Walt Whitman’s America: A Cultural Biography
Complete Poetry and Collected Prose
Selected Letters of Walt Whitman
Constructing the German Walt Whitman
Like Lincoln or Jesus (to both of whom he addressed poems), Walt Whitman has entered irrevocably the realm of myth. In his case the myth is to an astonishing degree of his own design, consciously crafted and deliberately planted. Consider this description of his work from 1867, anticipating in its titanic scale so much subsequent writing about Whitman:
The idea…which is this man’s highest contribution, and which, compared even with the vastness of Biblical & Homeric poetry, still looms & towers—as, athwart his fellow-giants of the Himalayas, the dim head of Kunchainjunga rises over the rest—is the idea of Totality…He holds the solution of each & every problem—the spell, giving full satisfaction; and his talisman is Ensemble.
This was written, of course, by Whitman himself (under the cover of anonymity) to help publicize an English edition of his poetry. His audacity in raising his own work to the level of the Bible and Homer is matched only by his prescience in gauging accurately his work’s future status. He knows how good he is: and if he advertises himself with the expertise of a practiced newspaperman, the gesture is neither cynical nor deluded.
The hyperbolic tone of Whitman’s press release has been echoed a thousand times over by poets from Fernando Pessoa (“Entryway to everything!/Bridge to everything!/Highway to everything!”) to Hart Crane (“O Saunterer on free ways still ahead!”) to Allen Ginsberg (“dear father, graybeard, lonely old courage-teacher”); from Lorca (who envisioned Whitman with his beard full of butterflies por el East River y el Bronx) to the German Expressionists Arthur Holitscher (“this floodwave from nature deluging civilization, this veritable tornado of a human being”) and Arthur Drey (“Swinger of the torch! Blazing titan of virgin primeval forest!”). When modern poetry has been tempted to fill in for a lost religion, Whitman has most often been called into service as its not altogether reluctant messiah. (His qualms and qualifications with regard to such a role are a constant element of that dialogue with himself in which he ceaselessly revises and parenthetically interprets his own writing.)
A large volume, many large volumes, could be made from such responses, and a collection of the poems dedicated to or inspired by Whitman would encompass the work of Edwin Arlington Robinson, Edgar Lee Masters, Ezra Pound, Carl Sandburg, Vladimir Mayakovsky, Pablo Neruda, Langston Hughes, and Frank O’Hara, not to mention countless high-school students, drug users, socially conscious hacks, and government-sponsored apparatchik bards. He is everywhere, often where least expected: Thomas Mann, for instance, weaves an unattributed chunk of “I Sing the Body Electric” (translated into French for good measure) into Hans Castorp’s rhapsodic love letter in The Magic Mountain. And that singer of Wallace Stevens who “sang beyond the genius of the sea,” had she not heard Whitman’s “soprano at intervals sailing buoyantly over the tops of immense waves”?
“Be it as if I were with you,” he counsels the future reader of his poems. He is and has been with us, so much so that we run the risk of mistaking his echo for his voice, and of hearing even in his own lines not so much Whitman as the Whitmanesque. After all, he stated the case modestly when he wrote, “I have offer’d my style to every one.” It isn’t hard to see him as the inventor, in one passage or another, of free verse, Impressionism, Imagism, Expressionism, Surrealism, Objectivism, Projectivism, open field composition, deep image poetry, and every ramshackle variety of postmodern juxtaposition—and, in another mode, of every modern type of revolutionary anthem, statist ode, and New Age rhapsody.
The successive stylistic tendencies that can be seen as emanating from Whitman—from the rolling grandiosities of early emulators like James Oppenheim and Arturo Giovannitti (not to mention Kahlil Gibran) through the “no ideas but in things” poetic of William Carlos Williams and the street-level notation of Charles Reznikoff, to the resurgence of the long and frankly ecstatic line in Allen Ginsberg and others—have continually found and adapted to their own purposes previously undiscerned qualities of Whitman’s poetry.
The episode is not over; we cannot yet look back at the Age of Whitman as a closed chapter. There are tones and textures in him that await their imitators. He has served as an immense quarry of moods and gestures from which poets have chipped away portions of rock, smoothed them, and cut them to more manageable size; or as a sort of cosmic Bettmann Archive whose image bank has been looted to fit the requirements of one program or another, without yet exhausting its holdings. Just as Whitman kept revising his poems throughout his life, changing names and orders and vocabularies, his texts continue to reveal different aspects of themselves in the changing light of history. This is true of any text, but in Whitman’s case there is a unique sense that these shifting facets are part of the secret plan, part of the mythical Totality which he adopted as his impossible standard.
He has been with us so much that we need to avoid being suffocated by his myth. One way of evading that hagiographical weight would be to read Leaves of Grass as if somebody else had written it. Imagine that, as with Pessoa splintering himself into his “heteronyms,” or Valéry Larbaud creating the collected works of his alter ego A. O. Barnabooth, Leaves of Grass was created as a novel in verse, to be read not as self-expression but as the detached portraiture of a fictional character. The novel’s hero, an eccentric and voluble protagonist who shuttles back and forth between the rural paradise of Long Island and the urban maze of Manhattan, is peculiarly disposed to assume the characteristics of every person and every thing he observes, with sometimes fantastic and sometimes comical results.
He might be a Quixote of the capitalist age, taking literally and with absolute seriousness the spiritual and democratic doctrines mouthed purely for form by established churches and politicians. The novel’s secret strategy is to enlist the reader’s sympathy for this improbable character, so that in the end it is the world he inhabits that appears out of step.
Reading Leaves of Grass that way, we wouldn’t need to worry about what Walt really did, or really thought; wouldn’t need to determine which experiences he really had and which were imagined, to trace the identities of the amative camerados slipping off into the shadows between the lines of “Calamus,” or to probe the motives behind Whitman’s multiple denials and fabrications and self-promotions. The unreal reality of Whitman’s New York could then be accepted on its own terms, as we accept those other dream cities, Dickens’s London and Balzac’s Paris.
Indeed, if he had not become himself, Whitman might well have turned out to be one of those extravagantly prolific hacks to whom we owe the adventures of Nick Carter or the Hardy Boys. Fifteen years before Leaves of Grass, as a discontented schoolteacher on Long Island, we find him writing to a friend in a parody of popular romance:
Thank the pitying fates! in two weeks more I shall wind up my affairs, and with tears in my eyes bid a sorrowful adieu to these hallowed precincts.—Shady walks, venerable old school-house, dismantled farms, innocent young ideas—all—all—will I look upon for the last time.—But I must stop—I cannot carry out the affecting thought any farther.—My heart swells, and my melting soul almost expires with the agonizing idea.
The tone is not much different from the wretched fiction he was then grinding out in an attempt at making a living as an author: stories (including the temperance novel Franklin Evans) about assorted reprobates, sadists, and doomed waifs, in a style that blends the maudlin and the blood-and-thunder with an occasional blast of that jocular overkill characteristic of nineteenth-century American journalism.
The shadowy margins of Leaves of Grass are haunted by the ghosts of Gothic novels he might have written, serials of impossible scope and complexity that might have provided a tour through morgues and back alleys, taverns and brothels, “those places [as he remarked in an 1864 letter] where the air is full of the scent of low thievery, druggies, foul play, & prostitution gangrened.” In the streets where he was “one of a living crowd” he might well have jostled Poe’s solitary and guilt-consumed Man of the Crowd (just as he claimed to have bumped into Poe himself during his early newspaper days in Manhattan): “Behold through you as bad as the rest,/Through the laughter, dancing, dining, supping, of people,/Inside of dresses and ornaments, inside of those wash’d and trimm’d faces,/Behold a secret silent loathing and despair.”
The pattern-making of his long poems is easier to relate to the fictional worlds of Dickens or Balzac than to anything that poets were doing in his day. To find the like in poetry it was necessary to go back centuries, to the primal makers he never tired of cataloging: “The Iliad, Odyssey, plots, doings, wanderings of Eneas, / Hesiod, Eschylus, Sophocles, Merlin, Arthur, / The Cid, Roland at Roncesvalles, the Nibelungen.” It was always to epic storytellers that he compared himself.
Whitman sets in motion a poetic universe as self-regulating and inherently plausible as Ithaka or Elsinore, and calls it Brooklyn and Manhattan and Long Island. In his extended compositions each line can be seen as a plot line flung out into space, as if the poem were a string of beginnings: not one novel but a hundred, a catalog of destinies, “all identities that have existed or may exist on this globe, or any globe,” as he specifies with almost legalistic thoroughness. As it happened, neither fiction nor verse as they then existed could provide Whitman with what he needed, so he invented out of necessity his own form, a reversion to what he conceived of as the most archaic bardic impulses, representing itself as the poetry of the future.
To look for biographical realities in Leaves of Grass is to read Whitman as he does not want to be read. Even he, he insists, knows of his own life “only a few hints, a few diffused faint clews and indirections” which he seeks “for my own use to trace out here”: his own use, not anyone else’s. He had every reason to surmise how little a biography could tell about him, especially since he had helped to obscure matters by planting innumerable apocryphal details in his writings and conversation. It remains astonishing that a life so well documented—in letters, photographs, press clippings, and detailed memoirs such as his disciple Horace Traubel’s three-volume With Walt Whitman in Camden—should nevertheless elude close inspection. Rumor and speculation take over rather swiftly when one goes beyond the surface of Whitman’s life, beyond the succession of images he vetted for public consumption. Cryptic entries in notebooks and letters, patterns of emendation and rearrangement in poetic texts: it is to such evidence that scholars resort to learn fundamental things about this ostensibly frankest and most self-revealing of poets.