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No. 342:
Walt Whitman Am A Camera

Today, Walt Whitman responds to photography. The University of Houston's College of Engineering presents this series about the machines that make our civilization run, and the people whose ingenuity created them.

Walt Whitman's epic poem, Leaves of Grass, grew from the soil of 19th-century technology. It's a sprawling portrait of America, published in 1855 -- just as we were coming into industrial power. The work reveled in our new machines. They're all there: locomotives in the Wasatch Mountains, the steam-driven Brooklyn Ferry, the use of ether in surgery.

The Leaves of Grass was a new poetic medium -- unconstrained free verse about a free land. It unleashed a firestorm of literary controversy. Yet it struggled to speak with photographic accuracy. One section begins with the words

OF THE terrible doubt of appearances,
Of the uncertainty after all,
that we may be deluded, ...

Whitman wrestles with his "terrible doubt" through 300 lyric pages. Out of the struggle comes a rich portrait of a modern world, rising from a wilderness. And the new technology of photography, more than any other, obsesses him. On the one hand, he warns:

Poet! beware lest your poems are made in the spirit that comes from the study of pictures of things, [and not from] contact with real things themselves.

On the other hand he's drawn to the new cameras. His name doesn't appear on the title page of the first edition. Instead, he gives us the thing itself -- his own daguerreotype, in a casual pose. Later he said about that,

The contents of the book form a daguerreotype of [my] inner being, and the title page bears a representation of its physical tabernacle.

As photography swept the American mind, photo galleries sprang up. Even before Leaves of Grass, Whitman used those new galleries as models for his own mind in a poem titled "Pictures."

In a little house pictures I keep, many pictures
hanging suspended -- It is not a fixed house, ...
But behold! it has room enough -- in it,
hundreds and thousands, --
all the varieties; ...

And in the Leaves of Grass he says of himself that he "peers along the exhibition-gallery ..."

Poets have always seen themselves as picture-makers. But Miles Orvell thinks the camera brought Whitman to a new level. He was deeply affected by the photographic vision of reality. And the new poetic photography of the Leaves of Grass pans across the American scene just the way a camera would.

Two years later, Whitman was enchanted by the Crystal Palace Exhibition in London. Like Leaves of Grass, the Crystal Palace was an utterly new structure that housed an indiscriminate panorama of modern life. It may have been English, but Whitman called it the "perfectly proportioned American edifice."

Culture is, after all, the mirror of technology. Whitman saw that truth with photographic clarity, and he used it to build a vision of America that lay beyond even the camera's reach.

I'm John Lienhard, at the University of Houston, where we're interested in the way inventive minds work.

(Theme music)

Orvell, M., Whitman's Transformed Eye. The Real Thing: Imitation and Authenticity in American Culture. 1880-1940, Chapel Hill, NC: The University of North Carolina Press, 1989, Chapter 1.

Whitman, W., Leaves of Grass. New York: Doubleday, Doran & Co., Inc., 1940.

For more on Whitman and his use of visual imagery, see Episode 1030.

Image courtesy of Special Collections, UH Library