Multitudes

Portrait of Walt Whitman, by Thomas Eakins, 1887-1888, in the Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts, Philadelphia

I was reading an article in the Guardian a couple of weeks ago, and came across a mention of a Walt Whitman quote, “I contain multitudes”.  I had to search a bit to find the whole quote.  It is from a long poem, “Song of Myself”, part of his work “Leaves of Grass”.  The full quote, from stanza 51 of the poem, “Do I contradict myself?, Very well then, I contradict myself, (I am large, I contain multitudes).”  I had not heard this before, and certainly had never taken on the daunting task of reading Leaves of Grass.

Finding it interesting to read a bit about Walt Whitman, I tucked this information away for later study.  Then, on Thanksgiving day, my son, who is well into adulthood, said, off the cuff, “I am multitudes”, while entertaining the rest of the family.  I was awestruck.  I just had read about this, and to my recollection, had not heard it before I read about it a couple of weeks earlier.  I asked him, “do you know where that comes from?”.  He wasn’t sure, but when I mentioned it is from Walt Whitman, he had some idea he had heard it before.

Way back in high school, some guy I didn’t know very well called me a cowboy jock.  I was taken completely off guard.  First of all, I didn’t see myself that way.  I never did rodeo, and while the people who compete in rodeo are terrific athletes, I was not one of them.  I think he meant I was a cowboy and a jock.  Again, completely not how I pictured myself.  True, we had horses.  We had three horses at one time in our backyard in Scottsdale, Arizona.  Where we lived, this was not unusual.  We lived on the edge of the wide open desert.  If we had the urge, we could have ridden from our house all the way to Flagstaff.  I was also on the swim team.  But, if you put together recreational horseback riding and a sport that was utterly not like football, it doesn’t add up to a cowboy jock.  Maybe he was jealous of something, but I don’t really know why.  Clearly it made an impression on me, since I remember it so many years later.  I’ve grown to accept it as who I am.  Sometimes.

Birthplace of Walt Whitman (May 31, 1819), Huntington, long Island, New York.

Clearly not my entirety, and not in complete agreement with the other parts of me.  Getting back to Walt Whitman though, what a fascinating and prolific person he was.  We live in his stomping ground.  It was his for part of his life, anyway.  He was born in Huntington, New York, an early town founded in the 1600’s 0n Long Island.  Anyone wishing to learn more about Mr. Whitman can find numerous biographies, telling of his life from multiple perspectives.  He really was multitudes.  I don’t wish to tell his life story here.  That the reader can do for them self.  But he spent his last years in Camden County, living in his brother’s house, later in his own house, in the city of Camden, New Jersey, while spending time in the bucolic countryside of Laurel Springs, from 1873 until his death in 1892.

I often have conflicting beliefs, although not as wide ranging as Mr. Whitman’s.  One of my favorite quotes comes from a sociology professor I had in college.  He said to the class, ‘the purpose of education is to make you confused when you were once certain.”  Perhaps this is the basis of being multitudes.  One must have an open mind, curious, intellectual, and aggressive in acquiring new knowledge, in order to become multitudes.

Two weekends ago, members of my running club were planning a great long run, which I call the Colonial Run.  It begins in my town of Haddonfield, New Jersey, goes through Camden, over the Ben Franklin Bridge, and then courses through colonial streets of Old City Philadelphia.  We run up Elfreth’s Alley, the oldest continuously inhabited residential street in the USA, built in 1702.  We run by Betsy Ross’ house, the Christ Church, Ben Franklin’s grave site, and of course, the Liberty Bell and Independence Hall.  Then we continue on, through the famous Philadelphia City Hall, with William Penn’s statue on top, to the Ben Franklin Parkway, and finish up the steps of the Philadelphia Art Museum.  We were stymied, though.  It snowed the day before the run, and the pedestrian walkway on the Ben Franklin Bridge was closed.  We changed our plans, and ran the “drives”, the West River drive and Kelly drive, and were still able to finish on the steps of the museum.  However, after reading about Walt Whitman, when we do reschedule this epic, 14 mile run, I intend to take the course past the Walt Whitman house in Camden.  We may even run past his tomb in Harleigh Cemetery, also in Camden.

I came across another “multitudes” quote just recently.  In “Delusions of Gender, How our minds, society and neurosexism create difference,” by Cordelia Fine, Honorary Research Fellow in Psychology at the University of Melbourne, Australia, she writes, on page 7 (yes, early in the book),  “…even if your personality offers little to hold the interest of  a shrink, there is nonetheless plenty in there to fascinate the social psychologist.  This is because your self has multiple strings to its bow, it’s a rich complex web, it has a nuance for every occasion.  As Walt Whitman neatly put it, ‘I am large:  I contain multitudes’.”

The Walt Whitman House, 330 Martin Luther King Blvd., in Camden, NJ.

Walt Whitman (per Wikipedia) held opinions on many aspects of life, such as drink (against), slavery (against) and equal rights of men and women (for).  His Leaves of Grass, and in particular, Song of Myself, were harshly criticized for his expressions somewhat covert, of sexuality, including references to homosexuality.  He extolled the virtues of sunbathing nude.  He was nationalistic and patriotic, but wrote in a way to praise liberalism and democracy.  He wrote in a free form style, criticized by some, but praised by Ralph Waldo Emerson.  He respected all religions, but did not believe in them himself.  He is described variably as immanent (feeling that god is within everything), or transcendent (that god is external to everything), or more of a pantheist.

In spite of these views outside of mainstream, or socially acceptable thought, in spite of writing in free verse, of challenging the norms of religion, he is revered as the American Poet.  When he died more than one thousand people came to his home to pay their respects.  There is a bridge over the Delaware River named after him.  Being aware of the many works of Walt Whitman, knowing about his life, may come as no surprise to those who studied him in college, or just through curiosity.  But, I was not informed about his life and writings and will do my best to make up for that deficit.  First, though, I must sit down with Song of Myself, and see how much I can understand.  It is tough reading.

Walt Whitman Tomb, Harleigh Cemetery, Camden, NJ. Photo by iirraa on flickr

In the spirit of the season, Happy Holidays, Merry Christmas, Happy New Year.  May 2018 be better than 2017.

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2 Comments

  1. Anonymous

     /  December 28, 2017

    Interesting read Frank! I’ve never read WW but I shoul have.
    I wonder if he would’ve been a good long distance runner.
    Running up Forbidden Drive he would’ve found plenty to
    Reflect on.

    Reply

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