American Poetry in the Age of Whitman and Dickinson

Archive for March 2010

Good Gray Fade

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Walt Whitman Service Area, New Jersey Turnpike

Rereading the Calamus poems this morning I had a realization, an obvious one — but then, who am I to turn down a belated insight? To wit: Whitman’s general tendency is to start with a magnificent sweep of language, then peter out into short bursts of speech. This is the case with the first edition of Leaves of Grass, which starts with the long preface and long first section (“Song of Myself”), then ends with several shorter sections; and this is the case with the work when it’s surveyed chronologically — there are very few poems of more than a single page after 1867.

And this is the case with the Calamus poems in 1860: though none of the sections is really long, yet the length steadily decreases as the poem goes forward. There are 45 sections, and after the 26th all are eight lines or fewer.

I’m guessing that someone has written about this. I’ll have to check. In the meantime, what it makes me think is that the negative judgments of Whitman’s late work are misleading, in that they ascribe to old age a tendency (understood in that context as a fading of powers) that Whitman had made space for since the very beginning. The question is “Why?” Why make space for what looks like a fading or petering out? Is it honesty alone that has him show this, or is it a tendency central to Whitman’s project? Curious.


Written by Ben Friedlander

March 31, 2010 at 10:58 am

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Margaret Fuller’s Running Heads

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Click on the image for a link to the book

I have a thing for running heads. They’re a compositional device that bridges the gap between text and paratext, or can, though it’s not always clear who’s responsible. A case in point: the first edition of Margaret Fuller’s Woman in the Nineteenth Century, which was brought out by Horace Greeley in 1845. Though I know from some of the scholarship that Fuller was responsible for the frontispiece (shown at the left), I don’t know what sort of role she played in the other aspects of the book’s design. It’s hard to imagine that anyone but the author would write running heads such as




— but you never know.

One of the curious things about the running heads is that they change direction about an eighth of the way into the book. Up until page 25 (after the preface and first page of the text proper, that is), the headers spell out Fuller’s title, with




sitting atop the verso and recto pages, respectively. Starting at page 26, the versos read


and the rectos begin to have descriptive headers. Here’s a complete list (with page numbers in parentheses, and a few illustrations interspersed): Read the rest of this entry »

Written by Ben Friedlander

March 29, 2010 at 6:59 pm

Posted in book history

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Lines of Inquiry

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Eliza Richards

A few weeks back, I spent some time with “Poetry, Journalism, and the U.S. Civil War” by Eliza Richards, part of a special issue on nineteenth-century American poetry (ESQ 51.1-4). Richards begins with an essay on the war news by Oliver Wendell Holmes, Sr. (whose prose writings on the Civil War are key texts in my view — and not only mine: Tyler B. Hoffman, Alice Fahs, and Franny Nudelman make canny use of him in scholarly works that I much admire).[1]

Here are two important sentences from Holmes that Richards cites, the second with a little abridgment (the date refers to the South’s attack on Fort Sumter):

Now, if a thought goes round through the brain a thousand times in a day, it will have worn as deep a track as one which has passed through it once a week for twenty years. This accounts for the ages we seem to have lived since the twelfth of April last, and, to state it more generally, for that ex post facto operation of a great calamity, or any very powerful impression, which we once illustrated by the image of a stain spreading backwards from the leaf of life open before us through all those which we have already turned.

The previous illustration to which Holmes refers is a passage from The Autocrat of the Breakfast-Table (1858):

A great calamity … is as old as the trilobites an hour after it has happened. It stains backward through all the leaves we have turned over in the book of life, before its blot of tears or of blood is dry on the page we are turning. For this we seem to have lived…. After the tossing half-forgetfulness of the first sleep that follows such an event, it comes upon us afresh as a surprise, at waking; in a few moments it is old again, — old as eternity.

Holmes belongs, clearly, to a small number of theorists whose models of the mind look forward to Freud. And like Freud, Holmes was a medical doctor. This surely gave his models a clinical authority to readers of the time. Read the rest of this entry »

Written by Ben Friedlander

March 27, 2010 at 9:16 am

For a Commonplace Book 8

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No, let it stay. It speaks but truth:
My Autumn’s day is dawning.
The dream is past; sweet dream of youth.
Hair, I accept thy warning.

— Mary E. Tucker, opening lines of “The First Grey Hair” (Poems [1867])

Written by Ben Friedlander

March 22, 2010 at 6:21 pm


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W. said he had never dedicated a book. “I do not know why — probably there was no why. Dedications have gone out of vogue — are no longer regarded as necessary.”
With Walt Whitman in Camden

For no particular reason I’ve been thinking about dedications this week. Has anyone ever compiled a book of the really good ones? Here’s an instance I’d include, from a book I was reading this week, Our Famous Women (1884):

"To / Men and Women / WHO HONOR MAN AND WOMAN, / AND SEE THE SPECIAL FITNESS OF / THIS BOOK, TO-DAY, / IT IS DEDICATED." (click for a larger view)

I’ll have more to say about that book in the coming weeks, if I can find time to scribble it out. There are a few really fascinating biographies of poets included in it, and a few other biographies that were written by poets. In the meantime, the book’s dedication brought another to mind, this one from Mary Berenson’s A Modern Pilgrimage (1933):


Index under “Genres — paratextual.”

Written by Ben Friedlander

March 21, 2010 at 9:18 am

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Briefly Noted

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In the sports section of the New York Times this past Tuesday, in a college basketball story:

St. John’s earned the 73-51 victory in the Emma Lazarus round of the Big East tournament at Madison Square Garden. You know: the poem, “The New Colossus,” engraved on the Statue of Liberty:

“Give me your tired, your poor
Your huddled masses yearning to breathe free”

I gather from the story that the team St. John’s beat, Connecticut, was tired and poor. And so deserved to lose? Not exactly pro-immigrant (or pro-“immigrant”) in spirit. But it’s nice to see Emma Lazarus name-checked on the sports page!

Written by Ben Friedlander

March 12, 2010 at 9:04 pm


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Since today, March 4th, is National Day of Action to Defend Education, I thought I’d post some lines in solidarity from one of Bayard Taylor’s Civil War poems. Dated March 1, 1862, and titled “March,” the poem’s first three stanzas are eminently suited to the present moment (you can read the whole poem here):

With rushing winds and gloomy skies
The dark and stubborn Winter dies.
Far-off, unseen, Spring faintly cries,
Bidding her earliest child arise:


By streams still held in icy snare,
On southern hillsides, melting bare,
O’er fields that motley colors wear,
That summons fills the changeful air:


What though conflicting seasons make
Thy days their field, they woo or shake
The sleeping lids of Life awake,
And hope is stronger for thy sake,


Stop the privatization of knowledge! Save our schools!

Written by Ben Friedlander

March 4, 2010 at 11:35 am