective, and a bitter hug with mortality is a flawed relationship with life. Although
direction isn’t described in the passage, I would propose that Whitman is turning physically to the embodiments of death and mortality. Referring to them as “you,” Whitman is giving them person like characteristics as if they are represented in physical form standing before him. He speaks with authority, addressing death and mortality directly from a fearless position. He seems sure in his tone that their efforts to alarm him have failed. This alarm however is one that each reader has been faced with during their lifetime. Whitman knows this and is faced with it too.
Whitman assuming his own voice is his way of assuring himself and others of the aspects of life that he knows. Often in his writings, with the thought of death and legacy hanging over the reader, Whitman assures us that he knows these principles and ideas that he speaks of are true. When Whitman tell us, “I hasten to inform him or her it is just as lucky to die, then it is to live, and I know it,” it is his way of telling us that he is assured in knowing that death is an essential part of living. This hastening however is an interesting play on words. Whitman’s hastening gives this declaration a pace much faster than the lines before or after. It’s as if he is running out of time, or feels urged to express these thoughts with us quickly. Being lucky to die is not a commonly accepted form of luck, but in this luck, I see Whitman’s preoccupation with life and death. Whitman assumes critical responsibility to inform us of this discovery or information that he is so rightly sure of. His preoccupation with legacy when informing us and reassuring us with I know it could be seen as narcistic or vain. However, if we take Whitman at his word, we will see that he is also concerned about our life and our mortality, our very legacy. Just as atoms are
shared by each other, our legacies to intertwine with life, depending on one another to survive time and eternity.
Whitman’s chronology of his work in Leaves of Grass prepares us for the imagery used in his ending language foreshadowing his own death. Again, preoccupied with the thought of death and his legacy he uses graphic language to show the grimness of death, paired with the hope found in death. “The spotted hawk swoops by and accuses me, he complains of my gab and my loitering.” This foreshadowing is grim and unnatural in a writer’s subject matter. Natural in the way the earth consumes its own, Whitman is using the circling of a hawk to inform the reader of his mortal departure. Such a grim and terrifying fate, Whitman uses humor to ease the heaviness of the topic with the bird accusing him of talking too much and not dying quickly enough. Loitering is a term used for someone in a place and that person being unwanted in that space. Whitman feels his mortality slipping, and the hawk senses his soon departure into the eternities.
Whitman continues this imagery of dying and slipping away by literally burying himself. Mind that he is still very much alive, but he feels the need to explain how his body will decompose into the earth he loves as he departs into the air. “I depart as air, I shake my white locks at the runaway sun, I effuse my flesh in eddies, and drift it in lacy jags.” Whitman is almost describing a magical act here. Disappearing into thin air as he departs, Whitman is drawn into the air and is said to depart from this life. Shaking his hair, he taunts the runaway sun with his white locks as if to pressure the sun to go down on him, ending his life and drawing the day to a close.
The use of runaway in the passage places a tone that is increasing the speed at this point in the writing. Effusing his very flesh is Whitman’s way of saying that he is imprinted into the earth permanently. This idea of permanence brings peace to Whitman knowing that his physical body will remain on earth with his audience, and his soul will transcend along with his work and poetic legacy.
Whitman ends his writing in Leaves of Grass with two powerful lines that bring a great sense of finality. This finality however is overshadowed by the lines hope and eternal language used by Whitman. “Missing me one place search another, I stop somewhere waiting for you.” Whitman’s preoccupation with his poetic legacy and the veins he used to carry this message throughout his work is evident in these lines ever so clearly. Whitman is telling us that it doesn’t matter where we are in life, whether we are alive or dead, that we can find him regardless if we but search. Again, echoing an authoritative tone as our poetic companion, Whitman implies that he will wait for us, but we must search his words. Encouraging us to search his words is his way of ensuring that his poetic legacy lives on.
Whitman’s preoccupation with his own death and legacy cannot be passed off as just another writer who is self-obsessed with their work and struggling with a larger than life ego. A reading with this takeaway would be a reading wasted, because Whitman’s concern primarily lies in the souls of the readers that consumes his work. How we as his readers and legacy builders choose to take his words and use them to explore our own insecurities and mortality. Whitman transports us to an uncomfortable place, but does so for our benefit and his enjoyment.
Walt Whitman is a writer that is difficult to read if you don’t know what you’re looking for. He prods the reader along in his work and asks us to ask ourselves big questions and that is why he is one of my absolute favorite writers. In Leaves of Grass, the original approach that I took with the first draft of this paper was a bit vague. I carefully selected passages that I believed would yield wonderful close reading and answer these big questions. What I failed to realize was that the scope of my argument or question was to large, to broad, and covered the entire work. My thesis wasn’t strong, and my thoughts were easily bogged down during the writing process because I was biting off more than I could chew.
Focusing on specific passages that narrowly paid attention to what I was after in my thesis was important to me. I really wanted to make sure that the reader understood why I was jumping into the weeds with the close reading I did. Knowing why a writer is asking you to jump in with him/her is important because the reader needs to see what the point is. The last thing I wanted was for my reader to get bogged down in the nitty gritty details. To see the details but understand why they are there and know how they tie in with a well thought out thesis was key for me. Thesis has always been a struggle for me.
In this revision I narrowed my focus sharply but left lots of room for good quality discussion. This idea of death and legacy in this piece is such a strong aspect of what Whitman is really grabbing at when he asks the reader to grapple with such a large idea. These two themes are intertwined but are so complicated. Whitman, I believe to is grappling with these ideas in his
own way in this piece as he works to ensure his legacy after his own death. He speaks from a position of authority on the subject but I believe he too had his own doubts as we all do. This sameness I believe is what he referred to when he compared us to him from the first lines of the work as possessing the same atoms. This doubting and coming to terms with our own death and eternal influence is heavy, and Whitman knows this. What I hope I achieved in this piece was to bring to the surface that Whitman, behind his “ego” and “vanity” was human too. That even though he assumed a role in his work, occupied heavily with his own legacy and death, he too was searching for answers.