By John Krull
INDIANAPOLIS – The book sits on a shelf in my study.
Its cover is a dark, aged green. The lettering on the spine reads, in a kind of dull gold, “Leaves of Grass, Complete, 1892.”
John Krull, publisher, TheStatehouseFile.com
Below that, also in the same dull gold, is a facsimile of Walt Whitman’s signature.
It’s the famed deathbed edition of Whitman’s masterwork, his epic attempt to capture the whole of the American experience in verse.
I found it in a used book store in rural Connecticut years ago. It spoke to me, like a voice echoing across a broad chasm.
Tradition has it that Whitman, as he inched toward death, personally inspected every volume of the deathbed edition. This would mean that the book that sits on my shelf and that I sometimes hold once rested in the poet’s hands.
I haven’t investigated this legend too carefully, in part because I like the story so much. Thinking of the dying poet, propped up in his sickbed, running his hands lovingly over this last impression of the writing that comprised and consumed his life, before he casts each book out into the ocean of eternity, like messages in bottles, touches me at my core.
Even if it isn’t factual, in spirit it might be – ought to be – true.
I pluck the book from its shelf from time to time. I open it and carefully, oh so carefully, turn its aging pages. I’ll read aloud to myself, often in whisper, just to hear the words.
Doing so is an act of faith, a consecration, a reminder both of what we, as a country, have aspired to be and what we have endured in pursuit of those aspirations.
Whitman’s journey was American right down to its essence, a tale that began with brashness and shameless self-promotion, then found itself touched with sorrow and vulnerability that deepened and enriched it, like metal tempered by fire.
Whitman stepped onto history’s stage in 1855, when he published the first edition of “Leaves of Grass.” To promote the book, he brazenly appropriated, without permission, a private letter from Ralph Waldo Emerson praising it.
A gay man in 19th century, Whitman was the poet of exuberance, probably the first to sense and give voice to the possibilities this country offered to dispossessed human beings to step out of the shadows and into the light, perhaps the first great American writer to yearn to be “the great American writer.” He celebrated multiplicity, the many individual leaves that make up the grass.
“For you these from me, O Democracy, to serve you ma femme!
“For you, for you I am trilling these songs.”
Thus Whitman exulted in 1860.
Then came the cataclysm that nearly ripped the nation asunder, the Civil War.
In his early 40s at the time, Whitman went to work in Washington, D.C., and served as a nurse. He walked and worked among the mangled bodies and tortured spirits of the wounded by the bloodiest civil war in human history, trying to heal and soothe. He developed an almost mystical attachment to Abraham Lincoln.
When Lincoln was murdered and the war came to its shuddering end, he offered this lament about sorrow and lost innocence:
“When lilacs last in the dooryard bloom’d,
“And the great star early droop’d in the western sky in the night,
“I mourn’d, and yet shall mourn with ever-returning spring.”
The Whitman who emerged from the Civil War years was less likely to sound his “barbaric yawp over the roofs of the world” – an early lyrical flight of the poet’s – because he had seen much of this country that troubled him. His later writing often resembled prayers offered to touch our best selves, to remind us of what this country could be.
What we Americans could be.
That’s why this book touches me so. I find myself drawn to it in times of trouble, such as this one, when we Americans are at each others’ throats and storm clouds of despair hover over the land.
And I draw comfort from the thought of a dying poet, an American who once walked among and tried to heal the wounded in body and spirit, approaching that great darkness that awaits us all, but still striving to summon the light.
So should we.
John Krull is director of Franklin College’s Pulliam School of Journalism, host of “No Limits” WFYI 90.1 Indianapolis and publisher of TheStatehouseFile.com, a news website powered by Franklin College journalism students.