In May 2019, I and my colleague Clare Mullaney published a coedited special issue of Common-place Journal commemorating the 200th birthday of Walt Whitman. Titled “Revisiting the Whitmanian Body at 200: Memory, Medicine, Mobility," the special issue argues for putting Whitman scholarship in dialogue with disability studies, from vantage points including histories of debility and mobility, age discourse, theories of mind, and the medical humanities.
This special issue includes an introduction alongside five featured essays. Our introduction begins by laying out the central concerns of the intervention, arguing for the importance of understanding Whitman's intersection with nineteenth-century disability history. Jess Libow's article explores Whitman’s contribution to an ideology of ability in the recently discovered self-help fitness articles “Manly Health and Training” (1858). Bethany Schneider provides a groundbreaking exploration of the significance of the cane to Whitman’s mobility, relationships, and scenes of “leaning” in Leaves of Grass, offering particular insight into his relationship with his favorite cane. Sari Edelstein presents a much-needed, comprehensive analysis of Whitman’s use of age as a discursive resource and his performance of the “Good Gray” persona in later writings such as November Boughs (1888) and the posthumous annex to Leaves, “Old Age Echoes.” Christopher Hanlon unfolds Whitman’s tactile praxis of processing memory in the context of loss, tracking the valences of “wandering” in poems such as the one that begins, “Once I pass’d through a populous city.” In a piece published under the section "Notes on the Text," Robert J. Scholnick (to whom much is owed for inaugurating a conversation about Whitman and disability in scholarship) examines Whitman’s attention to the experience of wartime trauma in his New York Times journalism during the Civil War, focusing on his advocacy for changes in medical care in Washington’s makeshift military hospitals.
In addition, this issue includes four poems by the scholar and poet Lindsay Tuggle, author of the 2017 book The Afterlives of Specimens: Science, Mourning, and Whitman’s Civil War, along with a statement on the relationship between her research and poetry. We feature a book review by Clare Mullaney on the disability ethics unfolded in Tuggle’s recent book and another review by Manuel Herrero-Puertas of Zachary Turpin’s 2017 edition of Manly Health and Training: To Teach the Science of a Sound and Beautiful Body. The issue also features a piece I’ve written for the section “Tales from the Vault,” examining a posthumously published book of Whitman’s letters to Peter Doyle titled Calamus (1897). In this essay, I focus primarily on the importance of the letters to understanding their evolving relationship following Whitman’s paralytic stroke in 1873.
NOTE: The sketch above is taken from Herbert Harlakenden Gilchrist’s Notebook, kept from 1876-1877, when he lived in Philadelphia and became close with Whitman. Gilchrist spent time with Whitman as the poet pursued forms of rehabilitation outdoors at Timber Creek in Camden, New Jersey. Whitman had experienced a major paralytic stroke in 1873, which left him partially paralyzed on his left side. Gilchrist recorded their conversations in his notebook, now held at the Kislak Center for Special Collections at the University of Pennsylvania. On one of the pages he has drawn Whitman in a seated position, apparently in mid-sentence with his right arm raised. The lettering for this graphic has related significance. Whitman was right-handed. In 1875 another stroke had affected his ability to write. Correspondence reveals that Whitman expressed his frustration to Gilchrist about the way an intensifying “rheumatism” was changing his handwriting. The lettering above is adapted from the title page created for Specimen Days, and Collect (1882), the book Stephen Kuusisto has called Whitman’s “disability memoir.” We speculate that the lettering created for Specimen Days was designed to represent the influence of Whitman’s rheumatic episodes on his penmanship. Thus, we have aimed for continuity in the shape and style of the letters in this rendition of the present issue’s title.