Who are you indeed who would talk or sing to America?Earlier in the poem, he praises mechanics and farmers, particularly “the freshness and candor of their physiognomy, the copiousness and decision of their phrenology.” Phrenological terms, terms such as “Amativeness,” “Adhesiveness” and “Combativeness” that were used to describe the phrenological faculties, are scattered throughout this and other poems.
Have you studied out the land, its idioms and men?
Have you learn’d the physiology, phrenology, politics, geography, pride, freedom, friendship of the land? its substratums and objects?
Phrenology portrayed the brain as divided into different faculties that controlled the various aspects of personality. “Adhesiveness” was its name for the propensity for friendship and camaraderie, “Amativeness” its name for romantic, sexual love, “Philoprogenitiveness” its name for the love of offspring, and so on. There was disagreement among the different versions of phrenology as to how many faculties there were, the number ranging from thirty-five to ninety-six, but phrenological nomenclature pertaining to the faculties contributed significantly to the vocabulary of Whitman’s poems. In “Mediums,” regarding future Americans, truly fulfilled Americans, he proclaims: “They shall be alimentive, amative, perceptive, / They shall be complete women and men.” “Adhesiveness” became Whitman’s favorite phrenological term. In “Song of the Open Road,” he writes: “Here is adhesiveness.” And in “So Long!”: “I announce adhesiveness, I say it shall be limitless unloosen’d.” “A Song of Joys” doesn’t explicitly name the phrenological faculties, but the joys that it catalogs are each related to a specific phrenological “organ” and, taken together, constitute a model of phrenological well-being. The poem was inspired by one of Orson and Lorenzo Fowler’s phrenological manuals,The New Illustrated Self-Instructor in Phrenology and Physiology.
The documentation of Whitman’s interest in phrenology dates back to 1846. An article on phrenology that he clipped from an issue of American Review that year has been found among his papers. In November of that year, while he was editor of the Brooklyn Daily Eagle, he wrote a review of several phrenological manuals, a review in which he announced: “Breasting the waves of detraction, as a ship dashes sea-waves, Phrenology, it must now be confessed by all men who have open eyes, has at last gained a position, and a firm one, among the sciences.” Four months later, in March 1847, he wrote an article called “Something about Physiology and Phrenology” in which he praised the leading proselytizers of phrenology in the United States, Orson and Lorenzo Fowler and Samuel Wells: “Among the most persevering workers in phrenology in this country, must certainly be reckoned the two Fowlers and Mr. Wells.” Whitman was not alone in his interest in phrenology. It was an interest he shared with most if not all of the writers and thinkers of his day, including Edgar Allan Poe, Horace Mann and Ralph Waldo Emerson, as phrenology played an important role in various movements for self-improvement and social reform. Its basic precept was appealingly simple: the faculties within the brain display their degree of development by protrusions on the cranium, bumps on the head. Hence the other name it was known by, “Bumpology.” Phrenologists would read, as they put it, the bumps on a client’s head, particular bumps corresponding to particular faculties. The head was thought to offer a map of the client’s mind and personality. Whitman had his bumps read by Lorenzo Fowler in July 1849.
Orson and Lorenzo Fowler, who were to become publishers of the second edition of Leaves of Grass in August 1856, transformed phrenology into a business enterprise during the 1830s. Orson Fowler became interested in phrenology early in the decade while he was a student at Amherst. In Vermont in 1834 he gave his first lecture on phrenology and during the next few years, with his brother Lorenzo, he made a number of lecture tours around the country. In 1838 he set up an office in Philadelphia called the Phrenological Museum (also called the Phrenological Cabinet and the Phrenological Depot) and began to publish the American Phrenological Journal and Miscellany, which would eventually publish some of Whitman’s own reviews of Leaves of Grass. This was a year after his brother had set up the New York Phrenological Rooms on Broadway in Manhattan. In 1842 the two of them joined forces when Orson moved from Philadelphia to New York; there they established, with their brother-in-law Samuel Wells, who was married to their sister Charlotte, the Phrenological Cabinet that Whitman grew fond of visiting. Speaking of his return from New Orleans in 1848, Whitman wrote in one of his reminiscences: “One of the choice places of New York to me then was the ‘Phrenological Cabinet’ of Fowler & Wells, Nassau Street near Beekman.” It was there that he had his bumps read by Lorenzo Fowler and he kept the chart all his life. It was published five times: in the Brooklyn Daily Times in September 1855, in the first, second and third editions of Leaves of Grass, and posthumously by his literary executors, to whom Whitman had given it during the last year of his life, in a book called Regarding Walt Whitman.
Whitman published and republished his chart to credential himself; it was, according to phrenological opinion on the subject, a poet’s chart. Wells and the Fowlers were interested, as were others, in the poetic personality and the making of the poet, and in the American Phrenological Journal they featured articles on the phrenological characteristics of poets. These articles stressed the balanced, well-rounded character of the poet, the equitable development of the poet’s faculties and the manifestation of this equitability on the poet’s head. The expression “well-rounded” had to do with the phrenological belief that the best head is a round head, a head whose bumps are equally developed and distributed. Whitman’s chart describes his head as “large and rounded in every direction” and he offered it as evidence of his poetic qualifications. He makes his own case for the poet’s well-roundedness in the 1855 preface when he writes: “The poet is the equable man.” This, by then, was a phrenological commonplace. An article published in The Phrenological Journal and Magazine of Moral Science in 1846, for example, argued:
Good Taste consists in the appropriate manifestation of each and all of the faculties in their proper season and degree; and this can only take place from persons in whom they are so balanced that there is no tendency for any one of them unduly to assume the mastery. When such a mind is prompted by some high theme to its fullest action, each organ contributes to the emotion of the moment and words are uttered in such condensed meaning, that a single sentence will touch every fibre of the heart, or, what is the same thing, arouse every faculty of the hearer. The power is known as Inspiration, and the medium in which it is conveyed is called Poetry.The power of poetry resides in an equitable development of the faculties; the mind should be a democratic ensemble in which no single faculty dominates. This idea is central to Whitman’s sense of himself as poet and to his sense of the American poet’s democratic vocation.
Phrenology’s attention to cranial manifestation of mind, its postulation of a tangible, tactile availability of mental attributes, epitomized a physiological accent which had obvious impact on Whitman’s work. In one of the Fowler & Wells publications we find the following: “Poets require the highest order of both temperament and development. Poetry depends more on the physiology than the phrenology. It consists in a spiritual ecstasy which can be better felt than described. Not one in many thousands of those who write verses has the first inspiration of true poetry.” Whitman’s long song of bodily exuberance and appetitive touch tends at times, in ways that this formulation would have ratified, toward a hypersensitivity of a convulsive sort, bordering on ecstatic susceptibility: “You villain touch! what are you doing? ... my breath is tight in its throat; / Unclench your floodgates! you are too much for me.” Likewise, his emphasis on bodily health and development was in keeping with the practical phrenology of such as Wells and the Fowlers, who were in the forefront of influential movements for social and individual reform. They not only advocated change in such areas as education and criminology but were proponents of vegetarianism, water cures and the like. They conducted a campaign against tight clothing and rigid posture whose influence can be seen in the famous photograph of Whitman published in the early editions of Leaves of Grass. This too was a self-credentialing move; his relaxed pose and his unbuttoned shirt show him to be phrenologically correct.
A significantly commercial undertaking, practical phrenology marketed the idea that a person could change his or her character; bumps, like muscles, could be made bigger or smaller through more or less exercise. A belief in the changeability or, even, perfectability of personality was crucial to phrenology’s program of self-improvement and social reform, a program whose commercial as well as ideological aspects we find Whitman very much in the thick of. Fowler & Wells sold and distributed the first edition of Leaves of Grass, which Whitman published himself, and then published the second edition the following year. Whitman had had an earlier connection with them; he worked as a bookseller in 1850 and 1851, and very prominent on his shelves were books published by Fowler & Wells. He reviewed Leaves of Grass anonymously, as previously mentioned, in their American Phrenological Journal, and for several months in 1855 and 1856 he wrote a series of articles called “New York Dissected” for another publication of theirs, Life Illustrated. His call, in Leaves of Grass, for a reformation of poetry and for poetry as a means of reformation partook of and took its place within a reformist atmosphere in which phrenology played a central part.
Before it could sponsor reform in the United States phrenology itself had to undergo a reform of sorts, revision, in its migration from its place of origin, Europe. Under the name cranioscopy, phrenology was developed by the German physician Franz Joseph Gall, who began experimenting with it in the late 1700s and lecturing in the early 1800s; his book On the Functions of the Brain and Each of Its Parts was published in French in 1825 and in English in 1835. He advanced four basic principles: 1) the moral and intellectual dispositions are innate; 2) their manifestation depends on organization; 3) the brain is exclusively the organ of mind; 4) the brain is composed of as many particular and independent organs as there are fundamental powers of the mind. Gall raised, as a kind of corollary, a question: “How far [does] the inspection of the form of the head, or cranium, present a means of ascertaining the existence or absence, and the degree of development, of certain cerebral parts; and consequently the presence or absence, the weakness or energy of certain functions?” This question occupied a peripheral position in Gall’s original formulations but it was seized upon by later phrenologists and vigorously promoted in a series of revisions that popularized phrenology and brought it to the United States. No longer a question but a central tenet, an assertion, it became known as the doctrine of the skull.
It was Gall’s assistant, Johann Caspar Spurzheim, who began to popularize cranioscopy, changing its name to phrenology and coining the phrase “phrenology, the science of mind.” He formulated four basic tenets as well, though they’re significantly different from Gall’s, especially in their incorporation of the doctrine of the skull as a central principle: 1) the brain is the organ of the mind; 2) the mind is a plurality of faculties, each springing from a distinct brain organ; 3) in the same person, larger organs show more energy, smaller organs show less; 4) the size and form of the skull are determined by the brain. The doctrine of the skull, thanks to Spurzheim, became canonical wisdom for phrenologists and their followers. John Davies, in Phrenology: Fad and Science, characterizes the difference in outlook between Gall and Spurzheim, a difference which makes it clear why Spurzheim’s revision of Gall lent itself to the democratic ethic phrenology became bound up with in the United States:
Gall accepted the existence of evil in the world, and particularly of evil propensities in mankind, even labeling one region of the brain “Murder.” The great majority of men, he thought, were composed of mediocrities, and he emphasized the creative role of genius and its destined function to command; his science would be the instrument by which the elite could govern effectively and rationally the mass of mankind. In keeping with the aristocratic clientele with which he had been associated, his was neither a democratic nor a liberal creed.Spurzheim brought a sense of mission to phrenology. He learned English in six months in order to make a lecture tour of Great Britain in 1814. He published a book on his and Gall’s findings, The Physiognomical System of Drs. Gall and Spurzheim, Founded on an Anatomical and Physiological Examination of the Nervous System in General, and of the Brain in Particular, which was harshly critiqued by the Edinburgh Review, occasioning a trip to Edinburgh to answer his critics. It was in Edinburgh, where he stayed for seven months, that one of the later proselytizers of phrenology heard him speak. Spurzheim eventually visited the United States, embarking on a lengthy lecture tour in August 1832, in the course of which, three months later, he died. He was given an elaborate funeral at Harvard and was buried in Boston, his death contributing considerably to the popularization of phrenology in the US.
Spurzheim, on the other hand, deliberately omitted from his categories all faculties which were inherently evil; on the contrary, all were intrinsically good and only from the abuse of them could evil result. Mankind was created potentially good, and in contrast to Gall’s cynical pessimism, Spurzheim looked forward to the perfection of the race by the aid of phrenology.
George Combe was a Scotsman who heard Spurzheim speak in Edinburgh and became a vigorous crusader for phrenology. (In his novel The War of the End of the World, Mario Vargas Llosa merges Combe with Gall; one of the characters, a Scottish phrenologist named Gall, goes to South America and inspires peasant revolts.) Combe was looking for a way out of Calvinism and later said that “phrenology conferred on me the first internal peace of mind that I experienced.” He and his brother formed a phrenological society and began publishing the Phrenological Journal in 1823. In 1828 he published a book that became very influential, The Constitution of Man Considered in Relation to External Objects, a book that Emerson called “the best sermon I’ve read for some time.” Combe toured and lectured in the United States from 1838 to 1840, further increasing phrenology’s popularity. Thomas and Grace Leahey comment in Psychology’s Occult Doubles: “To Gall’s physiology Spurzheim wedded philosophy and Combe wedded reform. It only remained for Americans to wed this ménage à trois to business.” Practical phrenologists like Wells and the Fowlers took up and marketed Spurzheim and Combe’s idea that phrenology was the key to reform and self-improvement. It was a somewhat self-reflexive idea; phrenology itself had been the object of reform, “improved” by Spurzheim’s revision of Gall.
Phrenology in the United States, in Whitman’s text as well as outside it, became entwined with nationalist feelings and millenarian hopes. The Fowlers wrote in their American Phrenological Journal in 1849: “Our present desire is this—to PHRENOLOGIZE OUR NATION, for thereby it will REFORM THE WORLD. No evil exists in society but it sternly yet calmly rebukes, and points out a more excellent way. No reform, no proposed good, but it strenuously enforces. It is the very ‘Head and Front’ of that new and happy order of things now so rapidly superseding the old misery-inflicting institutions of society.” Their optimism rested on an analogy between mental development and muscular development that they resorted to again and again. Like muscles, bumps put the degree of development of particular faculties on display; they also, again like muscles, make it possible to increase development through exercise. Phrenology thereby offered a way both to know oneself and to change oneself. “The organs,” Orson Fowler wrote, “can be enlarged or diminished ... even in adults. The exercise of particular mental faculties, causes the exercise, and consequent enlargement, of corresponding portions of the brain. Man is not compelled to carry all his faults, excesses, and defects to the grave.”
Phrenology’s mind/muscle analogy contributes, in Whitman’s work, to an athleticization of mind, brain as brawn, and the trope of a gymnastic text. Thus, in “So Long!”: “To young men my problems offering—no dallier I—I the muscle of their brains trying.” In prose as well as verse he advances the figure of mind as muscle, calling for writing which would make reading a kind of calisthenic. In “Democratic Vistas” we read:
In fact, a new theory of literary composition for imaginative works of the very first class, and especially for highest poems, is the sole course open to these States. Books are to be call’d for, and supplied, on the assumption that the process of reading is not a half-sleep, but, in highest sense, an exercise, a gymnast’s struggle; that the reader is to do something for himself, must be on the alert, must himself or herself construct indeed the poem, argument, history, metaphysical essay—the text furnishing the hints, the clue, the start or frame-work. Not the book needs so much to be the complete thing, but the reader of the book does. That were to make a nation of supple and athletic minds, well train’d, intuitive, used to depend on themselves, and not on a few coteries of writers.He returns to this idea in the essay “Poetry To-day in America—Shakspere—The Future.” The participatory-democratic ethic or ideal is obvious, but one of the more interesting things about Whitman proposing this role for the reader is that it’s not a role that seems to apply to his own work. Whitman would appear to be a writer who does it all for the reader (“what I assume you shall assume”), offering an explicit, self-evident text of a prodigiously declarative, transparent sort. Is this a symptom of the ideological nature of Whitman’s stance, the false consciousness doctrinal exuberance can’t help but be compromised by? The idea of the reader actively contributing to the construction of the text has become something of a commonplace by now, advocated by a range of twentieth-century experimental movements that includes the French New Novel, the Fiction Collective and the Language Poets, to name a few. The writing advanced by this idea is characteristically opaque, oblique, convoluted, often refractory—hardly “reader-friendly,” however much it invites the reader’s participation (or, more to the point, because it invites the reader’s participation). The sort of work Whitman’s advocacy of a gymnastic text might lead us to expect—recondite, elliptical work that catches us up in extended puzzlement and indeterminate exegesis, work we hermeneutically wrestle with, the sort of work offered in his own century, for example, by Emily Dickinson—is not what we get. Whitman teases the brain with paradox and contradiction on occasion, but his most characteristic manner is aggressively straightforward and accessible, requiring little of the reader beyond turning the page.
The demand is actually elsewhere—or directs the reader elsewhere. Whitman doesn’t invite the reader to dwell on the text at great length. Rather, he cautions against exactly that, turning the reader away from the text. At the end of “Whoever You Are Holding Me Now in Hand” he admonishes:
For it is not for what I have put into it that I have written this book,Such admonition borders on abolishing the text. Whitman imagined world reform of such magnitude as to do away with the need for poetry. In “Thou Mother with Thy Equal Brood”:
Nor is it by reading it you will acquire it, ...
For all is useless without that which you may guess at many times and not hit, that which I hinted at;
Therefore release me and depart on your way.
Brain of the New World, what a task is thine,The work to be done goes beyond the page but takes up its image, for the gymnastic text is not the text as such but a turning toward the world as text. The athleticism resides in that turn, a conversion to the work of reform which is willing to envision poetry’s abolition, poetry as literary text replaced by poetry as concrete action.
To formulate the Modern—out of the peerless grandeur of the modern,
Out of thyself, comprising science, to recast poems, churches, art,
(Recast, may-be discard them, end them—may-be their work is done, who knows?)
Whitman and phrenology shared a reliance on tropes of textuality, figurations of human character and action as forms of writing or printing. Phrenological prognosis was viewed and referred to in such terms; one had one’s bumps read. A contemporary account of an afternoon at the Phrenological Cabinet contains the following: “... you hear some one reading rapidly. Looking up, you find that it is from a page of Nature’s imprint, and that ... the reader does it by the sense of touch. Standing beside a young girl, with his hands upon her head, forthwith that head under his deft manipulation turns tell-tale ... betraying her idiosyncrasies.” This was consistent with the motto under which Fowler & Wells published the Phrenological Almanac: “Nature’s Printing Press is Man, her types are Signs, her books are Actions.” The presumed legibility of human beings was crucial to the promises of individual and social reform with which both Whitman and phrenology were involved. Democracy its elf was believed to hinge on it. Democratic community, the argument went, depended on the ability of human beings to know one another; the democratic imperative was not only to know oneself but to know one’s fellow citizens as well. We find the American Phrenological Journal insisting that nature aids this project of knowing by making people legible to one another, imprinting signs upon human surfaces:
To this requisition—imperious demand—for knowing our fellow men, Nature has kindly adapted the expression of those mental qualities on the one hand, and our recognition of them on the other. Nature has ordained that we do not hide the light of our souls under the bushels of impenetrability but that we should set them on the hill of conspicuosity, so that all that are with insight may observe them. She even compels such expression. She has rendered the suppression of our mentality absolutely impossible. She has rendered such expression spontaneous and irresistible, by having instituted the NATURAL LANGUAGE of emotion and character ... which compels us to tell each other all about ourselves ... It is desirable for us to know all ... all the existing emotions of mankind are legible. They come to the surface.Haunting such insistence is an anxiety over the limits of knowability, the specter of an opaque latency resistant to full disclosure. Phrenology’s assurances of providential imprint sought to dispel that specter. According to Henry Ward Beecher, a friend at Amherst who introduced Orson Fowler to phrenology: “Men are like open books, if looked at properly.”
Whitman’s famous “Camerado, this is no book, / Who touches this touches a man” is the converse of Beecher’s formulation and bespeaks a two-way, phrenologically informed translation between body and book, person and poem. His assurance and exhortation in the 1855 preface that “your very flesh shall be a great poem” agrees with a statement made by Lydia Fowler, wife of Lorenzo Fowler and one of the first female medical students in the United States: “every bone and muscle is an unwritten poem of beauty.” Castings of body as text and of text as body recur with notorious insistence throughout Leaves of Grass: “the expression of a well-made man” that “conveys as much as the best poem” in “I Sing the Body Electric,” the phallic “poem drooping shy and unseen that I always carry, and that all men carry” in “Spontaneous Me,” the assertion that “Human bodies are words, myriads of words” and that “In the best poems re-appears the body, man’s or woman’s” in “A Song of the Rolling Earth,” and so on. There is, though, more to this than there might seem, as phrenology’s accent on textuality and self-improvement moves away, in Whitman’s work, from simple surface cheer and celebration of health toward evocations of death and disappearance. The translatability of body and book subsists on writing as sublimation, compensation, the two-way traffic between text and flesh on a sense of the text as an alternate body, mind masquerading as body, flesh’s death or sublimation as text.
There is a great deal in Whitman’s work that suggests that writing is a kind of dying, a disappearance into (in order to live on in) the book, that the alternate body afforded by the book is an improved, augmented body, the page a place of alternate growth (grave plot and a compensative going forth: “leaves of grass”). In the same poem in which he writes, “I the muscle of their brains trying” and “Who touches this touches a man,” a poem tellingly entitled “So Long!,” he writes: “I spring from the pages into your arms—decease calls me forth.” And at the end: “I depart from materials, / I am as one disembodied, triumphant, dead.” A poem whose final version was completed in 1881 and included in a section of the 1891–92 Leaves of Grass called “Songs of Parting,” it can, of course, be read as Whitman, having entered his sixties, referring to an approaching and quite literal death. But the first version was completed twenty-one years earlier, in 1860, a fact suggesting that “decease” is also a figurative death afforded by writing, that writing was valedictory all along, a long rehearsal for death, also that death equates with words as nondeeds, not-doing. One of the notable things about Whitman’s phrenological chart is that he was rated very high in “Cautiousness”; Lorenzo Fowler, evaluating the faculties on a scale that ran from 1 to 7, gave him a 6. Several critics and commentators on Whitman’s relationship to phrenology find this surprising, given the audacity of Leaves of Grass, but they miss the fact that in his written assessment Fowler says to Whitman, “You are more careful about what you do than you are about what you say.” Fowler may have, phrenology notwithstanding, happened upon an accurate characterization, for all the questions and doubts that have been raised as to what Whitman actually did rather than said he did or wrote about as though he’d done—questions and doubts about an affair in New Orleans, about the children he claimed to have fathered, about whether he was sexually active at all, etc.—suggest a relationship of compensation between words and deeds in his life and work. Words compensate for the not-done, improving on deeds hemmed in by caution and convention. In “Ventures, on an Old Theme,” Whitman argues that poetic audacity, a disregard for social propriety of the sort found in Leaves of Grass, serves a necessary function:
One reason [for not respecting the rule of society in my poems], and to me a profound one, is that the soul of a man or woman demands, enjoys compensation in the highest directions for this very restraint of himself or herself, level’d to the average, or rather mean, low, however eternally practical, requirements of society’s intercourse. To balance this indispensable abnegation, the free minds of poets relieve themselves, and strengthen and enrich mankind with free flights in all the directions not tolerated by ordinary society.Borges is right: “There are two Whitmans: the ‘friendly and eloquent savage’ of Leaves of Grass and the poor writer who invented him ... The mere happy vagabond proposed by the verses of Leaves of Grass would have been incapable of writing them.” The idea of poetry as compensation explains, in part, Whitman’s turning the reader away from the text and his willingness to envision poetry’s extinction. If poetry subsists on lack and not-doing, the reader, if there is to be substantive fulfillment and realization, mustn’t be encouraged to linger with it.
Writing, self-improvement and death form a matrix in Whitman’s work that echoes phrenology’s advocacy of writing—specifically, epitaph writing—as an aid to self-improvement. Lorenzo Fowler counseled his audiences, “Write your own epitaphs in legible characters on a slip of paper; make them as flattering and eulogistic as possible. Then spend the remainder of your lives, endeavoring not only to reach the standard ... you have raised, but to go far beyond it.” Self-eulogy abounds in Leaves of Grass. A sense of the book as an epitaph is evident throughout, nowhere more explicitly than in the 1881 poem “As at Thy Portals Also Death”: “I grave a monumental line, before I go, amid these songs, / And set a tombstone here.” Whitman’s investment in a compensatory sense of writing closes off the possibility of living up to and even beyond, as Fowler would have it, the standard such writing sets, but the specter it raises of textualization as a shortcut to self-improvement, a means to fraudulent self-improvement, applies to phrenology as well. Practitioners such as the Fowlers, who were, after all, running a business, appear to have sweetened their readings to make them appeal to their clients. A person who had undergone a reading wrote in 1835: “The faculties the phrenologist made mention that I possessed were in almost all cases very true so far as I can judge of my own mind. I am rather inclined to think he neglects to tell the evil passion as in my case and many others none were noticed which I am confident we possessed. Perhaps self-interest prompts him.” The reading itself was an act of improvement. The Fowlers, responding in the American Phrenological Journal to questions regarding the accuracy and integrity of their readings, admitted that “if we must err, we prefer to err upon the side of charity.”
Phrenology’s sweetened readings remind us that both the advantage and the danger of textualization is the ability to erase and to revise. This sheds some light on Whitman’s decades-long revision of Leaves of Grass, a process which included a revision of the phrenological chart which he published with the first three editions, a revision in which he took a cue from the Fowlers. Finding his scores in some faculties not high enough, he changed them (not an altogether surprising move for someone “6 to 7” in “Self-Esteem”). After the first edition he edited Lorenzo Fowler’s comments; among the phrases he excised was one describing him as “too unmindful probably of the conviction of others,” a trait inconsistent with the democratic outlook he advertised. Reduced to textual manipulation, the project of self-improvement borders on self-parody, as does the frequently hollow ring of Whitman’s exclamations in Leaves of Grass, but not without saying something real about nineteenth-century US aspirations. “Self-made or never made,” one of the Fowlers’ most famous mottos, says more than they intended perhaps in its implication of an urgency (a desperation even) willing to risk vanity, self-aggrandizement, mere self-service.
Phrenological revision, both the revision of Gall’s founding precepts and practical phrenology’s willingness “to err on the side of charity,” served an American optimism beginning to make a move on world ascendancy. It offered a hopeful hermeneutic, banishing the threat of dark recesses with an assurance that everything could be brought to light, everything seen, everything brought to the surface. The American Phrenological Journal in 1846 claimed that phrenology offered “tangible, certain, absolute, KNOWLEDGE,” going on to exclaim: “Behold, then, the true SCIENCE OF MIND! Behold the study of this godlike department of our nature reduced to DEMONSTRABLE CERTAINTY!” Uncertainty, doubt, was the serpent in the Garden the New World was taken to be (Whitman refers to “doubt nauseous undulating like a snake” in “Rise O Days from Your Fathomless Deeps”); phrenology said no to that serpent. One of the critics of phrenology, Dr. Thomas Sewall, warned that “nature does not reveal her secrets by external forms.” Likewise, several major writers assumed a much more skeptical stance toward phrenology than did Whitman. Poe, though he favorably reviewed phrenological journals early on and used phrenological categories in some of the characterizations in his fiction, went on to write parodies of it. Twain dealt skeptically with it as well. Melville, in Moby-Dick, has Ishmael attempt to phrenologize the whale only to conclude that it can’t be done; a work having so largely to do with inscrutability would of course find phrenology’s hopeful hermeneutic suspect.
If, as Allen F. Roberts observes in an essay on the epistemology of the Tabwa people of Zaire, black is “a looking inward at what is not apparent but is nonetheless the essence of being,” “an artfully indirect suggestion or insinuation—the gnawing suspicion that an act or event has meaning beyond what one sees,” phrenology was a white way of knowing. It valorized obtrusion, surface, apparency, warding off the obscurities and indeterminacies of recess, crevice, fold. It was also white in another sense, serving other senses of whiteness. While its advocates preached self-improvement and social reform, the emphasis was by and large individualistic, seeking to better society through individual cultivation of the virtues of self-help—thrift, hard work, purity, perseverance. Its advocacy of social reform, while populist in many respects, failed to offer its beneficence and promise of improvement to those who were not white; its will to reform didn’t extend to reforming notions of racial determinism or the social relations upheld by such notions. Phrenology in fact shared with these notions an assumption that human surfaces offer incontestable evidence of the qualities, capacities and traits not only of individuals but of groups. Its attention to cranial bumps is consistent with and occupies a place within a mode of reading human prowess which also attends to skin color, hair texture and other phenotypic and physiognomic features. As the frontispiece to his Phrenology: Fad and Science, John Davies reproduces a phrenological diagram which compares, along an evolutionistic scale of development, the cranial shape and the forehead slope of eleven creatures. It shows four animals and seven humans; the animals, in order of development, are a snake, a dog, an elephant and an ape; the human figures, in order of development, are designated “Human Idiot,” “Bushman,” “Uncultivated,” “Improved,” “Civilized,” “Enlightened” and “Caucasian—Highest Type.”
Racist evolutionism textualized earth surfaces as well, ascribing a providential imprint to bodies of land. Representative John A. Harper in 1812 employed a trope which was to be repeatedly taken up in the rhetoric of manifest destiny, arguing that “the Author of Nature has marked our limits in the south, by the Gulf of Mexico; and on the north by the regions of eternal frost.” The decimation of indigenous populations and the wresting away of their lands was an act of erasure and revision, a providentially mandated improvement in which a superior race vanquished and evicted an inferior one. Whitman, as he was with phrenology, was on intimate, speaking terms with such notions. He was an admirer of John L. O’Sullivan, whose Democratic Review he frequently wrote for and who, in support of annexing Texas in 1845, invoked “our manifest destiny to overspread the continent allotted by Providence for the free development of our yearly multiplying millions.” In March 1846 Whitman wrote in favor of acquiring Oregon, saying that “the name of ‘American’ must, in a few years, pale the old brightness and majesty of ‘Roman”’; in the same year, when Yucatan seceded from Mexico, he wrote an editorial, “More Stars for the Spangled Banner,” arguing that “she won’t need a long coaxing to join the United States”; he supported the war against Mexico from its beginning in May of that year.
Like phrenology and along with phrenology, manifest destiny provided a hopeful hermeneutic, offering assurances of legibility, providentially mandated certainty, self-evident truth. Phrenology presented a version of manifest destiny at the individual level, mapping the head and making it readable, imprinted with a legible future, the individual’s destiny manifest in the very bumps on his or her head. Whitman was greatly attracted to such externalist, self-evidentiary ways of knowing, the valorization of a certain articulacy and eloquence to be found in the available, on the surface, in the overt. His drive, power and originality as a poet derive in large measure from that attraction; the majority and most characteristic features of his work are given over to it. Still, he acknowledges the brain’s “occult convolutions” in “Song of Myself” and promises “untold latencies” in “Shut Not Your Doors.” This makes for a certain tension. One of the things I find most interesting in Whitman’s work is that tension, the unarrestable play between latent and manifest that brings an otherwise hopeful hermeneutic to grief.
It brings it to grief and into an order of non-self-evident import. This is most notably the case in “Drum-Taps,” the poems written in response to the Civil War, whose outbreak was traumatic for Whitman, amplifying and setting in motion many an inner ambivalence and contradiction. It was a conflict in which the nation’s most fundamental contradiction came to the surface and exacted its toll, a contradiction which, as he did other features of the nationality he said the poet should incarnate, he himself embodied in various ways. For one, he refused to accept that the war was about slavery and the status of black Americans, even though he had, over a span of more than a decade before the war’s outbreak, taken stands against slavery and the spread of slavery. In 1846 he supported the Wilmot Proviso, which prohibited slavery in any territory acquired from Mexico, and lost the editorship of the Brooklyn Daily Eagle for doing so; in 1854 he wrote “A Boston Ballad,” a poem protesting the arrest of the fugitive slave Anthony Burns in Boston by federal marshalls complying with the Fugitive Slave Law of 1850, a law he spoke out against again in 1856 in “The Eighteenth Presidency!”; he wrote an article exposing and condemning the illegal slave trade in New York for Life Illustrated in 1856. However, he was not, by his own admission, a “red-hot” abolitionist and his record was uneven, especially when the issue was not the status of the institution of slavery but the status of African Americans. While editor of the Daily Eagle, he let the voting down of black suffrage in Brooklyn in 1846 go without comment or condemnation; after the war, he was against universal suffrage, falling out with his longtime friend and admirer William Douglas O’Connor over this issue in 1872. In the 1850s he argued that blacks could never be assimilated into American life, invoking the familiar trope of providential imprint: “Nature has set an impassable seal against it.” For Whitman, the war that George Lamming calls the Slave War was fought not against the degradation of black Americans but against “devilish disunion.” He refers to it always as the Secession War and writes to O’Connor during the conflict: “In comparison with this slaughter, I don’t care for the niggers.”
Repressed acknowledgement of the manifest cause of the war, the enslavement of African Americans, creates curious perturbations. In “Song of Myself,” first published before the war, Whitman portrays himself aiding a runaway slave in section 10, professes love for a black coachman whose “polish’d and perfect limbs” he praises in section 13, then identifies with “the hounded slave” in section 33. In “I Sing the Body Electric,” also first published before the war, he insists in section 7 on the pricelessness and humanity of a slave on the auction block: “In this head the all-baffling brain, / In it and below it the makings of heroes.” However, in a post-war poem, “Ethiopia Saluting the Colors,” included in “Drum-Taps” and first published in 1871, the inchoate and contrary sway of emotions and ambivalences tapped by the war has him wondering why a black woman salutes the flag, referring to her as “so ancient hardly human” and repeating it, “so blear, hardly human,” but regarding her nonetheless as a “fateful woman,” wondering, “Are the things so strange and marvelous you see or have seen?” More curious yet is the moment in “Song of the Banner at Daybreak” when, expressing love for the flag, he sees in it the undulant, serpentine quality attributed in “Rise O Days from Your Fathomless Deeps” to doubt:
O you up there! O pennant! where you undulate like a snake hissing so curious,Albeit not altogether unvisited by sweetening, something moves here more than surface conviction. Whitman’s optimism, under duress, wants to rebound, darkened by what the nation has been through. Unhinged hope and the recovery it seeks move into an embrace of captious flutter, a liminal epiphany coded in wavelike hiss (earlier in the poem: “hissing wave”) and snakelike undulacy.
Out of reach, an idea only, yet furiously fought for, risking bloody death, loved by me,
So loved—O you banner leading the day with stars brought from the night!
Cloth is cover, capricious cover, as fitful turning out as in. The flag’s flutter and flap attest to agitant intangibles. Robert Farris Thompson, in Face of the Gods, discusses the Kongo derivation of the flag altars maintained by the Saamaka of Suriname, descendants of eighteenth-century maroons:
The Kongo contribution to the flag altar, the nsungwa, held by a processioneer at a funeral, is a towering staff onto which a narrow strip or strips of cloth are tied at the very top. To honor the dead, processioneers shake and elevate nsungwa in the air. The cloth strips atop these staffs encode mambu (words, matters, problems) that the living seek to communicate to the dead; one activates the attention of the other world by “waving the words” (minika mambu), a basic Kongo metaphor for spiritually activated admonitions. This ritual act “vibrates” (dikítisa) cloth-coded prayer, so that the ancestors cannot fail to comprehend ... Finally, for Kongo, motion imparted by wind to flags directly demonstrated ancestral presence. Banganga (ritual experts) phrased this belief in the following way: “The wind on the flag is a vibration shared by the two communities, the living and the dead.”Earlier, the poem, in its dialogue between Child and Father (speaking parts are also given to Poet, Pennant and Banner), recalls section 6 of “Song of Myself,” where the child’s question “What is the grass?” is answered, “I guess it must be the flag of my disposition, out of hopeful green stuff woven.” The flags in “Song of the Banner at Daybreak” are woven of different stuff, threatening to woo the Child away from acquisitive progress and material pursuit, “valuable houses, standing fast, full of comfort, built with money,” what would eventually be called the American way of life. The Child says of the flag:
O father it is alive—it is full of people—it has children,The Father tells him, “Cease, cease, my foolish babe,” tells him to look at “the well-prepared pavements” and “the solid-wall’d houses” instead. Then Banner and Pennant instruct the Poet:
O now it seems to me it is talking to its children,
I hear it—it talks to me—O it is wonderful!
O it stretches—it spreads and runs so fast—O my father,
It is so broad it covers the whole sky.
Speak to the child O bard out of Manhattan,Spiritually activated admonitions, the flags’ flap and flutter disburse reminders of manifold latency, maroon intangibles ever bettering manifest capture. How striking that an African way of knowing should assert itself where the knowingness of Africans was anything but held to be self-evident.
To our children all, or north or south of Manhattan,
Point this day, leaving all the rest, to us over all—and yet we know not why,
For what are we, mere strips of cloth profiting nothing,
Only flapping in the wind?