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Walt Whitman, Taking Poetic License With His Image

By Peter Carlson
Washington Post Staff Writer
Tuesday, April 12, 2005; Page C01

O Walt Whitman! Bard of America! Poet of Democracy! Singer of the body electric! Barbaric yawper!

O Walt Whitman! Sage! Crank! Crackpot! Dirty old man! Lovable old coot! Rest stop on the Jersey Turnpike!

Walt Whitman from the frontispiece of "Leaves of Grass," at left, and as the "good, gray poet."

O Walt Whitman! Writer and re-writer and obsessive re-re-writer of his masterpiece, "Leaves of Grass," the book Bill gave Monica on the night he . . .

O. Sorry about that. I guess I got a tad carried away there. I have been reading the special Whitman issue of VQR: The Virginia Quarterly Review, and I just couldn't stop myself from parodying Whitman, who is, along with Hemingway, the most easily parodied of American writers.

Don't be mad, Walt, we kid because we love.

The VQR issue, which is excellent, celebrates the 150th anniversary of the first publication of "Leaves of Grass," back in 1855. That year seems like ancient history now but, as the 26 pieces in VQR prove, Whitman fits right into our personality-driven celebrity culture. Not only was he a great poet, but he also was a creator of the great American art form of shameless self-promotion.

He was, as VQR editor Ted Genoways writes in his introduction, "the earliest example of that most American trick: self-invention."

The self Whitman invented was, of course, better than his actual self. In 1855, Whitman was a shy, bookish, semi-successful newspaperman. The character he created in "Leaves of Grass" was a ruffian, a rebel, the wandering poetic voice of the common man -- a stance later taken up by Woody Guthrie, Marlon Brando, Jack Kerouac, Bob Dylan, Bruce Springsteen and Tupac Shakur, among many others.

Whitman was a genius at using the then-new medium of photography to present this semi-fictitious image to the world. As Ed Folsom reveals in VQR's wonderful gallery of photos, Whitman was as meticulous as Madonna in crafting pictures to convey his chosen persona.

He started with the photo that ran in the first edition of "Leaves," in which he wears rough workingman's clothes, his hat is tilted jauntily and one hand is in his pocket, the other perched defiantly on his hip. (VQR prints a photo of Mick Jagger striking a similar pose.) In an era when authors were invariably photographed wearing suits and sitting in libraries, this was, Folsom writes, "shocking."

And it worked: It got attention and established the Whitman persona. Reviewing the photo along with the poems, the New York Tribune noted that Whitman looked like a "loafer" and displayed an "air of mild defiance and an expression of pensive insolence."

Which was exactly the image Whitman wanted.

Later, as he grew old and craved respectability, Whitman let his white hair and white beard grow long and posed for photos designed to burnish his image as the "good gray poet": a combination of benign grandpa, wise old sage, Santa Claus and Jehovah himself. In one photo, Whitman posed like Saint Francis of Assisi, with a butterfly perched on his finger. He swore the butterfly was real, bragging that he possessed "the knack of attracting birds and butterflies and other wild critters." Actually, Folsom reveals, the butterfly was a prop -- it's now in the Library of Congress.

Whitman also promoted himself with charmingly shameless ruses. In another VQR essay, Heather Morton recounts how Whitman wrote anonymous reviews of "Leaves of Grass" and placed them in several newspapers. Needless to say, they were raves: "An American bard at last!" Then he clipped the reviews and sent them, along with copies of the book, to other reviewers. Imagine how today's self-proclaimed enforcers of "journalistic ethics" would cluck their tongues over that!

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