The Language of Drug Use in Whitman's "Calamus" Poems

By Auclair, Tracy | Papers on Language & Literature, Summer 2004 | Go to article overview

The Language of Drug Use in Whitman's "Calamus" Poems

Auclair, Tracy, Papers on Language & Literature

Many studies of Walt Whitman's "Calamus" poems have explored the meaning of the calamus root. In "'Calamus': The Leaf and the Root," one of the most systematic investigations of this subject, James E. Miller argues that the root represents the corpse that nourishes the grass, "the heart, the organ from which love takes its origin," and "the phallus, ... a token of 'manly attachment'" (73-74). Russell A. Hunt complicates this last and most common interpretation when he notes that it is in fact "the blossom which has a phallic appearance," not the root. The calamus root is, he continues, "most remarkable for its odor and for its medicinal properties. Had Whitman desired an exclusively or obviously phallic object, he need not have chosen one so ambiguous or with so many other, more obvious, associations" (484-85). De-emphasizing a gendered reading, Hunt mentions the root's value as a medicine and, through this passing reference, acknowledges its ability to incite change in the body. He is silent, however, on the extent of the calamus root's power to alter physiological processes and, consequently, leaves the implications of this power for Whitman's vision of human relationships unexplored.

Doctors and pharmacists of the early 1800s were aware of the effects of ingesting calamus root. A fluid extract of the root appeared as an official preparation in the Pharmacopoeia of the United States of America as early as 1830 (General Convention 23). Throughout the century, people ingested its oil for its carminative action, or its ability to expel gas and to relieve the discomfort that is associated with bloating. The root was also used to increase appetite and to aid digestion (Grieve 726-29).

Whitman made statements to Horace Traubel indicating that he knew of the calamus root's health benefits. When Traubel informed him that J.W. Wallace, an English tourist, wanted to take a sample of calamus home as a memento from the States, Whitman replied,

Well, that is easily done--there is plenty of it here.... But you must be careful how you look it up. There's counterfeit calamus, which is only a rush--has no root. But calamus itself, the real thing, has a thick bulby root--stretches out--this way--like the fingers spread. And it is a medicinal root--you know, of course--is often brought in town by the niggers--some people boiling it even, some chewing it. It always grows in damp places, along runs of water--low lands. You can easily get it--it pulls up. Oh! Yes! You will know it by the root, which is really the only way to know it. Wallace can undoubtedly have some to take home with him. (Traubel 37-38)

As this passage demonstrates, Whitman was well acquainted with the characteristics of the calamus root--its location, appearance, and preparations. His knowledge on these subjects is matched only by his enthusiasm for them, and both seem strangely inappropriate given that he is describing a cure for flatulence. Yet, it seems that the curative aspects of the calamus root are not the true cause of Whitman's excitement: "And it is a medicinal root," he adds halfway through the paragraph, almost as an afterthought, as if there were another, more important, reason for valuing it. That reason might be the root's ability to alter the user's mental state.

In the Psychedelics Encyclopedia, Peter Stafford notes that the oils in the calamus root "contain two psychoactive substances" "which are the natural precursors to TMA-2, a compound that has ten times the potency of mescaline" (286). If taken in small quantities, calamus root does not induce hallucinations; chewing two inches or less of the root, the user feels only a slight increase in physical strength and a mild mental excitement (Stafford 286; Hoffer and Osmond 55-56). In The Hallucinogens, however, Abram Hoffer and Humphrey Osmond offer an account of a subject who experimented with longer sections of the root:

The informant and his wife, a trained psychiatric nurse, were both sophisticated subjects with hallucinogens. …

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