Language of Drug Use in Whitman’s “Calamus” Poems, The

Language of Drug Use in Whitman’s “Calamus” Poems, The

Auclair, Tracy

Many studies of Walt Whitman’s “Calamus” poems have explored the meaning of the calamus root. In ‘”Calamus’: The Leaf and the Root,” one of the most systematic investigations of this subject, James E. Miller argues that the root represents the corpse that nourishes the grass, “the heart, the organ from which love takes its origin,” and “the phallus, . . . a token of ‘manly attachment'” (73-74). Russell A. Hunt complicates this last and most common interpretation when he notes that it is in fact “the blossom which has a phallic appearance,” not the root. The calamus root is, he continues, “most remarkable for its odor and for its medicinal properties. Had Whitman desired an exclusively or obviously phallic object, he need not have chosen one so ambiguous or with so many other, more obvious, associations” (484-85). De-emphasizing a gendered reading, Hunt mentions the root’s value as a medicine and, through this passing reference, acknowledges its ability to incite change in the body. He is silent, however, on the extent of the calamus root’s power to alter physiological processes and, consequently, leaves the implications of this power for Whitman’s vision of human relationships unexplored.

Doctors and pharmacists of the early 1800s were aware of the effects of ingesting calamus root. A fluid extract of the root appeared as an official preparation in the Pharmacopoeia of the United States of America as early as 1830 (General Convention 23). Throughout the century, people ingested its oil for its carminative action, or its ability to expel gas and to relieve the discomfort that is associated with bloating. The root was also used to increase appetite and to aid digestion (Grieve 726-29).

Whitman made statements to Horace Träubel indicating that he knew of the calamus root’s health benefits. When Träubel informed him that J.W. Wallace, an English tourist, wanted to take a sample of calamus home as a memento from the States, Whitman replied,

Well, that is easily done-there is plenty of it here. . . . But you must be careful how you look it up. There’s counterfeit calamus, which is only a rush-has no root. But calamus itself, the real thing, has a thick bulby root-stretches out-this way-like the fingers spread. And it is a medicinal root-you know, of course-is often brought in town by the niggers-some people boiling it even, some chewing it. It always grows in damp places, along runs of water-low lands. You can easily get it-it pulls up. Oh! Yes! You will know it by the root, which is really the only way to know it. Wallace can undoubtedly have some to take home with him. (Traubel 37-38)

As this passage demonstrates, Whitman was well acquainted with the characteristics of the calamus root-its location, appearance, and preparations. His knowledge on these subjects is matched only by his enthusiasm for them, and both seem strangely inappropriate given that he is describing a cure for flatulence. Yet, it seems that the curative aspects of the calamus root are not the true cause of Whitman’s excitement: “And it is a medicinal root,” he adds halfway through the paragraph, almost as an afterthought, as if there were another, more important, reason for valuing it. That reason might be the root’s ability to alter the user’s mental state.

In the Psychedelics Encyclopedia, Peter Stafford notes that the oils in the calamus root “contain two psychoactive substances” “which are the natural precursors to TMA-2, a compound that has ten times the potency of mescaline” (286). If taken in small quantities, calamus root does not induce hallucinations; chewing two inches or less of the root, the user feels only a slight increase in physical strength and a mild mental excitement (Stafford 286; Hofferand Osmond 55-56). In The Hallucinogens, however, Abram Hoffer and Humphrey Osmond offer an account of a subject who experimented with longer sections of the root:

The informant and his wife, a trained psychiatric nurse, were both sophisticated subjects with hallucinogens. They had taken LSD several times in well-controlled experiments at one of our research laboratories. They had both taken 10 inches of rat root [another name for calamus root] 5 times and both agreed it produced an experience very similar to LSD. (56)

It may be impossible to prove definitively that Whitman knew of the calamus root’s hallucinogenic potential and that he chose it to be a major trope in his poetic sequence based on this knowledge. Nonetheless, the sheer pleasure that he seems to get from describing the root to Träubel strongly suggests that he did. This supposition becomes even more plausible when we consider the ways in which Whitman links the calamus root in his poetry to literary representations of drugged consciousness.

Depictions of drugged consciousness were quite common in the literary productions of Whitman’s contemporaries.1 This trend was launched by Thomas De Quincey’s Confessions of an English Opium-Eater, which first appeared in 1821, sparking questions, criticism, and praise from its English audience. Thirty years later, when Ticknor and Fields, an American firm located in Boston, began publishing De Quincey’s work, the Confessions became an instant success in the United States.2 His innovative account of personal drug use exercised a powerful influence over many American writers, including Bayard Taylor and Edgar Allan Poe.3

But it was The Hasheesh Eater (1857), the best-seller of the twenty-one year old Fitz Hugh Ludlow, that most obviously and successfully bore the stamp of De Quincey’s famous autobiography. Reviewing The Hasheesh Eater (1857), a writer for the Knickerbocker reminded his readers that since De Quincey’s Confessions appeared, “many weak-minded aspirants to the fame which accrued from that successful work, have imitated the author in so far as to excite their entire thimble-full of brains with the ‘smoking mud,’ . . . and afterward published their ‘Confessions.'” Unlike these less talented followers, “[tjhis ‘Hasheesh-Eater,'” the reviewer assures his audience, “is of the highest order of the great Opium-Eater’s simulators” (HasheeshEater197). Critics considered Ludlow to be the most skilled and celebrated American follower of De Quincey not because he published a description of his experiences under the influence of a mind-altering substance-something that many other writers were doing-but because he possessed a rare facility with De Quincey’s language of drug use that enabled him to articulate those experiences through the expressions of his predecessor.4 Deploying this rhetoric, Ludlow’s The Hasheesh Eater exemplifies and, in this way, works toward solidifying the early- to mid-nineteenth century discourse of drugged consciousness.

Through this rhetoric of drugged consciousness, Ludlow portrays the user’s simultaneous isolation and connected-ness, his hypersensitivity, and his ability to form self-effacing identifications with others, subjects that are familiar to readers of Whitman’s Leaves of Grass. In the post 1857 editions of Leaves, these similarities between Ludlow and Whitman may not be entirely coincidental. Christine Stansell writes that from 1859-when he began “sitting out the long period of critical silence that followed the second edition of Leaves of Grass”-to 1862-when he left for Washington-Whitman frequently visited Pfaff’s restaurant, “a basement saloon in what was then central Manhattan on Broadway near Bleeker” (107). Pfaff’s served as “a meeting place for journalists, critics, writers and artists” and, by the time of Whitman’s visitations, “had already garnered a reputation as New York’s first and only ‘bohemian’ night spot” (107). It was at this nightspot that Whitman met Ludlow (Dulchinos 94-95). During the time of their association, The Hasheesh Eater “was selling briskly” and Ludlow’s fame was at its height (Dulchinos 90). Taking into account The Hasheesh Eaters popularity, its author’s notoriety, and Pfaff’s status as a social center for both Ludlow and Whitman, it is probable that Whitman read Ludlow’s narrative of drug use.

Yet, the influence of the discourse of drug use on Leaves of Grass has not been adequately addressed. Commentary on the treatment of mind-altering stimuli in Whitman’s work has focused primarily on Franklin Evans, or the Inebriate (1842), a pamphlet that he wrote for the temperance movement.5 It is important to remember, however, that Americans did not begin to homogenize their perceptions of drug and alcohol experience until the late 19th and early 20th centuries. “By the time prohibition became a national issue, drug use and addiction,” H. Wayne Morgan writes, “seemed as dangerous to society as alcohol. To reformers they were all counterproductive, enervating, and irrational. The drive to prohibit alcohol did not cause the movement against drugs, but it helped make it seem logical and necessary” (90). Prior to this time, the public generally thought of these two intoxicants as different entities with distinct effects, and itwould be anachronistic, therefore, to subsume the subject of drugs in Whitman’s writings from the 1850s and 60s under the rubric of alcohol.6

A few critics have given drugs separate consideration. David Reynolds writes that,

Up until the 1830s, American medicine had been dominated by so-called “regular” physicians who used all kinds of heroic physical measures-emetics, cathartics, and bleeding-to combat disease. Over the next three decades, the regulars and their drugs came into wide disrepute as more “natural” forms of healing came into vogue. Regulation of diet, exercise, ventilation, temperance, and other personal habits were thought to ensure mental and physical health, while drug therapy was considered dangerous and outmoded. (332)

In agreement with many of his contemporaries, Whitman, Reynolds maintains, rejected doctors’ drugs as ineffective in curing health problems and subscribed to the tenets of therapeutic thought (331-33). Echoing this claim, Robert Leigh Davis notes that Whitman “raged against the dogmatism of heroic medicine, and welcomed the turn from drugs and depletions to the healing power of nature as a crucial advance in medical practice” (13). These observations confine hashish, opiates, and other psychoactive substances to a medical context and overlook the recreational drug use, which was taking place by the middle of the nineteenth century.7 Indeed, it is clear that Whitman strongly believed that drugs were unsuccessful and even dangerous in the treatment of physical and mental infirmities. However, his views on the legitimacy of drug use for the purpose of exploring alternative modes of consciousness-the kind of non-medical use that Ludlow and many other drug-writers of the day promoted-are less pronounced and have remained, until now, unexamined.

This essay will explore how the rhetoric of drugged consciousness, which is typified in Fitz Hugh Ludlow’s The Hasheesh Eater, informs Whitman’s “Calamus” poems. I will argue that Whitman’s representation of the poetic speaker’s psychological response to the calamus root closely resembles Ludlow’s descriptions of hashish intoxication. I will also argue that Whitman depicts the hashish-like effects of the calamus root as a means of collapsing personal and public space. Emphasizing this collapse and its psychoactive cause, he employs the rhetoric of drugged consciousness as a means of reconfiguring his relationship to his readers. Moreover, going beyond the reader/writer relationship, he seems to offer the language of drug experience as a metaphor though which the classic American tension between the individual and the mass can be reconciled.8


Whitman’s “Calamus” poems were first published in 1860, a time when opiates, cannabis, and many other psychoactive substances were legal in the United States, readily available on the open market, and thoroughly diffused throughout all levels of society.9 As a result of this saturation, Americans, whether users or just observers, developed expectations about the feeling and appearance of drug experience. For instance, in 1836, a writer for the Knickerbocker noted that the delightful effects of opium were circumscribed and did not lead to the kinds of embarrassing external displays that were associated with alcohol. Opium, he claimed, “never makes a man foolish, it never casts a man into a ditch, or under a table, it never deprives him of his wits or his legs.” Instead, he continued, “It allows a man to be a gentleman; it makes him visionary, but his visions create no noise, no riots; they deal no blows, blacken no one’s eye, and frighten no one’s peace. It is the most quiet and unoffending relief . . .” (Colton 421). Moreover, this desire for non-demonstrative pleasures led many women from the mid-to-late nineteenth century to experiment with a variety of drugs.10 Explaining the use of opiates by women, one doctor observed, “A woman is very degraded before she will consent to display drunkenness to mankind; whereas, she can obtain equally if not more pleasurable feelings with opiates, and not disgrace herself before the world” (qtd. in Morgan 40). In effect, Americans were convinced that, unlike alcohol, which made the user’s internal experience visible to the world, drugs created a kind of atomic subjectivity, an indecipherable interiority (Morgan 27, 89-90).

The opacity of the drugged subject was useful in the preservation of orderly appearances but seemed to have a negative impact on interpersonal connections. While in the sober individual, introspection led to ideas that were eventually transformed into action and public service, in the drug user, it seemed to be an end in itself. Social commentators feared that the user, focusing on his hallucinations and heightened sense perception, was preoccupied with his own consciousness. This enjoyment of purposeless inner pleasures, educators and doctors claimed, caused him to withdraw from co-workers, friends, and relations. The drug user’s self-imposed isolation and the potentially detrimental effects ofthat singular condition on family, community, and even national cohesion were subjects of intense concern and debate (Morgan 50-51, 58-62).11

This popular estimation of the drug user’s mental state and of its threat to social intercourse is at once fueled by and reflected in The Hasheesh Eater. Ludlow ingests hashish for the second time moments before going “to pass the evening at the house of an intimate friend.” Soon after his arrival, he feels a “sudden thrill” throughout his body (17). Speaking in the present tense so as to convey the force and immediacy of his impressions, he describes how a “shock, as of some unimagined vital force, shoots without warning through my entire frame, leaping to my fingers’ ends, piercing my brain, startling me till I almost spring from my chair” (17). Though Ludlow’s initial reaction to his emerging drug experience is “one of uncontrollable terror-a sense of getting something which I had not bargained for,” as he comes more fully under the influence of hashish, he feels

No pain anywhere-not a twinge in any fibre-yet a cloud of unutterable strangeness was settling upon me, and wrapping me impenetrably in from all that was natural or familiar. Endeared faces, well known to me of old, surrounded me, yet they were not with me in my loneliness. I had entered upon a tremendous life which they could not share. If the disembodied ever return to hover over the hearth-stone which once had a seat for them, they look upon their friends as I then looked upon mine. A nearness of place, with an infinite distance of state, a connection which had no possible sympathies for the wants of that hour of revelation, an isolation none the less perfect for seeming companionship. (17)

Experiencing sensations so intense that his exterior cannot convey them, Ludlow observes that, mentally, an “infinite distance” separates him from the companions with whom he should have been in perfect sympathy. He enjoys the “tremendous life”-the heightened awareness and curious hallucinations-that the sticky brown substance produces, but he also feels lonely and seems to regret his “strangeness,” the absolute difference that divides him psychologically from his friends.

In the same way that Ludlow and many other Americans linked drugs with divisive psychological changes, Whitman establishes a causal relationship between the calamus root and the poetic speaker’s remarkable, yet impenetrable, interiority. This relationship emerges when the speaker of “In Paths Untrodden,” lingering in the place where calamus flourishes, claims that he is “talked to here by tongues aromatic.”12 Though critics generally interpret “tongues aromatic” as the leaves of the calamus plant, it mightjust as easily refer to the plant’s root, which emits a strong fragrance and is-when stripped of its rootlets-tonguelike in shape (Grieve 727-28). It is only after the calamus root addresses the speaker that he “can respond” by feeling “Strong upon me the life that does not exhibit itself, / yet contains all the rest” (LG 341). In these lines, we seem to have a description of his consciousness: existing inside of his head, the speaker’s mental activity-his “life” of the mind-“does not exhibit itself to others. They explain not only the location of consciousness, but also the nature of its function: while the “life that exhibits itself (LG 341)-that is, all of the external world-may have an objective reality outside of the speaker’s perception, it does not exist for him until it has been actualized by his senses. Because his consciousness registers the external world, making it real, the speaker regards his own awareness as the center and limit of the universe-it “contains all the rest.”

Still, in order for the speaker to “contain” in one expansive gesture of perception the details of the entire external world, he would have to be hallucinating, enjoy an abnormally heightened awareness, or possess some combination of these two possibilities. The possibility that his awareness deviates from a non-intoxicated mental state is supported by the way in which he describes its onset: it comes “Strong upon me.” Suggesting abruptness and intensity, this phrase indicates that the mode of consciousness that is beginning is radically unlike the one that it supplants.

This unusual mental state could be the cause of the speaker’s self-perceived difference. In “Whoever You Are Holding Me Now in Hand,” he cautions the reader, “I am not what you supposed, but far different” (LG 344). Rewording this admonition slightly in “Are You the New Person Drawn toward Me?” he advises him to “take warning-I am probably far / different from what you suppose” (LG 358). Like Ludlow, the speaker in “Calamus” describes a maj or discrepancy between his interior and his exterior, between his experience of consciousness and his expression of that experience. By making the speaker’s difference the result of a “conversation” with a calamus root, Whitman indicates that he knows about its capacity to derange normal mental activity. Moreover, this link between a mind-altering root and antisocial sentiments signals his involvement in the public discussion surrounding drug use and social cohesion.

Ludlow adds an interesting dimension to this discussion when he complicates the popular image of the antisocial drug user by suggesting that it was in fact the prison of drugged consciousness that allowed him to move beyond his private self. In The Hasheesh Eater, he describes how, while on the drug, he not only “walked in entire unconsciousness of all around” him and “dwelt in a marvelous inner world,” but, at the same time, “existed by turns in different places and various states of being” (19):

Now I swept in my gondola through the moonlit lagoons of Venice. Now Alp on Alp towered above my view, and the glory of the coming sun flashed purple light upon the topmost icy pinnacle. Now in the primeval silence of some unexplored tropical forest I spread my feathery leaves, a giant fern, and swayed and nodded in the spice-gales over a river whose waves at once sent up clouds of music and perfume. My soul changed to a vegetable essence, thrilled with strange and unimagined ecstasy. (19)

Here, Ludlow’s capacity to become, through imagination, other people and things brings about a series of pleasurable experiences. But sometimes, he writes, “the peculiar sensitiveness to impression which is induced by hashish made sympathy so deep as to be painful” (26). He describes one instance in which,

To comply with the request of a friend, I read him some verses of a piece upon doubts of human immortality. Upon arriving at a passage where one of our primeval fathers is introduced as speaking in agony of his dread of advancing death, I felt that agony becoming, by sympathy, so strongly my own emotion, that, lest I should completely identify myself with the sufferer, I was forced to lay down the manuscript, and plead some excuse for not continuing the reading. (126)

In both of these examples, self-absorption opens onto self-dispersal as Ludlow’s insular mode of consciousness enables him to occupy subject positions that are radically different from his own. In other words, rather than detaching Ludlow from his environment, drugs actually activate the psychological and physiological structures that make his intense identifications with the outside world possible.

The Whitmanian speaker’s ability to identify with slaves, women, working men, and historical figures is well known and has been the subject of both praise and blame among critics.13 While these attachments are portrayed most frequently and explicitly in “Song of Myself,” they are also implicitly represented in that poem and in the “Calamus” sequence by the figure of death. In accordance with many scientists of his time, Whitman, Reynolds writes, believed that ” [w] hen an organism decomposed, its atoms were chemically recombined, immediately giving rise, in his words, ‘to another arrangement of the atoms of a body, that is, to the production of a compound which did not exist before'” (240). Through these transfers on the atomic level, a person could, after death, become a vegetable, an animal, or a new human being. Consequently, for Whitman, death meant losing oneself in the process of becoming something or someone else (Reynolds 240-41). D.H. Lawrence argues that if death is denned by the obliteration of one’s original identity, then it is virtually synonymous with the sympathetic identifications that characterize “Song of Myself.” Criticizing the extremity of these identifications, he observes, “Whitman said Sympathy. If only he had stuck to it. Because Sympathy means feeling with, not feeling for. He kept on having a passionate feeling for the Negro slave, or the prostitute, or the syphilitic-which is merging. A sinking of Walt Whitman’s soul in the souls of these others” (165). And merging oneself with another through empathy is, Lawrence claims, very much like death: “Merging! And Death! Which is the final merge” (160). The interchangeability of identification and death that Lawrence describes is foregrounded in the “Calamus” poems when the poetic speaker equates the two terms in “Scented Herbage of My Breast.” Addressing the roots of the calamus plant, he says,

It is “in death, [and] in love,” Hunt writes, that “the soul merges with something else” (488). “Death and Love” are paired throughout “Calamus,” he explains, because “Whitman’s chant of lovers and comrades has become a chant of all the methods of attaining a mystical merging with” nature, objects, and people (488).

This idea that death and love are synonymous in Whitman’s poetry is useful when considering the causal relationship that the poetic speaker forges between death and the calamus root. Read against the background of Hunt’s and Lawrence ‘s interpretations, the “Death” that the roots deliver in “Scented Herbage of My Breast” is “beautiful,” not because it refers to the body’s decomposition, but because it refers to the diffusion of the self through love: “Death” is the series of psychic investments that characterize an expansive affection. The speaker’s claim that he receives “Death”-the capacity to identify with others-“from” the root is obscure until we situate the root in the context of its mind-altering properties and read this claim as a euphemism for ingestion. By figuring the psychoactive calamus root as an agent of death, Whitman, like Ludlow, reimagines the drug user’s self-absorption as the condition of possibility for sympathy with others and encourages his readers to regard mind-altering substances, not as the means of individual isolation, but as instruments of self-extension.

Nevertheless, the feeling of self-extension that the calamus root induces remains exclusive to the speaker. “Through me shall the words be said to make death / exhilarating,” he promises in “Scented Herbage of My Breast.” Yet, in “Whoever You Are Holding Me Now in Hand,” he is tormented by his inability to share the sensation of self-effacing emotional investments (LG 344). At first, it seems that the reader can participate in the speaker’s experience by assuming the position of his disciple (LG 345). Next, the speaker suggests that he can convey his secret to the reader by kissing him (LG 345) and then, dismissing that mode of transmission, by pressing against him, “For thus, merely touching you, is enough-is best” (LG 346). Finally, he admits that there are no conventional means of communication that will work, “For these leaves, and me, you will not understand, / They will elude you at first, and still more after- / ward-I will certainly elude you…”(LG346). Kissing, touching, reading, and all other methods of discovering the speaker’s meaning inevitably fail because of the enigmatic nature of his mental state, which makes it impossible for him to participate in a relationship of reciprocal understanding and mutual transparency. While his capacity for death-like attachments would seem to make him well suited for such relationships and for the community that they create, his isolation from others is actually reaffirmed by the unusual power and, therefore, the rarity of his empathy. It seems that without having received death from the calamus root, the reader cannot fathom the extraordinary identifications that characterize drugged consciousness and, consequently, cannot know what the speaker knows.

Making drug-induced experience comprehensible to others is a pressing problem for Ludlow, as well. In The Hasheesh Eater, he wonders, “What state of mind lies back of, and conditions the capacity to recognize, through symbols, the mental phenomena of another?” (86) His answer to this question is

Plainly this: the two who are in communication must be situated so nearly upon the same plane of thought that they behold the same truths and are affected by the same emotions. In proportion as this condition is violated will two men be unappreciating of each other’s inner states. (86)

It is seriously violated, Ludlow claims, when one man has ingested hashish and the other has not. For the man who is on the drug,

a virtual change of worlds has taken place, through the preternatural scope and activity of all his faculties. Truth has not become expanded, but his vision has grown telescopic; that which others see only as the dim nebula, or do not see at all, he looks into with a penetrating scrutiny which distance, to a great extent, can not evade. Where the luminous mist or the perfect void had been, he finds wondrous constellations of spiritual being, determines their bearings, and reads the law of their sublime harmony. (86)

Yet, when he tries to describe his visions to his “neighbor” who is in the “natural state,” “he finds that to him the symbols which convey the apocalypse to his own mind are meaningless, because, in our ordinary life, the thoughts which they convey have no existence; their two planes are utterly different” (86). For Ludlow, these “planes” can be realigned, not by having the individual who is on hashish describe his mental state to the one who is not, but by having both men use the drug (86-87).

Ludlow argues that an individual’s seemingly particular response to hashish is actually replicated in everyone who uses it. In support of this idea, he employs a fascinating geographical metaphor to explain how identical mental experiences in two different people are possible:

Just as inevitably as two men taking the same direction, and equally favored by Providence, will arrive at the same place, will two persons of similar temperament come to the same territory in hasheesh, see the same mysteries of their being, and get the same hitherto unconceived facts. It is this characteristic which, beyond all gainsaying, provides the definite existence of the most wondrous of the hasheesh-disclosed states of mind. The realm of that stimulus is no vagary; it as much exists as England. We are never so absurd as to expect to see insane men by the dozen all holding to the same hallucination without having had any communication with each other. (178)

The revelations that hashish inspires would seem to be private-(i.e., viewed only in the personal theatre of the user’s mind)-and idiosyncratic-(i.e., filled with images and symbols from his own life). Yet, Ludlow aggressively disrupts this view when he conflates the privacy of a drugged state with the public status of a frequently traversed country and likens the supposed intangibility of altered consciousness to the solidity of England. For Ludlow, drugged consciousness is a collective mental landscape. The features of this landscape are immutable and perceived by all users in the same way. While an individual on hashish travels to this psychological territory by himself through his own individual high, on arrival, he witnesses the same sites as other users, past, present, and future.

In accordance with Ludlow’s idea that mutual drug use fosters a common understanding between the users, Whitman’s poetic speaker leaves off singing about the effects of calamus and instead distributes the root to his friends. Drawing it from the water in “These I Singing in Spring,” he exclaims,

While in poems like “Scented Herbage of My Breast” and “In Paths Untrodden” the speaker attempts to describe the mode of consciousness that calamus incites, here he foregoes these descriptions and shares the root with his companions so that they can experience first-hand the expansion of mental capacities that he feels but fails to put into words.

Although the speaker of the “Calamus” poems does not, like Ludlow, figure drugged consciousness as an unchanging terrestrial place, he does, in “Roots and Leaves Themselves Alone,” represent it as a mode of awareness that is as predictable and communal as Ludlow’s landmass. Beginning with the phrase “Calamus taste,” the poem invokes a scene of plant/root consumption (LG 359). The speaker then refers methodically, as James Miller has noted, “to all the senses (the odor and sight of the flowers, the sound of the birds, the touch of the breeze, the taste of’frostmellow’d berries’)” (77). Invoking scent, sight, sound, touch, and taste after ingesting the plant, the speaker links calamus to heightened sense perception. The reader can experience this same exaggerated sensitivity, he promises, by following his example:

If the addressee puts calamus “within” himself, providing it with the “warmth,” “the aliment and the wet” of his physical body, the plant will “open, and bring form, color, and perfume” to him in what sounds like a multi-sense hallucination. This experience, the speaker assures the reader, will not differ from the one that he has described, but will be “unfolded on the same old terms”; in the same way that such visions have “come slowly up out” of him, they will “come slowly up out of you.” Indeed, it appears that calamus is “the token of comrades” because its users are bound together by a uniformity of perception (LG 348).

In “Roots and Leaves Themselves Alone,” Whitman describes the homogeneity of drug experience that, according to Ludlow, leads to an efficientform of information transference. This mode of communication depends on the drug user’s ability to intuit the mental state of other users, a skill that Ludlow exercises as he monitors a friend, who is in the throes of hashish-induced ecstasy:

The connection which his peculiar state of sensitiveness had established between us, made us, for all purposes of sensation and perception, wholly one. I was able to follow him through all his ecstatic wanderings, to see what he saw, feel what he felt, as vividly as it is possible without myself having taken hasheesh. . . . It might have happened . . . from my former thorough acquaintance with all such states. (179)

Because Ludlow knows first-hand about the quality of drugged consciousness, he can participate vicariously in his friend ‘s visions simply by considering his own. Through self-contemplation, he inhabits the mind of his companion and, in this way, saves him from struggling to convey what cannot be put into words. In short, by bringing them both to the same state, hashish maintains the private nature of their respective “trips” while reconciling these discrete encounters with communal experience. This superimposition of the personal onto the communal makes it possible for Ludlow and his friend to know each other without speaking and without using any system of external signs.

A similar method of exchanging personal information without the aide of representation seems to be at work in the “Calamus” poems. In Whitman’s Journey into Chaos: A Psychoanalytic Study of the Poetic Process, Stephen Black astutely observes that, “As ‘Calamus’ develops, Whitman’s lovers become increasingly silent and intuitive” (198). The soundless communication to which Black refers occurs frequently throughout the poems but is illustrated particularly well in “Of the Terrible Doubt of Appearances.” Here, the speaker contemplates the nature of reality and illusion, and his questions on these issues “are curiously / answered by my lovers, my dear friends” (LG 353).

In an attempt to explain these recurring moments of satisfied silence, Black argues that Whitman converts his sexual fantasies about his mother into “the sorts of friendships that occur in the preadolescent period of sexual latency-‘Calamus’ friendships” (208). Whitman seems to want to protect these fantasy friendships, Black continues, by “abolish [ing] actual social exchanges altogether” and enforcing “intuitive communion” among his lovers (211). By tracing this quiet concord to regressive fantasies of the pre-oedipal stage, however, Black subjects a mid-nineteenth-century text to a later psychoanalytic framework. Far more than an anachronistic theory, Ludlow’s descriptions of discrete but homogeneous drug experiences provide a temporally and culturally appropriate context in which to read the mutual knowledge, attained through extra-lingual communication, that we see between the poetic speaker and his comrades.

This kind of silent connection, Ludlow suggests, can be established not only between the user and his friends, but also with complete strangers. He writes that “wherever this drug comes in contact with a sensitive organization, the same fruit of supernatural beauty or horror will characterize the visions produced. It is hasheesh which makes both the Syrian and the Saxon Oriental” (64). Whether here or elsewhere in the world, the drug will affect anyone with a mind susceptible to stimulation. Given this incredibly broad criterion, Ludlow seems to be arguing for the potential universality of drugged consciousness when he says that hashish users “apprehend real truths common to all humanity, and needing but some instrument of intense insight to bring them forth” (181).

Whitman makes a similar sweeping gesture when he extends the innate capacity for altered consciousness beyond his immediate circle (“them that love, as I / myself am capable of loving”) to men all over the United States. In “To the East and to the West,” he writes,

Like the common psychological and physiological structures that facilitate drugged consciousness, the “germs” that make “a superb friendship” possible are present “in all men.” This special friendship seems to be the same as the death-like affection that, earlier in the poems, he had claimed was the effect of the calamus root. In light of this causal relationship, it would seem that the intense fraternal quality that “waits, and has been always wait- / ing, latent in all men,” waits only, to borrow the words of Ludlow, for “some instrument of intense insight,” like the calamus root, “to bring [it] forth” (181).

Moreover, because the calamus root activates a potential for shared feeling, the speaker can “depict” the New Englander, “the man of the Seaside State,” the Pennsylvanian, “the Kanadian,” and “the Southerner” as he would depict himself; he can inhabit the mental state of any of his compatriots simply by inhabiting his own. In “These I Singing in Spring,” we see how this interchangeability of consciousness allows American men who-in terms of geography-should be strangers, to be the most intimate of friends.

Indeed, throughout the “Calamus” poems, Whitman reproduces the discourse of drugged consciousness that is exemplified in Ludlow’s The Hasheesh Eater. Considering that Ludlow wrote about cannabis and Whitman about the calamus root, however, is it reasonable to suppose that the same rhetoric could accommodate these dissimilar drugs by adequately representing the particular psychobiological states that they produce? This question may answered by reflecting on the practice, beginning in 1857when The Hasheesh Eater debuted, of likening Ludlow’s work to De Quincey’s Confessions ofanEnglish Opium-Eater (Dulchinos 81-90). While exploring the motives of reviewers who perpetuated this practice, Donald P. Dulchinos, Ludlow’s biographer, downplays the importance of the texts’ similarities in representation and questions the utility of comparing accounts that detail the effects of two very different drugs. “It was clear,” he writes, “that De Quincey was the easy comparison for reviewers, as well as a selling point for the book, but the confusion of a mild psychedelic substance like hashish with a true narcotic like opium is something that has persisted even to the present day” (87).

It is also possible that critics ignored the differences between hashish and opium because the tropes, imagery, and phraseology of The Hasheesh Eater encouraged the homogenization of diverse drugged states. Explaining the formal resemblances between his narrative of hashish use and De Quincey’s account of an opium-eater, Ludlow writes,

As the bard who would sing of heroes follows the blind old harper of Ionia along that immortal corridor of resounding song which first made Greece imperishable, and tells his battles in the Epic, not the Elegy, so must every man hereafter, who opens the mysteries ofthat great soul within him, speak, so far as he can, down the channels through which Thomas De Quincey has spoken, nor out of vain perversity refuse to use a passage which the one grand pioneer has made free to all. (10)

This passage is important because it shows that Ludlow’s interpretation of how hashish alters his consciousness is not contingent upon any specific psychobiological effects that the drug causes. Rather, in the same way that loss and heroic action can be identified through the generic elements of elegy and epic, respectively, his altered mental state, despite the uniqueness of its cause, is made recognizable and therefore communicable through a preexisting set of rhetorical strategies. By using this same rhetoric, Whitman’s “Calamus” poems go beyond signifying the distinct pleasures of calamus intoxication and implicitly refer to the Confessions, to The Hasheesh Eater, and to the many American texts that participated in the trend of depicting druginduced modes of perception. The “Calamus” poems repeat and, through this repetition, work toward consolidating a generalized, yet coherent, rhetoric of drugged consciousness.


The “Calamus” poems’ reproduction of this rhetoric is largely without consequence unless we ask the following question: How does the language of drug use and the substance upon which this language elaborates-the calamus root-relate to the issues of interpersonal connection that Whitman raises throughout his poetry? That is, how does Whitman’s repetition slightly modify and extend the discourse that it repeats?

It may be that the rhetoric and the central symbol of the “Calamus” poems reflect Whitman’s desire to depict and to establish the ideal reader/writer relationship.15 Throughout Leaves of Grass, the speaker attempts to describe the proper conditions under which the reader should receive his poetry. These descriptions often recognize the role money plays in the circulation of text. For instance, in “Song for Occupations,” he explains,

The speaker’s claim that he will “take no sooner a large price than a small price” indicates that he is not interested in making money; he acknowledges the desire for profit that customarily impels the exchange between the writer and his audience only to disavow its importance. His disinterest seems to be the result of his quest for equality: “I will be even with you, and you shall be even with me,” he declares. If the speaker’s intention were to generate a profit, such equality would be impossible because, financially, he would be at the mercy of his consumer/reader.

With its trivialization of commodity cost and its concern for the economic degradation of the writer, “A Song for Occupations” gestures toward the gift economy that is perhaps most explicitly articulated in “To Rich Givers”:

Here, the speaker effaces the financial transaction that links the writer to the reader by transforming the reader’s payment into primarily non-monetary gifts like “A little sustenance, a hut and garden” or “lodging and breakfast. “As a result of this transformation, the speaker no longer depends upon the public’s decision to purchase his poetry but, instead, requires the benevolence of gift-givers for shelter, food, and the necessities of life. He seems to sense that he has traded one form of subordination for another and his anxiety with regard to his position is clear when he asks the reader,

The speaker’s anxiety quickly changes to a sense of empowerment, however, as he converts his poetry into a gift that is far more valuable than anything that his audience could give him. “I know,” he assures the reader, “that what I bestow upon any man or / woman is no less than the entrance to all the / gifts of the universe” (LG 399). Claiming that the “gifts of the universe” can only be accessed through what he bestows, the speaker makes his poetry anterior to all other gifts and establishes it as the condition of possibility for the act of gift-giving. In this way, he reverses the balance of power that had existed earlier in the poem and assumes a position of power over the reader. Simply put, the gift-economy that had seemed like a solution to the inequality of commodity-exchange only introduces the problem in a different form by inverting the original hierarchical structure. And while the speaker here appears to relish the inversion, in “A Song for Occupations” and elsewhere, he is clearly uncomfortable with the idea of being above his audience:

Because of his commitment to democratic principles, the speaker is mostly dissatisfied with and occasionally ambivalent toward the asymmetrical relationships that commercial and gift-economies foster.

Yet, the speaker of “A Song for Occupations” goes beyond critiquing these undemocratic relationships and delineates how a more equitable reader/writer connection might function. He explains that, in this alternative mode of connection,

The passage above is structured like a riddle: the speaker mystifies the subject of his discourse-“what you much need, yet always have”-by using the pronouns “what” and “It,” while illuminating the particular referent of these generic markers through clues. By likening it to “hearing” and to “sight,” the speaker seems to suggest that the subject of the riddle is one of the remaining three senses. If we consider, however, the lack of emphasis in these lines on the particularities of touch, taste, and smell, and recall the speaker’s concern, expressed earlier in the poem, with a broad range of perception experiences, then it seems that the “It” in question is not a specific sense, but the senses taken collectively as consciousness itself.

This last reading is troubled by the general activity that characterizes consciousness; consciousness actualizes internal and external phenomena, essentially calling these objects into existence for the perceiving individual. On the other hand, in the grammar of the poem, the subject of the riddle is the object upon which the world acts: the “nearest, commonest, and readiest” “hin[t]” at and “endlessly provok[e]” it. Through this reversal of agency, the effects of consciousness point toward and, indeed, showcase their cause. For example, when the speaker asks the reader, “What is there ready and near you now?” he is asking him to think about the sights, smells, feelings, sounds, and even tastes of his surroundings. By demanding that the reader contemplate the products of his awareness, the speaker directs him to exercise and focus on the consciousness that realizes his environment, creates the effects, and makes possible an answer.

After turning the reader’s consciousness upon itself by asking him to study its operations and their consequences, the speaker proceeds to record all of the “provokers” that “The pulses of your brain, waiting their chance and encouragement / at every deed or sight,” process (LG 150). The list of “what you behold or touch, or what causes your / anger or wonder” is diverse and extends from “the ankle-chain of the slave” and “the cards of the gambler” to “Every-day objects, house-chairs, carpet, bed,” and the “counterpane of the bed” (LG 150-152). Though the range is wide, the descriptions of these objects are often extremely detailed. This high level of detail is illustrated when the speaker claims that the reader perceives not only the “steam-engine” but also the

Randall Jarrell notes that the all-inclusive catalogues, which we find throughout Leaves of Grass, are linguistic representations of the Whitmanian speaker’s heightened perception. Celebrating these breath takingly expansive inventories, he asks, “in modern times what controlling, organizing, selecting poet has created a world with so much in it as Whitman’s, a world that so plainly is the world?” (127-28).16 Savoring all objects and actions, from the majestic to the mundane, the speaker, Randall argues, enjoys an exaggerated sensitivity that allows him to see with “the freshness of childhood,” and that makes the world “inexhaustibly interesting” (130). In “A Song for Occupations,” when the speaker painstakingly itemizes the details that are foregrounded by an imaginary reader’s supernormal powers of attention, he seems to be inviting the actual reader to share in the kind of increased awareness that Jarrell describes. The actual reader could mentally register the multiple and various features of the slave, the gambler, and the steam-engine and identify with the imaginary reader only if he were to arrive at a state of extremely intensified consciousness-a mode of consciousness that matches the speaker’s own.

It is to this hyperconsciousness that the speaker seems to refer when he says, “I bring what you much need, yet always have.” Because the reader already has the capacity for elevated sense perception, the speaker “send[s] no agent or medium” and “offer [s] no representative of value” to alert him of a mental lack. But, by the same token, if the reader already possesses it, then the speaker cannot actually “bring” it to him like a gift or a commodity that exists outside of the mind and that is produced, distributed, and consumed among participants in an economic system. What he can bring is something that would stimulate the reader’s innate mental abilities to view the world as he, the speaker, views it-with a constant feeling of awe and wonder-and that, through this stimulation, would enable two isolated minds to participate on the same level of consciousness. Through awaking faculties that are original with the reader and inciting a state of interpersonal equality, such a substance would enable the speaker to avoid the pitfalls that result from being either above the reader as a gift-giver or below him as an economic dependant. Represented as hallucinogenic vehicles through which individuals can simultaneously experience isolation and community, the calamus roots/poems that Whitman distributes to his lovers/readers in “These I Singing in Spring” are ideal instruments and symbols of this kind of reader/writer relationship.

The root not only provides Whitman with an emblem of and a language for the ideal reader/writer relationship, but also has implications for his vision of democracy. In Democratic Vistas, he explains,

For to democracy, the leveler, the unyielding principle of the average, is surely join’d another principle, equally unyielding, closely tracking the first, indispensable to it, opposite, (as the sexes are opposite,) and whose existence, confronting and ever modifying the other, often clashing, paradoxical, yet neither of highest avail without the other, plainly supplies to these grand cosmic politics of ours, and to the launch’d forth mortal dangers of republicanism, to-day or any day, the counterpart and offset whereby Nature restrains the deadly original relentlessness of all her first-class laws. This second principle is individuality, the pride and centripetal isolation of a human being in himself-identity-personalism. Whatever the name, its acceptance and thorough infusion through the organizations of political commonality now shooting Aurora-like about the world, are of utmost importance, as the principle itself is needed for very life’s sake. It forms, in a sort, or is to form, the compensating balance-wheel of the successful working machinery of aggregate America. (982)

A close reading of the “Calamus” poems suggests that the root preserves the “centripetal isolation” of the speaker by exciting his senses and creating a singular mode of consciousness. Although his ineffable visions cause him to become self-absorbed, these same experiences and the radical solitude that they produce can be duplicated in anyone who consumes the root. By bringing about the same results in individual users, calamus becomes a force that simultaneously separates citizens and unites them. In his struggle to resolve the American paradox of the individual and the mass, Whitman seems to offer the language of drug use as a way of thinking about how strangers might maintain their separateness while developing the commonality that patriotism requires.


In Walt Whitman’s America: A Cultural Biography, David Reynolds observes that Whitman was reluctant to forge a language of nationalism from the discourse of politics and that, instead, he chose to draw from other areas of American culture (146,153). In his search for alternative words and expressions that could ease the tension existing between the individual and the mass, the state and the union, Whitman’s “omnivorous imagination,” he notes, “profited from recent developments in popular performance, science, literature, sexual discourse, and the visual arts” (153). While such a list helps to create a more nuanced picture of the historical moment in which Whitman lived, it does not necessarily indicate how his participation in and manipulation of these discursive fields can open up new ways of approaching some of the major issues that confront us today. My goal in this essay has been to show how the “Calamus” poems transform the rhetoric of drugged consciousness, as exemplified in the work of Whitman’s contemporary, Fitz Hugh Ludlow, into a language of national unity. This transformation is important because it has the potential to disrupt our conventional thinking with regard to the relationship between psychoactive substances and the state.

That mind-altering substances had the power to debilitate useful citizens, threaten state authority and, ultimately, dissolve a cohesive nation was a fear that was prevalent during Whitman’s time and is even stronger in ours. It was expressed by Charles Baudelaire, who believed that “If there were a government in whose interest it was to corrupt its subjects, the only thing necessary would be to encourage the use of hashish” (27). Throughout the 19th century, it was believed that China provided the clearest illustration of how drug use negatively affected citizens and states. China, Morgan writes, “remained the great emotional example of what opium allegedly did to the values necessary for modern life. She could never become great until she cast it off. It produced sloth instead of energy, drift instead of plans, dreams instead of truth” (50). Jack Kerouac extended this imaginary connection between drugs and national destruction into the 20tn century; he was “sure that [LSD] had been introduced to America by the Russians as part of a plot to weaken the country” (qtd. in Plant 134). In 1989, the danger that drugs posed to the stability of the United States was perceived as so great that George H.W. Bush, then President Reagan’s drug tsar, “named the Department of Defense the ‘single lead agency’ for the monitoring and the detection of drug routes into the United States” (Plant 260). As this delegation of duty shows, Bush believed that drugs represented a threat to national security that required a military response. In a post-September 11th political climate, television advertisements attempt to link terrorist organizations with marijuana and cocaine distribution, demonstrating that the idea of drugs as dangerous foreign enemies and the demand for a martial response to them remains popular even today.

Foregrounding alternative meanings by simultaneously deploying and subverting the rhetoric of his time, Whitman, in the “Calamus” poems, encourages us to consider how mindaltering substances could be integral to U.S. nationality at a cultural moment when we can only articulate the nation’s relationship to drugs through the terminology of warfare. It is possible that, until now, we have overlooked Whitman’s poetic incorporation of a psychoactive root because his notions with regard to the personal and public usefulness of such a drug differ drastically from our own. After all, we have been educated by ad campaigns and school programs insisting that drugs are inevitably connected to addiction, death, and the dissolution of the social fabric. Through this influence, many of us have been rendered insensitive to the more optimistic meanings that Whitman makes available. On the other hand, maybe we have been willfully blind to this aspect of the “Calamus” poems because Whitman is often celebrated as the national poet. Illustrating through form and content, the freedom, spontaneity, and equality that is traditionally associated with the United States, Leaves of Grass is an American anthem and its author is an American icon. We may be reluctant to admit that this icon explored and found a positive political use for a mode of consciousness that our government prohibits today.

1 For more on representations of drug use and drugged consciousness in 19th-century literary works, see Sadie Plant’s Writing on Drugs; Alethea Hayter’s Opium and the Romantic Imagination (Berkeley: U of California P, 1968); Lawrence Driscoll’s Reconsidering Drugs: Mapping Victorian and Modern Drug Discourses (New York: Palgrave, 2000); and Nicholas O. Warner’s Spirits of America: Intoxication in Nineteenth-Century American Literature (Norman: U of Oklahoma P, 1997).

2 For more on the publication and reception of the Confessions in England and the United States, see Julian North’s De Quincey Reviewed: Thomas De Quincey’s Critical Reception, 1821-1944 (Columbia, SC: Camden House, 1997) 7-48; Hayter’s Introduction (Confessions of an English Opium Eater. By Thomas De Quincey. New York: Penguin Books, 1971) 21-22; Grevel Lindop’s The Opium-Eater. A Life of Thomas De Quincey (London: J. M. Dent & Sons, 1981) 238-263, 364-388; and Alina Clej’s The Genealogy of the Modern Self: Thomas De Quincey and the Intoxication of Writing (Stanford: Stanford UP, 1995) viii-ix.

3 For more on De Quincey’s influence on Poe, see Hayter (note 1 above) 132-50; Lindop (note 2 above) 248, 392; and Nicholas O. Warner (note 1 above) 67-93.

4 For more on Ludlow’s position as the “American counterpart to De Quincey” and a discussion of how he typified “the public stereotype of those who deliberately experimented with drugs,” see Morgan 55. Critics of the 1850s constantly likened Ludlow to De Quincey; for a representative sampling of these comparisons, see Dulchinos 81-90. For Ludlow’s own account of his facility with De Quincey’s rhetoric, see Ludlow 9-10.

5 For more on Whitman’s use of temperance rhetoric, see Michael Warner’s “Whitman Drunk” (Breaking Bounds: Whitman and American Cultural Studies. Ed. Betsy Erkkila and Jay Grossman. New York: Oxford UP, 1996. 30-44).

6 Before Prohibition, drugs were often thought to produce safer and more pleasant effects than alcohol. For more on this subject, see Morgan 27, 34, 56, 88-90, and John Rublowsky’s The Stoned Age: A History of Drugs in America (New York: G. P. Putnam’s Sons, 1974) 123-125, 132-33.

7 For more on early reports of recreational drug use, see Brian Inglis’s The Forbidden Game: A Social History of Drugs (New York: Charles Scribner’s Sons, 1975) 110-115; Rublowsky (note 5 above) 126; and Morgan 27, 54-56.

8 For more on the tension in Whitman’s poetry between particularity and representativeness, read against the background of mid-nineteenth-century American politics, see Mitchell Breitwieser’s “Who Speaks in Whitman’s Poems?” (The American Renaissance: New Dimensions. Ed Harry R. Gavin and Peter C. Carafiol. Lewisberg, PA: Bucknell UP, 1983. 121-143); see also Wai Ghee Dimock’s Residues of Justice: Literature, Law, Philosophy (Berkeley: U of California P, 1996) 113-120.

9 For more on the legality, cost, and distribution of drugs in American society, see Plant 5-8; Morgan 2-4, 7-8, 10-43; and Rublowsky (note 5 above) 99, 123-25, 127.

10 For more on how expectations both shaped and conflicted with actual drug experience, see Inglis (note 6 above) 110-115, and Morgan 56-57. For more on the use of chloral hydrate, cannabis, opiates, and tranquilizers by women, see Morgan 15, 20, 32, 38-41, 106, 157-158, 183.

11 For more on the association between drug use and anti-social, non-reproductive pleasures, see Driscoll (note 1 above) 14, 15, 47, 57-58.

12 Further references to Leaves of Grass will be to this facsimile of the 1860 edition and will be cited parenthetically in the text as LG. Although the poems in the 1860 text are numbered, I will, for simplicity, refer to them by the titles that they have in the 1892 edition.

13 Many critics celebrate the speaker’s intense identifications with members of marginalized groups as democratic. For a reading in this category, see Betsy Erkkila’s Whitman the Political Poet (New York: Oxford UP, 1989) 7. For critics who denounce his identifications as the unmerited assumption of the struggle of others and as the effacement of difference, see Lawrence, and also Doris Sommer’s “Supplying Demand: Walt Whitman as the Liberal Self (Reinventing the Americas: Comparative Studies of Literature of the United States and Spanish America. Ed. Bell Gale Chevigny and Gari Laguardia. Cambridge, Eng.: Cambridge UP, 1986. 68-91).

14 Whitman believed that his country would continue to expand and often spoke of Canada as if it were to be annexed by the United States. Imagining the future shape of America, he writes,

In a few years the dominion-heart of America will be far inland, toward the West. Our future national capital may not be where the present one is. It is possible, nay likely, that in less than fifty years, it will migrate a thousand or two miles, will be re-founded, and every thing belonging to it made on a different plan, original, far more superb. The main social, political, spine-character of the States will probably run along the Ohio, Missouri and Mississippi rivers, and west and north of them, including Canada.

See Whitman, Democratic Vistas 975-976.

1 ”For the argument that the calamus root can metaphorically bring about an equitable and seemingly unmediated mental experience between the speaker and his reader, I am drawing from Rzepka’s Sacramental Commodities: Gift, Text, and the Sublime in De Quincey. Rzepka argues that, in the Confessions, De Quincey conflates his text with opium, and when he gives this drug to the Malay who knocks on his door, he is attempting to submerge “the profit motive that presumably drives the commercial transaction between him and his audience” (8). Indeed, by interpreting Dc Quincey’s encounter with this strange visitor as a “scene of literary reception,” we learn that “the reader is to accept the Confessions as a gift rather than as a commodity, and to return ‘worship’ and gratitude, not just specie, to the giver” (8-9). This “kind of gift reception,” Rzepka continues, “assumes the form of a sacrament, in which the gift of opium becomes a transubstantiated sacred host, a fetishized ’embodiment’ of the power of its bestower” (10). In my application of Rzepka’s idea to Whitman’s poetry, the calamus root does not astonish the lover/reader with the speaker’s power. Instead, by enabling him to inhabit the same mental space as the speaker, the calamus root impresses the reader with their equality.

16 For more on the significance and function of Whitman’s lists, see Stanley Coffman’s “‘Crossing Brooklyn Ferry”: A Note on the Catalog Technique in Whitman’s Poetry” (Modern Philology 2 [1954]:225-232); Tenny Nathanson’s Whitman’s Presence: Body, Voice, and Writing in “Leaves of Grass” (New York: New York UP, 1992) 30-53; and Quentin Anderson’s The Imperial Self: An Essay in American Literary Cultural History (New York: Knopf, 1971) 88-165.


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TRACY AUCLAIR is a graduate student at the University of California, Berkeley, who studies 19th-century American literature.

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