Every Atom | No. 111

Samuel Otter

Introduction to Every Atom by project curator Brian Clements

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“I might not tell everybody but I will tell you,” the poet whispers into his reader’s ear and also his readers’ ears, since in these lines Whitman’s speaker announces that he will have an exclusive relationship with everyone who peruses his book. “You” and “I” will share a privacy that is extended to the public. It is a remarkable verbal maneuver, a confidential trick that works in part because readers know that they are being worked upon as the speaker disseminates his intimacies.


A similarly democratic overture is made by Herman Melville’s narrator in the first chapter of Moby-Dick, published in 1851, four years before the first edition of Leaves of Grass. “Call me Ishmael,” the chapter begins: that is not necessarily my name but it describes my felt condition as exile, wanderer, alien. It is the biblical name for the figure through whom Abraham’s covenant does not descend. You may call me Ishmael because I am inviting you to take part in my sense of estrangement and irony. In me, you will recognize yourselves. Or, as Whitman’s speaker puts the connection at the start of the poem that would come to be called “Song of Myself”: “what I assume you shall assume.” The two writers’ stances and tones are not identical (Melville’s narrator is not Whitman’s irrepressible Emersonian optimist), but their literary voices share assumptions. Both writers make a bid for an exorbitant, often erotic intimacy.


Whitman and Melville, both born in 1819, were almost exact contemporaries. To think about their literary careers in relation is to consider, among other issues, democracy, sexuality, authorship, and the ironies of fame. Whitman and Melville are now the most canonical of nineteenth-century United States writers. But while Whitman died a literary celebrity in 1892, Melville passed away in obscurity the year before. Melville had begun his public career as the acclaimed, and for some notorious, author of the risqué and irreverent South Seas narrative Typee, or A Peep at Polynesian Life (1846). Contemporary reviewers brought the two writers together as poets. Both had striven to assume the role of national bard in the wake of the Civil War, Melville with his poetry collection Battle-Pieces (1866) and Whitman with Drum-Taps (1865). We have no evidence that the two ever met, but Melville was aware of Whitman’s poetry at least toward the end of his life, discussing it in correspondence and conversation, as detailed by his biographer Hershel Parker.


In 1885, the Scottish writer Robert Buchanan, in a prescient move, linked both figures in his poem about Whitman, “Socrates in Camden, With A Look Round.” Holding the two writers close, Buchanan elevated Whitman and Melville above those he considered to be their fashionable peers, appreciating them as men who communed with their readers in eloquent isolation:


Meantime my sun-like music-maker [Whitman],

Shines solitary and apart;


Meantime the brave sword-carrying Quaker

Broods in the peace of his great heart,—

While Melville, sea-compelling man,

Before whose wand Leviathan

Rose hoary white upon the Deep,

With awful sounds that stirred its sleep,

Melville, whose magic drew Typee,

Radiant as Venus, from the sea,

Sits all forgotten or ignored,

While haberdashers are adored!

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Samuel Otter is Professor of English at the University of California, Berkeley. He is the author of Melville’s Anatomies (1999) and Philadelphia Stories: America’s Literature of Race and Freedom (2010), and the co-editor of Frederick Douglass and Herman Melville: Essays in Relation (2008) and Melville and Aesthetics (2011). He is currently finishing a book titled Melville’s Forms, which has received fellowship support from the John L. Simon Guggenheim Foundation and the National Endowment for the Humanities.


Cover art by Grayson Becker