A Professor and a Pilgrim

August 11, 2006

Ten years ago I was permitted to run my hand through the beard of Walt Whitman.

I was assembling an exhibition on his life and works at Harvard University's Houghton Library, and one of the most remarkable items in the collection was Whitman's death mask, which was made in 1892 by the great American painter, Thomas Eakins. He covered the dead poet's face with plaster, and, when the hardened cast was removed, it pulled away a portion of Whitman's white beard.

Much of my academic career since that day has been devoted to Whitman, and that was the closest I could ever expect to come to the physical reality of my subject. I suspect my feelings in the presence of this first-class relic were comparable to those of a medieval Christian touching the Shroud of Turin.

I remember I joked with the other curators that, perhaps, Whitman's death mask might contain enough DNA for us to clone the author and ask him some questions about his writing process and, maybe, his relationship with Peter Doyle. Mocking allusions to science kept spiritual feelings at bay, but they also acknowledged the inadequacy of reason for understanding the mysteries of artistic creation and the accidents of cultural memory. Scholars are supposed to "interrogate" and "problematize"; they are not supposed to feel anything or participate in so-called universal human experiences.

I think most scholarship is guided by private feelings and intuitions. It is just that in public we present arguments and evidence to support conclusions we have already reached by other means that we might not care to admit.

Humanists may imitate the technical language of the practical disciplines, but there is something undeniably spiritual, as well as emotional, about our work. Our annual trips to the archives and research centers, for example, have much in common with the traditions of spiritual pilgrimage: a serious, arduous journey, undertaken for the sake of some higher purpose. I often find myself going on such pilgrimages, even if I don't expect to obtain anything that I can use for my research projects.

Again and again, humanities-grant applications proclaim the virtue of their authors' efforts to give attention to neglected individuals and misunderstood events. They promise to recover the miraculous remains of forgotten martyrs. But in our secular era, the practical and rational are the only legitimate justifications. Our recoveries can be used to "speak truth to power" and, therefore, our research is altruistic and deserving of professional rewards. We may not be seeking reduced time in purgatory, but we are hoping to ascend the Great Chain of Academic Being through good works.

So, every spring, after the conclusion of teaching, thousands of professors take to the road. Of course, pilgrimages are not unique to Christianity — consider Mecca and Medina — but Western academic culture was largely built upon Christian institutions extending back to medieval monasteries. Beginning around the 4th century, Christian pilgrimages were undertaken to the Holy Land in order to visit places associated with the life of Jesus.

I remember once, in Rome, seeing an old man on his knees ascending the 124 steps of Santa Maria in Aracoeli on Capitoline Hill. I felt shallow simply walking up the steps to inspect a notable building mentioned in my Let's Go guide. I was a mere tourist in Italy, but this man lived in sacred time. Pilgrimages are serious journeys; they are not undertaken for mere pleasure or educational enrichment. The purpose of pilgrimage is self-transformation and reorientation.

The Reformation-era scholar Erasmus didn't think much of pilgrimages. He believed people could obtain more spiritual benefit by staying home, saving their money, and doing good works for their neighbors. In his Colloquies, Erasmus joked that if an ass carried Christ, then Christians would be obliged to kiss it. Beyond a certain point, no doubt, the tradition of pilgrimage and the veneration of relics become absurd under the regime of reason that provides a veneer over the older religious culture of academe.

But if reason was the only motive, scholars would undertake fewer expensive trips to distant archives. Scholars could simply read more books, even if they have to be obtained through interlibrary loan. Scholars who visit famous archives do not necessarily acquire more knowledge than scholars who maximize their local resources. A scholar can buy a stack of rare but imperfect books for the price of a week in Boston.

And, besides, once one arrives at the archive, there is a strong desire not to work on the appointed task. I sometimes find myself wandering around, browsing the open stacks, sneaking looks at the other scholars, requesting materials that have no direct bearing on my research. I once spent a whole afternoon perusing holograph manuscripts by Benjamin Franklin. He had nothing to do with my project, but my inexplicable procrastination with him led to a new project that seemed better than what I had set out to accomplish that day.

The purpose of an archive is not necessarily to complete a specific task but to take in the aura: the presence of notable scholars and the proximity of rare documents. Archives are cathedrals, shrines, and reliquaries; they symbolize the survival of spiritual impulse in a secular culture that privileges the individual over the universal and the present over the eternal.

As Mircea Eliade wrote in The Sacred and the Profane, "To whatever degree he may have desacralized the world, the man who has made his choice in favor of a profane life never succeeds in completely doing away with religious behavior."

Two years ago, I went on a pilgrimage back to the city where I was born and spent part of my childhood: Camden, N.J., just across the Delaware River from Philadelphia. Today it is best known as one of the poorest and most dangerous places in the United States. It is also the city where Walt Whitman lived his final years.

I don't know why I went. I just felt a longing to go. I could also undertake some research, I rationalized.

I crossed the Benjamin Franklin Bridge and parked in front of Whitman's house on Mickle Street. I was the only visitor, and the curator gave me a personal tour of the house. I got to hold the poet's cane, and, for a long time, I stood in the room where he died.

Apparently, there is a long-established tradition of pilgrimages to Whitman's house, stretching back to the time when the poet was alive. Oscar Wilde came in the 1880s, and writers, artists, scholars, and lovers of poetry have been coming ever since. The curator mentioned several researchers whose names were familiar to me. Apparently, a few came on a regular basis.

Harleigh Cemetery, though it has seen better days, was designed along the lines of Mount Auburn in Cambridge or Green-Wood in Brooklyn. The trees around Whitman's granite tomb were covered with carved initials. The marble floor of the tomb was sprinkled with notes and flowers in varying states of decomposition.

I was alone there, and, for some reason, I felt like I should make an offering. I opened my wallet, and took out a battered photograph of my oldest daughter. I flicked it through the bars of the tomb, expecting it to land on the floor. Instead the photo glided upward, looped around, and seemed to caress the face of Whitman's vault before it floated to the floor just below it. Easy to dismiss, of course, but it gave me an otherworldly feeling, as if I had been blessed by the Good, Gray Poet in my 37th year, the same age that he wrote Leaves of Grass.

I know there were people who believed that Whitman was an authentic saint, maybe even a supernatural being with the power to heal people, or at least transform their lives. There was a "Whitman Church" in Bolton, England. I was there once on a scholarly errand, learning about the poet's English disciples in Lancashire. Some Whitman relics were in the local library, including a "loving cup" from which the members of the Bolton Whitman Fellowship toasted each other on the anniversary of the poet's death — and from which I was permitted to drink.

Perhaps my behavior is as worthy of mockery as that of the cultists who line up outside Elvis's mansion, Graceland, or make the trek to Pere Lachaise in Paris to decorate the grave of Jim Morrison.

Even so, the act of pilgrimage affirms commitment, seriousness, and devotion to some course of action that might not be defensible in purely rational terms. Pilgrimage can give birth to insights that come from intuitive connections and empathy more than from focused and strategic research.

I do not know whether the drive towards pilgrimage is the result of some kind of universal human instinct (with or without grounding in religious truths), or whether it is some kind of social construction, the legacy of millennia of interconnected human practices. Still, I find that my scholarly work gains momentum when I give myself over to the spiritual and emotional impulses that my rational self wants to dismiss.

In that way, scholarship is a vocation, a calling, and I am both a professor and a pilgrim.

Thomas H. Benton is the pseudonym of an associate professor of English at a Midwestern liberal-arts college. He writes about academic culture and welcomes reader mail directed to his attention at