Walt Whitman - Song Of The Open Road - Preface To Podcast
Updated: Sep 2, 2021
As a boy, long before the brambles of age had taken root in my cheek, and the prickly coarseness of their barb repulsed my mother’s kiss, I lived on a street called Whitman Drive. A busy, bumpy, meandering road, it bisected the sprawling development in which I was reared, a bastion of blue-collar neighbors with whom, until the fall of the night, or the chime of the dinner bell, I passed my hours in joyous play. It too bore the name of the immortal poet, Whitman, and was called Whitman Square.
Breaking slightly from the theme, the name of the township in which my Whitmanian street and development were set—honoring, in this instance, not the poet, but a president—was “Washington” Township. It was, and continues to be, located just a few miles east of the city of Camden, an historic town on the banks of the Delaware River upon which, regrettably, many miseries have since been visited. To the great misfortune of its current residents, however, it was not then what it is today.
That said, despite its presently squalid state, Camden was Walt Whitman’s choice for a place to which, after a lifetime of adventure, and a debilitating stroke, he might peacefully retire. He arrived there at the age of fifty-four, joining his younger brother, George Washington Whitman, and his ailing mother, Louisa, for what would be a temporary reunion. Like his mother, he too was unwell, but, despite the crippled state in which that awful stroke had left him, his literary output was unabated until the time of his death, which arrived, remarkably, nearly two decades hence.
The point of me recounting this brief image of my childhood, and describing the homeliness of the place in which I was reared, is not to sketch a portrait of myself; I’m yet undeserving of an autobiographical account. Rather, my aim is to confess that I am, in every way, a child of Whitman. His soul has, from the very outset of my life, infiltrated my own. His spirit is that with which my own is imbued.
Born in the year 1819, Whitman was the second of nine children. We mustn’t allow Walt’s brilliance to mislead us; genius, in his family, was far from the genetic rule. He, on the contrary, was the eloquent exception. Half of his brothers and sisters suffered from psychiatric disease—in one form or another. His eldest brother, Jesse, was deemed clinically insane, and lived out his colorless life behind the walls of an asylum. A younger sister, Hannah Louisa, was similarly “touched”. One brother, Edward, was an epileptic, while another, Andrew, was an alcoholic.
Walt, mercifully, was able to elude the mental strain by which his family was afflicted. He could not, however, escape the congenital poverty into which he was born. Unable to out-run penury’s clawing grasp, Whitman was forced to abort his education at the tender age of ten. He then put distance between himself and the family upon whom he could no longer rely for money. He became, more out of necessity than of interest, a lawyer’s apprentice, a schoolteacher, and a printer. Always, though, and much more congenial to his natural taste, he fancied himself a poet.
The following is a reading of Whitman’s great work, Song of the Open Road. It comes from his book entitled, Calamus—a plant of medicinal use, and oriental origin. It is especially dedicated to Ana, a dear friend in whom, I think, the spirit of Whitman likewise lives.
From the text:
“Henceforth I ask not good-fortune—I myself am good-fortune. Henceforth I whimper no more, postpone no more, need nothing, done with indoor complaints, libraries, querulous criticisms. Strong and content, I travel the open road”. Might we, having now seen the “long brown path” before us, and nodded “yes” to its meanders—to the many bends along which our intrepid feet amble—join you on so enticing a walk? Might we, having now pressed our soles to the leaf-strewn soil, and felt the supple spring of the grass atop which the morning dew lingers, accompany a spirit so unencumbered, strong, and free? Let us gather, then, in singing our songs of the open road—our songs of boldness, liberty, resilience, and life. Let us gather, one and all, and travel this open road—marching, as we do, to the tuneful rhythm of a happy heart.