Walt Whitman and the First Emoticon

I like to keep a clean and organized Gmail Inbox. A compulsive email-list subscriber like myself has no other choice. Writer's Almanac, Nation of Change, Living Social, the deluge needs daily attention if I'm to keep up with more important emails like those from frantic students wondering why their grades are so low, my monthly phone bill, messages from friends and family.

Email email email. Electronic correspondences. These I love. I've said before my best artistic genre is the email. The challenge always lays in overcoming the generic quality of script on screen: no handwriting to differentiate yourself, no vocal intonations to transmit subtle emotions, no body language to fill in the gaps left when language fails. Some recourse to profuse exclamation marks (a colleague recently told me she allows the students in her writing course only one exclamation mark a semester), some change up the fonts and background colors, some use the emoticon.

Though I've tried to swear them off, sometimes the emoticon must be used as a tonal marker. Sometimes it's nice to find a thoughtfully placed colon next to a closing parentheses (the result looking something like this :).

On February 20, the Poets.org Poem-A-Day was Walt Whitman's "Washington Monument, February, 1885." And while sifting through my daily mail I found something remarkable within that poem, something I've been waiting 40 days for which to find the proper presentation. It's been languishing at the bottom of my box but today I'm cleaning house and so present to you, in these lines 6-9, the first emoticon in the history of letters.

"Old Asia's there with venerable smile, seated
   amid her ruins;
(Greets the antique the hero new? 'tis but the same
   —the heir legitimate, continued ever,

"The indomitable heart and arm—proofs of
   the never-broken line,

"Courage, alertness, patience, faith, the
   same—e'en in defeat defeated not, the same:)"

See that at the end there? That emoticon? An emoticon! Walt Whitman, poetic popularizer of the long breath line, dutiful professor of the multitudinous soul, America's most cherished bard, was slipping smileys into his poems long before us neophytes of the nano age thought to arrange our textual characters into simulacrums of our faces and their contortions.

Looks just like his profile picture. Two beady eyes, head turned back toward the east. A smile broader than could fit on his face. We do contain within ourselves each emoticon of every person to ever grace our vast cosmosphere, don't we Walt?


  1. Hi, Paul. I just came upon this already old post of yours, while googling an even older post of mine where I presented (I believe for the first time) the same finding: Whitman as the father of emoticon! My post, though, was a little more ironic, for I made up some references to support my claims: but Whitman's real verse is still there. Actually, my version contains ;) rather than :) so I believe we could make a comparative exercise here :) (the last emoticon is by my own)

    Here the link, if you want to read some Brazilian Portuguese post: http://miseramesa.blogspot.com.br/2011/10/historia-da-poesia-americana-walt.html

    Cheers, and all the best.

  2. Oh, well, you know what? After commenting here I realized that the poems quoted by us are, actually, two different poems! Seems Whitman was really a hard-user of emoticons :) Even more comparative, then.

    Here the one I mentioned: “Bear forth to them folded my love, (dear mariners, for you I fold it here on every leaf ;)” (from Leaves of Grass).