WALT WHITMAN'S BRAIN
by ALICIA BONES
After death, Walt Whitman's skull was cut open, and his brain was sloshed into a jar of formaldehyde. There it would be, forever, big and bold like Whitman himself, strong and visionary and immortal. It would sit eternally on display in a Philadelphia laboratory with the other genius brains for the little kids to poke at, for the ladies to squeal at, for the gentlemen to prod their skulls with their fingertips to compare. Instead of preserving the brain like he was supposed to, though, a bumbling lab assistant dropped the jar, shattering it. Then they threw the pieces away, maybe in a big garbage bag of genius brains.
My mother used to take me to an outdoor market years ago, before I turned twelve. Hidden on an out-of-the-way dock full of fish guts, the market sold plants and antiques from back home, and those egg pastries that my father used to like. He may still like them. I always thought that a saleslady there seemed like she was as old as the pier’s pilings. My mother would tug me in next to her, and there the saleslady would sit, nestled in black shawls and double-chinned rolls of loose-draped flesh, even in the summer when the wharf stank of rotting wood.
One Saturday, as my mother bought rutabagas on the other side of the market, I wandered to look at the old woman’s porcelain figurines and nesting dolls.
"Do you know Walt Whitman, little girl?" she croaked, smiling, pulling her shawl back from her face.
“Yes, ma’am,” I responded. I didn’t know why she asked, but she did have a small wart on her nose. I used to fear curses. “My homeroom teacher wants us to get up on our desks and recite ‘O Captain! My Captain!’.”
She looked at me, smiling and unblinking. "Whitman was one of the roughs, a Kosmos."
I twitched up the corner of my mouth. I thought my English must still be bad. "Whatever you say," I grinned, saccharine. Back then, I so wanted to please.
"You know, I found his brain, in pieces. They tried to throw them away.” The woman pulled out a small jar of what must have been black, brain shards floating in a see-through pink liquid that swirled as she hefted it onto the table. “Sometimes at night, these pieces quiver. He comes to tell me the why’s of the universe."
I gaped at her. She held my eyes in hers. I felt like I was about to retch. I broke her gaze, and high-tailed it back to my mother, grabbing her hand and begging to be taken home.
19th-cenutry men were interested in proving their genius through external manifestations, but more importantly, they wanted to use themselves to create a standardized model of a genius’s physicality. Although brain studies like these could only take place postmortem, the popular pattern of linking physicality to intelligence, as well as seeing men’s interest in proving their own preeminence through patterns on their bodies, became prominent in scientific and popular arenas alike in the 19th century.
That afternoon, I snuck out. I wondered, what did he tell her when they spoke at night, the deep rumble of his voice rattling the pieces of his brain? I didn't know so much. I could barely squeak by with a C in spelling back then. So I ran all the way back to the market to ask.
When I got there, though, she was gone. I sighed. I’d never hear the rest of her story now, or, at least not until next weekend when we came back to the market. As I was about to leave, I saw a light glint on a piece of metal. Beneath the folding chair she'd used that morning was the jar of brain pieces, still swimming like half-developed manta rays.
I sucked in air, quick, looked left, then right. Folding their tarps and packing their wares, the other hawkers hadn’t seen me or the jar. I crouched down and grabbed it. The liquid sloshed against the lid as I put the jar under my t-shirt, snug beneath my arm. The contents were hot against my belly.
Like the other men who founded and joined the American Anthropometric Society, Whitman’s membership indicates that he was interested in proving and preserving notions of his genius through physical means. Further, Whitman’s donation is the firmest proof that he was interested in preserving a physical trace of his body to be used as a model in that the intention of the project was to create a standardized measure for great brains.
I hustled out down the dock towards the boardwalk, and ran down the concrete steps towards the beach. The tide was out, so sun-baked tendrils of seaweed trailed over the almost perfectly round rocks on the shore. I sat, and set the brain jar down next to my sneaker. The contrast: one had belonged to a genius, the other belonged to an ordinary girl. A genius must wear special footwear, I decided. He must know why we need skyscrapers, where fathers go when they lose their minds, how to bake a crumb cake. He should know how to appease mothers, and what to make of strange ladies in dark black shawls.
The brain must know. Caught up in the wind spiraling up into my ear, the brain whispered, “Be radical—be radical—be not too damned radical!”
That’s when I knew. The brain could belong to me, really belong to me.
I untwisted the jar’s lid, and pulled out a piece of the discarded brain. Dark black and shriveled, the fragment dripped twice and smelled like pickles. I found a long, flat stone, and set the piece of brain on it. With another rock, I started to grind the brain beneath the stone. At first, it squished and spurted fluid, but under the beat of the sun, I ground the fast-drying brain into a powder. After I was through, I licked my finger, and stuck the wet pad into the powder. Trying to think of Pixie Sticks, I put the powder onto my tongue.
As I swallowed then, I knew: the old woman had left me the jar. She wanted me to contain multitudes.
Burrell, Brian. “The Strange Fate of Whitman’s Brain.” Walt Whitman Quarterly Review 20.3 (2003): 107-133.
In 2012, Alicia Bones started her PhD in English at the University of Iowa, where she's trying to keep decent company and stay on the right side of the law. Her writing has been published in/on Plain Song Review, T(OUR) Magazine, and Matador Network.
The authors published at HelloHorror retain all rights to their work. For permission to quote from a particular piece, or to reprint, contact the editors who will forward the request. All content on the web site is protected under copyright law.