“What beauty there is in words!” – Walt Whitman’s An American Primer

This guest post is by Jay Baker, who participated in the fall 2021 Archives, History, and Heritage Advanced Internship in the Manuscript Division. Jay received a Bachelor of Arts in English from the University of Virginia in 2021. During his internship, he explored Walt Whitman’s views and writings pertaining to ethnicity and race, identified relevant documents in the Library’s collections for a future online resource guide, and assembled information on poets of color influenced or inspired by Whitman.  On the eve of National Poetry Month, Jay shares his analysis of Whitman’s handwritten draft of An American Primer.

What beauty there is in words! An American Primer. Feinberg-Whitman Papers, Manuscript Division, Library of Congress.

Walt Whitman was a man of many words. Not only did he publish several different versions of Leaves of Grass, full of long lines that spill onto the page like efflux from some great flood; the American bard also kept pages upon pages of journals and notebooks stuffed to bursting with lines for future poems on pasted scraps of paper, errant thoughts scribbled on envelopes, observations of people and places from daily life, and much other raw word-material. His handwritten draft of An American Primer–now archived in the Charles E. Feinberg Collection of Walt Whitman Papers in the Manuscript Division at the Library of Congress–was one such object. And in it, we see Whitman not only as a writer of words (and a prolific one at that) but as a philosophizer of them as well.

Begun as a series of notes for an intended lecture series on language, Whitman’s thinking about the Primer shifted over time, such that he eventually envisioned it as a book: a book about words.  And though it was never published in his lifetime, the Library’s collection of Whitman’s notes for this book represent a fascinating and telling attempt to elucidate his beliefs about language, its spiritual quality, its vitalization from an array of racial and ethnic sources, and how these factors feature into his own use of language in poetry and prose.

In the Primer, Whitman is both direct and effusive. “All words are spiritual—nothing is more spiritual than words,” he proclaims simply. Yet he wonders where they come from, from what influences and histories and mouths. “Those eluding, fluid, beautiful, flashless realities,” he calls them: “Mother, Father, Water, Earth, Me, This, Soul, Tongue, House, Fire.” He ponders difference: “As humanity is one under [all] its amazing diversities, [so] language is one under its.” More than anything, Whitman considers the newness of the English language, and defines it by its departure from European forms, shunning the high-minded dialect of books and erudite society for the common vernacular and voice; for words from the mouths of living, vivifying tongues.

Whitman's handwriting on a slip of paper

Whitman on language, words, and the spiritual. An American Primer. Feinberg-Whitman Papers, Manuscript Division, Library of Congress.

In these private notes, Whitman considers seriously the dialect and language of individuals too often dismissed by others as illiterate or inferior. He particularly praises Black dialect in the United States, noting seriously its linguistic features like the old English instinct to round off the corners of words. Above all, he says, the dialect is “musical.” Proposing it as a source for a future form of the English language, Whitman suggests it be used for a “native grand opera,” many years before AAVE (African American Vernacular English) was recognized and scholars acknowledged the extent to which American popular culture is entwined with Black language (think of hip-hop, for just one example).

Native American words and names receive even more of Whitman’s attention. Believing them to be more genuine than the European words he often found brittle and insufficient, Whitman characterizes Native American words as strong, copious, and charming. “They all fit  . . . giving the true length, breadth, depth,” he writes. And because language was so inherently spiritual to Whitman (and his sense of spirituality was so grounded in the real world and normal existence) this proximity to truth was of the highest importance. He almost exclusively uses the word “aboriginal” over “Indian” for this reason, closer to “original” and lacking the European misnaming and misinterpretation that he despised.

The sounds of words—the feel of them in the ears and on the tongue—were important to Whitman as well. “All aboriginal names sound good,” he says, praising how the terms roll “with venison richness upon the palate.” It’s partially for this reason that names he ponders in the Primer—like “Mannahatta,” the Lenni Lenape name for Manhattan, and “Paumanok,” the Renneiu word for Long Island—nearly completely replaced the English terms in Whitman’s vocabulary and poetry. “Now I see what there is in a name, a word, liquid, sane, unruly, musical, self-sufficient” the poem named for “Mannahatta” elucidates. “Starting from Paumanok” giddily lists words from Native languages for an entire stanza.

Whitman's handwriting on a slip of paper

“Mannahatta” and “Words of Names of Places.” An American Primer. Feinberg-Whitman Papers, Manuscript Division, Library of Congress.

Yet that same stanza illustrates the boundary over which Whitman could not cross. In the poem, these words are all airs of the past, the stanza ending with actual Native speakers and voices—considered so vivifying in the Primer—melting and departing. It’s the words that are left behind, seemingly bequeathed willingly to the States, “charging the water and the land with names.” Enthralled by a vision of the English language, and particularly American English, as a spiritual and fundamentally new venture, the peoples and histories predating that venture, which the Primer praises for enlivening it, are ironically rendered lifeless. Although the language and the land are left with breath still to speak, they’re caught balancing two fundamental charges: to remember and speak for a cultural heritage that most white Americans barely considered, and to stay silent amidst—and about—the “inevitable” disappearance linked to assimilating that heritage into the broader “American” vernacular.

While Whitman recognized the importance of our language’s polyglot sources, the voices he saw as these sources were not necessarily considered active participants in that language’s ongoing construction, present-tense. He proposes Black dialects as part of English’s vernacular future; adhering to “vanishing Indian” stereotypes posits Native-American language mainly of a complex ethnographic past. Recognizing much of An American Primer’s vision reflected in our own consensus on language, we also must recognize a need for the active, present inclusion of the words (both spiritual and mundane) of the diverse speakers involved in the continual process of creating, probing, and expanding that living language. And to this end, projects like U.S. Poet Laureate Joy Harjo’s Living Nations, Living Words are of infinite value.

Reading Whitman’s Primer, the most lasting, basic impression is that language—especially one as laden with the weight of its own history as English—should not operate on a level below our consciousness. Rather, as an inclusive phenomenon that enfolds everything, it is a part of our existence that should be extensively and directly considered for its full weight and breadth—and in our time, reckoned with for the same. “What a history is folded, folded inward and inward again, in the simple word,” Whitman writes in his Primer. He has never been more right.

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