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This article is taken from PN Review 228, Volume 42 Number 4, March - April 2016.

Pictures from a Library

25: ‘Strutting Your Stuff’: Inside Walt Whitman’s hat
Stella Halkyard

Inside Lining of Walt Whitman's Hat

IMAGE: The inside lining of Walt Whitman's Hat c.1890s © the University of Manchester.

Looking for all the world like a flayed skin, the lining of Walt Whitman’s hat is held in the John Rylands Library, where it forms part of a collection of Whitmaniana. Rendered auratic by the poet’s touch, this scrap of stuff falls within a category of objects, kept in institutions like the Rylands, that tell the histories of literary canons and the cults of great writers. On one level this particular relic speaks of the loss of a venerated and unique literary worthy. Once this shabby fragment protected Whitman from the elements and housed the organs that were the site of his genius and the locus of his essence. Now, but a remnant, it has become the ‘trace of an absent presence’ (Marcia Pointon). Yet, acting as a ‘node where matter and
meaning intersect’ (Candlin and Guins), what else does the lining of a poet’s hat have to tell us? How might this object, ‘an apparently unspoken form of communication’, speak?

Attuned to the language of hats, whether his own or other people’s, they often appear in Whitman’s writings. In an article for the New York Aurora from 1842 he presents himself ‘sauntering forth to have a stroll down Broadway to the Battery’, twirling his cane and sporting ‘our hat [...] a neat fashionable one, from Banta’s […] which we got gratis, on the strength of giving him this ...

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