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As frustrated as I grow as a non-procreator while reading “Children of Adam” and its “Singing the song of procreation” (248), I’m trying to keep in mind nineteenth-century contexts of reproduction. Whitman would have been surrounded by what we in the twenty-first century would likely deem “excessive” procreation. In part to combat  high infant mortality and to guarantee a cheap work force, families of the day, judging from my own Protestant one, would have almost always had not only multiple children but usually four or more and sometimes as many as twenty, especially if two marriages were involved. This picture features Rachel Emily (Beeman) White (1845-1936), my maternal grandmother’s paternal grandmother, circa 1907 with five of her daughters.

Emily Beeman White and Daughters

She was the mother of fifteen children born between 1865 and 1889, all single births. She herself was one of eight Beeman siblings born between 1840 and 1857, and her husband, Jim White, was one of (at least) eight White siblings born between 1838 and 1858. Their son Madison Marvin White (1880-1955), one of the fifteen children, married Ellen Stroder (1881-1915), who was one of ten children born between 1865 and 1883, which meant that my maternal grandmother, born in 1906, had sixty (!) first cousins and around two hundred second cousins. For all my irritation with Whitman, here he seems in part to be reflecting the cultural preoccupation with precreation, validating it and the accompanying sexual interactions, and reminding me of my own biases.

Whitmanic Fireman

Ah, so much for a sustained, methodical relating of my family’s nineteenth century to Whitman’s!

(Perhaps a quick Burns quotation … just to show that we’re not wholly Amero-centric: “The best-laid schemes o’ mice an’ men / Gang aft a-gley, / An’ lea’e us nought but grief an’ pain, / For promised joy.”)  

But, as I was reading “I Sing the Body Electric,” I was struck anew by the description of firemen and their performative appearance: “The march of firemen in their own costumes, the play of masculine muscle through clean-setting trowsers and waist-straps, / The slow return from the fire, the pause when the bell strikes suddenly again, and the listening on the alert, / The natural, perfect, varied attitudes, the bent head, the curv’d neck and the counting” (Whitman: Poetry and Prose 252).  Within a cache of photographs given to me this January at my paternal grandfather’s funeral was this one of Christopher Barrington “Banks” Sutherland (1858-1928), the first cousin of my paternal grandmother’s great-grandmother Malissa (Sutherland) Sharp:

Banks Sutherland

Although the image is from the 1880s, it suggests not only the sort of “costumes” nineteenth-century firemen would have worn but reminds of the democratic nature of firemen in the era. Sutherland was a furniture dealer and mortician in Corsicana, Texas from the 1870s until the 1910s (Sutherland Funeral Home still stands, although it’s now–eww!–a bed and breakfast) but was also clearly part of the volunteer fire department and thought enough of that service to be photographed in the accoutrements.

I think that, like most of the folks in the seminar, I am seeing Whitman “everywhere” now. I most recently encountered a Whitmanic echo in contemporary southern fiction writer Allan Gurganus’s collection of short stories and novellas White People. That collection features the 1989 story “Reassurance.” The story’s first half is a full quotation of Whitman’s letter titled “Death of a Pennsylvania Soldier” that was included in “Specimen Days.” (It’s pages 791-92 in The Library of America’s Whitman: Poetry and Prose.) The story’s second half is Gurganus imagining the voice of Frank Irwin, the dead soldier, reassuring his mother using Whitman as a medium of sorts. Ultimately, the story becomes a meditation on reconciling one’s self and one’s family to death and marks yet again how important Whitman has been to Gurganus, a fact that’s unsurprising to readers of his first sprawling comic novel, The Oldest Living Confederate Widow Tells All, where Whitmanic presences and allusions are recurring.

Sooo Not Funny

This borders on the obvious, but it nevertheless struck me forcefully coming straight from today’s humor classes (ENGL 375XX: American Humor) and returning to the last half of the 1855 “Song of Myself” to finish for tonight: there is not a shred of humor in Whitman here. Both in the poem and in the preface, there’s an insistant earnestness that is often inspiring (I still love “Walt Whitman, an American, one of the roughs …” [50-52] for all my earlier critique of the frontispiece), but this earnestness risks becoming tiresome. Even in the depicted play of the twenty-eight bathers, there’s a somber eroticism. I’ve found myself suddenly nostalgic for, say, the puns of Walden. Or are there humorous moments here, and I’m merely not detecting them? I’m not suggesting that humor be a requisite element for all texts, but in one devoted to a performative survey of so many types of differences, it seems an odd absence. Professor Scanlon rightly charges me always to consider audience, and clearly Whitman aims here at a serious one to relay a serious message, but does the text have to go to this extreme?

That anxiety is significant, and it’s been one factor in my not having returned to this blog since I left the class Tuesday night, energized though I was. (The four classes I’m teaching have also complicated just finding the time to write.) Still, even as this anxiety emerged on Tuesday, it was accompanied by an excitement about pushing myself to do something new (blogging) while exploring Whitman. But I also want to try to focus and personalize this semester and my relationship with Whitman.

To do this, I’ve surveyed what other significant elements I’m currently negotiating. Perhaps one of the most exciting for me–and one that’s also tied to new technologies–is the migration of my significant genealogical work (about thirty years’ worth) to the Internet and Ancestry.com in particular. At present I’m immersed in this project–scanning and posting family photos, drawing on on-line census, birth, and death records, completing genealogical trees, and so forth–much of which includes a focus on the nineteenth century. Therefore, at least in part, I’ve set myself the undertaking to put Whitman and his poetry in dialogue with my own ancestors from the era, a process that has seemed, at least at first, incongruous and perhaps a tad futile. I’m hoping, though, that instructive links will develop.

In particular I’m focusing–in part–on a handful of direct male and female ancestors, most of whom had located to north-central Texas, still largely frontier in 1861, in the 1840s and 50s. I hope to devote a fuller identification of these figures later, but for now I’ll focus on James Madison White, known as “Jim.” Born in 1838 in Georgia, he served as a Confederate soldier, married and fathered fifteen children, and died in 1917. As I’ve been thinking of White alongside Whitman since Tuesday, one element that has emerged is the dramatically different number of representations of these two figures. While Whitman has been well- (some might say excessively) imaged, only four images of White seem to have survived.  (The growing participation of genealogists on-line, however, gives hope that new personal photo archives may become available and reveal other images.) For White, three of these images come from his old age in the early twentieth century. Therefore, despite his being a generation younger than Whitman, White seems far more typical of most nineteenth-century Americans. Yes, there were photographic images made, but they tended to be rare. Whitman and his imagistic excesses are far more modern, akin to the explosion of images that, as my collecting of photos has suggested, mark most individuals after the 1920s.

But what of the famous 1855 image of Whitman? When doing my image-inclusive first post in class on Tuesday, I immediately replicated that illustration, asserting it just seemed the “right” thing to do. I’d taught that image in practically every class in which I’d taught a Whitman text, dutifully juxtaposing the image against those of Longfellow and Emerson. But the more I thought about that image of Whitman, especially when I juxtaposed it with this image of Jim White from about 1915


James Madison White


the more I realized how stiltedly staged Whitman seems. Yes, he’s refreshingly casual, but it seems an artfully artless presentation that nevertheless reveals its deliberate performance of democracy. White, on the other hand, with his awkward posing that’s partly casual (the hands behind the back, the everyday clothes) and partly rigid (the direct gaze, the precisely positioned hat), seems more “real.” Moreover, the geriatric’s unshaved face contrasts parallelly to Whitman’s carefully groomed beard. Likewise, for all the daringly open shirt, Whitman’s is immaculately clean, and his pants seem hardly aged or worn and instead prop-like. White’s hat, shirt, and pants seem to have undergone the actual stresses of everyday use. Finally, Whitman’s body is idealized: youthful, healthy, vibrant; White’s is aged, paunchy, decrepit. Whitman may gesture to his genitals with the pocketed hand, but White’s distended stomach seems (although unconsciously) more revelatory of a body that’s all too human. All of this has led me be–at least for the moment–critical of Whitman, a figure whom I’ve usually taught in almost exclusively celebratory fashions. The poet of democracy here strikes me as a “poser” in numerous senses of the word when juxtaposed against one of the perhaps more accurately average “roughs” of nineteenth-century America.

The Iconic Image


It just seems appropriate to begin a Whitmanic foray with this iconic image.

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