Tuesday, May 31, 2016

Birthday: "Some people are so much sunlight to the square inch. I am still bathing in the cheer he radiated."

Walter “Walt”  Whitman (1819-1892)
Journalist, essayist, poet

Whitman remains, for some, exactly the wrong sort of great American poet: ill-educated, untenured, sexually ambiguous, sometimes bombastic, and always self-contradictory.

Still, from the first edition of his rolling opus, Leaves of Grass, Whitman was marked as an original. Emerson praised him. Thoreau, the artist Thomas Eakins, and Oscar Wilde all called upon him in their days. He gave the commencement address at Dartmouth in 1872.

More conventional tastes denounced him. He was fired from several government jobs for having written “obscene” verse. Bridging the transition from transcendentalism to realism in American verse, he is widely considered one of the fathers of free verse, and in the front rank of poets of modern times.

At the dawn of American celebrity marketing, he became one, precisely because 35 years of his and the American people’s projections of values- pro and con- on his name. Lisa Hix, writing in a recent Collectors Weekly, notes,

In “Song of Myself,” Whitman declared, “Do I contradict myself? Very well, then I contradict myself, I am large, I contain multitudes.” Which helps explain why Whitman’s image and quotes have been successfully mined to sell everything under the sun, including vices, like tobacco and booze, that he didn’t personally relish. His words fit both patriotic, World War II military-contractor pitches and late 1960s anti-war political art. Because he’s entered the pantheon of Great American Writers, he’s often depicted as a white-bearded, respectable poet for taste-making intellectuals, as fundamentally American as the Founding Fathers. Even as he’s exploited to sell mainstream consumer products, unions and anti-capitalist protesters embrace him as the earthy voice of the common working man, and LGBTQ activists and artists hold him up as a symbol of rebellious homosexual eroticism.
Whitman’s life’s work was “Leaves of Grass,” an endlessly revised  collection of his verse begun in the 1850s. In 1855 he paid a printer to let him set and print 795 copies of the first, 95-page edition of twelve poems. Well along in the 1300+ line “Song of Myself,” he announces himself as “Walt Whitman, an American, one of the roughs, a kosmos, disorderly, fleshly, and sensual, no sentimentalist, no stander above men or women or apart from them, no more modest than immodest.” His image, on the frontispiece, was provocative: the antebellum stud.

The book was sold unbound, as was the practice; the well-to-do liked having their libraries filled by matching leather-clad volumes. Only 210 were bound, and of those, 179 are known to exist today. Whitman sold three copies.

Having been inspired by one of Emerson’s essays, “The Poet” (an 1844 work called for the development of an American poetic voice on American themes), Whitman sent the great man a copy of the first edition. He caught Emerson on a good day, and received an effusive, five-page letter greeting Whitman “at the beginning of a great career”. Whitman saw his chance and circulated the letter to the leading critics of the day with mixed results. Some agreed with Emerson that the unknown poet was a new, American, voice. Others sided with the critic Rufus Griswold, who declared, “It is impossible to imagine how any man’s fancy could have conceived such a mass of stupid filth, unless he were possessed of the soul of a sentimental donkey that had died of disappointed love.”

Riding his modest wave of good reviews, Whitman brought out a second edition in 1856, adding twenty new poems and 289 new pages. He had Emerson’s greeting added to the spines in gilt, and printed the whole letter as an appendix.

Emerson was miffed, and the fact he had endorsed something so radical seemed to bring out the bluenoses in that particularly prudish age. Whitman v.2 sold worse than the first, and the denunciations formed a substantial pile.

Two more of the New England literary lights, the poet Bronson Alcott and the eccentric Henry David Thoreau, sought out Whitman for a meeting. The author’s cheerful embrace of human sensuality (admiring human bodies? Swimming naked?) put them off.

Leaves of Grass having proved no money-spinner, Whitman returned to journalism, producing a 47,000-word series of articles on health and fitness for men in a New York newspaper. Only recently rediscovered and verified as his, they cover everything from sex to shaving to diet to exercise.

A third, expanded, version of Leaves of Grass came out in 1860. In it, Whitman began arranging the poems in groups, by theme. One, “Calamus”, was thought homoerotic, and raised the hackles of literary types and professional moralists alike. This took some doing, for, as Alan Helms as written in the Whitman Archives, Whitman treats the subject so “fleetingly or in ways so opaquely figurative that most readers still aren't sure what's going on.” However, another scholar, Fredson Bowers, found in Whitman’s drafts for the edition a series, “Live Oaks With Moss”, buried within the “Calamus” poems. The twelve, interspersed through the Calamus selections, made no sense as a whole until the 1960s discovery of the notebook in which Whitman originally arranged them. Taken in the proper order, Helms contends, they document

a fairly simple story of infatuation, abandonment, and accommodation. In the beginning, Whitman is so ecstatically in love that an image of his formerly independent self (the live oak) now bemuses him. His lover joins him, and soon thereafter Whitman renounces his poetry on the lover's behalf. The lover then abandons Whitman, and from that point on Whitman struggles with his loss. That much is clear, but the accompanying narrative of Whitman's coming out and its consequences is harder to discern.

Context is everything, as we know from reading Cole Porter lyrics and seeing 1920s Arrow Shirt ads with knowledge of their back stories. Whitman confessed to Edward Carpenter, “There is something furtive in my nature, like a little old hen.” Whether to confound critics or avoid worse, the meaning of his verses- obscured by his constant re-arrangement- remains a subject of debate, as does on which team he played in his sex life. In one of the Live Oak poems, his character renounces the life of the famous poet for that of the same-sex lover; one couldn’t very well be both for decades to come.

Defenders of the “real American” Whitman seize on others of his poems- and comments like the claim that he had six children- as evidence that the Good Grey Poet may have been lustful and crude, but he was no perv.

European readers and critics liked the third edition, which sold several thousand copies. The Civil War became a turning point in his reputation; he won renown as a poet of the battlefield and military hospitals. His famous dirges on the death of President Lincoln remade him as an aging patriot, his health compromised by his years at fever and disease-ridden bedsides as a volunteer nurse. His cause was aided by his abrupt termination from two government jobs (the Secretary of the Interior found him revising Leaves of Grass on the job, then read some of them and nearly fell out). The Saturday Evening Post’s editor, William Douglas O’Connor, took up the makeover of Whitman’s image in a robust 1866 article.

The fourth edition of Leaves of Grass (1867) played to Whitman’s newfound strengths. English critics raved, generating a slipstream of popular and critical approval in America. Further editions followed in 1872 and 1875, in which Whitman tried to expand his brief to global brotherhood and the opening of the Suez Canal, to less effect. A series of annual lecture on the death of Lincoln burnished his reputation to a high sheen, as did his skillful use of photography.

By 1881, Whitman, hobbled by an earlier stroke, took the eighth edition to Boston for printing by Mark Twain’s publisher. Emerson who’d forgiven but not forgotten, urged Whitman to clean up the text, as did the Boston District Attorney. The latter tried to enjoin publication under the new obscenity laws hustled through Congress by the moral scold Anthony Comstock. Whitman said “hell, no” to both (“the dirtiest book of all is the expurgated book,” he proclaimed), took the plates to Philadelphia, and got it printed there, to considerable commercial success. It was one of the earliest cases of literary success arising from being banned in Boston.

Whitman bought a house in Camden, New Jersey, where he held court as his health permitted. Avant-gardists like Bram Stoker, and gay writers like Carpenter and Oscar Wilde, made the pilgrimage. His last decade marked Whitman’s passage into marketing mythology: without permission or payment, he was featured as the brand name for all manner of products, from cigars to spirits to coffee to hotels. Cigar makers, in particular, pitched their product as the natural complement to a life of reading and thought, though Whitman himself was a non-smoker.

After his death in 1872, Whitman lived on as a tourist attraction. Camden bought his home and preserved it. Local businesses took his name as their own. A grocery chain launched a Walt Whitman brand of products. With judicious editing, Leaves of Grass became a bestseller. He was honored as a great American writer with a 1940 postage stamp.

Andrew Carnegie, the robber baron, and Ezra Pound, the modernist writer, agreed that Whitman was “the” American poet.

Whitman’s work rivals Dickinson and Longfellow for the number of its settings to music. Bridges and schools bear his name. He has appeared as a character in over two dozen television series and movies; Garrison Keillor gave him voice in Ken Burns’ The Civil War, and Edward Asner played him in a TV movie three years ago. He is inextinguishable, ever-modern, a protean spirit who, in singing of himself, tells readers who they are, and can be, and what they ought to be doing not to blow it. “To me, every hour of the day and night is an unspeakably perfect miracle,” he insists.

As the Leave of Grass centennial arrived, Whitman as championed by the Beat Poets, then by the counterculture artists of the 1960s. A decade on, he was rediscovered by the nascent gay rights movement. Big corporations used him in ads. He was the ultimate crossover brand: a voluptuary bohemian who embodied intellectual heights and exceptional good taste (one collector, Ed Centeno, has amassed over 2,000 items of Whitman advertising- the largest archive in the world). He always appears in the guise of his amiable old age, his rumored exploits long past, his fires banked. He has done it all, and seen it all: "I am as bad as the worst, but, thank God, I am as good as the best."

Whitman’s work rivals Dickinson and Longfellow for the number of its settings to music. Bridges and schools bear his name. He has appeared as a character in over two dozen television series and movies; Garrison Keillor gave him voice in Ken Burns’ The Civil War, and Edward Asner played him in a TV movie three years ago. He is inextinguishable, ever-modern, a protean spirit who, in singing of himself, tells readers who they are, and can be, and what they ought to be doing not to blow it. “To me, every hour of the day and night is an unspeakably perfect miracle,” he declared.

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