Walt Whitman’s original essay, “A Backward Glance O’er Travel’d Roads,” was printed at the end of the 1891-92 edition of Leaves of Grass. The following adaptation is an attempt to quite radically “translate” its disorganized, disgressive, awkward “Whitmanese” into the standards of prose clarity expected by 21st century readers.
When I say prose clarity, I am not only referring to a very aggressive copy edit. I have also subjected it to a critical, discerning lens of historical perspective. The result is Whitman’s clearest directions on how to read Leaves of Grass. — Mitchell Santine Gould, Curator, LeavesOfGrass.org.
The Moral Revolutions of Our Age
Few appreciate that the moral revolutions of our age have been far profounder than the material or inventive or war-produced ones. Future years can never witness any more excitement than The Nineteenth Century: the uprisings of national masses and shiftings of boundary-lines — the war of attempted Secession — the stormy rush and haste of nebulous forces. New forms and expressions are inevitable in response to all these new and evolutionary facts, meanings, purposes, and new poetic messages. Indeed, first-class literature does not shine by any luminosity of its own. It grows of circumstances, and is evolutionary. The actual living light is always curiously from elsewhere — follows unaccountable sources, and is lunar and relative at the best. It were useless to attempt reading the book without first carefully tallying that preparatory background in the mind. I know very well that my Leaves could not possibly have emerged or been fashioned or completed, from any other era than the latter half of the Nineteenth Century, nor any other land than democratic America.
I Found Myself Possessed
So here I sit gossiping in the early candlelight of old age — I and my book — casting backward glances over our traveled roads. After continued personal ambition and effort, as a young fellow, to enter with the rest into competition for the usual rewards, business, political, literary, &c., I found myself remaining possessed, at the age of thirty-one to thirty-three, with a special desire and conviction. Or rather, to be quite exact, a desire that had been flitting through my previous life, or hovering on the flanks, mostly indefinite hitherto, had steadily advanced to the front, defined itself, and finally dominated everything else: to faithfully express my own physical, emotional, moral, intellectual, and ӕsthetic Personality — in the midst of, and tallying, the momentous spirit and facts of its immediate days — in a far more candid and comprehensive sense than any hitherto poem or book.
The Song of Sex
From another point of view Leaves of Grass is avowedly the song of Sex and Amativeness, and even Animality. Meanings that do not usually go along with those words are behind it all, and will duly emerge; and all are sought to be lifted into a different light. Those lines so give breath of life to my whole scheme that the bulk of the pieces might as well have been left unwritten were those lines omitted. It has become, in my opinion, imperative to achieve a shifted attitude in superior men and women towards the thought and fact of sexuality, as an element in character, personality, the emotions, and a theme in literature.
Not a Literary Performance
Leaves of Grass has mainly been an attempt, from first to last, to put a Person, freely, fully and truly on record. I could not find any similar personal record in current literature that satisfied me. But it is not on Leaves of Grass distinctively as literature that I feel to advance claims. No one will get at my verses who insists upon viewing them as a literary performance.
Entirely My Own Way
I had my choice when I commenced. I bid neither for soft eulogies, big money returns, nor the approbation of existing schools and conventions. The best comfort of the whole business (after a small band of the dearest friends and upholders ever vouchsafed to man or cause) is that I have had my say entirely my own way, and put it unerringly on record.
The Main Object
I consider the point that I have positively gained a hearing, to far more than make up for any and all other lacks and withholdings. Essentially, that was from the first, and has remained throughout, the main object. Now it seems to be achieved, I am certainly contented to waive any otherwise momentous drawbacks, as of little account.
Illustrations, from above: the bare-chested bard with Henry Scott Tuke’s “Green and Gold” in the background; and how Fred Vaughan, an omnibus driver, might have looked.
Mitchell Santine Gould is the leading authority on Walt Whitman’s mysterious connection to Quakerism, and coined a term to describe this difficult problem — which occupied the heart of Whitman scholarship for a century: “Walt Whitman’s Quaker Paradox.” In 2003, Mitch established LeavesOfGrass.Org to publish an open-source stream of historical findings. Some of his findings were published in the peer-reviewed journal Quaker History in 2007, Quaker Theology in 2016, and Quaker History again in 2019. He has also published in Walt Whitman: an Encyclopedia; the Gay and Lesbian Review Worldwide; The Friend (in England); and Gay Lesbian, Bisexual, Transgender Events, edited by Lillian Faderman and Yolanda Retter. His author website is found at GeneralPicture.com.
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