Fall/Winter 2013


Whitman On The Prairie: An 1879 Journey

Walt Whitman’s all-embracing visionary voice seems broad enough to have  embraced all of America, not to say the Cosmos, in Leaves of Grass.

Yet how much of America did he actually see?

His time on the Atlantic Seaboard, mainly New York and Philadelphia, is well documented. So was his sojourn in Washington DC and, to a lesser extent, his time in New Orleans.

But a lesser known trip later in his life made a big impact on America‘s Good Gray Poet-- and it took him across country from Philadelphia through Kansas and on to Denver and back .
The journey, taken at the age of 60, is detailed in Whitman’s book Specimen Days. It offers a strong sense of the regard Whitman held for the mid-section of America as the vortex for the nation‘s future cultural voice.

According to Robert R Hubach, writing in the Kansas Historical Quarterly in 1941, the impression which the prairies of Illinois, Missouri and Kansas made upon Whitman is remarkable. They were "America's Characteristic Landscape," writes Hubach.  “He saw that in the Mississippi valley region, more than even in the majestic Rocky Mountains, lay the future of American culture.”

Whitman stated so clearly in his poem "The Prairie States," written in 1880 after his trip. He looked with prophetic vision to the Great Plains, and saw that it was to them that the entire past had been working:

A newer garden of creation, no primal solitude,
Dense, joyous, modern, populous millions, cities and farms,
With iron interlaced, composite, tied, many in one,
By all the world contributed freedom's and law's and thrift's society,
The crown and teeming paradise, so far, of time's accumulations,
To justify the past.

That was written less than a year after Whitman traveled west -- 1879. Whitman was 60 years old and infirm. Yet he accepted the invitation of Col. John W. Forney and the Old Settlers of Kansas committee to be present at the quarter-centennial celebration of the settlement of Kansas at Bismarck Grove, near Lawrence Kansas, on September 15th and 16th.

“The gathering proved to be one of the largest political meetings in the history of the state up to that time; one newspaper correspondent estimated that between 25,000 and 30,000 people were in attendance,” wrote Hubert.

Though recovering from a stroke and often quite feeble, Whitman minutely describes his long trip West in Specimen Days.

"I agreed to go, provided I was not asked to speak nor eat any public dinners. I am only to show myself. I shall not make speeches or eat public dinners, but the people will have an opportunity to see this big, saucy red rooster, whom they might otherwise think would speak."

At Kansas City, which Whitman reached on the evening of September 13, a specially appointed committee of four men met him and accompanied him by train to Lawrence, where he stayed at 1425 Tennessee St. the home of Judge John P. Usher, Secretary of the Interior under Lincoln and mayor of Lawrence at the time of their visit.

A local newspaper gave account of his appearance: “Walt Whitman is a man well advanced in years and his snow-white hair and the long white beard which grows upon a large portion of his face give him a decidedly venerable appearance. He wore a gray traveling suit and his shirt-bosom was left open at the neck, something after the fashion of the Goddess of Liberty as shown on a fifty-cent piece. He walks with a cane, using considerable care, as he has not fully recovered from a paralytic stroke.”

In a short speech which he had planned to deliver at the Bismarck Grove meeting, Whitman exhorted the people of Kansas “to pattern their creative efforts after "that vast Something" peculiar to the "interminable and stately prairies.”

Whitman repeated time and again in Leaves of Grass the fact that he saw in the West the coming fruition of what would someday be a truly American contribution to the arts -- something uninfluenced by foreign conventions or models and as boundless and free as the plains themselves.

But in this one little speech -- never given, but recalled in Specimen Days -- Walt Whitman makes his point of view clear:

I have roll’d rapidly hither for more than a thousand miles, through fair Ohio, through bread-raising Indiana and Illinois—through ample Missouri, that contains and raises everything…Under these skies resplendent in September beauty—amid the peculiar landscape you are used to, but which is new to me—these interminable and stately prairies. In the freedom and vigor and sane enthusiasm of this perfect western air and autumn sunshine…it seems to me a poem would be almost an impertinence.




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