The Return of the Ghost as Text: Leaves of Grass and Derrida’s Memoirs

In my search for journals and articles related to Walt Whitman’s Leaves of Grass and the archive, I stumbled upon a perfect amalgam of the pieces I was researching: a collection of essays connecting the theories of Jacques Derrida and classic literature, among which was an essay on Leaves of Grass, titled The Haunting of (Un)burial: Mourning the ‘Unknown’ in Whitman’s America.” The essay examines the idea of mourning–that which is left behind, which cannot be reached again, is lost forever, through  the work of Derrida, who is intimately acquainted with “that which is left behind,” from his fevered exploration in the archive. The author of the essay, Lindsay Tuggle, explores Whitman’s Leaves of Grass through the theories in Derrida’s Memoirs, and argues that it is a “collected work of mourning: ongoing, impossible, infinite.” She suggests that Leaves of Grass acts as a sort of house for the “anonymous dead,” the “ghost-guest,” the casualty of war that remains unburied, nameless. Tuggle notices the transformation in Whitman’s treatment of death, through the growing editions of LoG, from a celebration of the natural phenomenon, and a “meditation” on the spirit, to what Tuggle describes as an “anxiety,” and an “obsessive concern” with the countless unnamed casualties of war.

Whitman originally published two volumes of war-based poetry separately from Leaves of Grass, but added these two volumes to it with the release of the following edition. Tuggle describes how Whitman, in these earlier war poems, often refers to the dead as “specimens,” and suggests that in doing so, he “rescues the soldiers from their value as war commodities”(Tuggle, 62), illustrating a sort of “hospitality not only to the dead, but beyond death,” an idea which Derrida explores intimately in Memoirs. Tuggle discusses the idea of hospitality both to the known dead, the beloved dead, and to what she calls the “anonymous dead,” and how this connects to the rite of burial. Whitman’s primary treatment of bodily decay as a spiritual ascendancy, a “transcendence” (Tuggle, 64), is said to “evoke burial as proof of love:” a beautiful but unnecessary act of mourning, as the natural decay of the body is approached by Whitman as a “phantasmal” event, an act of love by the earth, who now accepts the decaying body into itself. However, following the Civil War, Whitman’s exploration of death and decay displays a shift from a celebration of a natural phenomenon, to an anxious search for the “unfound dead” (Tuggle, 68). Whitman attempts to bury and resurrect the dead through his poems; it seems almost as if he struggles to assuage his anxiety about the “infinite dead,” through a poem-burial.  Tuggle suggests that this transformation of treatment toward the war-dead stems from Whitman’s experiences with the dying soldiers during the Civil War, and the witness he bears to the countless bodies left unburied on the battlefields. The earth cannot accept these countless bodies, and so Whitman can no longer extend the same “hospitality” as before–there are too many, and the earth is too full. Tuggle, in an essay that seamlessly joins the exploration of mourning and preservation with Walt Whitman’s Leaves of Grass, approaches each poem like a body, and essentially performs an autopsy on a collection of poems which aged and changed with Whitman until his own decay, encompassing perfectly the idea of treating the dead with hospitality.

Works Cited

Seaboyer, Judith. ““The Haunting of (un)Burial: Mourning the ‘Unknown’ in Whitman’s America.”.” Re-reading Derrida: Perspectives on Mourning and Its Hospitalities. Lexington, 2013. Print.

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