The following guest post was written by Barbara Bair, curator of literature, culture, and the arts in the Library’s Manuscript Division.
The Library’s By the People crowdsourcing transcription Walt Whitman campaign is currently featuring a new project focusing on Walt Whitman’s diaries and notebooks from the Manuscript Division’s Charles E. Feinberg collection of Walt Whitman Papers. There are many passages in the project’s notebook materials about identity and connection—the identity, status, and worth of other people, and Whitman’s own. In his “No Doubt the Efflux” and other notebooks, Whitman engages in the personal politics of observation and attraction. He also grapples with transgendering language and the objects of his own gaze.
Whitman’s notebooks merge poetry with prose (he liked to use the words “poemet” or “poemot” or hybrid terms “proem” or “promet”). Many passages feature ideas and trial lines that later appeared in finished poems. Whitman refers in the notebooks to poems as hymns, as songs, and as passages (they transport us, like the ferry crossing he describes in trial lines for “Crossing Brooklyn Ferry,” from one shore or state of being to another). They collapse time and serve as portals of human connection.
Whitman’s “Crossing Brooklyn Ferry” notebook stems from a similar time period to the “No Doubt the Efflux” notebook, with the resulting publication of “Sun-Down Poem” in the 1856 edition of Leaves of Grass. Whitman talks of the unity of persons across repeated cycles of time, the infinity of passage, not just of the ferry, but of the days/the rising and setting sun, of our lives themselves, generation to generation, and of the Earth, going through its reincarnations through the seasons. It is all birth to death and rebirth again, connecting us all organically—and spiritually speaking—to one another.
When he lived in New York (and later in Camden, New Jersey), Whitman loved to ride the ferry boats and befriend and meet the ferry boat pilots and men who frequented the docks. He cruised the waterways and byways of the city. He climbed onto wagon seats next to delivery drivers, and watched stevedores at their trade. He met his soulmate Peter Doyle in this way in Washington, one night when he was sole passenger on the horse streetcar Doyle was driving, and he bonded with wounded and ill soldiers in Army hospitals as he passed through the wards.
Among the pages of notebooks in the Feinberg-Whitman Papers that can be read as poetry are lists of men’s names. These lists often include short observations of physical characteristics, ethnic heritage, work places, or occupations. In the notebook dating from ca. 1856-1857 New York, which is sometimes referred to as the “Dick Hunt” notebook—a reference to a person’s name appearing in its pages—there are several passages of names that appear to be—what? Men on the street? Acquaintances? Lovers? Fellow workmen? Members of a coded tribe of men? They beg us to say their names, which appear on the pages like a litany: Valentine. Hank. Bill. Sandy, Tom, David. Tall, thin, fat, dark complexioned, mustached. The Dutch boy, the Irish, the German. Working in a feed store, a cigar store, or an oyster shop; at sewing machines or peddling apples; as blacksmiths, porters, conductors, mechanics, rope makers, policemen, foremen, carpenters, and contractors. There is listed among them “Adolphus Davenport (actor) old boy friend of Ansel Jenning’s” and “Edward Smithson (20) a full-eyed genteel boy I meet.”
In his notes for an intended dictionary, Whitman pondered the gendered nature of words, much as many today balk at the binary or sign their signatures accompanied with preferred identity pronouns. “Although a common gender ending in ist,” he writes, as in “lovist/hatist—both masc & fem” versus the gendered “hater m / hatress f” and “&c.” The examples themselves interestingly resonate with either attraction and appreciation or discrimination and animosity. He looks at the meaning of one of his favorite words, “Kosmos” (“noun masculine or feminine, a person who[se] scope of mind . . . includes all the known universe”). He would, of course, in “Song of Myself” figure himself as “Walt Whitman, a kosmos, of Manhattan the son/ Turbulent, fleshy, sensual . . . / No sentimentalist, no stander above men or women or apart from them.” One of the roughs, exercising empathy.
The “No Doubt the Efflux” notebook dates from the period when Whitman was composing and publishing the first two editions of Leaves of Grass. “No doubt the efflux of the soul is [comes] through beautiful [gates of] laws that [we may] at some future period [perhaps a few score millions of years we may] understand better—” Whitman begins. An interesting thing then happens as he writes of a glimpse of a workman’s face on a railroad car. He revised his draft to make the man’s face (and the element of beauty and attraction) that of a woman: “Why as I just [catch a] look in the railroad car at some [workman’s] [half-turned] face, do I love that [being] [woman? Though[tless that] she is neither young nor [beautiful?] . . . [she] remains in my memory afterward for a year, and I calm myself to sleep at night by thinking of her. Why [are] [be] there men I meet, and [many] [others] I know, that [when] [while] they are with me, the sunlight of Paradise.”
Whitman goes on to rhetorically think about the heartfelt and lingering impact of every fleeting encounter or attraction, and the communities or lasting impressions these form, sometimes replete with common codes and passwords (as he says in Section 24 of “Song of Myself,” “I speak the password primeval.”) He compares this phenomena to communication between trees. “Why do I know that the subtle chloroform of our spirits is affecting each other, and though we may [never] meet [encounter not] again, we [know feel that we two] have pass[ed] [exchanged] the [right mysterious unspoken] password [of the night] and [have] [are] thence free entrance [comers] to [each] the guarded tents of each other’s [love] most interior love?” He then uses in his draft the word “adhesiveness” as in the nineteenth-century phrenology sense of male bonding or same-sex attraction: “my love [attachment] adhesiveness [for] [toward] others? — What is the cause of theirs [love toward for] me? — Am I loved by them boundlessly because my love for them is more boundless?—.” He soon writes “Onward [he] moves [with] the gay procession . . . and the [wild trilling] bugles of joy.—”
Whitman reworked this draft material from the notebook into “Poem of the Road” (Leaves of Grass, 1856), which was later refined as “Song of the Open Road.” Scholar Harold Aspiz has called the poem an opus of “freedom and fraternity” and Gay Wilson Allen a “vision of joy and brotherhood.” Whitman himself said it was about “the gay fresh sentiment of the road.”
In the 1856 published poem the notebook passages become: “Here is adhesiveness—it is not previously fashioned, it is apropos;/ Do you know what it is as you pass to be loved by strangers? / Do you know the talk of those turning eye-balls? / Here is the efflux of the soul,/ The efflux of the soul comes through beautiful gates of laws,/ Provoking questions . . . / What is it I interchange so suddenly with strangers? / What with some driver as I ride on the seat by his side?”
- Doty, Mark. What is the Grass: Walt Whitman in My Life (N.Y.: W. W. Norton, 2020).
- Erkkila, Betsy, ed. Walt Whitman’s Songs of Male Intimacy and Love (Iowa City: University of Iowa Press, 2011),
- Fone, Byrne R. S., Masculine Landscapes (Carbondale: Southern Illinois University Press, 1992).
- Literary Lives: Mark Doty and Jenn Shapland. Library of Congress National Book Festival program, Sept. 26, 2020.
- Schmidgall, Gary, ed. Walt Whitman: Selected Poems 1855-1892. (New York: Stonewall Inn Edition, 2000).