Like the Cumberland Gap, Raton Pass played an important role in U.S. history: it allowed travel between Independence, Missouri, and Santa Fe, which was part of Spanish territory in North America. Santa Fe was, in fact, the single most important town in the northern part of the Spanish empire. Because Spain feared that France, Great Britain, or the United States might try to take over the southwest territories, they forbid residents of Santa Fe to trade with these nations.
But in 1821 Mexicans fought the War of Independence, in which they demanded an end to Spanish rule, a redistribution of land, and racial equality. One of the first things the newly independent Mexico did was to open trade between Mexico and the United States.
Immediately the rush was on to reach Santa Fe. In 1821 William Becknell, a Missouri trader, took pack mules and horses loaded with $300 of goods into Santa Fe. He sold the horses, mules, and goods (cloth and tools) for $6,000.
The following year Becknell loaded three large wagons with $3,000 worth of goods. He knew it was impossible to get wagons over steep, narrow, and rocky Raton Pass, so he tried a southern route across the Cimarron Desert. Called Jornado del Muerta by Mexicans, the desert proved a disaster — in order to survive, Becknell and his men had to drink the blood of their mules and kill a buffalo and drink the water from its stomach. To continue the Journey of Death would invite further disaster and, quite possibly, death. The traders turned around and headed north into the mountains to Raton Pass — a much more difficult route, but at least one that had water.
Mountain Range: Raton Mountains, a spur of the Sangre de Cristo Mountains.
Elevation: 7,834 feet
Location: On the border between Colorado and New Mexico. near the Carson National Forest.
In order to get their heavily-laden wagons over Raton, the traders unloaded the goods from each wagon, took each wagon apart, and carried the goods and wagon parts up Raton. Once they reached a wider trail, they reassembled and reloaded the wagons — and proceeded to the next narrowing of the trail, where they repeated the process. Though the trip was extremely difficult, they made a lot of money — $91,000 in sales.
Hundreds of other traders followed Becknell, hauling 6,000 pounds of goods per wagon, traveling the 800-mile Santa Fe trail in approximately 50 days. And they took these wagons over Raton Pass, where they struggled to average a half a mile a day.
The Santa Fe Trail, established by William Becknell, is commemorated by historic markers, including one at Raton Pass.
The Goodnight-Loving Trail, also commemorated by historic markers, allowed goods to move through Raton Pass from south to north — the opposite of Becknell’s direction. In this case, the goods actually moved themselves: they consisted of longhorn cattle.
When the Spanish friars who had set up missions throughout Texas and New Mexico abandoned these buildings, they left behind their cattle, which became wild. When Americans moved into Texas, more than 100,000 head of these long-horned animals roamed the range. Some Texans rounded them up and drove them north to Missouri and Kansas, selling them at high prices. Most of these cattle drivers took the Chisholm Trail north to Kansas. But after the Civil War, Oliver Loving and Charles Goodnight headed west, not north.
In June of 1866 Goodnight and Loving set out with eighteen armed cowboys and 2,000 head of cattle. They drove the cattle west, straight across the dangerous Llano Estacado. Unlike William Becknell, Goodnight and Loving were able to cross the harsh land. However, they did lose 200 head of longhorns which, water-starved, stampeded when they smelled the Pecos River. The cattle rushed headlong over the bluffs, falling into the Pecos, where 200 of them drowned.
After regrouping, the cowboys and herd moved west, where Goodnight and Loving sold most of the longhorns to the Army at Fort Sumner, in New Mexico Territory. Goodnight went back to Texas with the profits, while Loving headed north to Raton Pass, driving the remaining 800 head of cattle. He sold them in Denver, then returned to Texas.
For opening up travel and transportation between east and west, north and south, Mexico and the U.S., Raton Pass is an important part of U.S. history.
Sometimes what is obvious to fans isn’t necessarily obvious to the writers. I speak of pigs.
Yes, pigs: one of the most populous large mammals in the world, with more than one billion of them rooting around at any given time.
I grew up with pigs. Sort of. My uncle owned a dairy farm on which he also raised pigs. Along with my cousins, I slopped the hogs each day, carrying heavy buckets of food scraps (Phew!) and dumping them over the rail and into the hog troughs. So, yes, I know about swine.
In fact, swine barged into my first early reader, Waltur Buys a Pig in a Poke and Other Stories [Houghton, 2005]. Although that book contained three stories, each about an idiom (don’t buy a pig in a poke; don’t count your chickens before they’re hatched; you can lead a horse to water but you can’t make it drink), readers both juvenile and adult never ooh-ed and ahh-ed about the chickens or the horse — it was the pig they went gaga over.
While the success of that book led me to write another, Waltur Paints Himself into a Corner and Other Stories [Houghton, 2006], it never led me down the path of writing about pigs. That is, I never said to myself: Gee, readers seem to love pigs, maybe I should create a pig character in something I write.
I wasn’t aware of the pig character. But the pig character, it seems, was aware of me.
Biding its time.
Which is why, as I was writing my second mystery novel, Sound Proof, a pig suddenly, unexpectedly, and definitely popped up behind my detective as he was studying an anomaly on the back porch of a farmhouse.
I did not consciously create this situation: the pig just popped up. The story is set on a farm, and the pig lives on the farm. His name is Richard. He roams around creating havoc here and there. Richard is a pet pig, belonging to the music festival organizer, Mary Ployd. In fact, Mary is secretly convinced that it will be Richard, not Frank Dragovic, who solves the mystery of who has been stealing guitars and dulcimers from the festival each year. Never mind that Frank’s also working on solving a murder — Mary is far more interested in the stolen instruments.
So Richard barged into my book and tried to steal the leading role (I prevented this). Writing all of this came natural to me, I guess, because pigs were part of my childhood.
What I didn’t expect, however, was the fact that almost everybody who read Sound Proof would say to me, “I loved the pig.”
Obviously, the 500-pound Richard made a huge impact on fans.
But this is just background to what I really discovered about mystery fans and pigs.
A couple of months ago I purchased a program called KDP Rocket, which allows me to come up with more relevant keywords and categories for the books I self-publish, thus presumably increasing my sales.
One of my original keywords for Sound Proof was simply “pigs,” because Richard plays a role in the novel. But with KDP Rocket, I could type in various phrases to see which garnered more reader hits. So there I sat at my keyboard trying various phrases.
And I thought, Why not try pigs in mystery. It seemed a bit far-fetched, I know. I mean, how many times would somebody search for such a phrase on Amazon?
Well, the very first thing I learned was that I have eighty-three competitors! Eighty-three! Eighty-three other people have somehow or other written about pigs in their mystery novels! Not just present-day mysteries, but mysteries set in the time of the Roman Empire. And these novels sell well.
Perhaps because of the pigs, perhaps for other reasons.
I also learned that people search for pigs in mystery maybe 100 times a month on Amazon
Totally convinced, I changed my pig keyword to pigs in mystery.
All I have to do now is rewrite my promotional material to feature the pig. Frank Dragovic isn’t going to like that. But hey, he’s still one up on Richard because he, Frank, solved the mystery.
I often hear people use the expression “royal blood,” as in “she has royal blood in her veins.” They say this in all seriousness — as if there is such a thing as royal blood, identifiable under the microscope. I’d like to think they use this expression unthinkingly, but I suspect otherwise.
Here’s a poem I wrote during an irate moment when I read in a serious book on genealogy that somebody had “royal blood.”
Royal blood my ass.
Myth — poison strewn about by the ruling class, like grain to chickens.
Though science yields no proof, brain-weakened peeps believe in blue blood, deemed superior to the red that flows without recompense to keep the blue enthroned.
Arise! Fly this coop of lies!
Royal blood? Show some common sense.
Crossing the Skyway is Barbara Gregorich’s first collection of poems. Some day she will publish a second collection.
During Thomas Jefferson’s second term, Congress passed the Embargo Act of 1807, forbidding Americans to trade with Great Britain or its dominions such as Canada. This meant that citizens would have to buy products manufactured in the United States rather than less expensive ones made abroad.
The passage and enforcement of the Embargo Act caused economic hardship for many Vermonters, who had an established route of trade with Canada and had been trading with Montreal merchants for several generations. Herding their cattle northward, Vermonters traded them for silk, lace, and whiskey. Hauling home the trade goods, they then sold them throughout New England. Many Vermont traders were so infuriated by the Embargo Act that they refused to obey the law and thus became smugglers.
At first the smugglers used ships to sneak in Montreal goods: sailing a ship on Lake Champlain was much easier than carrying crates on horseback or foot through thick forests and over hard mountains. But the government appointed law officers, called revenue men, to capture and imprison the smugglers. In June of 1808 ten revenue officers under the command of Chief James Watson stopped the Black Snake, a boat carrying smuggled goods on Lake Champlain. The smugglers fired on the revenuers, who shot back. One officer was killed and Chief Watson was badly wounded. The other side fared worse: one smuggler was killed, two badly wounded, five captured — and the government confiscated the Black Snake. The prisoners were tried for murder and smuggling: one was executed and four went to prison for life. But Sandy McPherson, the captain of the Black Snake, eluded capture.
After capturing the Black Snake the government agents guarded Lake Champlain so well that smugglers dared not use their water route — they resorted to the slower, more difficult method of smuggling goods over land. In order to do that, they had to cross the Green Mountains at some point. The pass they chose was a high, dangerous one between Mount Mansfield and Sterling Peak. (Mount Mansfield is Vermont’s highest peak, standing at 4,383 feet.) In places the notch was so narrow that people and horses edged single file along a ridge with 1,000-foot drop-offs.
Not only were there drop-offs: there was snow. Because passes are lower than the surrounding mountains, they fill with snow. And fill. And fill. The normal snowfall in Smugglers Notch, for example, is 271” a winter — that’s almost 23’ of snow, as high as a two-story house. To be trapped in a mountain pass filled with snow and to be unable to walk across that snow would mean death. The smugglers were experienced winter travelers: they wore snowshoes.
If the smugglers thought that nobody would find them or the smuggled laces, silks, and whiskey that they hid in the notch’s many caves, they were wrong. Henry Matthews, recently graduated from the University of Vermont, joined the revenue service: after Chief Watson was wounded in the battle with the Black Snake, Matthews was put in charge of finding Sandy McPherson and his gang. Henry Matthews did not suspect how personal this assignment would become.
According to local history pamphlets and magazine articles, the following story is true. A young woman named Anna Barry lived in Burlington with her father and their large Newfoundland dog, Wolf. During the summer of 1808 Sandy McPherson asked Mr. Barry to help the smugglers by hiding their goods on his property. Anna’s father refused. McPherson vowed revenge. He waited until a day in August when Mr. Barry and Wolf were gone. Then he forced his way into the house and demanded that Anna tell him where her father kept his money. When she wouldn’t tell him, McPherson kidnapped Anna and left a ransom note asking $1,000 for her return. Anna Barry was Henry Matthews’ fiancé.
Northern Vermont was a land of rugged mountains and rushing rivers, with yowling catamounts prowling the thick forests. McPherson must have felt that nobody could find him and the cave in which he kept smuggled goods. That night he took Anna to the cave, a huge twenty-foot by thirty-foot room hidden from the outside by jutting rocks. Boxes of smuggled goods were piled high inside the cave, which was in Smugglers Notch. McPherson, Anna, and several other smugglers spent the night there.
According to legend, Mr. Barry returned home that evening with Henry Matthews. As soon as they saw what had happened, they found the kidnapper’s footprints and commanded Wolf: Find Anna. Putting his nose to the scent, Wolf followed the trail, leading Henry Matthews and Mr. Barry to the secret cave by morning. Matthews found a way through the rocks into the cave. He saw the boxes of smuggled goods; he felt the warm ashes of a recent fire. But he did not find Anna.
Mountain Range: Green Mountains Elevation: 2,162 feet Grade: 7-15% Location: Vermont, in the Mount Mansfield National Forest, in Smuggler’s Notch State Forest.
Early that same morning, Sandy McPherson had set off through the wilderness with Anna. For two full days they traveled through thick forest until they reached the house of Jake Glass and his wife Molly, both of whom were fellow smugglers. McPherson left, ordering Jake and Molly to keep Anna prisoner.
Barry and Matthews and Wolf continued the search, but eventually Wolf lost the trail. While Mr. Barry continued to search for his daughter, Matthews felt it was his duty to seize the smuggled goods. Taking several men with him, he returned to the cave, captured three smugglers without firing a shot, and confiscated the goods.
Anna did not wait for somebody to rescue her. She watched and waited. After Jake Glass went hunting one morning, Anna locked Molly Glass into a room, gathered food and a blanket, and escaped into the forest, heading in the direction she thought home. For two full days she walked and slept beside fallen logs until, finally, she met an Indian who led her to a white settler’s house. The settler took Anna back to Burlington, where she was reunited with her father, Henry Matthews, and Wolf.
Although every sign warned him to stop smuggling, McPherson thought he was smarter than the revenuers. In September he and six other smugglers returned from Montreal with seven horses loaded with goods. McPherson knew that his Smugglers Notch cave was no longer secret, but he must have thought he could spend one night there anyway.
Close on McPherson’s trail, Henry Matthews and his men surrounded the cave in the middle of the night. When they closed in on the smugglers at daybreak, the revenue men were driven back by gunfire and several were wounded. All morning, afternoon, and evening the gun battle continued. Matthews requested reinforcements from Burlington: he also requested a keg of gunpowder.
Still according to legend, during the middle of the second night Henry Matthews carried the powder keg close to the cave. Then he lit a long fuse and ran. The blast shook the earth, bringing down part of the mountain and killing the smugglers, who were buried with their goods beneath thousands of tons of rock.
Due to the presence and actions of the revenue men, smuggling along the Vermont-Canadian border stopped for nearly a century. In 1809 the unpopular Embargo Act was done away with. But the mountain pass has kept the name it received back then — Smugglers Notch. Escaping slaves used the notch to reach Canada and freedom. During the years of Prohibition, when alcohol was illegal in the United States, Canadian whiskey was smuggled south through the notch, which by that time had a road running through it.
Today Smuggs, as the locals call it, is a highly popular skiing area as well as an official state scenic drive.
I wrote the following piece for Redline: Contemporary Marxist Analysis, and it was published on their site May 1, 2019. I am reprinting the piece as it appeared, with standard English (i.e., not American) spelling.
This month marks the bicentennial of the birth of the great US poet Walt Whitman. The author of the essay below is a Chicago-based historian, novelist, essayist, poet and public speaker – and regular reader of Redline.
Walt Whitman was born in West Hills, on Long Island, New York, on May 31, 1819, in a two-storey house his father, a carpenter, built in 1816. The family roots on Long Island went back to the early 1600s, but there was a qualitative difference between Walter Whitman Senior and his son Walt on one side, and all previous generations of Whitmans on the other. Walter Whitman Sr was born in 1789, the first generation of a new nation. Walt was the second generation of Whitmans born in that new nation.
Beginnings of US literature In that new nation literary men and women were concerned that there was yet no national literature: nothing that reflected an American outlook as opposed to a European outlook. James Fenimore Cooper was one year away from publishing his first book and four years away from publishing The Pioneers, the first of five novels that came to be called The Leatherstocking novels, considered the very first examples of literature that was reflective of the American experience, not a European one.
Edgar Allan Poe was nearly a decade away from his first publication, and even further away from his works of literary criticism, his poetry, and his short stories. Ralph Waldo Emerson would not publish his seminal essays (which included “Self-Reliance” and “Nature”) until the early 1840s. Nathaniel Hawthorne would publish his stories of the legacies of Puritanism during the 1840s, The Scarlet Letter in 1850 and The House of the Seven Gables (depicting the weight of the past upon the present) in 1851. Henry David Thoreau would move to Walden Pond on July 4, 1845. And Herman Melville would publish Moby Dick in 1851.
In short, the new nation’s first ‘national’ literature reflecting American growth, character and conflict was written during the period that Whitman was growing up. The ferment of American literature in those years, the different directions it took and the different values and outlooks it reflected, was new and exciting. It helped shape people’s interpretations of their history, their worth, their failings and their possibilities. A different kind of fermentation was taking place with social structure as utopian socialist societies sprang up everywhere, starting in 1824 and continuing strongly through the 1850s. Among these were George Rapp’s Old Economy Village; Robert Owen’s New Harmony; Adin Ballou’s Hopedale Community; Amos Bronson Alcott’s Fruitlands; the Fourier-influenced Clermont Phalanx and scores of others.
When Walt was four years old, the family moved to Brooklyn due to their worsening economic situation. The young boy grew up in poverty or near-poverty. At the age of eleven he was withdrawn from formal schooling and went to work to help support his family. He worked first as an office boy and then as a printer’s apprentice, learning how to typeset and how to run a printing press – skills that would later serve him well.
Opera and oratory In his teens Whitman learned even more about writing, printing and publishing, moving from one newspaper job to another as circumstances dictated. While living on his own in New York City he frequented the public library, joined a debating society, and published some sentimental, conventional poetry. Every chance he had, he went to the opera (using his journalist’s pass) and rode the ferry, both of which gave him great joy. The oratory skills he learned in the debating society would influence the lines of Leaves of Grass. He practised his debate topics while walking along the oceanside, and he practised lines of Shakespeare as well.
The American public was familiar with oratory, going often to hear public debates on political topics. Among the great debaters of the day was Daniel Webster, nicknamed The Great Orator. Whitman loved oratory, and its cadence and repetition would be heard in “Song of Myself,” just as in the next century it would be heard in the impassioned speeches of United Mine Workers President John L. Lewis and civil rights leader Martin Luther King Jr.
In 1836, at the age of seventeen Whitman returned to Long Island to live with his family, which had moved back earlier. There he worked as a teacher in 1837 and 1838, after which time he moved back to the teeming city of New York. All his life, Whitman felt at home both in the country and in the city, and he loved each, embracing the flora and fauna of rural areas as well as the back-to-back buildings, shops, and houses of the crowded city. Although he would later be influenced by Transcendentalism, he, unlike the Transcendentalists, did not see cities as unnatural. In “Crossing Brooklyn Ferry” he would write:
Burn high your fires, foundry chimneys! cast black shadows at nightfall! cast red and yellow light over the tops of the houses!
Journalist and editor In New York City Whitman continued to work in all aspects of the newspaper business, from owning his own newspaper to writing articles, to typesetting them to printing them to delivering them. As judged by Annette T. Rubinstein in American Literature: Root and Flower, the articles that Whitman wrote were undistinguished and undistinguishable from what others were writing. There was nothing distinct about them: nothing that indicated the torrent of words, emotions, lists, observations, and encouragements that would burst forth in 1855.
From 1846 to 1848 Whitman was editor of the newspaper The Brooklyn Eagle, founded in 1841. While reporting daily news, The Eagle was also a strong supporter of the Democratic Party which, during the 1840s, engineered compromises with slaveholders so that slavery could be expanded in part of the nation and the strength of the slaveholders in Congress not diminished. Whitman was fired from his job as editor of The Brooklyn Eagle because he supported the Free Soil Party and the owner did not. Whitman in fact became a delegate to the founding convention of the Free Soil Party in 1848. (the FSP was a short-lived party that existed to oppose the extension of slavery into new, western territories of the USA. It was led by a former US president, Martin Van Buren.)
The Free Soil Party ran candidates in the 1848 and 1852 elections, but then disintegrated as many of its members joined the Republican Party, founded in 1854 as an anti-slavery party. The great William Lloyd Garrison, who helped found the American Anti-Slavery Society in 1833 and was an active supporter of and participant in the women’s rights movement, scoffed at the Free Soil Party, calling it “white man-ism” to indicate that its proponents were concerned more with allowing white men to farm without the competition of slavery than they were with abolishing slavery or fighting for equality for African-Americans.
Carpenter After being fired from The Brooklyn Eagle Whitman worked as a carpenter from 1848-1854, building small houses that working people could afford, and doing various other kinds of carpentry. Around 1850 something made him decide to focus on poetry. He worked and worked on what he was trying to say and in 1855 he offered his poetry to the world in a small book (fewer than twenty poems) that could be carried in one’s pocket. This book had no title, but it did contain a now-iconic photo of Whitman wearing workman’s clothing, one hand in his pocket, one on his hip, looking out at the reader with confidence and perhaps with a challenge (see photo at top of article).
In all future editions, this book would bear the title Leaves of Grass, and its first poem was always “Song of Myself.” The book title was a double-entendre. Throughout the poems Whitman refers to grass and blades of grass. The latter represent individuals: each unique, but together with others creating a sward, a field. . . the surface of Earth. In the publishing world of the 1850s, what is today called “slush” (unwanted manuscripts that are usually poorly written) was then called “grass.” And “leaves” have always been pages. Whitman was no doubt aware that he was calling his book Pages of Poor Writing. He must have been laughing at the publishing world while doing so, because Whitman believed thoroughly and deeply, with every fibre of his being, that he was offering not dross, but gold.
Free verse The poems in Leaves of Grass are written in free verse, and although Whitman was not the first poet to write unrhymed, unmetered poetry, he is nevertheless credited as being the father of free verse because of his profound effect on poetry. Critics agree that Leaves of Grass was not just the first work of modern poetry, but also one of the best. While extolling the rural, the bucolic, the natural, and the self, it breaks with all previous poetry not only because the lines lack rhyme and metre, but also because the subject matter does not centre on (or even concern) a person of status, and because the language used is not stilted, “elevated” language (which makes some people detest poetry) as in Percy Bysshe Shelley’s “Ode to a Skylark”: Hail to thee, blithe Spirit / Bird thou never wert.
Whitman himself attributed the style of these poems to the opera, stating that he could not have written them had he not immersed himself in opera. Opera, he said, freed him from the “ballad style” of poetry because it freed him from reliance on rhyme and metre. He attributed the content of the poems to the influence of Ralph Waldo Emerson, whose essays he read in 1854. In that year Whitman was in Brooklyn, working as a carpenter. Each morning he set out for work the same way thousands of other workers did, carrying a tin pail with his meal in it. But along with his food, Whitman always took a book, and he spent his meal time both eating and reading.
Once he started to read Emerson in 1854, Whitman couldn’t stop. He read nothing but Emerson that year. In “Nature” Emerson explains the foundation of Transcendentalism: that the “divine” is not a deity, but rather the oneness of a person with his or her physical surroundings – the natural world. These essays galvanized Whitman and the poetry poured out of him. Taking a leaf out of Thoreau’s experience with self-reliance, Whitman, too, set out to be self-reliant. He set the type of Leaves of Grass himself and paid for the publication of all 750 copies of the first edition, which he introduced to the world on July 4, 1855. Later Whitman told novelist John Townsend Trowbridge that Emerson’s essays helped him “come to himself” and “find himself.” As Whitman summarized it: “I was simmering, simmering, simmering, and Emerson brought me to a boil.”
Even though Whitman didn’t put his name on the cover of his book, he did name himself within the poems as “Walt Whitman” describing himself as “rough . . . disorderly . . . fleshy and sensual . . . no stander above men or women or apart from them.”
And he sent a copy of his book to Emerson.
Upon reading Leaves of Grass, Emerson praised it, writing to Whitman: “I am very happy in reading it, as great power makes us happy. . . . I give you joy of your free and brave thought. . . . I greet you at the beginning of a great career.” Emerson encouraged others to read it. The book was admired by well-known figures such as Amos Bronson Alcott: educator, reformer, and father of Louisa May Alcott, author of Little Women. Horace Greeley, publisher and editor of the New-York Tribune admired Leaves of Grass, as did that most self-reliant of Transcendentalists, Henry David Thoreau.
But the book was judged obscene by many because of its focus on the body, sensual pleasures, and sex, and for its irreverence toward and disrespect of organized religion:
I think I could turn and live with animals, they are so placid and self-contain’d, I stand and look at them long and long. They do not sweat and whine about their condition, They do not lie awake in the dark and weep for their sins, They do not make me sick discussing their duty to God, Not one is dissatisfied, not one is demented with the mania of owning things, Not one kneels to another, nor to his kind that lived thousands of years ago, Not one is respectable or unhappy over the whole earth.
Perhaps even worse for the self-appointed keepers of morality was the fact that Whitman did not merely celebrate himself and his own sensuality: he urged others to do the same. That invitation is extended in the first three lines of “Song of Myself”:
I celebrate myself, and sing myself, And what I assume you shall assume, For every atom belonging to me as good belongs to you.
For those who were not convinced of original sin or perhaps even of a mystical deity, Leaves of Grass must have come as a torrent of rushing, sparkling, life-giving water, telling readers that the body is not sinful, that sex is joyful, that love is to be celebrated in all its forms by both women and men.
I mind how once we lay such a transparent summer morning, How you settled your head athwart my hips and gently turn’d over upon me, And parted the shirt from my bosom-bone, and plunged your tongue to my bare-stript heart, And reach’d till you felt my beard, and reach’d till you held my feet.
Bold To write about these topics in this manner in 1855 was, to say the least, bold and defiant. Whitman’s epic of the vast sprawl that was the United States, with its different classes and colors and occupations, grabbed the imagination and heart of many. The first edition of Leaves of Grass sold out and Whitman printed another. In fact, he spent his entire life rewriting and revising the poems in Leaves of Grass, publishing new editions of his seminal work. What started out as a small book of fewer than twenty poems grew to a book of 200 poems and, at the end of Whitman’s life, to a book of almost 400 poems.
Conventional poetry of that time dealt with heroes elevated above the masses, but in Leaves of Grass it is the masses who are the heroes of Whitman’s vision of democracy. In “Song of Myself” he assumed a persona and spoke through it, for it, and with it. This was the persona of the people: common people, laborers and farmers. They, and not the “elevated” of money and social standing, were the center of his life and consciousness. His poems are, above all, about the oneness of human kind:
Whoever degrades another degrades me, And whatever is done or said returns at last to me.
With his persona Whitman used slang and common phrases, much as popular music such as rock and rap use the vernacular, so full of sparkle and life, rather than stylized language.
In 1868 Leaves of Grass was published in Britain thanks to the influence of writer and critic William Michael Rossetti. That edition (an expurgated one) helped Whitman gain popularity there.
The lines of Leaves of Grass, so radically new in 1855, continue to awe readers today. They have to them a majestic sweep – a headlong rush forward, full of observation and enthusiasm, as endless as the sea and as wide as the sky. These lines rolled across the consciousness of those who read them. It felt as if Whitman was so full of life and the love of life that he was barely able to say all that he wanted to say.
The long lines, with repetition and ellipses and almost euphoria, must have seemed, to some readers of the day, uncontrolled. Defiant. Confident. Certainly sensual and erotic. It’s no wonder that Whitman published the book himself, using the art and skills he had acquired through a lifetime of work. He must have known it would be an exercise in futility to get a traditional publisher of the day to accept his work.
Impact of Civil War As Whitman was writing and rewriting Leaves of Grass, the US was moving inexorably toward a civil war over the issue of slavery. England had outlawed slavery in 1833, France in 1848. But the slave system was so profitable to southern plantation owners, and the human laborers so expendable, and racism so deeply ingrained as a defense of slavery, that the slavery question could not be “settled.” The Southern aristocracy would not give it up, and Northern politicians overwhelmingly supported allowing slavery in half the nation. But the growing northern capitalist class became more and more opposed to slavery because they could not compete with it economically. Farmers and the working class also began to take stronger stands against slavery, which drove down wages and worsened working conditions for all. After Abraham Lincoln was elected President in 1860, eleven Southern states seceded from the Union. In 1861 South Carolina fired on the federal Fort Sumner, thus starting the Civil War.
Whitman fully supported the Union during the war. Although his family grew up with Quaker leanings (Whitman Sr was a Quaker who opposed organized religion), that did not stop his brother George from enlisting in the Union Army. In 1862 Whitman received news that George had been wounded. He walked from New York to Washington to find his brother. (All his life, Whitman was a great walker.) When Whitman found him, his brother’s minor wounds had healed and George went back to his unit.
Whitman, however, was horrified by and deeply empathetic to the suffering he saw in the military hospitals, where three out of every four operations was an amputation, where soldiers died of typhus and dysentery more than of battle wounds. Whitman immediately decided to stay in Washington and somehow or other help the suffering young men in military hospitals. A friend procured him a poorly-paid government job working in the Bureau of Indian Affairs. On his walks to and from work, early in the morning, on his lunch hour, and in the evenings, Whitman visited different tents of wounded soldiers. He treated each soldier as an individual, spending time reading to each, or writing a letter home for the soldier, or playing cards or even Twenty Questions. Each evening he would stuff his haversack full of small treats, spending his own pay and begging donations from others. Laden with biscuits, jam, writing paper, pens, stamps, and other items, Whitman would walk into a military hospital tent and speak to each soldier, presenting him with a gift. He kept lists of what each soldier had asked for or what he judged would help them, as in “Bed 71: an orange.”
These acts of love and kindness took a tremendous toll. The Whitman of 1865 was not the same robust, healthy man as the Whitman of 1861. The assassination of Abraham Lincoln, whom he admired greatly, took a further toll on the poet. Out of his great sorrow came many poems, among them the poems collected in Drum-Taps and “O Captain, My Captain,” one of the few rhymed and metered poems Whitman ever wrote.
O Captain! my Captain! our fearful trip is done, The ship has weather’d every rack, the prize we sought is won,
This was the only one of Whitman’s poems published in anthologies during his lifetime, and it is still taught in US schools today.
‘Depravity’ of capitalist class The sprawling democracy that Whitman envisioned, the oneness of humankind – these did not emerge from the Civil War. Instead, what came forth was a horrific and rapacious growth of capitalism: large-scale agriculture that drove down prices and impoverished or destroyed small farmers; steel mills with no regard for worker safety or a living wage; child labor; the growth of the oil industry; the growth of the railroad barons at the price of small farmers; westward expansion and continued genocide against Native Americans. In 1871 Whitman published a book, Democratic Vistas, in which he wrote:
“The depravity of the business classes of our country is not less than has been supposed, but infinitely greater. The official services of America, national, state, and municipal, in all their branches and departments, except the judiciary, are saturated in corruption, bribery, falsehood, mal-administration: and the judiciary is tainted. . . . In vain do we march with unprecedented strides to empire so colossal, outvying the antique, beyond Alexander’s, beyond the proudest sway of Rome.”
In 1873 Whitman suffered a stroke, and from then until his death his health declined. He moved to Camden, New Jersey, to live near his brother George’s family. Though bedridden for years, and in great pain much of his later years, Whitman continued to work on Leaves of Grass until, in 1891, he published the final version, claiming it had taken him 33 years to get it right. Whitman died on March 26, 1892, and is buried in a granite mausoleum in Camden. He designed the crypt himself and visited it several times before his death.
During his lifetime Whitman faced fierce criticism of the sexual celebrations within Leaves of Grass. When the 1855 edition was published, poet and abolitionist John Greenleaf Whittier was said to have thrown his copy into the fire. The Saturday Review Press advised Whitman to commit suicide. The Criterion called him a filthy free lover and accused him of “that horrible sin not to be mentioned among Christians” (Whitman is considered to have been either gay or bisexual). None of this deterred Whitman from doing what he believed in, nor did it in any way diminish his pride in what he had written. Working one of his several low-paying government jobs in Washington, Whitman proudly placed a copy of the 1867 edition of Leaves of Grass on the desk of his boss – and was promptly fired.
Whitman’s continuing impact After Whitman’s death, his poetry lived. Today he is known around the world, and Leaves of Grass is published in almost all countries. Whitman’s influence is pervasive and profound, and it’s difficult to believe that any modern free verse poet has not, in some way, been influenced by Walt Whitman. His influence extends beyond poetry. Bram Stoker said that Dracula was influenced by Whitman. Ray Bradbury titled an episode of The Twilight Zone after one of Whitman’s best-known poems, “I Sing the Body Electric.” And then Bradbury gave the same title to an entire collection of short stories. Various musicians have titled albums after the same poem.
Many of Whitman’s later poems, such as “When Lilacs Last in the Dooryard Bloomed,” and “Out of the Cradle Endlessly Rocking” are praised as very complex pieces full of strophe and antistrophe, dense with symbolism.
For his embracing of life in all its complexity; for his embracing the lives of working people; for his dominant lines which he refused to curtail; for his helping to shape American literature – Walt Whitman is second to none, his poetry read and valued by each new generation.
Barbara’s books include Women at Play: the story of women in baseball; the novel She’s on First; the poetry collection Crossing the Skyway; the mystery novel Dirty Proof; plus Guide to Writing the Mystery Novel; children’s books; and, most recently, young adult fiction.
From 1988-1992 I spent every day of the year researching the story of women who had played baseball in the 19th and 20th centuries, and as part of that research I ended up with 8,000 or so sheets of paper that I stored in files, which I stored in file-pockets, which I stored in my file cabinets. In 2016 I donated all of this material to the National Baseball Hall of Fame Library: you can read about it here.
But before I donated the research materials, I published some of them (the public-domain ones) as books — Research Notes for Women at Play, Volumes 1, 2, and 3. My reason for doing this was that I wanted to make these materials available to historians, to baseball researchers, and to teachers who needed primary source materials in order to teach the research paper.
My understanding of who might find the books useful was a bit too narrow. Since their publication I’ve heard from professors of journalism, who have used them to illustrate what sports reporting was like 100 years ago. I’ve heard from women’s studies professors who use the books to illustrate the differences between how women’s sports and men’s sports were reported. And (this was a surprise) I’ve even heard from people who study and teach about clothing styles.
I have shared my research notes with many different people, in many different ways, in many different places. But I’ve never shared them on my blog. So I thought, why not? Below are examples of my research notes from each of the three volumes.
All of the newspaper articles in Volume 1 were in the public domain, so I was able to quote them in their entirety.
From Research Notes for Women at Play, Volume 1
Cincinnati Enquirer, October 6, 1905
THE BLOOMER GIRLS Easily Defeated the Cincinnati Stars Yesterday — Score 12 To 7
Before a large crowd at the Cumminsville Ball Park, the Star Bloomer Girls defeated the Cincinnati Stars by the score of 12 to 7. The girls played as if their lives depended on winning the game and though they were up against one of the strongest amateur teams in the city they never showed the white feather, but kept working hard for victory.
On the other hand the gentleman ball team playing under the name of Cincinnati Stars, after making four runs in the first inning, got careless and the fair ones had the boys at their mercy. It was simply a case of follow-me, boys, as the Bloomer Girls forged ahead with four runs and added three more to their score before they left the field. Maud Neilson [sic] pitched the first four innings and the boys made four runs off her slants and shoots. She stated she was not feeling well before the game, having been on the road for the past two weeks and for that reason was not in the best of condition. But at that, if it had not been for two unfortunate errors by the right fielder, the boys would have made but one run off her delivery. McKenzie finished the game and pitched gilt-edged ball. Only three hits were made off his delivery in the next five innings and one of them was a fluke. The work of Miss Day at first was a revelation to the large crowd in attendance. No matter where the ball was thrown she would get it. Some of her pick-ups of low-thrown balls were remarkable. She also led her side in batting. Miss Grace, in right field, made a hit with the bleachers with her fast work on bases and was picked out by the bleacherites as “The Peach” of the bunch.
At second Miss Dolly got everything that came her way and figured in two double plays. The other girls did their share in helping to down the Cincinnati Stars. . . .
Only some of the newspaper articles in Volume 2 were in the public domain. Many of them were published after 1924, which meant that I could reprint only a small portion of each verbatim: I had to paraphrase most articles. This made my job more time-consuming.
From Research Notes for Women at Play, Volume 2
Port Arthur News, Port Arthur, Texas, March 12, 1933
Didrikson Says She Can’t Accept Challenge
This is a three-paragraph article datelined Dallas, Texas, March 11. It reports that Babe Didrikson was advised that Jackie Mitchell challenged her “to face her on the mound in a baseball game this summer.”
According to the newspaper report, Babe replied that if she accepted every challenge, “I’d be busy every hour of the day and night filling engagements that really don’t mean anything.”
Although she refused the challenge, Babe did say that “if I ever happen . . . to be anywhere at the same time Jackie is there, I’ll let her see whether she can outpitch me and bet her that she can’t.”
Muscatine Journal and News Tribune, Muscatine, Iowa, November 15, 1933
Jackie Mitchell Signed by Doan; to Report Here
Famous Girl Hurler and Star Cager and Cliff Walsh Newest Additions to Club
Seven paragraphs in all, this article reports that sports promoter Ray L. Doan signed Jackie Mitchell “to join his Babe Didrikson’s All-Americans basketball quintet.”
The second paragraph reads: “Jackie was with Doan’s House of David baseball club last year and performed efficiently as a starting pitcher. She says she was chosen as an all-American forward in a girls’ independent basketball tournament at Dallas, Tex., three years ago. In that tournament she played against Miss Didrikson.”
The article concludes by stating that the entire squad signed by Doan will report to Muscatine for a ten-day training session.
As in Volume 2, so in Volume 3 most of the articles were not in the public domain, requiring me to quote judiciously and to paraphrase.
From Research Notes for Women at Play, Volume 3
Unknown Source, Unknown Town, Unknown Date, 1934
Gair Trimmed by Girlies, But It Was All Jolly Fun
A reporter named Cal Royal wrote this long, two-column article.
In the first paragraph he informs readers that the Gairmen were runner-ups in the City League, but were defeated by the Chicago Ranger Girls, 2-1.
Royal describes the second inning at length, because it netted the Ranger Girls their two runs. Margaret Gisolo was thrown out and Elizabeth Pull walked, advancing to second on an error. Joe Fiarito walked. Cecelia Griedl struck out without swinging at a pitch. Nellie Kearns swatted the ball to second, where the Gair player, Gibbs, misplayed it. That left Kearns on first, Fiarito on second, Pull on third. Then catcher Frank Ranallo smashed a ball to right field (the only hit off Gair pitcher Locke), scoring two runs. Rose Gacioch flied out to Locke.
After the second inning, “only three hitters faced Locke an inning.”
The Gairmen scored their only run in the first inning. They might have scored two, but Rose Gacioch “relayed a throw to the shortstop who snapped it to the plate in time to get Eccleston for the third out.”
In the following innings the Gairmen collected five hits, including two doubles, but none advanced beyond second “as the Girls turned in as good a fielding exhibition as any men’s team could show.”
The next morning Manager Southard of the Gairmen announced that the Ranger Girls would return in two weeks, but that the exact date had not been decided.
According to the article Elizabeth Pull, who had been playing baseball for 23 years, was the manager of the Ranger Girls. The writer stated that the Ranger Girls played every day, seven days a week, and sometimes twice a day. The team, consisting of twelve women and three men, started out on May 10 and was expected to continue through September 20.
The box score indicates that the Rangers had only one hit (Ranallo’s in the second inning). Pull and Fiarito scored the two runs. The Gair team (called Robert Gair in the box score) collected six hits but scored only one run.
Although I had heard about color-coding a manuscript before rewriting it, I had never employed this technique until last year. In addition to writing books, I weave baskets, so it seems natural for me to draw an analogy between what one does when weaving a basket and what one does in a color-coded rewrite.
I first started weaving baskets in 2003. And the first ones I wove were simple weaving: 01/U1. That stands for Over 1, Under 1, and that’s what you do with the weaver: you weave it over one stake, and under the next stake. Then over one, then under one, until you’re back at the beginning and need to start the next row.
Simple weave is used for many baskets. Probably most of the baskets I’ve woven are simple weave. But the strongest baskets have a twill weave. In basketry, a twill weave is any combination of O/U except O1/U1. A simple twill can be O2/U1, or O2/U2. A complex twill might contain combinations of 07/U1, O5/U3, and so on. The picture is a Cherokee pattern basket I wove maybe ten years ago. You can see that the pattern is complex.
One can weave a basket, and one can weave a story. You’ve probably heard some form of the expression, “He/she weaves a good story.” That’s because stories, particularly longer ones such as novels, contain patterns/themes/motifs that the writer weaves or threads through the story. In a story, as in a basket, the tighter the weave, the stronger the product. A loose weave is a sloppy weave. Not pleasant to look at. And it’s weak.
If writing were basketry, then most novels would be considered twills because they have several elements woven through them, sometimes in complex ways.
If you’re weaving a basket and you forget to pull a weaver through a particular spot, three things are going to happen: (1) there will be a definite weak spot in the basket where you missed the pattern; (2) the looks of the basket will be disrupted — something will look odd or out of place or missing; (3) this missing piece is going to disturb the user.
The same thing is true of a manuscript. If you forget or “drop” one of your motifs, you will create a weak spot in your story — the flow of the story will be disrupted and the reader will be unsettled, either wanting to hear about the missing part, or forgetting about it and then being surprised or annoyed when you pick it up again.
Writing teachers are constantly devising methods to help writers create stronger stories when they rewrite their manuscripts. One such method, which I think was invented by Darcy Pattison (but I’m not sure), is the “Shrunken Manuscript” method. What she calls the shrunken manuscript I call color-coding.
Once you have a manuscript ready for rewrite, consider the important elements that you want to weave through it. If you’re rewriting nonfiction, I think 3 or 4 motifs are sufficient. If you’re rewriting fiction, I suspect you could have 3-6 motifs. Motifs are dominant ideas in a work of art. Two of the motifs in my novel are: the protagonist’s relationship to cross country running, and the protagonist’s relationship with his father. Fiction is more complex than nonfiction, hence the greater number of weavers you want to move through the story. After you’ve named your motifs, assign each a color.
Last year I rewrote my first YA novel four times. On the fifth rewrite I used color-coding, and with the help of a friend I named six motifs to weave through the story: the two named above, plus four others. These elements were already present in the manuscript: they just needed to be woven through the story consistently. I work on an Apple computer, on which I use Pages as my word processing program, so it was very easy for me to use the Pages color selections. Choose six strong, bold colors and assign one to each motif.
But I’m getting ahead of myself. Before you start color-coding, make a copy of your manuscript — you do want an original, uncolored manuscript around, in case an editor wants to see it. Title the copy something like NOVEL A, Color-Coded. Then, for each color motif you chose, go through the manuscript once, selecting everything that pertains to that motif. Color it. I not only colored it, I underlined it as well, so that it would stand out even more when shrunken. (Later I learned that it would have been easier to color the space behind the type: that method will make the color sections stand out better.) I had six motifs I wanted to trace, so I went through my manuscript SIX. TIMES. This was tedious work, but it was very worthwhile. I got to see where I dealt with issues, whether I did it in page-long sections, in paragraph-long sections, in single sentences, or even in phrases.
Don’t try to combine passages through the manuscript. That is, don’t try to do your reds and blues at the same time: it’s guaranteed that you won’t be paying as close attention as if you were looking for just one of these motifs. Chances are you will miss something.
Next comes the shrinking part. Select your entire manuscript and reduce it to 6 point type. Get rid of chapter breaks if you need to, so that what you have is pretty much all text. The end result is your shrunken manuscript.
Now look at your color-coded shrunken pages. If you can line them up in a “light table” mode across your computer, all the better. If not, you will have to deal with them in a vertical fashion. In either case, you should be able to see where a color goes on vacation for a while — no purple for, like, 60 pages! This means you’ve dropped that motif for quite a while. There’s a gap there, and you need to work that purple motif into the gap.
The example above is a color-coded shrunken manuscript from friend and critique-group member Chris Tebbetts, co-author of James Patterson’s Middle School series.
When I used color-coding on my 320-page YA novel and then shrank it, it reduced to something like 73 pages. When I looked at my color-coding, I learned something that, to my knowledge, articles on the topic didn’t cover. What I learned was that some writers handle their motifs in chunks, others handle their motifs in mostly slivers. For the Chunk writers, who deal in pages and paragraphs, the colors on the shrunken ms show up in vivid blocks.
For the Sliver writers, who handle their motifs, or some of their motifs, in sentences or phrases . . . those tiny little slivers of color don’t show up very well in a shrunken manuscript. I, alas, saw that half of the time my motifs were dealt with in slivers. And I couldn’t see those thin lines of color.
So I made myself a chart in which I numbered each of my 73 pages on the left, listed each of my six motifs across the top, and filled in the colors if they were there, left the chart blank if the colors weren’t there. Creating the chart took me a while, but this was time well spent, because the chart made rewriting so much easier. I taped this chart to my bookcase and looked at it every day when I rewrote.
Color-coding my manuscript helped me see that, even though I thought I never dropped any of the weavers, I did indeed drop three of them from time to time. In the rewrite, I added them back in — making for what I hope is a tighter story with no places where the themes are dropped.
For a colorful setting, read Barbara Gregorich’s mystery novel, Sound Proof.