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All-American Bard

Walt Whitman: A Life

by Justin Kaplan
Simon and Schuster, 429 pp., $15.00

It was Walt Whitman, at the age of forty-five, who finally took his elder brother Jesse to a lunatic asylum in Brooklyn and left him there. As Justin Kaplan reports in his brisk and accurate biography of Whitman, Jesse had an unstable, violent nature, and Walt early became their mother’s favorite child. Even when she was dying, Mrs. Whitman singled out her “dear beloved Walter” by name for a particular leave-taking.

Jesse died after five years in the asylum and received a pauper’s burial, with no member of the family at hand. Kaplan reminds us of the line in Song of Myself that foreshadows the poet’s management of his brother: “The lunatic is carried at last to the asylum a confirm’d case.”

Not only did Walt displace this rival for parental love. He also won the contest with their father. Mr. Whitman was a philoprogenitive carpenter who succeeded in little besides the fathering of a large brood. Hard-working, short-tempered, and laconic, he quarreled with his literary son. It is easy for us to believe that the lines about a father in “There Was a Child” are autobiographical:

The father, strong, self-sufficient, manly, mean, anger’d, unjust,
The blow, the quick loud word, the tight bargain, the crafty lure….

Scholars have noticed how often Whitman’s early stories deal with the injustice of a father toward a son.

The poet wished to live by no discipline but the promptings of his genius. He would refuse, his brother George said, “to do anything except at his own notion.” The young Whitman came late to meals; and while other sons were rising betimes to work normal hours with hammer and saw, the poet loafed and invited his soul. In the preface to Leaves of Grass he sneered at the “abandonment of such a great being as a man is to the toss and pallor of years of moneymaking.” In a fragment of verse addressed to poor people, he wrote:

The road to riches is easily open to me,
But I do not choose it
I choose to stay with you.—

About the time the poet began to conceive Leaves of Grass, his father’s health began to fail. Mr. Whitman sank eventually under a paralytic stroke that left him bedridden. It was Walt who took the invalid for a visit to the family homestead on Long Island. When Mr. Whitman died, a week after Leaves of Grass came out, his widow commented on the length of time he had been ill, and the “many bad spells” he had suffered.

One might have expected the prolonged sickness and the death to stir feelings of guilt in a son who took over the father’s position in the family. But Kaplan quotes another anticipatory passage from the preface to Leaves of Grass. Speaking of his countrymen’s attitude toward history, the poet says that America does not repel the past but accepts the rightful place of successor—“perceives that the corpse is slowly borne from the eating and sleeping rooms of the house…that its action has descended to the stalwart and well-shaped heir who approaches.”

Whitman says so much in the very first sentence of the preface; and one is tempted to speculate that the poetical son gained creative energy from the decline of the parent. Selfhood and its coming into being are the characteristic subjects of Whitman’s best poems. A reaching for identity is the process that underlies his work. He strove to form his personality in opposition to that of Mr. Whitman; for Walt devoted himself to speech as his father had done to silence; he liked to appear genial as his father was irritable; he celebrated his own health while his father’s was fading. Mr. Whitman’s shrinkage drove his son (I think) to define himself more positively, and not merely in contrast to a rejected model. The father’s absence left room for the poet to expand imaginatively and re-create the world.

Yet the world of men stirred ambiguous responses in the younger poet. American politics, American civilization, human nature, his own nature, less often pleased than troubled him. Close at home there was his brother Andrew, consumptive and alcoholic, chained to a slatternly wife who walked the streets. (Andrew died miserably a year before Jesse was put away.) There was his brother Eddy, youngest in the family, feeble-minded from birth, with a crippled arm and leg. Although Eddy was sixteen years younger than the poet, they often shared the same bed.

The family had shallow roots. During Whitman’s early years they moved constantly from house to house on Long Island or in Brooklyn, while the mother bore child after child. It seems clear that the stable term in young Walt’s development was Mrs. Whitman’s love. Only through her was he able to connect himself with his siblings; and among these, the two girls whose birth followed his own were inevitably rivals who kept the infant poet from absorbing an eager mother’s attention.

He had himself displaced the one elder son. The other children, including the girls, he treated as domestic responsibilities, objects of a surrogate maternal impulse; for he helped Mrs. Whitman look after them. The poet’s much younger brother George said it seemed “as if he had us in charge,” and added that “now and then his guardianship seemed excessive.”

When he was a young man, Whitman often took short-term jobs as a schoolmaster. The evidence is that he was easygoing and not a severe disciplinarian. Although he kept order, he disapproved of corporal punishment and did not encourage learning by rote. He would play games with the children and gave special attention to the younger ones.

In the columns Whitman wrote for the Long Island Star (1845-1846), he liked to give parental advice to youthful readers. Here, moral improvement obsessed him. So far from sounding manly and permissive, he habitually condemned vulgarity and coarseness: “Swear not! Smoke not! and rough-and-tumble not!” If King John was one of Whitman’s two favorite plays by Shakespeare, the reason was probably Mrs. Kean’s harrowing rendition of maternal woe.

John Burroughs, who knew Whitman intimately, compared his look and eyes with those of “the mother of many children.” Whitman celebrated maternity and called his mother “the most perfect and magnetic character, the rarest combination of practical, moral and spiritual, and the least selfish, of all and any I have ever known.” Her letters do not bear out this description. Twice when he made a will, Whitman left his property to his mother in trust for the care of Eddy, the most dependent of his surviving brothers and sisters. Such a testament seems to me an odd blurring of filial and maternal characters, with Whitman trying at the same time to serve his mother and to push her off-stage.

Certainly the family was not the sort on which one could comfortably establish one’s identity—there was so much more to reject than to accept. For an imaginative boy drawn to music, literature, and self-contemplation, the community of the nation seemed no better disposed. Whitman was ten years old when Jackson became president; and the two decades that followed were periods of national obsession with growth, productive industry, and material wealth. Whitman recorded his disgust in the preface to Leaves of Grass, where he denounced the accumulation of riches as “the great fraud upon modern civilization.”

In verse and prose over the next ten or dozen years he reiterated his condemnation of American politics and culture:

Smother’d in thievery, impotence, shamelessness, mountain-high;
Brazen effrontery, scheming, roll- ing like ocean’s waves around and upon you, O my days! my lands!

The virulence of his attack on the presidential campaigns of 1856 was unrelenting. Every “trustee of the people” said Whitman, “is a traitor, looking only to his own gain, and to boost up his party.” Public office was a mark of criminal character: “The berths, the Presidency included, are bought, sold, electioneered for, prostituted, and filled with prostitutes.”

In an essay on democracy (1867) he broadened the attack. All the branches of American government were, he said, “saturated in corruption, bribery, falsehood, maladministration.” American civilization was “a sort of dry and flat Sahara…crowded with petty grotesques, malformations, phantoms, playing meaningless antics.” The American character, he said, was quintessentially hypocritical:

Confess that everywhere, in shop, street, church, theatre, barroom, official chair, are pervading flippancy and vulgarity, low cunning, infidelity—everywhere the youth puny, impudent, foppish, prematurely ripe—everywhere an abnormal libidinousness…shallow notions of beauty, with a range of manners or rather lack of manners…probably the meanest to be seen in the world.

Yet American character was only an instance of the general failure of humanity:

The devilish and the dark, the dy- ing and diseas’d,
The countless (nineteen-twentieths) low and evil, crude and savage,
The crazed, prisoners in jail, the horrible, rank, malignant,
Venom and filth, serpents, the ravenous sharks, liars, the dis- solute;
(What is the part the wicked and the loathesome bear within earth’s orbic scheme?)

From the general condemnation he did not exclude himself:

I own that I have been sly, thievish, mean, a prevaricator, greedy, derelict,
And I own that I remain so yet. What foul thought but I think it—or have in me the stuff out of which it is thought?
What in darkness in bed at night, alone or with a companion?

* * *

Inside these breast-bones I lie smutch’d and choked,
Beneath this face that appears so impassive hell’s tides continually run,
Lusts and wickedness are acceptable to me,
I walk with delinquents with pas- sionate love….

Such reflections are not anomalies but rise from a poem as central to Whitman’s accomplishment as “Crossing Brooklyn Ferry”:

I too knitted the old knot of con- trariety,
Blabb’d, blush’d, resented, lied, stole, grudg’d,
Had guile, anger, lust, hot wishes I dared not speak,
Was wayward, vain, greedy, shal- low, sly, cowardly, malignant,
The wolf, the snake, the hog, not wanting in me….

A sign of Whitman’s displeasure with the culture and people of his own age is the way he turned to youth and the future for his ideals to be realized. In a letter of 1852 he urged a man about to become a presidential candidate to “look to the young men.” Speaking of New York, he says there are “tens of thousands of young men” who yearn for political reform. “In all these, under and behind the bosh of the regular politicians, there burns, almost with fierceness, the divine fire which more or less, during all the ages, has only waited a chance to leap forth and confound the calculations of tyrants, hunkers, and all their tribe.”

In the essay on democracy he declares that America counts for her justification “almost entirely on the future.” And so (much later) he described his “Song of the Redwood-Tree” as celebrating the Pacific half of the country, which he called “the future better half.” So also among social classes, Whitman did not interest himself in those who could not use his guidance: members of the established order, the higher professions, families deeply based in old wealth.

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