Whitman's Grandchildren: Becoming and Unbecoming Walt Whitman

by Mike Chasar

The January 2013 issue of PMLA has a pretty cool article (“Whitman’s Children“) by Bowdoin College English Professor Peter Coviello that takes as its starting point a couple of babies born after the U.S. Civil War that were named Walt—a nominal tribute that two veterans paid to Walt Whitman after receiving Whitman’s care during the war. William H. Millis, for example, wrote to Whitman more than a decade after the war to say, “We have not forgotten you & want to hear more from you. We have had a son borned since we heard from you & We call him Walter Whitman Millis in honer to you for Love for you.” And in 1868 Benton H. Wilson wrote to tell Whitman that his (Wilson’s) once-rocky marriage worked out and that, “My little baby Walt is well & Bright as a new dollar.”

This is suggestive, Coviello argues, because while Whitman didn’t have any biological children, the pair of baby Walts bearing his name should prompt us to think about the nature of reproduction and parenthood more generally and especially about the model of “queer generation” that Whitman—as a surrogate parent to the men he nursed and as the baby Walts’ namesake—might have imagined. During a war that split a nation and its families—pitting North against South and brother against brother—Coviello wonders if Whitman worked in his writing and caregiving to “restore carnality, in its world-making force, to family and especially to parenthood” as a way to produce the future, or to at least “wonder…if a future can be something you parent, with and through sex but not heterosexual reproduction.” Embodying the roles of lover, brother, father, mother, uncle and comrade—all roles that meet at the bedside that Whitman so frequently occupied while working as a nurse during the war—Whitman imagined a “sexually saturated sociability” that didn’t police human tenderness or caregiving by making desire “the province of one exclusive set of attachments” but that, instead, turned sex into what Coviello calls “a mode of relation.” In a time when the nation was “a nuclear family turned violently against itself,” he argues, Whitman was after a “recast familial structure” as well as “the prospect of a mode of generation that is sexual, though not quite normatively heterosexual nor normatively reproductive.”

As is the case with much of my favorite poetry scholarship, I like and admire Coviello’s piece a lot but nevertheless wonder how it might shed light on, and/or become more complex via its relationship to, certain aspects of popular culture. When one looks, for example, there are more baby Walts out there than just the real-life sons of Civil War veterans Millis and Wilson. These other Walts are fictional Walts, yes, but Walts that possibly indicate the persistence or reach of Whitman’s “queer generation” (at least as realized in the literary or artistic realm). Take, for example, Don Draper, the poetically-simmering advertising executive and lead character of AMC’s award-winning television show Mad Men. (That’s Draper reading Frank O’Hara’s Meditations in an Emergency pictured here; you can watch the scene in which he recites O’Hara’s verse in voiceover here.) As fans of the show know, “Don Draper” was not in fact Draper’s birth name; it’s the name of a soldier shot and killed next to Draper during the Korean War whose identity Draper adopted (or stole) by switching identification papers in hopes of escaping his past. Draper’s birth name was—you got it—Dick Whitman. So, even though the real Don Draper died in the war, his name lived on, and the name Dick Whitman went into history as KIA. It’s as if Dick Whitman were born one of the baby Walts mentioned in Coviello’s article except that, instead of carrying on the Whitman family line, he chose to scrap it (during another war that split another country in half) in order to do his own act of re-imagining the future.

Coviello works through the range of Walt Whitman’s wartime relations by tracing a “dialectics of substitution and supplement” in which Walt appears to comfort patients “by becoming them” and by becoming surrogates for their family members, embracing, in the process, “an unresolving, generative play of identity and difference, or multiplying differences.” In Mad Men, though, Draper doesn’t embrace this play; once (as Dick Whitman) he has committed an initial act of substitution for self-serving purposes (“becoming” Don Draper), he seeks to hide if not repress that act in his endeavor to become the single, stable, coherent identity that he wants to be: successful ad exec, hyper-hetero womanizer, and normative Cold War parent who reproduces in normative heterosexual ways. But the fact is that, even though he was officially KIA, Dick Whitman won’t stay hidden (because he’s still alive; because he has become Don Draper), and much of Mad Men is a return-of-the-repressed story in which the ghost of his former self comes back to haunt Draper in any number of ways. One might say that Dick Whitman thought he was out-Whitmaning Coviello’s Whitman by using Walt’s “dialectics of substitution” to escape his identity as Whitman’s grandchild in order to become a normative parent, only to then discover that the play of identity and difference that he thought promised him liberation and stability is not a one-time deal but, as Coviello puts it, “unresolving.” That lack of resolution in what should have been a stable real life identity eats at Draper and the Cold War America he represents in any number of ongoing ways, and it is soothed only, perhaps, by the writing of poetic advertisements, an act (at least as the show presents it) that entails Draper inhabiting the mindset of, or “becoming,” the psychologically wounded American consumer—oftentimes via proximity to Dick Whitman—to whom goods and services will be marketed. Don is most fully himself, that is, when he is simultaneously marketer, consumer, Whitman, and Draper.

Draper is not the only character that popular culture has associated with Walt Whitman, however. There’s also Walter White—the high school chemistry teacher turned drug manufacturer in AMC’s other award-winning show Breaking Bad. (Given the Whitman connection between them, one can’t help but wonder if AMC used the same writers for both.) The connection between Walter White and Walt Whitman is suggested not just by their shared initials and shared first name, but by several moments in the show’s plot—one where White’s laboratory assistant Gale recites “When I Heard the Learn’d Astronomer” in full (watch it here), and another when Walt deflects the suspicion of his DEA agent brother-in-law by claiming that the initials “WW” on a piece of confiscated paper probably stand for “Walt Whitman” and thus make for a misleading or specious clue in his investigation.

Even though he claims to not know “When I Heard the Learn’d Astronomer,” more connects Walter White and Walt Whitman than just their names. Like Whitman and Draper, White assumes a second identity (that of meth cook) during wartime (both the war on drugs and the wars between dealers), and his character revolves around the performance of his multiple identities and especially how those identities affect his status as parent; not only is he a biological father (the economic pressures of his son’s physical disability plus an unexpected pregnancy drive him out of the classroom and into the drug trade) portrayed as an artist (also like Whitman and Draper), but he is also a surrogate parent for his assistant Jesse Pinkman. In their choice of careers, physical appearance, mentoring relationship, and shared trauma, Walt and Jesse in fact seem more like father and son than Walt and his biological son do. (Ironically, Walt’s biological son is named Walter Jr., making him a great-grandchild of Walt Whitman, perhaps). Over the course of the show, Walt is many things—father, friend, lover, uncle, comrade, teacher, and so on, oftentimes playing nurse to the frequently wounded Jesse—in a distinctly Whitman-like way. What is remarkable about this is how Walt feels so much more alive in his non-normative context (away from the nuclear family) than he does at home, and the show’s topic of drug addiction is really a trope for how he has become addicted to what we might, following Coviello, call the queer generativity of his other life (the science, the production, the parenting and care-giving roles), so that even when he has a chance to walk away, he can’t bring himself to do it; the “carnality” or “world-making force” that Coviello sees in Whitman is too powerful to let him return to heteronormative life. Like Coviello’s Whitman “laboring” to create a future for the family and the nation that he one day won’t be alive to see, Walter White is also busy trying to make a future he won’t be part of—laboring under a cancer diagnosis to provide financial security for his biological family in the event of his death.

If Don Draper knows that he is a grandchild of Walt Whitman and denies that lineage only to be haunted by it forever after, Walter White doesn’t know that he is Whitman’s grandchild, but the force of that ancestry propels him into the “unresolving, generative play of identity and difference” that is his birthright and inheritance. Whereas Draper can never fully become an authentic self once he opts out of Family Whitman, White finds himself to be most fully himself in the “multiplicity … the multitudinousness” of non-normative, carnally-driven identities. One might say that if Walt Whitman comforted others by “becoming them” in a dialectics of substitution and supplement, then Walter White, in becoming Walt Whitman, also becomes himself. That most of this happens in contexts outside the law and hidden from the nuclear family suggests that Whitman’s “style of queer world making and queer future making” is what history has oftentimes made queer world making out to be: the source of good stories but ultimately illegal—a criminal act.

I’m not totally sold on my overall assessment here—hey, I’m busy enjoying cherry and raspberry season in Oregon—but I do think it’s pretty interesting that Dick Whitman and Walter White join Walter Whitman Millis and Walt Wilson on the extended Whitman Family Tree, and I’d love to hear what Coviello would make of it all and how he might go about bridging the real-life historical Walts and the fictional, contemporary ones imagined by folks at AMC. Can we in fact read the television side of the family as Whitman’s children and grand-children—and thus as evidence that the “future for sex” that Coviello says Whitman imagined has in fact come to be (or at least lived on) more than Coviello suggests in his essay? What of Whitman do they (or we) thus inherit, and what has the Whitman family become? And are they, like Allen Ginsberg in “A Supermarket in California,” also walking all night through solitary streets dreaming of a lost America of love?

Piece originally published at Arcade | Creative Commons License