For most of Whitman’s Song of Myself, he sings only partially of himself; the character of “I” flits through countless figures across the country, observing and experiencing but never fully committing. His characters are defined by their occupations, their relationships, their situations, but rarely anything more specific: never a name, never a concrete tie to a real world that exists outside of the poem.
In books 35 and 36, though, Whitman adopts the voice of the great-grandchild of a sailor under John Paul Jones, during the battle in which the Bon-Homme Richard captured HMS Serapis in 1779. That battle really happened, John Paul Jones really lived, and there are a finite number of figures that are great-grandchildren of sailors under his command during that fight. I don’t know whether or not Whitman is on that list, but it is a firm, objective list. A dedicated genealogist could probably innumerate all of possible speakers for those two books.
That battle was, of course, a seminal moment in the shaping of American identity — the disadvantaged but plucky fighter who will win by sheer force of will. By distancing his speaker from the actual sailor by means of three generations, Whitman also muddies his identity; the genealogist who manages to establish an exhaustive list of candidates must be really dedicated. The whole storyline is therefore heavily metaphorical — can’t every true-hearted American look up to John Paul Jones as a sort of father? I can see why this idea would occur to Whitman. It simply surprises me that it survived all of his revisions, given how widely it deviates from the established tone.
One thought on “Sudden specificity in books 35 and 36”
Hi Dana! I agree that the inclusion of this uniquely specific narrative perspective seems to hold value, not necessarily because of its historicity, but because it makes reference to the generational transmission of an event that featured in the struggle for independence from Britian. The exchange of the story from the great grandfather to the narrator acts as a testament to the enduring nature of the American tradition. I find this to be a clever excerpt because it refers to the establishment of a new cultural lineage, formed in a bid for independence, while simultaneously demonstrating how oral tradition weaves a deep interconnectedness between generations. The story is both old and new. As far as I can tell, Whitman chose to devote . However, I do wonder why he chose to pick this particular naval battle to describe rather than a more famous or immediately recognizable event. Perhaps this account would be more familar to readers of the era, but I do find it interesting that, despite Whitman’s suggestion that this story is rife for transmission across generations, I have never heard of it before.