2 CLASS NOTES, CMP 2850 Walt Whitman, Cluster 3 The Image and

Walt Whitman, Cluster 3
The Image and the Word:
The Impact of Visual Culture on Whitman’s Poetry and Language
Michael Skafidas, PhD
In Whitman’s day for the first time the vista of urban antithesis –an old source of inspiration for writers and painters alike– became the subject of a new optical fascination. As much as the Romantics before him, Whitman was enthralled by technological innovations, and undoubtedly one of the most defining ones in his time was the development of photography. The early days of photography revolutionized the ways a city was perceived and framed by its own dwellers long before photography was even considered an art form. Whitman’s urbanized generation was among the first to experience the impact of what came to be called a visual culture in America and in Europe, a culture that saw the word and the image forming an extraordinary alliance. The past no longer resided exclusively in the realm of words and legends; photographs gave undisputed proof of one’s existence. The extraordinary impact that the newly established medium of photography would have on poetry and language did not escape Whitman, who duly noted in “Spontaneous Me” that “real poems [are] being merely pictures.” The idea that images are born in poetry, which Whitman unwittingly advocated before it was even articulated by the Imagists, correlated with a new dialectics of the image and the word that Whitman attempted to establish. Often times Whitman thought in images, and as a result Leaves of Grass in particular provides us with a narrative whose editing is crafted by someone who had a hint of the future technique of cinematic montage in mind.
The principal aspect of photography that appealed to Whitman was its inclusiveness. Like the slang language that lured Whitman into new avenues of experimentation, photography affirmed a democratic aesthetic aligned with Whitman’s endeavors to emphasize the appeal of the middle and lower classes in modern life. One of the reasons literature was changing direction at the end of the century was also due to the spreading of the new medium in public life, especially after Louis Daguerre’s invention of the daguerreotype process of photography in Paris in the late 1830s. The Western society was transitioning from a word-dominated to an image-minded culture; the development of photography signaled the beginning of the rivalry between the image and the word. Photography provoked an immediate, impossible to avoid, and often unfair competition between the past and the present. As much as oil painting’s reputation was subjugated to a newly empowered critique, standard forms of poetry, as already discussed, were also suffering the blows of the modernizers. Even though it took a long time for photography to be recognized as a legitimate form of art in America, Whitman certainly was among the first to pave the way. As Reynolds synoptically puts it, “Photography put new demands on the artist and the writer. Since the world could now be captured ‘as is,’ what was the artist’s role?” (1996: 280).
Whitman’s excitement to capture the world around him as a kind of “roving camera,” in many ways intimates the voyeuristic impulses of modernist literature that sprang from the crude curiosity of the flaneur (French term for city stroller, window shopper and the curious city spectator). The proliferation of photographic images promotes the narcissism of the city; it establishes within people, in the words of Susan Sontag, a “chronic voyeuristic relation” with the world around them but also with the reproduction of their own image. In that respect, Whitman championed the virtuosity of a modern chameleon in the spectacle of the city: actor and spectator, observer and observed, active and passive, image-maker and versifier.
A most crucial aspect of photography’s increasing appeal in the nineteenth-century was its technical capacity for portraying the self unlike any other previous mode. The emerging prospect of stage-managing the self before the lens of a camera gave rise to a new wave of self-awareness that stood apart from self-portraiture in painting or the textual representation of the self; it paved the way for an uninhibited self-depiction in art that also left its imprint in literature by increasing the emphasis on the confessional and the exhibitionistic aspects of the self. Whitman’s unabashed preoccupation with celebrating the self, thus, will be juxtaposed in the third chapter with the development of the aesthetics of solipsism into a full-fledged artistic form that triggered alternate ways of inspecting the carnality of the self in the twentieth century.
Sontag’s observation that photographs offer a new “grammar, and even more importantly, an ethics of seeing” affirms the notion of modern imagery as a visual communication informed by the rules and structures of verbal culture. Especially after the industrialization of photography in the twentieth century it is harder not only to separate the word from the image but also to interpret artistic images outside the textual context that informed –or one should say– generated them. It is as wrong to downplay the influence of Whitman on twentieth century photography, as it would be to claim the insignificance of Homer, or Dante, or Milton for the writers who followed them.
Whitman, more than any other writer of his time, anticipated that sometimes a writer’s ideas are better understood when considered side by side with those of a visual artist. During his time the poet scrupulously encouraged a parallel consideration of his poetics and the visual arts. Hence, it would be fair to presume that he would expect the generations of poets and readers that followed to study him in such comparative light. Whitman’s protean nature, as a poet and man, in concert with his poetry’s emphasis on personal self-discovery, correlated with the spirit of modernism which brought with it an emphasis on pictorial self-representation through technological forms. Whitman had encouraged his audience to think in images when reading his poems; it is almost as though he invited the reader to approach his versatile persona as a complex icon, a riddle of words, images and impressions waiting to be deciphered. Moreover, his preoccupation with his own image is evident in his impersonation of various roles for his photographic portraits that appeared as frontpieces in the various editions of Leaves of Grass (see figures 1-4 below). As a critic claims, “it is hard to think of another writer of his era [other than Whitman] who so thoroughly exploited the possibility of the camera for staging versions of the self, from Broadway dandy to rough-hewn outdoorsman, from kindly preceptor to visionary sage.”
Figure 1 2
A selection of Whitman’s most well recognized photographed and painted portraits. Samuel Hollyer, street engraving after Gabriel Harrison, 1855 (1). Gabriel Harrison, 1854 (2). Charles Hine, 1860 (3). Thomas Eakins, 1887 (4).
3 4
Frontispience for Complete Poems and Prose of Walt Whitman, 1855-1888; photography by Charles H. Spierler, 1876.