As Walt Whitman turns 200 years old, nearly three decades of skeptical and sustained critical thinking have made it apparent to me that The Solitary Singer (or solitary me) is dead.
The symbol of a solitary singer, a mockingbird, was first introduced in Whitman’s melancholy Christmas-of-1859 poem, “A Child's Reminiscence” (later “Out of the Cradle Endlessly Rocking”): “O you singer solitary, singing by yourself, projecting me, O solitary me listening...” Walt Whitman "A Child's Reminiscence" New-York Saturday Press (December 24, 1859), 1.
Admittedly, it could be argued that the famous 1855 etching of Walt Whitman, which served as a coy byline for the original Leaves of Grass, was the first incarnation of solitary me: the background is utterly vacant. Walt Whitman Leaves of Grass, 1st ed (New York: self-published, 1855). In this paper, I will argue that the engraver’s isolation of Whitman’s body from its visual context furnishes us with an analogy to a significant degree of cultural amnesia surrounding the poet’s maritime origins, in the mighty seaport known as New York. All biographies heretofore published share this deficit. In place of the obsolete Solitary Singer history of Leaves of Grass, I shall be recommending a spokesbard scenario.
Assuming, for the sake of brevity, that we may skip over William Douglas O’Connor’s 1866 “Good Gray Poet” apologia William Douglas O'Conner The Good Gray Poet (New York: Bunce and Huntington, 1866) on the grounds that it is not very biographical, the solitary me persona appears next, albeit implicitly, in Whitman’s earliest hagiographical sketch: John Burroughs’ Notes on Walt Whitman as Poet and Person John Burroughs Notes on Walt Whitman, as Poet and Person (New York: JS Redfield, 1871) Tellingly, Burroughs conceded that his purpose for writing this anti-biography was to bolster Whitman’s reputation against frequent charges of “oddity or queerness.” By omitting all concrete cultural, religious, and economic substance from this initial account, Burroughs was in effect denying Whitman’s critics potential ammunition for their accusations. His document kept the focus on the solitary singer, neglecting to refer to any cultural co-conspirators who may have abetted Whitman’s bardic assault on community standards. He declared that it was not “necessary” to give “the particulars of the poet's youthful life.”
Burroughs only tersely hinted at Whitman’s career in journalism, as well as his early teaching and political endeavors, reminding the reader he was doing so “without entering into particulars.” Moreover, he terminated his description of Whitman’s origins after merely emphasizing Whitman’s periodic intercourse with the “common people.” While we can by no means disparage the relevance of Walt’s dalliances with “New York bay pilots, the fishermen down Long Island, certain country farmers and city mechanics, and especially the Broadway stage drivers,” — because, yes, they are of paramount relevance, given Walt’s own sexual orientation — this is only a half truth. Had it been told, the rest of the story would have answered obvious, pressing, crucial questions about Whitman’s literary influences, as well as his relationships with some of the most celebrated figures in Old New York.
In regard to these influences, however, Burroughs did make one exception to his hagiographic vow of silence. Surely at Walt’s instigation, he established one of the most serious and enduring falsehoods in the tradition of Whitman biographies: “I take occasion to say that Whitman, up to the time he published the quarto edition here mentioned, had never read the Essays or Poems of Mr. Emerson at all. This is positively true.” Thus, right from the very outset, a conceptual engraving of the poet as purely a solitary me was willfully etched — sans background. No Hicks, no Tupper, no Emerson — even though, without any one of these three, Leaves of Grass would have been an outright impossibility. It should be further recognized that although Whitman eventually paid tribute to Hicks and Emerson (without acknowledging his own indebtedness to them), from the time the poet recruited his first Whitmanaut — Moncure Daniel Conway — there seems to have been a permanent ban against any mention of Tupper whatsoever, as readily shown by a digital search on many-years-worth of transcribed documents at The Walt Whitman Archive.
Age of Amnesia
Thus, when Poet and Person was originally published by a journal called American News in 1867, it laid down an inadequate foundation for all future biographies; indeed, the same was laid down as soon as it would have been possible, given the long civil emergency which had transpired since the solitary singer had first warbled. For the rest of the post-war-traumatized nineteenth century, many of America’s most influential players in such scorching controversies as communitarianism, free love, and women’s rights frequently would trivialize or simply ignore that “unloosed time” which gave birth to their movements, as well as to the Leaves.
Even ardent votaries of sunny Transcendentalism were commonly known to repudiate their youthful enthusiasm in the gloomy years which followed the War — for example, Moncure Conway. Facing modernity, Whitman’s expurgations of his own origin-story were cut from the same cloth as the kind of embarrassment which motivated leading suffragists to censor spiritualism’s antebellum role in propagating their message of equality. Ann Braude Radical Spirits: Spiritualism and Women's Rights in Nineteenth-century America (Boston: Beacon Press, 1989) This moment in history might just as well be called the Age of Amnesia.
To be sure, the actual situation was a bit more complicated than that. There are two parties in every literary encounter: author and reader. An author who truly knows his intended audience knows what they know. And the seaport economics which our scholars have been missing, ever since the Age of Steam supplanted the Age of Sail, was a pervasive, living presence for Victorian readers. There were countless aspects of their lives, peculiar to the time and place, so common and so patent that they needed nothing more than a vague mention. Indeed, the mere mention of certain topics triggered in a listener’s, or reader’s, mind a wealth of cultural associations derived from daily experience.
Consider how convenient that could be, given the sheer breadth and depth of Victorian taboos, whenever one found it absolutely necessary to refer to incendiary matters usually suppressed from public discourse. Whitman’s readers read quite avidly between the lines, with a deep grounding in the same contemporary context which today’s historians are hard-pressed to reconstruct. And nowhere is this more true than Whitman’s frequent references to sailors, ships, “the sea,” and mast-hemmed Manhattan’s richly-rewarding commerce. (When is the last time any of us so much as witnessed a ship under full sail?) As the Bank of Manhattan put it, glancing backwards from 1915:
Prior to 1860 all the great fortunes of the country had come from the sea, and so, inevitably, from the earliest days and until the glory of the American merchant marine had passed away, ships and shipping were the most conspicuous feature of New York business life, and the water front was the centre of interest. Ships and Shipping of Old New York (New York: Bank of Manhattan Company, 1915), 38-9.
Recklessness and Sensualism
Maritime historians take for granted something that professors of English have not generally recognized: namely, that any favorable reference to sailors made the self-appointed guardians of Victorian morality very, very, uneasy.
Whitman’s second-favorite prophet, “Father” Edward Thompson Taylor, snarled at his Methodist handlers: “I remember when you kept a man at the door of your churches to shut out those who wore a tarpaulin hat and a blue jacket. I remember when I was a sailor-boy, and I had to run the gauntlet to get into your churches. Well, [my sailors] might sit down in darkness, — in the darkness of despair.” Gilbert Haven, Thomas Russell Father Taylor, the Sailor Preacher (Boston: BB Russell, 1872), 212 The Respectable position was that sailors chose to become pariahs by indulging their own self-destructive propensities: boozing, gambling, brawling, dancing, overspending, and whoring — contributing, if nothing else, to the city’s epidemic of venereal disease. Even the outrageous privations, harsh discipline, grueling labor, and high danger necessarily associated with the occupation were understood to be self-destructive. The sorry end to which Walt’s own sailor brother, Jesse Whitman, came, serves as as textbook example of the kind of fate that the seaport knew, all too often, befell its labor force. In Redburn, Herman Melville astutely identified the heart of the problem as a sailor’s intrinsically reckless, restless, thrill-seeking personality:
with the majority of them, the very fact of their being sailors, argues a certain recklessness and sensualism of character, ignorance, and depravity; consider that they are generally friendless and alone in the world [that is, the world of landlubbers]… Herman Melville Redburn (New York: Harper and Brothers, 1849), 137
Melville understood that what modern psychologists call “sensation-seeking behavior” Marvin Zuckerman "Chapter 31. Sensation Seeking" in: Handbook of Individual Differences in Social Behavior, edited by Mark R Leary and Rich H Hoyle (New York: The Guildford Press), 455-65 resulted in a distinct “class” of men “who bear the same relation to society at large, that the wheels do to a coach.” He stressed that they were just as “indispensable” to marine transport as wheels are to ground transport. While the “insiders pleasantly vibrate” on an omnibus’s shock-absorbing springs, and the coach is itself sumptuously decorated, nevertheless “the wheels must still revolve in dusty, or muddy revolutions.” “[U]pon something the coach must be bottomed,” Melville lamented, “on something the insiders must roll.” The cruel irony, according to Melville, was that sailors “are the mobile of all commerce,” and if they ever were to vanish, “almost every thing would stop here on earth except its revolution on its axis, and the orators in the American Congress,” and yet, “what are sailors? What in your heart do you think of that fellow staggering along the dock?” Redburn, 178.
Brashly alluding to yet another manifestation of recklessness to which The Respectable could “hardly bear even so much as an allusion,” Melville’s White-Jacket exposed a poorly-kept secret about these pariahs. “What too many seamen are when ashore is very well known,” he whispered, “but what some of them become when completely cut off from shore indulgences can hardly be imagined by landsmen.” A crew that is crowded into a forecastle for weeks and months “mutually decay through close contact,” like pears too closely packed. “The sins for which the cities of the plain were overthrown still linger in some of these wooden-walled Gomorrahs of the deep.” But instead of punishing sodomites, officers would “turn away with loathing, refuse to hear [complaints], and command the complainant out of his sight.” Herman Melville White Jacket, vol 1 (New york: Harper & Brothers, 1850), 437 Recent studies have in particular investigated the hypersexuality of both straight and gay sensation-seekers. Maryann D McCoul, Nick Haslam "Predicting high risk sexual behavior in heterosexual and homosexual men: The roles of impulsivity an sensation seeking" Personality and Individual Differences, vol 31 no 8 (2001), 1303
It has been easy for modern critics to ignore this passage from Melville’s work of fiction, but a few years later, the Navy published official confirmation. One ship’s doctor, writing anonymously, affirmed the sheer prevalence of the phenomena and the refusal of officers to address it.
I have never been attached to a ship in the service on board which manustupration and paederasty [masturbation and sodomy] were not practiced, the latter, of course, more rarely than the former. Other officers may deny that they have heard of them, but I know these vices to be common, and generally unknown only because uninvestigated or undiscovered.... the naval hygienist has no other alternative than to recommend frequent liberty on shore as the only practicable means of preventing the commission of secret sexual vices, though when these habits are established even this will not serve to eradicate them, as witness certain cases well known to medical officers in our own and the British navy among officers of high rank. "Moral Influences" Medical Essays (Navy Dept Bureau of Medicine and Surgery (1873), 123.
As the poet turns 200, it is time we appreciated just how frequently Whitman’s writings cordially hailed these pariahs — in defiance of The Respectable. But whenever he did so, you can be sure that the great maritime wealth of the Empire City smiled in satisfaction. In Walt’s youthful years, the city’s shipping tycoons, for example, Joseph Grinnell and Charles Henry Marshall, did not contemptuously shun their wayward labor force (common sailors). They were actively engaged in philanthropic endeavors on behalf of their employees, funding seamen’s bethels and offering them the retirement option of Sailor’s Snug Harbor. George W Sheldon "Old Shipping Merchants of New York" Harper's New Monthly Magazine, vol 84 (February, 1882), 457-71
By 1883, when Richard Maurice Bucke published another anti-biography, Whitman had told friends that he did not ever want his life story to be published. Richard Maurice Bucke Walt Whitman (Philadelphia: David McKay, 1883), 8 But the autobiographical nature of Whitman’s November Boughs shows that by 1888, he had reconsidered. Walt Whitman November Boughs (Philadelphia: D McKay, 1888) Apparently the truncated, buttoned-up Burroughs, Bucke, and Whitman hagiographies, or anti-biographies, were in some sense collectively published by the Whitmanauts with a preemptive motivation. Why would anyone invest in a biography penned by an outsider when they could get their Whitman fix straight from the horse’s mouth? Accordingly, Walt Whitman himself endorsed his own solitary me fable. In “A Backwards Glance o'er Travel’d Roads” he declared that Leaves of Grass was an attempt to “faithfully express… my own physical, emotional, moral, intellectual, and ӕsthetic Personality.” Again, this claim to solitary-singing is obviously true, but it fails to describe his actual historical role, which is best conveyed by the portmanteau spokesbard. He came slightly closer to setting the record straight when he observed that
Few appreciate the moral revolutions, our age, which have been profounder far than the material or inventive or war-produced ones… I know very well that my "Leaves" could not possibly have emerged or been fashion’d or completed, from any other era than the latter half of the Nineteenth Century, nor any other land than democratic America...  Walt Whitman "A Backwards Glance o'er Travel'd Roads" November Boughs (Philadelphia: D McKay, 1888)
Translation: contrary to the usual view, Leaves of Grass was far more an expression of its time than some sort of oracle centuries in advance of its time — a product of “moral revolutions” (read: “Hicksite theology and Transcendentalism”) in “democratic America” (read: “Brooklyn/Manhattan”) in the “latter half of the Nineteenth Century” (read: “that brief exhilarating moment before the Civil War, when The Age of Sail was at its pinnacle, and before Sail gave way to Steam”). Only when we can fill in such forgotten contemporary associations as these shall we be able to read Whitman’s works the way that his intended audience read them.
In 1955, when Leaves of Grass turned 100, Gay Wilson Allen mined an enormous backlog of Whitman studies, including many discoveries of his own, to brand The Solitary Singer indelibly into the public’s conception of Walt Whitman. Gay Wilson Allen The Solitary Singer: A Critical Biography of Walt Whitman (New York: Macmillan, 1955) But, “Though there have been new insights,” groused David S Reynolds in 1995,
we have continued to take our basic facts from a critical biography [Allen’s Solitary Singer] written more than forty years ago. Otherwise, the facts of Whitman’s life have been Freudianized and historicized to fit current political and literary ideologies.  David S Reynolds Walt Whitman's America: a Cultural Biography (New York: Knopf, 1995), 24
Four years later, Jerome Loving caustically replied:
Since 1883 there have been approximately ﬁfteen formal biographies of America’s most comprehensive poet... The standard biography, no longer in print, is The Solitary Singer: A Critical Biography of Walt Whitman by Gay Wilson Allen. Published more than forty years ago, it has become out of date because of manuscript discoveries and recent scholarship... Three important biographies have appeared since Allen’s: Justin Kaplan’s Walt Whitman: A Life (1980); Paul Zweig’s Walt Whitman: The Making of a Poet (1984); and David S. Reynolds’s Walt Whitman’s America: A Cultural Biography (1995). All three make unique contributions to our appreciation of the poet, yet none of them goes signiﬁcantly beyond the basic facts of the life as established in The Solitary Singer.  Jerome Loving Walt Whitman: the Song of Himself (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1999), xii
Both of these authors recognized the need to fill in the social lacuna which rendered our singer so pathologically solitary, and both Allen and Reynolds deserve our appreciation for restoring a wealth of neglected details in their cultural biographies of Whitman. But as these authors have insisted, there yet remains a need to supplant the defective Solitary Singer biographies with a more focused and penetrating grasp of his vanished milieu. This is what I mean by a spokesbard model, but I cannot stress enough that this model should be neither surprising or novel: in fact, it has co-existed alongside the solitary me ever since Leaves of Grass first debuted, articulated in passages such as, “Through me many long dumb voices... of the rights of them the others are down upon,” and “O you shunned persons! I at least do not shun you, I come forthwith in your midst — I will be your poet,” or, implicitly, in arrogant passages such as “Walt Whitman, a kosmos, of Manhattan the son,” and in the regrettable, jaw-breaking syntax of “City whom that I have lived and sung there will one day make you illustrious.”
Resisting the temptation to digress into Whitman’s colorful appropriation of spiritualist tropes, we can point out that in the first and second citations, Walt explicitly declared that his poems not only expressed the dreams and concerns of those “shunned persons” whom “the others are down upon,” but that he dared to “come into [their] midst” — for example, [shudder!] Sailortown — and act as their poet. In the third and fourth citations, he implied that he spoke for the peculiar mores of this mast-hemmed city, and what is interesting is that no one ever contradicted his suggestion that he did speak for New York. If this was not a spokesbard, I ask, what kind of bard could he possibly have been? Moreover, we have just identified the seaport’s sailors as unmistakably among the “shunned.” (There were others, notably Whitman’s beloved volunteer firemen.)
Certainly every scholar who has contributed to our understanding of “Whitman’s borrowings” from his contemporaries has, perhaps unconsciously, acted to counter the fruitless but unremitting myth of The Solitary Singer. Whitman not only borrowed ideas from the books and magazines which he clipped, but he also must have woven poignant, revealing conversations with his friends and colleagues directly into some of his poems, thereby literally acting as spokesbard for “forbidden voices.”