After reading Kit’s post on Whitman’s beard, I found myself intrigued. Being a large fan of facial hair myself, I couldn’t help Googling it. Next thing I know, I find myself in an article from The Brooklyn Paper discussing how “Allen Ginsberg and Walt Whitman have more in common than impressive beards.” The article details events that went on in Whitman’s Brooklyn this past March. Though it was no surprise that there was a Whitmanian celebration going on in Brooklyn nor was I surprised that he was linked to the Beats (we did study them after all), but I was surprised at the article’s tag line.
Further searching produced a random blog post that featured some of literature’s most impressive beards. Including everyone from Hemingway to Tennyson, the blog featured a snapshot (or sketch in some cases) of some literary greats along with their furry faces. Whitman’s portrait boasted the compliment of being “by far the greatest American Literary Beard.” While it’s obviously a matter of opinion, I can’t help but wonder why it’s such an object of interest and affection. It’s not as if facial hair is entirely uncommon in literary circles, let alone 19th c. America in which Whitman lived.
So, the question returns to Kit’s original question: what is it that Whitman’s beard represents? I can understand how some critics would link Whitman’s beard to his celebration of the body, and, therefore, to his sexual orientation. However, I think it can be representative of much more than that. Certainly, Whitman’s reckless abandon with his facial hair seems to be reflective of his embrace of the body’s “natural” expression, but it feels more like the natural expression of his art to me. Between his free verse, reckless honesty, and deep yearning for hope and wisdom, Whitman’s beard seems more representative of his poetry than anything else.
The world traditionally relates wisdom, respect, and experience with older patriarchal (bearded) figures, and I see no reason why this does not also apply to Whitman and his own face fuzz. This is where the blog post’s title comes from – an old Swedish proverb my grandfather would say.