Timothy Kenny. Walt Whitman. The Prints Project.

19 Aug

Walt Whitman

The Walt is a rest stop along the New Jersey Turnpike, largely indistinguishable from its eleven brethren: squat, southbound, slightly forlorn, two up from Clara Barton, “angel of the battlefield,” one down from James Fenimore Cooper, famous for writing “The Last of the Mohicans,” a novel that few are steady enough in their reading habits to finish anymore.

Walt Whitman, American poet, would be amused at New Jersey’s naming of highway rest stops that include his own, along with Woodrow Wilson, president and (uncomfortably for us) a bigot; the poet Joyce Kilmer, who was not a girl; and Grover Cleveland, the two-term Democrat who lived in the White House for eight years but not consecutively. Each lived or slid through New Jersey for varying amounts of time, some more deeply involved in the state than others.

Take Walt Whitman. For one thing he is Walt, not Walter, his hard-drinking carpenter father. Teetotaler Walt in older age wore a crazy-ass, startling beard that color-matched gray hair, once-dark, offset by the dazzle of intelligent eyes, the lightest of blue, eyes we all wished we had. The Walt pictured in the first “Leaves of Grass” – right hand on hip, left hand hidden in a pants pocket, black hat cocked at an angle, neatly trimmed beard – that Walt, that thirty-five-year-old world-beater Walt, insouciant and posed, is not our rest-stop Walt. Early-poet Walt is a different sort of Walt from the one whose name graces a New Jersey wayside.

Walt worked in words from a young age, touching them as a printer, speaking them as a Long Island schoolhouse teacher, editing them as a short-tempered newsman who complained unceasingly about the unfairness of 19th century life as he swept through a string of New York newspaper jobs until he wore out his city welcome. He penciled words into compact notebooks to be opened later. They festered, flowered, flowed into big ideas that he turned into sentences, paragraphs, thoughts that filled thinking Americans with new notions about literature, life, perhaps love.

Walt had his troubles. His alarming, off-kilter poetry earned little praise in his lifetime, although there were moments. Walt — bearded, belittled, sometimes fawned over (Abe Lincoln was a big fan, although the two never met) — was fired from a bureaucratic government post that paid the bills, all because his best known song of himself was just that off-key to some. That workaday Walt eventually arrived in New Jersey.

The rest stop honor no doubt would please him. “God bless ’em, it’s better than nothing.” Maybe he’d say that. Walt had a common man strain about him, his psyche stippled with the usual anxieties and narcissism of poets, not to mention that the Revolutionary War hero Gilbert du Motier, the Marquis de Lafayette, once picked him up, literally, when Walt was six, holding the lad aloft during a Lafayette visit to New York City. Walt took delight in telling the story, which may be apocryphal, but who’s to say facts should get in the way of a good yarn. Walt used to be a journalist after all.

Walt also had itches; he scratched.

“Leaves of Grass,” self-published in 1855 after years of the aforementioned journalism and some wandering through America’s eastern woods, was a constant, unremitting undertaking. Walt could not let it be. He tinkered ceaselessly, tweaked and altered, deleted and added and republished the damn thing until one day he up and died over the constant fixing of it; or maybe that’s just me. Really, it was a stroke that left Walt lifeless in Camden in 1892, age 72.

His stunning, flowing poetry was startling in his day; it remains extraordinary in ours. Few readers found a middle ground after reading “Song of Myself.” The poem moon-barks, crows at dawn, cowers, offends, transforms us. Still, Walt got fired for it; that led to a lesser clerk’s position for a while, until finally he packed himself off to New Jersey to care for his ailing, eighty-eight-year-old mother. Walt seemed okay with it; his family was not an easy one. Somebody always seemed to need something. Besides, despite a kind heart and a deep understanding of human foibles, Walt could be prickly.

Most poets are. Most are not Wallace Stevens, a man so outwardly stalwart, train-bound daily into the Big Apple, back again to Connecticut, selling advertising to the many, a man who could still look at blackbirds in a baker’s dozen ways and find much else to write about. But I digress.

Recognition came Walt’s way on occasion. He gave a commencement speech at Dartmouth College; the poetic Rossettis, Dante Gabriel and wife Christina, both liked Walt. Emerson called “Leaves” “the most extraordinary piece of wit and wisdom that America has yet contributed.” So that was pretty good. Acclamation remained mostly modest, though. The New Jersey rest stop heralding came much later.

There are, by the way, three categories of New Jersey rest stops, which I have been remiss in not mentioning:

Helpers: Clara Barton, John Fenwick, Molly Pitcher, Thomas Edison, and Vince Lombardi (sort of).

Politicians: Richard Stockton, Woodrow Wilson, Grover Cleveland, Alexander Hamilton.

Writers: Walt and the aforementioned James Fenimore and Joyce.

Walt’s stop is south-bound-only. James and Joyce are both north-bound only. Those names not to be connected, by the way. James Joyce never stepped foot in New Jersey. Service provided travelers at all twelve stops include Public Rest Rooms, Travel Information, Vending Machines, Public Telephones, Food, Gas, and a Gift Shop. I say it’s a clear tie between the toilets and the non-self-serve/cheaper-than-usual gas as to which rest stop benefit is best. Who wants to pump her/his own gas? But who would not want to pull into a rest area that carries his/her own name?

How cool would that be?

Walt would be over the moon, if for no other reason than such a venue is wholly democratic in our modern America way: men of all ages, colors, costumes and cars driven head immediately to the rest stop’s innermost sanctuary to stand alongside their fellows and find visceral relief from the coffee-fueled agonies of the road. Women’s enjoyment of the Walt is similarly provided but with more privacy, dignity, and longer wait lines, what with the stalls and all.

If “Leaves of Grass” is Walt’s enduring prayer to America, the Walt is a paean in return to our greatest poet. Simultaneously it is a salve to our anxious American souls for not having read enough of his poetry, if any.

It is, in our own way, the highest of compliments: We love you Walt, honest.


Timothy Kenny is a former newspaper foreign editor, non-profit foundation executive, Fulbright scholar, and college journalism professor. His narrative nonfiction has appeared in The Louisville Review, The Gettysburg Review, Irish Pages, The Kenyon Review Online, Green Mountains Review, The Pea River Journal, and elsewhere. A collection of his narrative non-fiction essays is forthcoming in spring 2015 from The Milo Press.

4 Responses to “Timothy Kenny. Walt Whitman. The Prints Project.”

  1. David J. Bauman August 19, 2014 at 06:01 #

    Brilliant. Walt would be delighted in this article.

    • Patricia August 19, 2014 at 06:04 #

      We love it too. Thank you for reading and commenting, David.

  2. vinita18 August 19, 2014 at 06:22 #

    Brilliant! I enjoyed it thoroughly.


  1. Prints Project update, late August | pea river journal - August 28, 2014

    […] Timothy Kenny on Walt Whitman. […]

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