In his earliest notebooks, Whitman was already piecing together a vision of the United States as a live organism, stretching from one coast to another. In the late 1840s, he cut out large sections of G. Woolworth Colton's popular atlas, Geography and History, American and Modern, and pasted them into a scrapbook along with newspaper clippings on travel, geology, history, and archaeology. These notebooks serve as a record of Whitman's immense intellectual appetite, and his efforts to educate himself in all the currents of thought of this exciting time. He was particularly interested in learning about the parts of the country he had never seen, and compiled notes on the flora, fauna, and natural features of each state.1
Aside from a three-month stay in New Orleans in 1848, Whitman's personal experience of the national landscape prior to writing "Song of Myself" was limited to Long Island, Brooklyn, and Manhattan. (See the period map of New York and environs.) Among these places, though, there was much diversity-- from small farm towns to wild seashores to bustling cities. His vision of the nation, then, could work outward from these first experiences. In his poems, Whitman frequently identifies himself with earlier inhabitants and explorers of the continent: American Indians, sailors, trappers, hunters. Through this act of imagination, "my eyes settle the land": (from "Song of Myself" 10)
Alone far in the wilds and mountains I hunt, Wandering amazed at my own lightness and glee, In the late afternoon choosing a safe spot to pass the night, Kindling a fire and broiling the fresh-kill'd game, Falling asleep on the gather'd leaves with my dog and gun by my side. The Yankee clipper is under her sky-sails, she cuts the sparkle and scud, My eyes settle the land, I bend at her prow or shout the deck.
These imaginative travels reach their greatest realization in the "catalogue" section of "Song of Myself," where the speaker presents a birds-eye view of the whole continent. He takes many of the items in these lists- the names of towns and rivers in faraway states, for instance-- straight out of the atlas. Witnessing the vast diversity of the different states and territories leads him to conclude that all are aspects of the same great whole. He claims, "of every hue and caste am I, of every rank and religion": (from "Song of Myself" 16)
One of the Nation of many nations, the smallest the same and the largest the same,
Enamoured of the "musicality" of American Indian names, Whitman used them wherever possible. (A poem that he would later place near the beginning of Leaves of Grass, "Starting from Paumanok," makes use of the indigenous name for Long Island.) The very names of places in the United States were, for him, part of that home-grown American speech that he wanted to cultivate in this "language experiment."
One of the most extensive sections of "Song of Myself," 33, retraces a tremendous journey across all "Space and Time." Here, he imagines himself in a Northwest lumber camp; among the prospectors drawn to California in the 1848 Gold Rush; and hunting alligators in a Louisiana bayou. Then he turns his eye to the other living features that animate the landscape: birds, plants, and animals. "Afoot with my vision," he soars
Over the western persimmon, over the long-leav'd corn, over the delicate blue-flower flax,
1. See Floyd Stovall, The Foreground of Leaves of Grass , 159-60 and Whitman: Notebooks and Unpublished Prose Manuscripts, ed. Edward F. Grier , v.5, pp.1931ff. (back)