Taking Walt Whitman on the Road

I have found that any mention of Walt Whitman’s Leaves of Grass comes with a lot of grand  praise—the great American book of poetry, the foundation of the American literary canon, a book that defines the very spirit of our nation—I’ve heard it all and more. It’s a book that I’d always heard a lot about, one that always floated on the fringes of my next-to-read list, but I’d never taken the step to actually read it. That was until spring break. 

The plan was a road trip with three friends through New England: a couch-hopping, road-tripping, trail-mix-eating, windows-rolled-down-with-music-bumping kind of trip. I wanted Walt Whitman to accompany my friends and I on this little adventure because I knew his work was infamous for highlighting the beauty of nature and the importance of comradery—two essentials for when you have to spend two weeks with the same people. So I checked out the most yellow page’d, beaten and battered copy of Leaves of Grass from the library. A great American book for a great American road trip. 

We live in unprecedented times and the unpredictability of said times smacked me in the face on the Wednesday before break. Three out of the four road trippers contracted COVID-19 and/or strep throat! So, while sitting in the COVID hotel, I decided to journal the first instance in which I would read through this book. My first entry is as follows: 

“Well, I’m in the hotel room at night with Shoegaze in the background. A unique way to start Leaves of Grass, not a bad one per say; I feel in the zone. It’s just not a common scene amongst the history of Leaves of Grass readers. Am I perhaps the first person to start this book with Shoegaze in the background?”

The first section of the book, “Inscriptions,” sets the sail for adventure. Poems like “Beginning my studies” hail the beginner, and “A Certain Cantatrice” exalts me as a reader. Then, there are poems about manning the guns of a fort, defending one’s own freedom. Still in the hotel, I am not free and my adventure has not yet begun, but I will defend the possibility of freedom just as valiantly as the characters in Whitman’s poems. Despite COVID-19, I’m telling myself, this road trip will happen. 

The next day I’m reading in the hotel room while eating chocolate covered almonds, oranges and Goldfish. You may call it cheap, but I call it trail food—adventure food. In all honesty, I’m trying my best to avoid delirium induced by looking at the same four walls all day. This kind of passive reading where I have to use pure imagination to adventure through the book continues until Tuesday. By then, my reading is far less passionate than it was on day one, in my journal my explanation is as follows:

“The best reading is done in times where a strong sense of self protrudes into the real world. You can’t be in love with what you read while feeling like a sick rag. As fun as it can be to ‘transport’ the mind to another universe, it is this world where we find the most fantasy, the most adventure. Reading is living, the two are one in the same.”

Nonetheless, three negative tests later and we hit the road on Tuesday afternoon. 

Along the trip, I made the reading of Whitman a communal experience. Read aloud, his poetry taps into its full lyrical potential. Leaves of Grass is written in mostly free verse and expands organically drawing out long lines that advance like a wave of prose. Whitman’s work also draws on repetition and the dynamism that comes with repetition of energetic words like “Loud! loud! Loud!,” from “Out of the Cradle Endlessly Rocking,” and “Eidolons” in the poem, “Eidolons.” Thus, at the right moments I would read aloud to my road trip comrades, ignoring the obvious groans and “not again” complaints. I recall reading at lunch break on a hike through the words, blanketed in new snowfall. With light snowflakes still falling, I defended my relic of a book from the snow with an extra shirt wrapped over my head. In a way, the woods brought Whitman alive. 

Writing in my journal later that night I sketched out a sort of dilemma. “Why do I need to read from the book when it writes what the trees speak? Whitman’s words are found in the speech of friends, in the murmur of streams over rocks and the ruffle of leaves underfoot,” I wrote. Now while at first glance this may seem like mere late night ramblings, I think my half-asleep mind captured something. I think I meant to say that the great lessons I pulled from Leaves of Grass were not simply taught through pure text, they were shown through experience. Simply reading about nature’s beauty and the importance of comradery and freedom isn’t enough—it takes actually experiencing these things for the value of the text to come to fruition. It would take more reading, and most importantly, more living for these thoughts to become clearer. 

One morning before the drive from a friend’s cabin in the Berkshires to Boston, I reached the section titled “Song of the Open Road.” The poem exalts the uncertainty of adventure and describes the interplay between understanding that you have so much control over the road you take, while also remaining content with whatever happens. In a way it mirrors the initial philosophy of our trip as expressed by fellow traveler, Pranav Parekh ’25: the best plan is no plan. “Allons!” (French for “let’s go”) the poem exclaims over and over again. It called me forward into the unknown, into a plan that is planless, “I know not where they go but I know that they go toward the best—toward something great,” Whitman writes in “Song of the Open Road.” In Boston, the “unknown” was finding a place to sleep and the “something great” was a massive closet in an MIT building we squatted in! Due to its timing, “Song of the Open Road” was one of my favorite poems. 

I continued to read along the trip, stopping at MIT to gawk at the future tech bros, camping in the woods to understand the real meaning of cold, and stopping in Providence for a real bed and warm apple pie. The tail end consisted of two days in Western Massachusetts and a train into Downtown Brooklyn to stay at an apartment less than half a mile from the building where Whitman wrote. It only missed perfection because I completed only 250 out of 700ish pages. The remaining 450 pages may or may not be finished, who knows. 

I can wholeheartedly say I loved Leaves of Grass. I, of course, loved Whitman’s prose, I loved the scenes he evoked, the principles he fought for in his writing, but I also know that the specific context in which the book was read cannot be separated from my reactions to it. As appealing as it can be to sink into an armchair with a book and thus sink into the world that a book of fiction or work of poetry produces, I have found that I gained the most from Leaves of Grass by living the principles it exalts. It is true that I did not need Leaves of Grass to find tranquility in the flora and fauna of New England, nor did I need Whitman’s booming voice to make me feel the excitement of the open road. I did not need to read Whitman’s love for brotherhood and sisterhood to develop comradery with my travel buddies. Nonetheless, his writing on these topics coupled with my own experience of them produces the most beautiful experience of literature possible. Think of it as the synthesis of reading and living. To Whitman, our fifth traveler in spirit, I owe praise as a writer who augmented my spring break experience, and whose writing traveled with me.

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