I have just finished reading Justin Martin’s interesting book, Rebel Souls: Walt Whitman and America’s First Bohemians. Mr. Martin details how European Bohemian society (from Paris naturally) was imported by one Henry Clapp Jr. from Paris to Manhattan where it took root in a bar named Pfoff’s. Clapp gathered around himself there a group of interesting and non-standard characters, including Walt Whitman and also a great comic of the era, Artemus Ward who influenced Samuel Clemens, a risque actress,Adah Mencken, and several writers of independent caste of mind, including Ada Clare who wrote on topics with a feminist viewpoint way ahead of her time. This was pre-Civil War and society, especially in New England where Clapp was from, was conservative, even puritanical. Clapp escaped to Europe and its wider perspective and brought back Bohemianism (think beatniks or hippies for more recent pejorative/compliment terms), a cultural frame constructed of rebellious memes with a different approach to humor, philosophy, art, social mores and life. I liked it.
Here is Whitman around 1854. I knew he had struggled financially and to have his work published. Most editions of Leaves of Grass were self-published as he could save up some money from his meager salary as a clerk/copyist/journalist and were generally not received positively. In Europe (oh those Bohemians again) his work was respected and the American taste which denigrated his poems questioned. I also knew he had spent much time tending the wounded and dying in DC hospitals during the Civil War. I did not know that he did this in his spare time, volunteering in almost all of his spare time off from a small clerkship with the federal government copying documents (thus his middle name Xerox). Indeed, Whitman spent so much time and energy tending the fallen that his health failed and he became quite ill. The doctors ordered him away for recuperation so he returned to his family in Manhattan for awhile and then returned again to nurse the patients. He also then met his most significant love (a younger male trolley driver) at the end of the war but then he had a stroke (Martin wonders how large a role the stress of his volunteerism played in this). When he had to move back to family, this time in Philadelphia, he gradually lost contact with his mate. He wrote very little after that even as he became more accepted as a great poet. Here is a picture from the 1870s.
If you know Whitman’s poetry, you know that it is expansive and inclusive, that he feels deeply for all things, and that he embraces all of reality as perfect, the good, the bad, and the ugly. It makes sense that he was overwhelmed by his work in the hospitals (read some of those poems–wow) and here is where the MEMBRAIN comes in. Remember the 4 functions of the MEMBRAIN, to pass information in and out, to keep information in and out. Keeping information out is sometimes protective, even very necessary. ER personnel must develop this capacity to let some information in and act on it medically but not let other information in which would affect their self in an unhealthy manner. Therapists must learn the same dance to a different tune, identifying but not incorporating, treating some information professionally, caring while still protecting the self and its vulnerabilities. Not easy, especially in war time. And Walt Whitman engaged the world with little compromise and social reserve.
So here is an early, pre-Civil War poem that I like both for itself and for its prescient understanding.
Who includes diversity and is Nature,
Who is the amplitude of the earth, and the
coarseness and sexuality of
the earth, and the great charity of the earth, and
the equilibrium also,
Who has not look’d forth from the windows the
eyes for nothing,
or whose brain held audience with messengers
Who contains believers and disbelievers, who is
the most majestic lover,
Who holds duly his or her triune proportion of
spiritualism, and of the aesthetic or intellectual,
Who having consider’d the body finds all its
organs and parts good,
Who, out of the theory of the earth and of his or
understands by subtle analogies all other
the theory of a city, a poem, and of the large
politics of these States;
Who believes not only in our globe with its sun
and moon, but in
other globes with their suns and moons,
Who, constructing the house of himself
or herself, not for a day
but for all time, sees races, eras, dates,
the past, future, dwelling there, like space,