While standing upon this consecrated ground, I was led into a train of reflections at once pleasing, yet melancholy. How solemn are the thoughts that arise in the mind! What a profound calm pervades the whole scene! …The effect were good, truly, if the whole mass of our population—the delver for money, the idler, the votary of fashion, the ambitious man—if all could, ofttimes, move slowly through that Beautiful Place of Graves, and give room to the thoughts that would naturally arise there.
–Walt Whitman, Leaves of Grass
Whitman at about fifty. Portrait by Brooklyn-based photographer G. Frank E. Pearsall, taken in 1869, scanned fr A Life of Walt Whitman by Henry Bryan Binns. Pub’d by Methuen & Co., 1905.
If ever there was a time for Walt Whitman, it is now, on this Fourth of July, 2020, the 165th anniversary of the publication of Leaves of Grass. When the heart and mind are tribulated, Whitman—often forgotten outside scholarly circles and sometimes dismissed as an old, yawping homosexual—can be gold. I am finding, in this turbulent time of Covid-19, racial unrest, climate change, such startling comfort in his words—his optimism, his celebration of Nature, his unbridled belief in democracy. I take him with me on my walks in Knoxville’s historic Old Gray Cemetery where, as a Board Trustee, I spend a lot of time researching the people buried there.
Old Gray Cemetery, photo by J.Loest 2017
In the quotation above, Whitman was talking of Green-Wood Cemetery in Brooklyn which he visited often and wrote about several times in various Brooklyn newspapers and periodicals. Was he a taphophile (cemetery enthusiast)? Possibly. He was always promoting the idea of urban parks, and cemeteries like Green-Wood were essentially the first urban parks. Although he and Frederick Law Olmsted, landscape designer of Central Park (1853), moved in different socio-economic groups, they were the two great urban optimists of the 19th century.
Green-Wood was founded in 1838 and was one of the first garden cemeteries. The Garden, or Rural, Cemetery Movement began in 1831 with Mount Auburn Cemetery near Boston. The next dozen years saw another 20 garden cemeteries established in Northeast states. Knoxville’s Old Gray, founded in 1850, was the second garden cemetery in the South (Magnolia Cemetery in Charleston was founded in 1849) and is fertile research ground for life pre- and post-Civil War and during the Industrial/Gilded Age through the Great Depression and World War II.
During the Coronavirus pandemic, I have taken refuge in Old Gray and been transported into the past by the fascinating stories found there. One doesn’t have to be a taphophile to enjoy walking in a beautiful old cemetery. A cemetery is naturally a sacred place of remembrance, a place of reflection and meditation, of inspiration and solace; but it also can be simply a place to escape not only the noise and often stressful warp-speed of modern culture, but the alarming news cycle during a national crisis.
A cemetery, as opposed to a typical urban park which is full of activity and noise, is a liminal space—from the Latin limen for threshold—akin to libraries, museums, and old forests, to name a few. It is a crossroads of contradictory or ambivalent principles (life and death, the past and eternity, order and the unknown, despair and hope, the mystical and the mundane)—a transitional space of heightened intensity. French philosopher and historian Michel Foucault created a term for these places, heterotopias, which he claimed elicited “profound spatio-temporal disruption,” an “absolute break with traditional time.” It is in such places that the imagination is freed from the rigid regularity of daily schedules and calendars or, during a pandemic quarantine, an overactive amygdala.
My time in Old Gray is meditative…or it could be simply loafing. “Loafe” was one of Whitman’s favorite words― “I loafe and invite my soul,” “I lean and loafe at my ease observing a spear of grass,” “loafe with me on the grass, loose the stop from your throat.” Following his advise, I loafe and try to observe but rarely get beyond the surface. Nevertheless, the Victorian statues are calming.
Photo by J.Loest, 2018
The robins perch on the tombstones with an air of ownership. I study them and they study me. I contemplate the eroded, fungused engravings, many of them illegible. I pause on those of women, so many of whom died prematurely and remain forgotten except through the men in their lives. I forget Covid-19, I lose myself, I lose clock time and enter a time of no time, when the only reminders are the hour and half-hour tollings of the bells of St. John’s Lutheran Church across the street or the occasional urban youth or homeless geriatric.
St. John’s Lutheran Church, Knoxville, TN, photo by J.Loest, 2020
I come home with names, dates of birth and death, and begin searching the many free Internet history and genealogy sites. Although the few puzzle pieces never fully capture the person, I can imagine, given the place and time, the life they might have lived. Enlarging their stories, I shrink mine. Lately, though, I have been thinking more of Whitman than of the people resting in Old Gray, not only because he was writing during the lifetimes of those buried there, but because he was writing for an “America as shadowed forth into those abysms of circumstances.” The abysms are shadowing forth again.
Whitman said, “Past and present and future are not disjoined but joined.” The past always merges with the present, the people living today are no different than the people living then, their troubles not that dissimilar despite the advances in medicine and technology. Today, in growing parts of the capitalist, industrialized world, people face many of the same challenges that people in the 1800s dealt with—epidemics, pandemics, unclean water, natural disasters, racial inequality and conflict, political divisiveness, corrupt leaders. We in America have been seduced into believing we are unique, special, privileged, but Whitman believed we contain multitudes and carry within us both glories and unfinished parts.
Whitman understood and articulated human hopes and fears better than anyone, and offered a philosophical bridge between the present and the past. More than that, he was an equalizer of the present and the past. In 1861, just before the outbreak of hostilities leading to the Civil War, he began publishing a serial history of Brooklyn titled “Brooklyniana” for the Brooklyn Standard. This quote comes from the third of the 40 extant (out of 200) installments:
If there be any who, in looking back to the periods and persons we are sketching, feel a sort of compassion for their supposed inferior chances and lower development, we advise them to spare their benevolence, and apply it where it would be more truly needed. For the comparison of merit between the inhabitants here during the last century, or of the years previous, with the present time, and all its vaunted educational and fashionable advantages, is not a whit in favor of our own day in all the important respects that make manly and womanly excellence.
Not that I understand Whitman more than superficially. And though many have parsed, dissected and psychoanalyzed every molecule of his being, can anyone really know him. My favorite description of his unique character, a “cosmic consciousness,” came from Canadian psychiatrist Richard M. Bucke (Cosmic Consciousness: A Study in the Evolution of the Human Mind, 1901). Bucke gathered 36 examples of people he believed had attained “cosmic consciousness,” including historical figures, such as Buddha, Moses, Jesus, Dante, 18th-century Swedish philosopher Emanuel Swedenborg, and a number of contemporaries, some of whom he knew personally, Whitman being one of them. The main characteristics of cosmic consciousness as identified by Bucke are joyfulness; a revelation of the meaning, purpose, and aliveness of the universe; a sense of immortality; a loss of fear of death; and an absence of the concept of sin.
Bucke’s interest in cosmic consciousness was partly inspired by Whitman—initially by his poetry and then by his personal encounters with Whitman. Bucke not only included Whitman in his book as an example of cosmic consciousness but also regarded him as the “highest instance of Cosmic Consciousness,” higher than Buddha and Jesus. But Bucke, for all his intense acclamation, couldn’t quite grasp who Whitman was. In a letter to a friend, the Keats and Shelley scholar Henry Buxton Forman, Bucke described his meeting with Whitman in Camden, NJ, in Oct 1877:
We were old friends in less than two minutes and I spent a good part of the forenoon with him. We then crossed the river (Delaware) together to Philadelphia as he had an engagement there. I hardly know how to tell you about W.W. If I tried to say how much he impressed me you would probably put it down to exaggeration. I have never seen any man to compare with him—any man the least like him. He seems more than a man and yet in all his looks and ways entirely commonplace (Do I contradict myself). He is an average man magnified to the dimensions of a God—but this does not give you the least idea of what he is like and I despair of giving you any idea at all, however slight—I may say that I experienced what I have heard so much about, the extraordinary magnetism of his presence. I not only felt deeply in an indescribable way towards him, but I think that the short interview has altered my attitude of my normal nature to everything—I feel differently, I feel more than I did before—this may be fancy, but I do not think it is.
Whitman has been called mythic, enigmatic, charismatic, shamanistic, inexplicable, epic. He is variously described as environmentalist, philosopher, historian, pantheist, transcendentalist, reincarnationist. He was foremost a humanist, an ardent believer in a broad, all-embracing democracy—justice, personal freedom, and acceptance of the differences among people,
Our American superiority and vitality are in the bulk of our people, not in a gentry like the old world. The greatness of our army during the secession war, was in the rank and file, and so with the nation. Other lands have their vitality in a few, a class, but we have it in the bulk of the people. Our leading men are not of much account and never have been, but the average of the people is immense, beyond all history. Sometimes I think in all departments, literature and art included, that will be the way our superiority will exhibit itself. We will not have great individuals or great leaders, but a great average bulk, unprecedentedly great.
Today, when American democracy is being tested once again, it’s almost as if he is rising somewhere in the clouds or above the ocean, not waving his arms or yawping, but quietly reaching his notebooks out to us. What he would make of the protests, I can only guess, but I am certain he would be upholding journalistic ethics. “I can conceive of no better service…,” he wrote, “than boldly exposing the weakness, liabilities and infinite corruptions of democracy.”
Whitman lived through cultural, political and familial horror. Family members had mental illness, his father was an alcoholic. Walt was taken out of school at age 11 to help support the family (he was the second of eight children). He worked various jobs in Brooklyn (office boy, house-builder, printer, journalist, editor, schoolteacher) when Brooklyn streets were a communal slop jar, collecting the refuse of packed households, butchers, brothels, boarding houses, and tens of thousands of horses. Besides the tons of dung, these animals also aged, sickened and died in the streets, sometimes in large numbers when a deadly contagion tore through the horse population as in the Great Epizootic of 1872, an outbreak of equine influenza. The carcasses were collected and shipped to Barren Island where they were boiled, skinned, and deboned. The fat was sold to chandlers to make soaps and candles; hides were sold to tanners; hooves rendered for glue; bones were carved into buttons, combs, and knife handles or burned to make “bone black,” used as a pigment. This history gave me a newer appreciation of the bone buttons in my vintage button collection, buttons that were used on Civil War uniforms and underwear.
Photo by J.Loest 2020
Whitman did not drink but developed health issues early on. By age 37 he was already troubled with paralysis, “spells in the head,” constipation, and problems with his legs. For three years during the Civil War, 1863-1866, he was a volunteer caregiver/bedside companion to thousands of wounded soldiers, both Union and Confederate, in Washington, D.C., hospitals and suffered for years afterward from the effects of what he called his “war-paralysis.” The worst might have been the blood poisoning that sent violent red streaks from his hand up his arm, the result of having cared for a soldier with a gangrenous wound. His poetry collection Drum-Taps published in 1865 captures some of those gruesome and sad experiences with vivid imagery. Though his body in his last years was ravaged with numerous painful conditions, he remained uncomplaining to his doctors who were surprised at the results of his autopsy and amazed that he lived so long with such pathology.
Whitman celebrated his 72nd birthday, his last, on the evening of May 31, 1891, with a few old friends in his home on Mickle Street in Camden. William Sloane Kennedy, one of Whitman’s most devoted friends, included this personal memory of the evening in his Reminiscences of Whitman:
Walt opened the talk by drinking, in a glass of champagne, a “reverent memory” to the “Mighty comrades that have not long ago passed away—Bryant, Emerson, Longfellow;” also to Tennyson and Whittier, “a noble old man.”
Some one asked Whitman, during the evening (point-blank almost), why he had never married. His labyrinthine, mystifying reply is very humorous: “The whole thing, my friend, like the Nibelungen, or somebody’s cat, has an immensely long, long, long tail to it….”
He expressed with feeling and emphasis his belief in the “solidarity of the common people, of all peoples and all races.” This idea dwelt much with him…. We are “like fellows in a ship,” said he at the supper; what “jeopardizes one jeopardizes all…. The attempt at what they call ‘protection,’ and all that goes to boost up and wall up and wall out and protect out… is wrong, and one feeling for all, extreme reciprocity and openness and free-trade-ism, is the policy for me.”
Whitman breaks my heart; but I often judge writers on their ability to break my heart. If I pause over Whitman’s words, he never fails to lift me out of my fugue states. He is especially present as I walk in Old Gray, not only because he was at his peak of production during the time of Old Gray’s earliest deaths, but because he and they lived during some of the darkest times in American history, times that resonate today. He wrote about Green-Wood no less than seven times in the years before he published Leaves of Grass in 1855. Many scholars believe his writings about Green-Wood in a journalistic forum greatly informed his later poetry. It helped fuel his activism for human rights. In 1857 he began a two-year affiliation with the Brooklyn Daily Times. Mid-year, the failures of banks and businesses caused an economic downturn that came to be known as the Panic of 1857. His journalistic focus became documenting the hard times of the unemployed, the inability of the people to pay rents or taxes, and the need for poor relief. He highlighted matters relating to sanitation, public health and safety, and public education, topics that are uppermost today.
Beyond the welcome distraction from political/social evils, my hope is that my time in Old Gray gives me some of what Whitman found in Green-Wood—perhaps a broadened understanding and perspective of history; if lucky, something of both resilience and acceptance, a place to both grieve and celebrate. It’s hard to have hope right now; with so many rocks slipping, it’s hard to not believe that a landslide is inevitable. It’s harder, still, to think about death, much less celebrate it as Whitman did given our current culture which has been so insulated against death, lobotomized by the illusion of medical magic and the irrational enthusiasm of middle class prosperity, but surely walking among the peaceful dead will lessen my fear of death.
Whitman witnessed a lot of death in his lifetime—the cruel, crude, unimaginable deaths from disease and war—and the cemetery helped him overcome his fear of it. In “Song of Myself,” contemplating the “hair of graves,” he wrote,
I have heard what the talkers were talking, the talk of the beginning and the end,
But I do not talk of the beginning or the end.
There was never any more inception than there is now,
Nor any more youth or age than there is now,
And will never be any more perfection than there is now,
Nor any more heaven or hell than there is now….
The smallest sprout shows there is really no death,
And if ever there was it led forward life, and does not wait at the end to arrest it,
And ceas ‘d the moment life appear’ d.
All goes onward and outward, nothing collapses,
And to die is different from what any one supposed, and luckier.
In his final year, Whitman took great pleasure in watching his mausoleum being built in Harleigh Cemetery in Camden. Several Camden cemeteries had offered him a plot, but he chose Harleigh because of his recent family life and its bucolic layout. Founded in 1885, Harleigh was the latest of many prominent examples of the rural cemetery movement in 19th century America. He visited the construction site several times the year before his death, driven in coaches and rolled in his wheelchair by friends. A journal entry on Oct 1, 1891 reads:
… rode out to Harleigh Cemetery (Ralph Moore’s rig)—saw the architects there—told them to have nothing artificial or ornamental—must be consistent with the plain natural place, the turf, the simple trees and rocks, the fallen leaves….
He had suffered strokes resulting in partial paralysis and been in poor health for several years. In December 1891 he contracted pneumonia and spent three months in terrible pain. When he died, on a dark, drizzly Saturday afternoon on March 26, 1892, word passed throughout Camden and, via newspapers and cables, throughout the nation and Europe. The March 28 New York Times announced the funeral:
The funeral of Walt Whitman will take place on Wednesday at 2 o’clock. If it be a pleasant day, the services will be held at the tomb; if not, at his House, 328 Mickle Street. All persons desirous of seeing the body of the dead poet can do so at his late residence between 11 and 1 o’clock on that day….
There will be no religious services. Several prominent men, not yet decided upon, will speak in lieu of the usual services….
In December last Mr. Whitman agreed with his attending physicians to allow them to perform an autopsy upon him after his death. He did this in view of the number of remarkable illnesses which he had survived and in the interest of medical science. George Whitman, a brother of the poet, today refused to allow the doctors to perform the autopsy. After the brother’s departure from the house the physicians went ahead with the post-mortem, occupying nearly three hours in their task.
The autopsy disclosed the fact that the poet had died with his organs in a state of disease that should by all the laws of medicine have killed him years ago. His left lung was entirely gone, while of the right there was but a breathing spot left. The heart was surrounded by a large number of small abscesses and about two and a half quarts of water. [The list was long, but there was no evidence of syphilis.]…. The brain was found to be abnormally large and in a fairly healthy condition.
During the public viewing from 11:00-1pm on Wednesday, March 30, a thousand or more streamed through the modest, two-story house on Mickle Street past the polished oak casket which was barely visible beneath flowers and wreaths sent from all over the world. The queue of friends, neighbors, admirers was a mixture of high, low and in-between—scholars, writers, burly policemen, curious laborers on their lunch break, and street urchins drawn by the excitement of the occasion.
At the funeral in Harleigh that afternoon, a palm-decorated tent had been raised near his new mausoleum. The crowd, spreading along the slope above, is said to have numbered in the thousands. Whitman’s good friend, John Burroughs, American naturalist and essayist, who had been a pall-bearer, wrote later: “When I saw the crowds of common people that flocked to Walt Whitman’s funeral today, I said, how fit, how touching all this is; how well it would please him.”
The only blood relative in attendance was Whitman’s younger brother George who was probably perplexed by the whole affair. When Leaves of Grass was published in 1855, it did not impress George, who recalled: “I saw the book—didn’t read it all—didn’t think it worth reading—fingered it a little.”
The weather, which had earlier been cloudy, cleared and was mild, the first bluebirds were singing, peanut sellers moved along the periphery. Bands played, and food and drinks were served. It was, according to his biographer Bliss Perry, a Camden holiday.
But Whitman’s disciples were said to be profoundly moved. “We are at the summit,” said one. “I felt as if I had been at the entombment of Christ,” wrote another. Others thought, perhaps remembering the poet’s own serene conviction of immortality, that he really was not dead at all, and that in some new guise he would come again. For such was such these the spell woven by Whitman’s unique personality was unbroken by his bodily death.
There was a lot of oratory with readings not only from Leaves of Grass, but from the works of the “Bibles of the world”: Confucius, Buddha, Plato, the Koran, Zend Avesta, the Bible. Whitman was a religious skeptic; although he accepted all churches, he believed in none. While he took a great deal of material from Christianity, his conception of religion was much more complicated and all-encompassing than the beliefs of one faith. Over the next few days, editorials appeared in all the great dailies of New York, Boston, Philadelphia, Chicago, London, and Edinburgh.
Walking in Old Gray with Whitman consoles me. If my little loafing doesn’t give me hope about America, it gives me hope about myself—it reinforces how little I know, a fact that opens vistas of unimaginable opportunity. And in my ignorance, what better guide could there be—this white-haired American…what? Gandalf? Merlin? Blake? Li Bai?…, this gentle, optimistic, singing soul who believed beyond all believing that the arc of humanity bends toward unity–
The sum, concluding all we know of old or
modern learning, intuitions deep,
Of all Geologies—Histories—of all Astronomy—of Evolution,
Is, that we all are onward, onward, speeding slowly, surely
who is still cheering us on and waiting for us to catch up.
…something long preparing and formless is arrived and form’d in you,
You are henceforth secure, whatever comes or goes….
You will hardly know who I am or what I mean,
But I shall be good health to you nevertheless,
And filter and fibre your blood.
Failing to fetch me at first keep encouraged,
Missing me one place search another,
I stop somewhere waiting for you.
On this July 4th, I celebrate you, Walt Whitman.