Walt Whitman and Fiction about the Mystery of Being Alive

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Walt Whitman and Fiction about the Mystery of Being Alive

Walt Whitman left an enormous impact on American culture. His impact is well documented in both his own words and by people who have come afterward and found resonance with his work. Here in Washington, DC, the Smithsonian National Portrait Gallery is one of the places where his legacy and physical presence are most visible. His most well-known (and most quoted) book, Leaves of Grass joins itself to the body's physical experience of life and to the uncertainty that, more than anything else, may be the fabric that stitches us to our lives. His poignant understanding of the human condition is exemplified in his writing, but also in the writing of others who were either inspired by him or whose work calls back to his in essence. The DC Public Library is fortunate to have some of these titles, listed below:


Specimen Days by Michael Cunningham

Specimen Days, a 2005 novel, is split into three stories one taking place in the past, one in the (book's) present, and one in the future. All of the stories have three commonalities: they are set in New York City, they have a textual connection to Walt Whitman, and they follow the same three characters going through different iterations (reincarnations), but whose stories are always intertwined with one another throughout the space and time of the novel. The book is thoughtful and, though grounded in the characters' experiences, manages to capture a mystical feeling.

Cloud Atlas by David Mitchell

Equally full of wonder is David Mitchell's Cloud Atlas. Again moving from past to future, this book is a set of linked stories but all told in pointedly different voices. More concerned with the soul and the ways we are bound to each other and our fates, it moves both forward and backward in time, revealing its themes in increasingly nuanced and layered ways. Later made into a film starring Tom Hanks and Halle Berry, its thoughtfulness is almost languid: good for an early summer read.

Colorless Tsukuru Tazaki and His Years of Pilgrimage by Haruki Murakami

Murakami is a master at making dreams feel real, at using them to hold a mirror up to a reader's understanding of the world and showing it in a different light. In Colorless Tsukuru Tazaki and His Years of Pilgrimage, he follows the story of a young man haunted by tragedy while following the thread of unintended consequences the enable us all to feel love, friendship, and heartache. His writing and attention to his character's inner lives makes the story vivid and tangible, showing us aspects of ourselves that pulse in time with the beat of his writing - keeping us in his alternate reality while simultaneously bringing us into our own present. 

If on a Winter's Night a Traveler by Italo Calvino

An influence on Cloud Atlas, If on a Winter's Night a Traveler folds its story into a labyrinthine (and comic) structure that is a commentary on the nature of reading and a testament to Calvino's imagination. Drawing from a thematically postmodernism approach, Calvino manifests an experience for "you" (the reader and the subject of the first part of each chapter) that involves both the idea of a detective story plus the idea of a romance and then incorporates them as part of the story. His ability to be innovative make the attempt at synopsis difficult, and so the best way to understand the book is just to read it. His intricate structure and glowing sentences make it clear why the book is so highly regarded, and why its influence reaches far beyond its pages.

Blind Assassin by Margaret Atwood

Another layered and interesting story, Blind Assassin nestles a second narrative (a science fiction story about two unnamed lovers and their meetings) within its framing story of Iris and her description of the death of her sister Laura. Making clichés of the 1930s and 1940s feel fresh as a result of her twists and perspective; we start with Iris's story, then fall into the lives of the unnamed characters before surfacing with the report of the discovery of a sailboat found carrying the body of Iris's dead husband, a distinguished industrialist. It is a uniquely intriguing novel that plays with structure and deals with some of the headiest questions we can ask ourselves about being alive and the effects our actions have on our lives, and on one another.