Whitman in the Age of Longfellow
Whitman called Longfellow the poet “of all sympathetic gentleness ― and universal poet of women and young people.” He said this in Specimen Days, in 1882, upon Longfellow’s death, a moment that he might justly have considered the end of an era. That this era is now associated with Whitman instead of Longfellow ― or rather with Whitman and Dickinson instead of Longfellow ― only serves to remind us that the centuries do not simply follow one another, they invert one another, like hourglasses that can only keep measuring time by being turned upside down. We can turn them over yet again, but the sand does not run backward. To see Whitman, then, as he is in this photograph, as a model “of all sympathetic gentleness,” is to see the age of Longfellow through the gauze of the age of Whitman, an unfamiliar face dissolving into a familiar one, like an old-fashioned special effect in a movie that feels vaguely familiar, probably because we’ve seen it before, though only in bits and pieces.