What would Walt Whitman had done with a blog?
We can only imagine: if “Crossing Brooklyn Ferry” was accompanied not just by a textual account, but a video; if “Song of Myself” was posted along with a self-portrait. Just humanities scholars use the web today to try on a variety of hats–from writer to filmmaker to artist to news commentator–Whitman perhaps would have appreciated the internet for its ability to capture, describe, and display the City he oftentimes found so difficult to express in words alone.
“Whitman may be poetry’s most spectacular victim of the law of elapsed time. All writers know this law: revision succeeds in inverse ratio to the amount of time passed since the work was written,” says Galway Kinnel in his introduction to Essential Whitman (xiv, 1987, New York: HarperCollins).
Indeed, being able to present his work to an online audience–and have his contemporaries Emerson, Alcott, and Thoreau present their feedback almost instantaneously–may have proved beneficial to Whitman in his quest to “perfect” his work after the first initial publication. Blogs, says Kathleen Fitzpatrick, can “capture thought in the process of happening.” They are not only the new way to draft, but to get feedback on one’s writing while it is being drafted. Would Whitman have been more satisfied with his end result had he been able to present it in such a way?
A blog would have served Whitman well in his quest to define an almost undefinable city–and clarify, according to one critic, his own “mixed and muddled reactions” (M. Wynn Thomas, “Walt Whitman and Mannahatta-New York, 365).
Critics often portray Whitman as someone who perpetrated intentional “separateness” between himself and his surroundings. He situated a subject in its environment and described them from a distance, confining himself to the role of “observer.” I’d argue, however, that this was less a matter of personal choice and more a necessity of the time. If Whitman had been able to engage with his audience in the way that modern technology allows us to do, he would have jumped at the chance to more fully integrate himself into the New York City landscape, and interact with his audience.