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This item is taken from PN Review 200, Volume 37 Number 6, June - July 2011.Inside Cover Portrait: David C. Ward on Walt Whitman
by G. Frank E. Pearsall
1872 Albumen silver print
National Portrait Gallery, Smithsonian Institution; gift of Charles Feinberg
Walt Whitman 1819-1892
Walt Whitman was one of the first Americans to recognise the power of photography to shape a reputation. Photography's ability to project multiple, diverse personas to the public was naturally appealing to a poet celebrating his, and each of our, multiple selves. This double image of Whitman was for use in a stereoscope, a hand-held viewing machine that created the illusion of depth and presence, an attribute that was key to Whitman's exploitation of photography to keep himself before his audience. Photography was a way of marking his career - keeping 'tally', as he would have put it - as it progressed from vigorous youth to bardic old age. And Whitman, in go-getting American fashion, was not unaware that photography was a way of advertising his self, selling not only books but the idea of himself as the great poet of the American idea. Ezra Pound's modernist diktat 'Make it new!' had been prefigured by Whitman himself as he kicked down the door and jambs of an inherited Anglo-American gentility, pursuing his great reinvention of America that required a reinvention of poetics itself. One wonders if Pound was so hostile to his precursor because Whitman was so vulgar and excessive (so apparently unlettered!) - or because Whitman got there first? Whitman can be exhausting and exasperating in his omnivorous attempt to channel all of America through himself and into the successive editions of Leaves of Grass. The idea that he was undisciplined is belied by his careful, indeed obsessive editing and rewriting of his work. His tendency to list, categorise or catalogue was a legacy of the Enlightenment. Yet his commitment to human perfectibility through self-expression - his amoralism, his joyful earthiness - was a far cry from the cool rationalism of the discourses of Jefferson or Montesquieu. And where his contemporaries, especially Hawthorne and Melville, recoiled from the unfixed and unmoored nature of American society, Whitman alone vaulted into the future, not simply walking on the open road but building it as he went along. Everywhere and nowhere, that is the paradox of Walt Whitman. In all of his taxonomic chanting, he still has time to sum himself up in a way that endures: 'I know I have the best of time and space, and was never measured and never will be measured. // I tramp a perpetual journey, (come listen all!) ...'
DAVID C. WARD
This item is taken from PN Review 200, Volume 37 Number 6, June - July 2011.