Archive for October 21st, 2021

A Visit With Cousin Walt

Walt Whitman-  Thomas Eakins 1891

….This is what you shall do: Love the earth and sun and the animals, despise riches, give alms to every one that asks, stand up for the stupid and crazy, devote your income and labor to others, hate tyrants, argue not concerning God, have patience and indulgence toward the people, take off your hat to nothing known or unknown or to any man or number of men, go freely with powerful uneducated persons and with the young and with the mothers of families, read these leaves in the open air every season of every year of your life, re-examine all you have been told at school or church or in any book, dismiss whatever insults your own soul, and your very flesh shall be a great poem and have the richest fluency not only in its words but in the silent lines of its lips and face and between the lashes of your eyes and in every motion and joint of your body….

—Walt Whitman, Preface to Leaves of Grass

I am running this post from several years back as a result of some recent genealogy research I have been doing lately. It’s always interesting while I am doing the research. especially when I uncover evidence of distant relations that have long evaded me or uncover bits of what I consider interesting connections to American history. Part of my brain allows me to imagine the lives of these distant ancestors and wonder if I have any of the same characteristics that allowed them to survive– if they did.

For example, I recently found a distant great-grandfather from about 8 or 9 generations back who came here from Scotland as an indentured servant after being captured by Cromwell‘s forces in the English Civil War. After around 8 or 9 years of servitude he gained his freedom and became a prosperous brickmaker and was the progenitor of an entire American family line that has grown exponentially over the centuries and is widespread across this country now. Unfortunately, less than two decades after becoming a free man this ancestor was one of the first deaths in King Philip’s War that took place between the colonists of New England and the Native American tribes in the late 1670’s.

His track record as a warrior has me a bit concerned.

But while interesting, the story of this man’s life has little connection to me and my current life outside of perhaps a few strands of DNA here and there that most likely do little more than determine the length of my big toe or the pattern or ever increasing abundance of the hair growing inside my ears. But every so often you come across an ancestor or distant relative that you hope you share something more than these tenuous mitochondrial bonds and you let your mind wander into that possibility.

Like my Cousin Walt:

I have always been moved and inspired by the writings of the American poet Walt Whitman. I can find something that speaks directly to me in almost everything of his I come across. For me, he remains one of the most intriguing and unique characters in the American experience in so many ways.

This comes across in the photos of him, including the remarkable portrait above that was taken by the great American painter Thomas Eakins, who was also a pioneering figure in photography, in 1891, a year before Whitman’s death. It has a remarkable feeling of earned wisdom and understanding.

I had always felt a familial bond with him anyway, having called him Uncle Walt for as long as I can remember. He seemed like he was the wise old uncle I wanted growing up, someone who watched over me and imparted bits of wizened advice to me from time to time. So with this great reverence for the man, you can imagine how excited I was when my genealogy revealed that we were related.

Not an uncle.


Okay, 6th cousins. We share a grandparent going back to the early 1600’s, five generation before Whitman and nine generations before me. So, that makes us 6th cousins, 5 generations removed.

That’s like being in the furthest reaches of relationship in the game of Six Degrees of Kevin Bacon. Sure, we’re related by these tenuous bonds but it is so far removed that it is academic at best. There are probably several hundred thousand, if not a million or ten million, people with this same bond.

So it is certainly no big deal. Interesting but absolutely meaningless and without value.

But when I read a line from Whitman that makes my heart race a bit, that makes my brain and soul stir, I have to admit that it makes me happy that we share that silly, insignificant bond.

I just call him Cousin Walt now.

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