November 2009

Walt Whitman’s America by David S. Reynolds is trying to reconstruct the life and times of, as it states, “one of America’s most representative poets”. Furthermore it gives a wider historical background to his life and writings. But Walt Whitman’s poems do not fall into one single historical category. Not even in a double or a triple one for that matter. As Whitman himself stated, he had a deep interest in all that surrounds a writer, his age, land, environment, all the contexts that are influential in any possible way. For that reason this book explores his influences, early works, the politics and the social crisis of that time, the eroticism in his poetry as well as science, religion and the visual arts which all had a great effect on him. All in all, David S. Reynolds wanted to express his love for Whitman’s poetry by recreating his life and works in a historical context putting the focus of this book on the great love of a poet for his country.

A live oak

According to the Merriam-Webster’s dictionary, the live oak is any of several American evergreen oaks noted for its extremely hard tough durable wood. You could say that it’s a powerful symbol of strength and you wouldn’t be mistaken. But if I asked someone from Texas what live oak means to him, I would probably get an answer: “Beer!”

Live oak brewery

Since most people from Serbia are not acquainted to the finest beers of the North American continent, an average Serbian would just shrug his shoulders to the same question. What was interesting for me was the fact that it is not like any oak I have ever seen around here. Its massive structure is impressing, but what is even more interesting is the moss growing on the trees giving them a striking appearance.


(Ancient live oak trees in Georgia)

“I saw in Louisiana a live-oak growing,

All alone stood it and the moss hung down from the branches,

Without any companion it grew there uttering joyous leaves of dark green,

And its look, rude, unbending, lusty, made me think of myself,

But I wonder’d how it could utter joyous leaves standing alone there without its lover near—for I knew I could not.

And I broke off a twig with a certain number of leaves upon it, and twined around it a little moss,

And brought it away—and I have placed it in sight in my room,

It is not needed to remind me as of my own dear friends,

(For I believe lately I think of little else than of them,)

Yet it remains to me a curious token—it makes me think of manly love;

For all that, and though the live-oak glistens there in Louisiana solitary in a wide flat space,

Uttering joyous leaves all its life without a friend, a lover near,

I know very well I could not.”

(Calamus, 1860)


Whitman speaks of a tree that is alone, solitary, isolated in Louisiana without a lover near.  There lies a different, more homoerotic aspect behind the lines, besides mere solitude. He mentions that the oak reminds him of manly love, of a person who is waiting for his lover and even the branches look rude and lusty to him. Indicative enough…


(Marko Skrbic photography)

Some time ago I made a promise to myself… Actually a few of them, some kind of a New Year’s resolution. “I will try to write a letter to one of my favorite illustrators (Brian Froud), I will finally stop biting my nails and I will definitely become a blogger.” I’m starting that letter for the hundredth time now, my nails are getting shorter and shorter, but at least I have this blog!

“Trippers and askers surround me,
People I meet…. the effect upon me of my early life…. or the ward and
city I live in…. or the nation,
The latest news…. discoveries, inventions, societies…. authors old and new,
My dinner, dress, associates, looks, compliments, dues,
The real or fancied indifference of some man or woman I love,
The sickness of one of my folks – or of myself…. or ill-doing…. or loss
or lack of money…. or depressions or exaltations,
They come to me days and nights and go from me again,
But they are not the Me myself.”

Song of Myself. (1855)

Try reading it without the ellipses… It’s just not the same. Not only the words, but the design of the sentences as well talks about the connection between the physical and the spiritual. Whitman was trying to put his soul on paper, to connect the two, to make you read his thoughts. In the 1891 “Death-bed” Edition of Leaves of Grass he omits the ellipses and only then do we see how this passage becomes harder to relate to. The personal and individual touch is lost, the pauses he deliberately prolonged are gone and the magic is just not there any more.