In 1989, I was sixteen years old living in Ocean City, NJ, a sophomore in a town and high school that never left the 50s. The town was dry (no alcohol sold), and the only way onto the “island” was by one of three bridges across the Great Egg Harbor. I walked to school about four blocks, and if I went a block too far I would be walking in the Atlantic Ocean. If I walked the other direction from my home about the same four or five blocks, I’d be in the bay.
While the provincialism of the town was a constant source of ire and something to rebel against, I found a kind of isolated quiet in which to grow from teen to man. I found my first loves there really–books, music, theater, poetry, writing, and deep kinship that only young men who live closely together (with something to rebel against) can find.
I was sixteen when I saw Dead Poets Society–and though I wasn’t a prep, I like lots of young poets, left the cinema in tears saying, “thats me!”
It didn’t matter that my comrades were four black teenage men with high-top fades brought up on hip-hop, and instead of the solitude of a rural private school we had the endless summer of the boardwalk. We never found our literal captain as the boys of the fictional Welton Academy of Vermont found in Mr. Keating (played by Robin Williams). Though its arguable our pot-smoking, vietnam vet, theater teacher (who shall remain nameless) might have fit the bill on occasion. He had a lime-greenVW van, ‘nuf said right?
But I met Walt Whitman while working my very first job in an antique book store in Ocean City, seeking poetry and messing-around money for pool, smokes and girls. Among the dusty volumes and leatherbound tomes, I picked up The Rolling Earth, in it the daguerreotype of Whitman staring out with the most beautiful eyes I had every seen, made me fall in love with him. I love him as much as my own family, and knowing how much I love him, I always tear-up knowing that I will never speak to him, I can only hear him in my mind. His writings taught me how to learn to love all manner of things and people. I dream of his voice whispering to me…
A Clear Midnight
This is thy hour O Soul, thy free flight into
Away from books, away from art, the day
erased, the lesson done,
Thee fully forth emerging, silent, gazing,
pondering the themes thou lovest
Night, sleep, death and the stars.
I’m reading a collection of Whitman’s writings about the Civil War now, Walt Whitman’s Civil war edited by Walter Lowenfels and produced in 1961 with drawings by Winslow Homer, picked at a bookshop in Woodstock, Vermont earlier this year. Twenty years on and his words are whispering in my ears now differently. I see a younger Whitman, intoxicated and bewitched by a new source of inspiration, that of war. From 1861 to 1865, Whitman worked from Washington and spent countless days on the front and in hospitals with soldiers, both North and South, blacks, contraband (southern blacks), officers, the wounded, dying, and recovering.
While I was inspired by Whitman to be a naturist first (he gave voice to my deep abiding love for nature that developed in rural Ohio), I’ve rediscovered him again as an adult. Turns out we both live(ed) in Brooklyn and we’ve reconnected it seems over my own genealogical research into the Civil War era. In the last five years I’ve become my family’s genealogist, documenting several family lines back to the late 1700s and 1800s, back to slavery in Mississippi, South Carolina, Texas, and Virginia. I was inspired by Skip Gate’s program African American Lives initially. The Civil War marks a gate through which many black family lines are lost, emerged, dissappear, reappear after emancipation, transformed. However, my genealogy is a story for another time. And in Whitman’s writing, the Civil War is made human and real. Hollywood’s images, Glory, God’s General, Roots, even the documentary images of the Burns brothers fades away into a new expression.
Now it is like hearing about the war from a brother who has been away. He has come for a visit, for he must go back, but we have settled into arm chairs together, or posted up to the bar at our local, and over a beer or whisky, and he has leaned forward, not quite looking me in the eyes, but seeking an invisible horizon, begun to talk…
Sweet are the blooming cheeks of the living–sweet are the musical
But sweet, ah sweet, are the dead with their silent eyes.
– from Ashes of Soldiers
In 1992, a rare phonogram recording Walt Whitman emerged and was much debated, but most scholars have settled on its authenticity–the quality matched Edison’s “vertical-cut” method of recording which was 30 years ahead of its time, and the accent of the speaker was indeed Atlantic Tidewater with an Adirondak inflection (an accent that is near extinct today). I encountered Whitman’s voice, sadly, in a Levi’s ad earlier this year. Despite being a marketer, even I was a bit mortified. I guess its just another bit of penance I’ll have to do for hawking brands instead of focusing solely on writing, alas. Yet the strength of his rich voice, the simplicity and cadence to the poem “America,” overwhelmed me. It is so like my inner voice, the way in which I think and write today.
You can hear his voice for yourself here.
Whitman is and always will be my captain.