"I am the man; I suffered, I was there."
The epigraph comes from Leaves of Grass, Walt Whitman's famous poetry collection, first published in 1855. Like Giovanni's Room, Whitman's book was controversial and quickly became labeled as indecent. To this day, Leaves of Grass is famous for its unstinting praise of the body, the senses, and human sexuality at a time when such praise was considered immoral.
Giovanni's Room was published in 1956, almost exactly one century after Leaves of Grass. It committed a similar offense against the sensibilities of its time by depicting same-sex love in great detail. Just as Whitman refused to denounce the body, Baldwin refused to condemn same-sex love or to couch the terms in which he described it.
Whitman's quote itself, short as it is, brings up a number of themes and ideas that are very central to Baldwin's book. First, "I am the man." Different notions of manhood, of what it means to be a man, run through the pages of Giovanni's Room. Whereas Whitman may have been making a relatively straightforward statement, for Baldwin the cultural norms surrounding the idea of masculinity made it a complex idea, one open to different interpretations.
The rest of the quote, "I suffered, I was there," summarizes, in two clipped phrases, much of Giovanni's Room. David, narrating the story alone from his house in the south of France, is in a state of mental anguish. In his relationship with Giovanni, Giovanni would often accuse him of being unfeeling. It was Giovanni who was the great sufferer, who carried the weight of the world on his shoulders.
As we get David's retrospective, however, we see that David was also suffering in their relationship, that it was not easy for him to drop Giovanni and return to Hella. As keen readers, though, we want to interrogate the text, to challenge David's ideas about what happened and what he felt. One question we might ask, then, is: did David really suffer much as things happened, or is he now projecting his suffering back into the past, to the times when he thinks that he should have felt it?
The last bit of the epigraph – "I was there" – might be seen to be entangled with David's sense of guilt over what happened to Giovanni. David was there, the entire time. He bore witness to Giovanni's suffering, and did relatively little to help him out of it. His acknowledgment of his presence brings up all the typical guilt questions along the lines of woulda-coulda-shoulda, and forces David to ask himself exactly what his role was in Giovanni's death.