For six years I worked in the old Patent Office Building in Washington, where the Smithsonian’s American Art Museum and National Portrait Gallery are located. The building began its service to the people in 1840, making it one of Washington’s landmarks. I worked there as an editor from 1986 to 1992, before the recent renovations, completed in 2006. In my time, the building still had the feel of the 19th century. I entered every morning through the basement, which always made me think of the catacombs—bulging, thick walls, narrows corridors, stairs that might have met the building code a hundred-plus years ago. Here's a daguerreotype from 1846, showing the building in its early days (and the early days of photography):
What really made this a special place for me was that Walt Whitman had trod these very same corridors during the Civil War, when the building became a makeshift hospital: "Overflow casualties were housed in the Capitol, in churches, taverns, and schools, in the Georgetown prison and General Lee’s Alexandria mansion. Whitman found them lying between rows of glass display cases in the Patent Office, ‘noblest of Washington’s buildings.’ The Greek Revival shrine to American ingenuity was normally an exhibition hall for models representing ‘every kind of utensil, machine, or invention, it ever enter’d the mind of man to conceive.’ …Now it was a hospital, ‘a curious scene, especially at night when lit up. The glass cases, the beds, the forms lying there, the gallery above, and the marble pavement under foot—the suffering and fortitude to bear it in various degrees—occasionally, from some, the groan that could not be repress’d.’” (from Justin Kaplan’s life of Whitman). I would often imagine Whitman making his rounds in the same building where I worked, sometimes even sensing his presence.
“Whitmanesque” has come to mean that big-hearted, empathetic embrace of whatever life places in one’s path, that exuberant appetite for experience. Whitman’s invention of American poetry has a lot to do with that expansive spirit, and with his frankness, whether about war or sex. He did not back down, or look away. He did not write like anyone who came before. His use of language—open, plainspoken, direct—is the antithesis of poetic. He remains alive in his work because the work itself is so immediate. It is language with a pulse.
There’s a remarkable 1875 chalk on paper drawing of Whitman by Thomas Dewing in the American Art Museum’s collection. Reproductions of it fail to capture its depth and power. When you look at the original, you almost feel like you’re face to face with Walt himself. Because of conservation concerns, the work is very rarely displayed, but I used to ask one of the curators to take it out of storage and show it to me every once in a while.
When the museums in the Patent Office building re-opened in 2006, I was delighted to find a little room in the Portrait Gallery solely devoted to Whitman—with paintings and photographs, and rare copies of his work on display. I went back there last Wednesday evening after work to further explore the Whitman room, only to discover it had been replaced. Too bad—they should have made it a permanent exhibition.
For my week of guest blogging on the BAP site, I think I’ll mostly stay on the subject of Washington poets, or at least some of those poets I’ve been fortunate enough to know.
My current attentiveness to Whitman I believe derives from a visit to the Walt Whitman rest stop on the Jersey Turnpike on the way back from Connecticut a few weeks ago:
OK. We get on 95 and drive all day.
We stop at the Walt Whitman rest stop
on the Jersey Turnpike, and the dog and I
both pee in a secret wooded area just beyond
the trash cans and parked cars. We are hurtling
through space and time, through Connecticut,
New York, New Jersey, Delaware, Maryland.
O Walt—and Joyce Kilmer—your poems have earned
you Turnpike rest stops! Horrible places jammed
with anxious travelers in need of a bathroom.
I buy bacon and egg on a croissant and wash it down
with water. But these are not the worst of monuments.
Joyce could praise those leafy arms, while Walt would
love the salt of the earth in their restless wandering.