Friday, May 31, 2019, was Walt Whitman’s bicentennial. Since doing a print workshop with one of my nineteenth-century American literature classes a few years ago, I’ve had in the shop a magnesium die of the famous image at the front of the first edition of Leaves of Grass. The stance and attitude projected in that image go hand in hand with the tone of that great long poem–but I also love seeing how that image works with other texts. (Once, in the gentle run-down toward the Thanksgiving holiday, students and I assembled a quick print with the image and some wood type, and thus was born the Whitman meme “POETRY IS BETTER THAN TURKEY.” Yup; the image goes with that, too!).
To mark the bicentennial of the poet and printer, I put together a little booklet. As noted in the colophon, the text collages language by and about Walt Whitman (from The Walt Whitman Archive) with the assorted flavors of the Whitman’s Sampler.
Multiplying this image makes me happy. And somehow, the Warholian repetition of this image also chimes with Whitman: “I am large, I contain multitudes…”. The book is constructed from seven spreads, printed front and back. There are fifteen candies but only fourteen different flavors in the 12 oz. Whitman’s Sampler; one flavor–the Toffee Chip–occurs twice in the box. “The Great Laws do not treasure chips…”
While the idea behind the project emerged from the coincidence of their shared last names (Stephen Whitman was a confectioner in Philadelphia, and I don’t think there’s any relation, but I could be wrong…!), I was surprised at how quickly the concept tipped me back into those most moving elements of Whitman’s life and work–his work as a nurse during the Civil War, and his recording of that work in his stunning book, Memoranda During the War. Before medical science could catch up to military technology and heal what humans do to themselves with their own inventions, Whitman kept long, exhausting hours tending to men who would almost certainly die from perforated bowels or irreparably damaged limbs. (In dark coincidence, the overflow of wounded were housed in the U.S. Patent Office, where Whitman observes models of technological advancement among the injured and dying.).
One of the first passages in the book depicts a pile of uncounted amputated hands, scattered like a toppled cord of wood. It’s a heartbreaking book, made more so by the apparent practical futility of much of Whitman’s efforts. Despite being unable to improve their prospects of survival or recovery, Whitman kept tending to the wounded, and carried both stationery and candy and sweet drinks; writing letters for those who couldn’t write home, and handing out sweet treats to men who were closer to boyhood than he was. So while my Sampler began as a pun, it reminded me again of why I love and am moved by the poet. There are of course actual candies and appreciations of sweets in his poems, but it’s a testament to his work that such a silly project as this can again uncover the deepest and most enduring of his themes.