Every Atom | No. 56

Amy Richter

Introduction to Every Atom by project curator Brian Clements

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Whitman asks, “Who need be afraid of the merge?” The question seems rhetorical, inviting an eager “not us!” in reply. And yet, in the middle of the nineteenth century, this question was answered quite differently. At every turn, Americans resisted mingling—eschewing the dissolution and reconstitution of self that Whitman celebrated. The street cars that traversed Whitman’s New York were segregated by race; urban guidebooks divided neighborhoods into “sunlight and shadow;” the rules of phrenology and etiquette distinguished the genteel from the rude and downright criminal. To appreciate Whitman’s originality, one need only contrast his ready merge with the fevered anxiety of Edgar Allan Poe’s “Man of the Crowd” (1840) or Herman Melville’s “Bartleby the Scrivener” (1853) and “Confidence Man” (1857). While others strove to identify and categorize the inscrutable only to keep it at arm’s length, Whitman “contains multitudes.” He is the flaneur as omnivore—savoring, devouring, absorbing all that he sees. 


In this way, Whitman turned the common Victorian impulse to catalog and sort on its head, naming and listing social types in order to erase distance, transgress boundaries, and revel in the indeterminate space. Again and again, he reveals private intimacies to the public gaze and strips public interactions of their formality to render them intimate. By Whitman’s side, we enter the homes of sleeping babies and married couples, sit down with slaves and prostitutes, are crowded and jostled by strangers who are simply lovers we do not yet know. His joyful obliteration of public and private still shocks the modern reader: “Unscrew the locks from the doors! Unscrew the doors themselves from their jambs!” In our current moment of categorization and walls, these words invite us to consider the merge.

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Amy G. Richter teaches History at Clark University. She specializes in nineteenth-century American cultural history, with an emphasis on women’s and urban history. She is the author of Home on the Rails: Women, the Railroad, and the Rise of Public Domesticity (2005) and At Home in Nineteenth-Century America: A Documentary History (2015).


Cover art by Matt Jorgenson