Skip to main content

tv   Walt Whitman Washington  CSPAN  February 21, 2021 7:30pm-8:01pm EST

7:30 pm
nation amid a tumultuous transition. his book is titled whitman in washington becoming the national poet in the federal city. he's joined by katrina bernadini contributing editor at the walt whitman archive the national archives foundation provided the video for this program. i'm katarina bernardini and i'm here with professor ken prize author of whipping in washington becoming the national poet in the federal city, which was just published by the oxford university press and it's available for 29.95 in hardback. welcome ken good to see you. so it's wonderful to see you too katarina. yeah, it's great to be here with you. so can you tell us more about the idea? for how this book came to you? how did it start as a project for you? well, like many whitman scholars, i've been fascinated
7:31 pm
by whitman's relationship to a variety of cities. he's probably most famously associated with the new york area, long island, new york city, but he also spent some formative months in new orleans as you know, and others know and then a decade in washington dc the time period that i focused on and then at the end of his life, of course he was in the philadelphia and camden new jersey area. so those are the four big places for whitman and it seemed to me that the washington decade had been you know studied but in some ways strangely neglected, it hadn't really been given its due and i started to gravitate toward that i did a digital project on civil war washington that's studied the transformation of the city over the four years of civil war and it's fascinating what happened to the city during that time quadrupled in size and the racial and ethnic makeup of the city changed profoundly
7:32 pm
washington, of course was surrounded by a couple of slaves states and so fugitive slaves came pouring into the city and there were many immigrants and there were prostitutes coming to the city and there were people coming in to make a buck and all kinds of things were happening. it was also a place where you can see why whitman would be fascinated by it because as as well known, he wrote three anonymous self reviews of the first edition of leaves of grass and in one of them, he said an barred at last that was the first line so he clearly wanted to be the national poet from the beginning and so then it occurred to me. well, you know, let's think about whitman's relationship to the federal city to the national capital. another thing that contributed to my wanting to work on whitman and washington is that i had the good fortune to discover 3,000 documents in the national archives. these were documents that whitman wrote when he was a
7:33 pm
clerk in the attorney general's office a secretary of the day. mostly we think writing out what other people had already written or spoken to him, but possibly co-authoring them exactly the intellectual input how much intellectual input he had in those documents is is a bit of a mystery. anyway, i felt there was a lot there in washington dc and so that's what gravitated or had me gravitate toward the project. and before this discovery this big discovery of the scribal documents in 2011. you had already worked on women for some decades. so what surprised you the most both in positive and negative ways about women's figure and his work and now it, you know have to after after undertook this this research. right. well, i think one of the things
7:34 pm
about whitman, is that the popular imagination of whitman i is that he was something of a proto-hippie he was a free spirit. he was he's been very strongly associated with the bohemian group that gathered at fafs beer hall in new york city. um and when he left new york originally went to washington thinking he would just go for a couple of days, but he went to the front looking for his wounded brother george found out he was, you know, not significantly wounded and helped other soldiers come back to washington to get care during the civil war and he found that so moving that he spent the next decade in washington, but i think what? surprised me. the most was that we had to start suddenly thinking about whitman as a government employee as somebody who was a work-a-day
7:35 pm
guy, which is not you know, how we think of whitman instead. we think of him as the loafer the saunterer or the the bohemian, but how could he how could we get our mind around the idea of whitman as a clerk and interestingly before becoming a clerk himself? he'd written quite a number of things in newspaper pieces belittling clerks thinking of them as fox and thinking of them as subservient. and yes, man, and and the like, so it's quite interesting that he became a clerk. you asked about what was the most sort of negative thing that came to me and in? my thinking about whitman in washington and reflection on these 3,000 documents. i think the thing that has been disturbing is to recognize that whitman was there and the attorney general's office during reconstruction when the united
7:36 pm
states had a chance for a second revolution and it could remake the country on more equitable just grounds and it could recognize the rights of all people regardless of race and ethnicity and before long and working in the attorney general's office. the department of justice was formed in 1870. he continued in working there one of the big things the department of justice did and it's early years was to be back the klan and so whitman had his hand on more than 30 documents that deal with clan violence paramilitary groups in the south. so he contributed to that effort as a secretary, but in his own writings in his poems in his prose in his contributions to journalism. he never speaks of the clan at all. he doesn't speak about it in
7:37 pm
comments to horse travel. and so this is disappointing because whitman, you know, we often think of him as something of a multicultural hero. i mean, he has his limits and he speaks like a person from the 19th century, but he's also you know the poet who saying of the us as a teaming nation of nations and he did more than any poet before him to write about all kinds of people in american culture whether it was the immigrant or whether it was the diseased person or native american or african-american and suddenly in mid-career and in his later years he begins to retreat from that. and this growing conservatism and even occasionally seemingly reactionary ways this this lack of positive commentary of on emancipation lack of any condemnation of the clan lack of you know, a sense of abhorrence
7:38 pm
at this paramilitary insurrection that was threatening the united states. this is a big disappointment. of research and you to go back to the idea that it was a clerk and that's a totally new idea as associated with this figure. you started thinking about the fascinating pairing of clerk and cosmos and you? argue that that in a way that's clerk works seem to have reshaped a little bit it whitman's boundless vision in terms of at least being able to elaborate his standards your writing from the perspective of various persona. so while maybe not explicitly and very and very disappointingly engaging very important. topics as the ones you just discussed at least maybe one positive note could be that he was more able to adopt the
7:39 pm
perspective of various people because of his work as important that correct. yeah, the clerk and cosmos pairing that you mentioned is is interesting the idea that whitman could somehow be both the poet of the cosmos connecting to everything being grand being, you know able to sort of reach out beyond his own individual limits and and then the clerk being sort of intrinsically a limited person with the very narrow set of concerns. um, one of the things that the washington and experience for whitman did is it forced him to make a new network. the fast spear hall has been thought of as an intellectual network for him in his new york years. he needed to rebuild that in washington and though he had little good to say about clerks before he got there what he found was that washington dc clerks were oh well educated
7:40 pm
interesting group of people many of them were writers themselves. they had had a background in publishing his publisher of his third edition eldritch was a clerk in washington his good friend. oh william douglas o'connor and john burrows were clerks, but also powerful writers. so these things were important to him also it gave him steady income and a and a financial base from which to work and that enabled him to do his hugely important humanitarian work during the civil war when he selflessly gave hours. hours days and days months and months years and years in fact of time to wounded soldiers many of whom credited him with saving their lives through his kindness small gifts and love that. he bestowed during the civil war as they were trying to recover from wounds and disease and suffering a great deal that time
7:41 pm
in the working in the hospitals is one of the ways and which we see whitman beginning to write and adopt the persona of someone else. he often would write letters for wounded soldiers. sometimes he would write in his own voice. i'm well whitman your son is here and he would comment on the sun in that way, but at other time someone would ask him to write a letter for them. and so then he would inhabit the voice of albion hubbard or another wounded soldier and so this way of throwing your mind and throwing voice into someone else is there in his hospital important hospital work. it's there on a daily basis as he works as a clerk in the attorney general's office where he is writing for the attorney general or for the assistant attorney general or for someone else the chief clerk in the office and then in his poetry he
7:42 pm
begins to do more and more of it in the years in the civil war and afterward prayer of columbus is one good example, but another important poem that i look at i so begins to inhabit the identity and voice of another and up its a poem that's been long controversial is ethiopia saluting the colors. now one of the things you could say about whitman and his civil war poetry drum tapses. is that when it was first published even though it seems to us in certainly in retrospect and i think to many people at the time that the war was somehow about slavery and that is how lincoln articulated it famously. it whitman tended to put it as a regional conflict north and south the union war rather than thinking about it as slavery and in the first published occasion
7:43 pm
of drum taps, there's really very little treatment of race to be found and yet you know if that is the a driving factor in the coming of the war and the ongoing effects of the war, it's a strange omission, so but after the war he added ethiopia saluting the color that about an aged african-american woman interacting with union soldiers in the south at the moment when she is suddenly able to come to freedom and and start a new life, even though she's like a 100 years old. this is a poem that's left many many white critics quite uncomfortable for a variety of reasons, but strangely or or interestingly maybe as a better word for it many african-american critics have admired it and african-american poets and musicians and so it is
7:44 pm
a poem that deserves rethinking and so i tried to do that by connecting ethiopia saluting the colors with some of the visual culture of the time the newspaper depictions of african-american and there. lives during the conflict and their interactions with union soldiers and i think it leads to a new appreciation of the poem and its complexity and and there are ways to see much more value in that poem than many people have have seen in the past one of the things that's important. of course. is that as i see it whitman is depicting the woman as seizing freedom herself she is walking over to the union line. she's not waiting for the union soldiers to liberate her. she is in in the act of self liberation and that of course is has been a key revisionary way of looking at at emancipation in
7:45 pm
recent decades by historians and another topic that i think is crucial in whitman is the one of sexuality and he's also being in a way. accused of you know some shortcomings, but also some some, you know, radical advancements and success in that sense. can you talk about a few examples about which you see whitman working on sexuality during this particular decade that you worked on. with something changed that he was even more reactionary or not, or did he continue to advance is is liberating, you know sexuality. so whitman as a person working in government offices came under attack of when he was working for the department of interior bureau of indian affairs james harlan famously was looking
7:46 pm
around the offices at a time when he was trying to downsize the government and he came upon whitman's copy of leaves of grass that was annotated the famous blue book saw a concluded apparently that this was seen literature and summarily fired whitman, and of course that led to the defense of whitman famously william douglas o'connor's the good great poet and probably led to a different persona of whitman in later years that he sort of lived himself into and o'connor and i think whitman himself were we're ready to defend. what whitman had done as a writer and as a person and happy to have that debate on sexual grounds because they felt that the culture had been. dishonest about just even acknowledging the body and
7:47 pm
sexuality and its needs and its pleasures desires. and yet being in a government office also had some constraints for whitman. i mean he was in a set of circumstances where decorum was expected and interestingly in the 3000 documents that we've referred to you often find whitman signing off on documents your obedient servant. well in all of whitman's personal correspondence, he never once uses that phrase he is not positioning himself as a servant to anyone. he's he's a democrat. he's a he's a, you know, a proud of person as anybody else and he doesn't believe in that kind of lowering of himself. even if it's a pseudo formulaic politic, you know polite gesture. he's not going to embody that in his in his personal correspondence.
7:48 pm
yeah, i think during these years he of course had a extended romantic relationship with peter doyle. in the around 1870 when he was working in government offices in a notebook. you can see him recording concern about doyle and the perturbations that that relationship caused him and you know, i think it may be that the office setting contributed to that the history of being fired by harlan contributed to that also just the the many powerful forces within the society that still made same-sex love something that wasn't it by any means entirely accepted then and and remains not entirely accepted in some quarters. so yes, i think there were were many ways in which the government office can and and its circumstances can be related
7:49 pm
to whitman's emotional and psychological coming to terms with how he's going to position himself within the society. yes, and i really appreciate it your conclusion in this sense. you concluded that for the book that women is a national poet because even if irregularly strove to rise above the biases of his culture if fundamentally remained not beyond this culture so in this sense, you've seen remaining kind of entangled in in some of the biases and cultural yields of this time and culture. and in this sense, you also talked more about how whitman perhaps avoided engaging with the real stakes of the reconstruction period can you tell us a little more about that? well, like many in the north
7:50 pm
whitman became fatigued with the cause of african-american. and you know famously and and regrettably north and south regional reconciliation came at the expense of racial reconciliation. and so the the rights of african-americans were sacrificed and you know violence was quite widespread in the south voting rights that had, you know gradually been gained by african americans were eroded. property that they had gained was taken away from them and then in effect a second slavery under a different name was instituted in various ways across the south whitman's own. failure to adequately speak out about this failure to give
7:51 pm
articulation to what could have been the early development of a vibrant multiracial democracy is is a disappointment. it's a big disappointment, but i think that in our last recent years in the united states we've seen a resurgence of racial animosity coming from high quarters in the government. and so this is not a moment in which we can afford to avert our eyes to hard truths. painful truths even for even when they are about writers who we love and admire who we think are extraordinary individuals who have achieved great humanitarian goals in their you know, and in whitman's case in aiding civil war soldiers, that's not enough to give him a pass on a blind spot. that is an american blind spot. it is a cultural problem that
7:52 pm
continues to need to be addressed and it needs to be addressed with. at the moment greater and greater urgency. it's really honest i thought. in not being intimidated and and showing this very painful passages that he sometimes as in this correspondence for example in which yeah, it's really painful to read his words about some some moments that in which for example that one do you remember that one that which he tells his mother about black people marching in washington, right? that's that's a pretty i found it particularly as somebody that at works on that has word on the international reception of women. and as you said sort of looks it out, you know, he was perceived as a progressive thinker and you know and as an innovator that was very eye-opening in you know.
7:53 pm
let me just comment briefly on on that one of the tricky things. i felt in writing about whitman was to strike the right balance there because you know you you want to recognize that he is a product of the 19th century. you need to grant him that and the context and yet at the same time. you don't want to be you know to forgiving and and just sort of ignore the things that that do seem like real limitations and real lost opportunities. absolutely, and you also show that you may have been last cautious in private correspondence. for example, i mean, there's always a right to distinguish his voice in as an author and as i start the person and you argue to go back to the to the final part of the book in your conclusions that there is much work to be done still about what
7:54 pm
learning general and about specifically this decade that you've worked on for women in washington. can you maybe tell us a little more about the avenues of future research that you envision? in a sense well, i think for whitman studies there's a great deal to be learned about whitman as a journalist in his time in washington dc he was kind of a founder of war reporting among other things and and that that achievement of his career i think is is only coming to be understood and appreciated for what it is. and there's a quite a lot of whitman journalism that was contributed anonymously and some of the work that we're doing at the whitman archives is now trying to recover more and more of those anonymously contributed pieces. so i think that whitman and journalism is one of the key
7:55 pm
areas that's going to be you know further developed in in recent year and the upcoming years. another thing to say is that whitman was famous for planting pieces in newspapers often anonymously about himself, and i think that anybody who was to study washington newspapers would you know be able to come up with a lot of information about how whitman was. evolving and changing how he wanted to be understood within the culture but really let me say that when i close the book with that comment about there as much work to be done. i i was thinking less about whitman criticism and where scholarship on whitman was going to go and about where the culture. needs to go and and hoping that you know whitwell whitman said, you know you you either need to
7:56 pm
destroy him or complete him and it was in that sense of of whitman's early vision, you know, can we can we achieve the early vision of whitman encompassing generous open to a multicultural? culture or do we need to somehow do battle with the forces that would terror the united states apart on grounds of you know racial hostility to each other. i mean, it's an irony that during the civil war the confederate flag never made it to the us capitol, but it recently made it into the us capitol in insurrectionary moment. with social um, yes, and so this book is really an invitation to give a lot of reflections about yeah things that are particularly current and and i
7:57 pm
really appreciated that i learned a lot. is there anything else you want to add about how the process of writing this book was revealing for you or anything that you wish you would have done that you didn't have time to do or anything else. was honestly, the book was both energized by. the conflicts in american culture in recent years, but it also made the writing of the book the more difficult because i felt as if the stakes were higher the things i was talking about. connected to obviously to current events. so it was both. a spur to writing and also a it felt. burdensome and and difficult and trying to get it right for whitman to be sufficiently fair to him and generous with his
7:58 pm
monumentally important accomplishments and at the same time to not avert my eyes to failings trying to find the right balance in that was was the major challenge. absolutely and balance is an important work word for women to in general right in terms of yes, how we can be complex and right. always in a way express a lot of dichotomies in that sense. so i think i think that's a good keyword to keep in mind. well, it's been a pleasure for me to to host this and thank you again to kenneth cries for this conversation about his new book. we've been in washington becoming the national poet in the federal city just published by oxford university press and available in hardback for 2995. by the way, here it is. i have it with me. thank you so much ken again. thank you, katrina. i enjoyed it.
7:59 pm
this is american history tv on c-span 3 where each weekend we feature 48 hours of programs exploring our nation's past. american history tv is on social media follow us at c-span history. next on the presidency a look at the lifelong association between benjamin franklin and thomas jefferson. first a conversation between the men as portrayed by bill roebling and bill barker they
8:00 pm
talk about their roles in shaping revolutionary war era america and the constitutional government it produced. and in about 50 minutes, we continue our look at jefferson and franklin with philip. zisha associate editor at yale university's papers of benjamin franklin project. thomas jefferson's monticello hosted both of these programs and provided the video well, good afternoon citizens. what a pleasure to greet you once more at our monticello, but as you can readily see we have somewhat of a split canvas because we're welcoming through this modern element of technology in the pursuit of science our good friend who has always been at the forefront. they're upon a doctor benjamin franklin who is with the snail from philadelphia a good afternoon, dr. franklin. good day. good afternoon to you, thomas.


info Stream Only

Uploaded by TV Archive on