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Whitman’s Revolution

He does not make it easy for them. There is barely an autobiographical statement of Whitman’s that has not been challenged, from that early encounter with Poe to his alleged early years of wandering across America, now reduced by investigators to a mere three months in New Orleans (that “populous city” with its “woman who passionately clung to me,” a woman who was the Dark Lady for Whitmanites until she turned out, in an earlier draft, to have been a man). Like a rock star supervising his own publicity, he retained control over nearly every intimate glimpse we get of him. We are not permitted to know everything and, what’s more, he assures us that we don’t want to know: “O admirers, praise not me—compliment not me—you make me wince, / I see what you do not—I know what you do not.”

In Walt Whitman’s America David S. Reynolds enlists the whole American scene of Whitman’s time to explain him—if anything can explain him. Reynolds underestimates, I think, the extent to which we need Whitman to explain America, but that is a question that does not really enter into his study, which amounts to a systematic and superbly researched work of annotation. If for many contemporary readers Whitman’s poetry seems to float beyond its own time, Reynolds lays out how thoroughly it draws on the materials of its moment: the vocabulary and gestures of phrenology and popular physiology, trance poems and animal magnetism, socialism and free love, Free-Soilers and Locofocos, orators, history painters, opera singers, Shakespearian actors, cheapjack illuminati like Thomas Lake Harris and Andrew Jackson Davis, the Poughkeepsie Seer. No solitary singer, this is a Whitman steeped in the entertainments, fads, and debates of his time, news hound and partisan.

As an evocation of America, and above all of New York, in the antebellum era, Reynolds’s book teems with the cacophonous and frequently anarchic energies of a culture in which, we are told, “by 1843 there were between twenty and thirty thousand mesmerists lecturing in the Northeast alone,” in which the great tragedian Junius Brutus Booth “walked the streets as Shylock or Richard, flinging coins to people who paraded after him,” in which (in Whitman’s enumeration) “free-lovers, ultra-abolitionists, trance-media, female atheists, vegetarians, phrenologists” gathered in the thousands for an 1858 convention in Rutland, Vermont.

The motley nature of Whitman’s intellectual and aesthetic influences couldn’t be more appropriate to his democratic poetic. He found sustenance at every hand, in material now entirely obscure, such as Fanny Wright’s 1822 radical deist novel Ten Days in Athens (“I kept it about me for years”), John Howard Payne’s drama Brutus, or the Fall of Tarquin (“affected me for weeks… permanently filter’d into my whole nature”), genre paintings like those of the Long Island artist William Sidney Mount, the harmonizing of the Hutchinson family singers (whose most popular song was openly autobiographical and incorporated their own names—a song of themselves), and the eccentric verse of McDonald Clarke, the Mad Poet of Broadway, who Whitman felt “possessed all the requisites of a great poet,” and who died in jail after being picked up for vagrancy in 1842. In short, Walt’s barbaric yawp was far from an isolated noise in an otherwise genteel society. Reynolds finds much precedent for Whitman’s poetic innovations in a street culture valuing public performance with full audience participation; the exuberant mingling of high-flown and vulgar styles; the unrestrained venting of emotional extremes whether in the pulpit, on stage, or on the political platform.

Two city types were of particular importance for Whitman: the b’hoys of the Bowery (the proletarian playgoers and volunteer firemen whom he characterized as “splendid and rugged”) and the “roughs, rowdies, or loafers,” described by Reynolds as “a distinct class of gang members and street loungers who roved through Manhattan’s poorer districts and often instigated riots.” Reynolds argues convincingly that Whitman’s persona in the first Leaves of Grass of 1855—“wicked rather than conventionally virtuous, free, smart, prone to slang and vigorous outbursts”—is imbued with the manners of these subcultures. When he labels himself “one of the roughs,” when he “leans and loafs” at his ease, Whitman is evoking an immediately recognizable cluster of traits and associations, so that it was no gratuitous slam for a contemporary reviewer to describe him as “the ‘Bowery Bhoy’ in literature.”

But Whitman was not, Reynolds suggests, merely celebrating this pugnacious and heterogeneous urban culture. He was cleansing it of impurities, offering it up in an idealized form designed to spark self-improvement in the popular audience he sought by channeling their rough energies into higher forms. Taking in the poison bred by human greed and desire, he filters it through himself and transforms it into beauty, just as (in “This Compost”) the earth transmutes human corpses into the purity of nature: “Now I am terrified at the Earth, it is that calm and patient,/It grows such sweet things out of such corruptions,/It turns harmless and stainless on its axis, with such endless successions of diseas’d corpses,/It distills such exquisite winds out of such infused fetor…”

The quest for purification accords with the reformers and sex theorists of the day, countering degeneracy and sexual license with sound heredity and a healthy virility. Sex as propounded in the “Children of Adam” poems is more healthful than erotic, and the passages where Whitman evokes masturbation, however revolutionary in their frankness, are far from approving: “Have you seen the fool that corrupted his own live body? or the fool that corrupted her own live body?/For they do not conceal themselves, and cannot conceal themselves.”

Reynolds pays particular attention to Orson Fowler (of Fowlers and Wells, the publishers of the 1855 Leaves of Grass), author of Love and Parentage and Sexual Science; in such publications can be found the roots, for instance, of Whitman’s physiological catalogs—“Leg-fibres, knee, kneepan, upper-leg, under-leg”—with their scientific rather than voluptuous tone. So far were those poems from being extemporaneous outpourings that Whitman prepared for them with methodical research, as evidenced in a notebook entry: “Read the latest and best anatomical works/talk with physicians/study the anatomical plates.”

Here as elsewhere Reynolds’s point is that to read Whitman without knowing where his vocabulary comes from (whether the terms in question are phrenological or Swedenborgian), and without knowing the contemporary debates into which he interjects himself, is to read him in a vacuum in which it becomes much easier to recast him in whatever idealized form the reader favors.

The question of how Whitman’s contemporaries construed him (when they read him at all) enters into an interesting discussion by Reynolds of the “Calamus” poems, whose homoeroticism was less shocking in Whitman’s day than later generations have supposed:

Passionate intimacy between people of the same sex was common in pre-Civil War America…. Whatever the nature of his physical relationships with [men], most of the passages about same-sex love in his poems were not out of keeping with then-current theories and practices that under-scored the healthiness of such love.

It was in fact the explicitness of the dutifully heterosexual “Children of Adam” poems that caused most of the trouble for Whitman in the nineteenth century.

3.

The world that shaped Whitman was in a state of upheaval that took his family from a sedentary, rural way of life into all the disasters of rapid expansion and ruthless market economics. The farmland of his childhood—the terrain that his nostalgia transforms into terrestrial paradise—turned rapidly into congested urban space. The population of Brooklyn went from 4,000 to more than 200,000 between 1810 and 1855, even though the resulting surge in construction work failed to rescue Whitman’s carpenter father from financial failure.

Whitman’s origins are mysterious in their very ordinariness, and what little he has to say about his early family life is usually cloaked in nostalgia. His father turns up unmistakably and indelibly in Leaves of Grass—“The father, strong, self-sufficient, manly, mean, anger’d, unjust,/The blow, the quick loud word, the tight bargain, the crafty lure,”—and his intellectual legacy to his son included the political radicalism of Tom Paine and the Quaker spirituality of Elias Hicks; but after his death Whitman barely mentioned him again.

His mother he remained close to all her life, and by his own account never really got over her death in 1873. In the heartbreakingly simple and direct letters he wrote to her during his hospital service in the Civil War (“& then the agony I see every day, I get almost frightened at the world—Mother, I will try to write more cheerfully next time—but I see so much—“) it is difficult to tell who leaned more on the other for consolation. The portraits of Whitman’s parents that Reynolds reproduces—eroded faces, haunted eyes—speak of a suffering that has beaten them down to anger or resignation. Looking at them, it is hard not to recall Whitman’s many pronouncements on photography and the expressive power of faces. Perhaps his many photographic portraits, calculated to convey a serene wisdom, were a deliberate reply to these stark daguerreotypes.

Of his seven siblings, one died in a madhouse, one drank himself to death at an early age, leaving a widow who became a prostitute, one was a possible psychotic whose husband died in a madhouse, and one suffered severe mental and physical handicaps. He himself went to work early, as printer’s apprentice and miserably unhappy schoolteacher; edited a staggering variety of newspapers, rarely for long at a stretch; immersed himself in the vociferous confrontations of Democratic Party politics, and perhaps almost found in politics an alternative to a poetic career; went to the opera and had his bumps read by a phrenologist. He met scores of working-class men and wrote their names in notebooks. Later, talking about the origins of Leaves of Grass, he explained that “the book arose out of my life in Brooklyn and New York from 1838 to 1853, absorbing a million people, for fifteen years, with an intimacy, an eagerness, an abandon, probably never equalled.” It’s as good an explanation as any of where Leaves of Grass came from.

To read Whitman and think about his life is to come back sooner or later to that central mystery. A study of cultural influence such as Walt Whitman’s America cannot really confront it head-on. As Reynolds turns up more and more sources, the reader may begin to feel as if the making of Leaves of Grass were a passive phenomenon, an accretion of what was going on around Whitman. In such an extravagant world—what with the mad actors and their riotous fans, the street gangs in the pay of corrupt politicians, the armed conflicts breaking out over slavery, the bands of inspired mystics and sex-scientists—how could something as absolutely radical and unanticipated as Whitman’s poetry not have emerged?

Yet although the whole population was subject to the same influences, only one of them was influenced to write “Song of Myself” or anything remotely resembling it. There are singularities beyond the reach of social history. Examining separately all the influences that Whitman may have absorbed—through his constant ground-level attentiveness, his ear for slang and jargon, his capacity for assuming every passing role, his endless expeditions on ferry and bus and pavement—would not enable us, in the absence of his text, to imagine the use he made of them. He once said he couldn’t have done it without Italian opera; again, it is as good an explanation as any.

Walt Whitman’s America greatly enriches our reading of Whitman without necessarily coming any closer to getting behind his many masks. In the book’s later chapters, which trace the gradual diminution of Whitman’s poetic energies in the years after the Civil War, his softening of the radicalism of the early poetry, and his tenacious efforts to gain public support for his work, a loss of sympathy on Reynolds’s part is apparent. He is evidently not happy about Whitman’s writing poems in praise of Custer and Kaiser Friedrich Wilhelm, or about his newfound enthusiasm for the magnates of the Gilded Age, and this leads him to a somewhat severer view of Whitman’s motives and conduct than seems warranted. Admittedly, the insufferable aura of religious devotion permeating the circle around Whitman in his last years would be enough to arouse contrariness in any biographer.

Ultimately the question of what influenced Whitman cannot be addressed without admitting how ineluctably he has influenced us. He isn’t merely the creature but the creator of his times, which on crucial levels we see through his eyes. A certain circularity sets in: Whitman could exist because of the vitality of his age, his age was vital because it engendered a Whitman. We could hardly know that vitality without him; he tells what no one else would. His poetic testimony is of a different order than the reports of newspapers (including his own); he offers another way into his historical moment, in which we share the sensations of the observer.

This was his democratic literary revolution, in which every figure in the crowd—everyone who in Shakespeare and Scott would have been an anonymous spear-carrier—is endowed as never before with brain and heart and lungs and genitals. He sees them in their bodies, and so makes physical appetite, physical being, part of literature in a way it had rarely been since Rabelais, and with an intent utterly foreign to Rabelais. Here the body is not seen from without, as the subject of grotesque comedy, but experienced from within as the site where a cosmic epic plays itself out. “Behold, the body includes and is the meaning, the main concern, and includes and is the soul.”

Not that some echo of Rabelaisian grotesquerie is altogether missing, in a passage like this from “Faces”:

This now is too lamentable a face for a man,
Some abject louse asking leave to be, cringing for it,
Some milk-nosed maggot bless- ing what lets it wrig to its hole,
This face is a dog’s snout sniffing for garbage,
Snakes nest in that mouth…

Wherever the body is rejected or covered up we find traces of such a morbid farce, swarming with death’s-heads and diseased faces worthy of a medieval memento mori—memorials of the old corrupt world, the world of feudal hierarchies and priestly prohibitions. (As for Rabelais, Whitman thought well enough of him to propose him, in collaboration with Michelangelo, Plutarch, and Aeschylus, as an ideal portraitist of Lincoln.)

Something is generally presumed to have happened—a mystical revelation, an erotic revelation, or both at once—to account for the rather sudden transformation of the author of Franklin Evans into the author of Song of Myself. For Reynolds it is connected as well to the failure of his political ambitions:

In the fifties, his collapsed belief in the party system and presidential power had caused the incredible surge of his omnivorous, all-gathering poetic “I,” creating his richest poetry.

A dissolution of some kind—or of all kinds—must have preceded such a flooding.

But ecstasies and breakdowns were as commonplace then as they are now. Extravagant visionaries abounded, and they frequently wrote long poems to embody their visions. What was crucial for Whitman must have been the realization that—unlike anyone he was aware of in his vicinity—he possessed a literary method adequate to his cosmic impulses. The 1855 Leaves of Grass makes clear that he has thought more about poetry, from more angles, in more contexts actual and potential, than anyone around him, and that he knows it.

Along with everything else that it is, the book can be read as a protracted and deliberate work of literary criticism, showing by example every way in which nineteenth-century American poetry failed to make contact with the world in which it existed. “I sometimes think,” he remarked years later to Horace Traubel, “the Leaves is only a language experiment.” It made all the difference to grasp with the utmost clarity that it was words, not ideas or feelings or ineffable aspirations, that were his tools. He can step outside language—“Were you thinking that those were the words, those upright lines? those curves, angles, dots?”—only by having grasped what language is. It is as if he stepped out of a trap.

His genius was above all technical. If we don’t quite see that, if we still incline to see in Leaves of Grass a species of spontaneous organic utterance rather than a cunning exercise in verbal architecture, it testifies all the more to his skill as builder. A flow consisting of absolutely separate elements: such is the optical illusion he manufactures, more deeply persuasive than any magic lantern show.

I will not make poems with refer- ence to parts,
But I will make poems, songs, thoughts, with reference to ensemble….

He could not have done so without establishing that the poem consists of nothing but parts.

In the notebook poem “Pictures,” predating Leaves of Grass by a few years, he has already found what he needs. The contents of his mind can be enumerated like pictures on a wall, or more properly like descriptions of pictures in a catalog:

In a little house pictures I keep, many pictures hanging sus- pended—It is not a fixed house,
It is round—it is but a few inches from one side of it to the other side,
But behold! it has room enough—in it, hundreds and thousands,—all the varieties….

The elements are free and independent; they can go anywhere; they can be anywhere. Things can be placed side by side; they can be rearranged; they participate in a totality no matter how jagged the contrasts among them. He can put them wherever he wants them to go.

It is a physical perception, as if Whitman had taken apart what he was given, literally with scissors, and discerned an infinity of uses in the pieces spread out before him, a thousand ways to exercise his henceforth assured sense of balance and decorum: strings of words, juxtapositions of strings of words: “flicker of black contrasted with wild red and yellow light,” or “stars, rain, snow, my amaze,” or “heard the pulse of you when all was still ringing little bells last night under my ear,” or “filament, filament, filament.” By so simple a procedure—a matter of carpentry, of mechanics—it becomes possible to sidestep a world of rhetorical and narrative encumberments.

He had the builder’s eye for foundations and crossbeams, the professional printer’s eye accustomed to the alphabet lying loose in trays. “My theory is that the author might be the maker even of the body of his book—set the type, print the book on a press, put a cover on it, all with his own hands.” In the ponderousness of those long lines one can feel him actually hoisting the line into place, laying one alongside the other, as if the point after all were to appreciate that muscular heave. He has the calm and assurance of a builder whose blueprint is thoroughly in order: to a remarkable degree Whitman’s program for his poetry is his poetry. He makes a list of things to do and by that very act they are done; by describing the poem of the future, as if in an exhibition catalog, he brings it into being.

It is a job of work: “I had great trouble in leaving out the stock ‘poetical’ touches, but succeeded at last,” as if it had been a matter of scraping off barnacles or accretions of rust. No nonsense, no question of angelic inspiration. If he works with preternatural energy, it is because he is fired up with the awareness of his unique and solitary opportunity. He has no trouble keeping in mind the theme of his work, because the theme is nothing other than himself working on it. Leaves of Grass is a description of what it is like to be writing Leaves of Grass.

The process never ended. The poems were made of pieces, item by item; and then remade, given new names, the parts shifted around, the poems made parts of larger clusters. Whitman’s parenthetical comments on his own writing—fleeting self-contradictions, winks, changes of emphasis—become part of the poem. Aside from professional scholars, few readers of Whitman have even begun to read the major editions of Leaves of Grass, with their drastic shifts in arrangement and continual revision, as separate and very different works.

Few remarks of Whitman’s have been so widely quoted as the disclaimer in his late essay “A Backward Glance o’er Travel’d Roads”: “No one will get at my verses who insists upon viewing them as a literary performance, or attempt at such performance, or as aiming mainly toward art or aestheticism.” Given the kind of aesthetic analysis he might have expected to receive in his own day, the statement is understandable enough, but its absolutism is undercut by Whitman’s own repeated acknowledgment of his aesthetic motivation, what he once called his “artism.” If these acknowledgments are somewhat marginal, that is in accord with the “curious removes” and “indirections” proper to “the poet, the esthetic worker in any field.” The triumphant openness of Leaves has as its obverse a ubiquitous concealment: it is a kind of open-air labyrinth, or like the web of that “noiseless patient spider” with whom he identified himself. “There is something furtive in my nature,” he told a friend, “like an old hen.” What he had given himself in Leaves was a field large enough in which to hide anything, any desire.

Nothing is hidden, however, from the reader for whom he longs, the reader one is invited to become, the reader whose tongue is in Whitman’s mouth—“It is you talking just as much as myself, I act as the tongue of you”—and who looks out of Whitman’s eyes: “Just as you feel when you look on the river and sky, so I felt.” For what purpose, after all, was all this created if not to provide a space in which Whitman and his reader could be alone together?

By force of will he perpetuates not only himself but a world for him and his comrade to inhabit, a world made from the vital stuff around him but reordered to his specifications. The life of the reader is all that is needful to make it live: “I that was visible am become invisible,/Now it is you, compact, visible, realizing my poems, seeking me,/Fancying how happy you were if I could be with you and become your comrade;/Be it as if I were with you. (Be not too certain but I am now with you.)” He has found a way to keep himself alive through those generations of future readers in whom he hopes “to arouse and set flowing…endless streams of living, pulsating love and friendship, directly from them to myself, now and ever.” All he asks from the reader, then, is eternal and unconditional love. An incalculable number have found the exchange quite reasonable.

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