If there were any justice, Walt Whitman would have been around when the first cars appeared. Or maybe not the first, since they were flimsy novelties, rickety contraptions that bounced along on skinny tires, looked about as powerful as sewing machines, and were steered with a stick, like toboggans. But Whitman should have been around for the sedan, the coupe, the hot rod, the heavy, aero-undynamic Chevy or Oldsmobile that burned rubber and outran cops (at least in the movies), that took Robert Mitchum down Thunder Road and carried Kerouac and Cassady all the way to the Pacific Coast. Whitman was crazy about the technology of his day. In poems like “Passage to India”, he praised the transatlantic cable as a tool to bring all the disparate peoples of the world together: “The seas inlaid with eloquent gentle wires . . . / The earth to be spann’d, connected by network . . . / The lands to be welded together.” Can you imagine how happy this poet would have been in a Mercury convertible, crunching gravel at the Dairy Queen, cruising the crowd at the softball game, parking by the lighthouse to finish a beer and listen to the cries of gulls?
Not that Whitman needed high technology to spark his enthusiasm. He could get worked up over a common landscaping tool. In “Song of the Broad-Axe”, the implement works like a magic wand, conjuring the solid forms of American life out of thin air: “The axe leaps!”, he writes, “The solid forest gives fluid utterances, / They tumble forth, they rise and form, / Hut, tent, landing, survey, / Flail, plough, pick, crowbar, spade.” His lines starting and stopping as the axe rises and falls, the poet chops away, not even pausing for breath: “Shingle, rail, prop, wainscot, jamb, lath, panel, gable”, the parts turning into larger and larger wholes, into “academy, organ, exhibition-house, library” and then “Capitols of States, and capitol of the nation of States, / Long stately rows in avenues, hospitals for orphans or for the poor or sick, / Manhattan steamboats and clippers taking the measure of all seas.” Whew! If Whitman could ride all over the world on an axe head, skimming the wave tops like a surfer, think what he might have done in a Ford pickup.
Whitman looked at tools the way he looked at people: They were all just fine with him because they managed to connect with the divine without losing any of their earthiness. For Whitman, that connection didn’t happen anywhere better than it did in America. In his preface to Leaves of Grass, which appeared 150 years ago this year, he writes, “Americans of all nations at any time upon the earth have probably the fullest poetical nature” and therefore “the United States themselves are essentially the greatest poem.” These sentences are untypical and tame, grammar-text phrasings which warn that a rush of logorrhea is just a paragraph away. Sure enough: “The genius of the United States is not best or most in its executives or legislatures”, he writes, “nor in its ambassadors or authors or colleges or churches or parlors, not even in its newspapers or inventors . . . but always most in the common people. Their manners speech dress friendships–the freshness and candor of their physiognomy–the picturesque looseness of their carriage . . . their deathless attachment to freedom”, and so on. (The ellipses are Whitman’s, as though he himself is excerpting a text he wrote earlier, to give readers the bare essentials of what he really thinks.) On he goes, trumpeting American virtues: our curiosity, self-esteem, sympathy, fluency in speech, delight in music, “manly tenderness”, good temper, openhandedness, all the way through to “the President’s taking off his hat to them not they to him”, for “these too are unrhymed poetry”, raw stuff for the draft of an unwritten long poem that “awaits the gigantic and generous treatment of it.”
That poem would be Leaves of Grass, the book Whitman took through nine editions and at which he still worked on his deathbed, adding and deleting words yet always treating the book itself as a single poem in which the individual poems functioned as stanzas. And who is the author of that poem? Wouldn’t the poet who declares himself ready to take on “the gigantic and generous treatment” of not merely the entire United States but the Kosmos, as he liked to spell it, have to be the bard of bards, the poet-priest who sets everyone in his hearing a-shiver with his prophecies?
Certainly Whitman cultivated that image–his famous (and anonymous) self-review that appeared in the September 1855 edition of United States Review begins, “An American bard at last!” And the what-care-I attitude in the poems notwithstanding, Whitman cultivated an iconic image of himself, a public face that he wanted the world to note and remember. The Spring 2005 issue of Virginia Quarterly Review, which is devoted entirely to Whitman in this anniversary year of Leaves of Grass, features a generous selection of photographs of the poet. The commentary accompanying the pictures notes, “From the 1840s until within a year of his death, Whitman sat for photographers, collected and commented on the results, admired certain poses and disliked others, had hundreds of copies of his favorite ones made, tolerated the middling ones, and burned some of the bad ones.” In each of the images reproduced there, the poet appears at his bardic best, with or without his trademark slouch hat but always wild-haired and profusely bearded, lacking only the robe and staff of the Old Testament prophet. Even when he was young, Whitman looked old: He was 28 when the first photo was taken, but he looks twice that age.
On the page, though, Whitman always comes across as a kid. In “Song of Myself” he calls out his own name in the way James Brown and Jimi Hendrix did and as rappers do today: “Walt Whitman . . . of Manhattan the son, / Turbulent, fleshy, sensual, eating, drinking and breeding.” And “hankering, gross, mystical, nude”: Doesn’t that sound like a line from Animal House or Porky’s? In the same issue of Virginia Quarterly Review, William Logan’s learned and howlingly funny essay, “Prisoner, Fancy-Man, Rowdy, Lawyer, Physician, Priest: Whitman’s Brags”, connects the poet’s chest-thumping bravado to the tradition of Mike Fink, Davy Crockett and the riverboatmen of Mark Twain, brash youngsters all, ripped on their own testosterone and eager to let the world know they are players. You don’t have to be “polite or whitefaced”, as Whitman writes in “A Song for Occupations”, and he seems to be addressing teenagers of every age when he says it’s okay to be “greasy or pimpled”; in Whitman’s book, bad skin doesn’t make you “any less immortal.”
Whitman’s first reviewers–himself excepted–bought into the young punk stereotype that the poems themselves suggest. Brahmin Charles Eliot Norton thought Leaves of Grass was “curious and lawless.” Charles A. Dana guessed its author belonged to “that exemplary class of society sometimes irreverently styled ‘loafers’.” An anonymous reviewer found the book “rude”, “rough”, ‘heedless” and “nonchalant.” Rufus W. Griswold, best known for becoming Edgar Allan Poe’s literary executor and then savaging Poe’s reputation in a biography that depicts the poet as a junkie and a madman, called Leaves of Grass “a mass of stupid filth”, a phrase that recalls Frank Sinatra’s furious denunciation of rock-and-roll as “the most brutal, ugly, degenerate, vicious form of expression it has been my displeasure to hear.”
To put Whitman’s achievement in perspective, it helps to know that his readers in England found in him virtues that the poet’s own countrymen either took for granted or were indifferent to, much as it required the Beatles and the Rolling Stones to remind America that Chuck Berry and Little Richard, not Pat Boone and Ricky Nelson, were this country’s true folk poets. (And would Robert Johnson and Muddy Waters have followings in the United States on the present scale had not Eric Clapton championed their music?) It was George Saintsbury, best known as the most prominent English authority on French literature, who in 1874 put his finger on the base of Whitman’s technique: “Perhaps the likeness which is presented to the mind most strongly”, he writes, “is that which exists between our author and the verse divisions of the English Bible, especially in the poetical books [Job, Psalms, Proverbs, Ecclesiastes, the Song of Solomon, Lamentations], and it is not unlikely that the latter did actually exercise some influence in moulding the poet’s work.” Saintsbury also identified Whitman’s one big idea:
The necessity of the establishment of a universal republic, or rather brotherhood of man. . . . His Utopia is one which shall be open to everybody; his ideal of man and woman one which shall be attainable by everybody; his favourite scenes, ideas, subjects, those which everybody, at least to some extent, can enjoy and appreciate.
Exactly. A theme of universality, a technique that was good enough for the authors of Scripture–what’s not to like? Even if the theme threatens your status quo, there’s something downright familiar and satisfying about the way those poems sound. Cunningly, Saintsbury noticed precisely how Whitman adopted Scriptural techniques in his writing: “The poet uses freely alliteration, chiasmus, antithesis, and especially the retention of the same word or words to begin and end successive lines, but none of these so freely as to render it characteristic.” Saintsbury’s last point (emphasis mine) is one that will be revisited, but suffice it to say here that, for a poet who keeps saying the same thing over and over again, Whitman somehow manages never to repeat himself.
Other English literati helped pave the way for Whitman’s eventual acceptance in his native country. William Michael Rossetti, a Pre-Raphaelite and brother of Dante Gabriel and Christina Rossetti, brought out a Poems of Walt Whitman as early as 1868. In 1871, Algernon Swinburne addressed an ode to Whitman in Songs Before Sunrise. Anne Gilchrist, the widow of William Blake’s biographer, wrote a glowing review of the Rossetti selection and published it anonymously in The Boston Radical as “A Woman’s Estimate of Walt Whitman.” Then she took her devotion a step further, writing the poet to say, “I never before dreamed what love meant”, that Mr. Gilchrist was a good man but she hadn’t loved him, that her only desire was to hear Whitman say to her, “‘My Mate. The one I so much want. Bride, Wife, indissoluble eternal!’ The poet made it clear in letters that the spiritual love he shared with Mrs. Gilchrist was plenty for him, though his protestations didn’t stop her from coming to America, where she quickly made her peace with the fact that Whitman was not the marrying kind.
Meanwhile, Whitman was hearing from other British admirers, ranging from Thomas Dixon, an uneducated corkcutter in Sunderland who put copies of Leaves of Grass in towns all over England, to 24-year-old Abraham Stoker, an Irish civil service clerk who would shorten his given name to the colloquial “Bram” and publish Dracula, but who meanwhile was outdoing Mrs. Gilchrist in his passionate avowals–calling Whitman “father, and brother and wife”, though unlike her, never offering to descend on the poet in Camden to seek an earthly union.
An English admirer who did make the trip was Oscar Wilde, who stopped by in 1882 during a lecture tour, drinking the milk punch the poet concocted for the occasion and leaving him as giggly as a schoolboy. “Have you read about Oscar Wilde?”, Whitman wrote a friend. “He has been to see me and spent an afternoon–He is a fine large handsome youngster–had the good sense to take a great fancy to me!”
As well as the individual fans, there were more organized efforts in England to boost Whitman’s star. As canny a self-promoter as his fictional contemporary Tom Sawyer, the poet himself almost certainly wrote an anonymous article for the West Jersey Press of Camden called “Walt Whitman’s Actual American Position”, a lamentation over the “denial, disgust and scorn” he had received in this country; certainly it is he who sent a copy of the article to William Michael Rossetti in England. The article was reprinted in the London Atheneum and was followed by a slashing attack on the United States for her neglect of her most distinguished poet. Recounting the response in From Noon to Starry Night: A Life of Walt Whitman, Philip Callow notes, “The British press liked nothing better than a chance to lambast America.” The poet became a cause célèbre in England as subscribers began lining up for the centennial edition of Whitman’s poems. On the list of subscribers were Tennyson, Edmund Gosse, the Rossettis, Saintsbury, painter Ford Madox Brown, and Keats’ biographer, poet Richard Monckton Milnes. In 1922, on the 30th anniversary of Whitman’s death, George Bernard Shaw wrote: “Whitman is a classic, not a best seller. Curious that America should be the only country in which this is not as obvious as the sun in the heavens.”
Even though a prophet is often without honor in his own country, sometimes it takes a reader steeped in the native outlook and fluent in the national idiom to argue the case best. Van Wyck Brooks, the distinguished historian of 19th-century U.S. literature, may not have loved Whitman in as syrupy a manner as Mrs. Gilchrist and Bram Stoker, but he understood him better than anyone else. The first sentence in Brooks’ 1934 essay “The Precipitant” reads this way: “Whitman–how else can I express it?–precipitated the American character.” Then “all these things that had been separate, self-sufficient, incoördinate–action, theory, idealism, business–he cast into a crucible; and they emerged, harmonious and molten, in a fresh democratic ideal, based upon the whole personality.”
This last word is the key to Brooks’ essay: It is the personality Whitman puts up for grabs in Leaves of Grass that gives America a “focal centre in the consciousness of its own character.” Before Whitman, all the parts for the making of a national character were available for assembly, but he was the one who brought them together:
Every strong personal impulse, every coöperating and unifying impulse, everything that enriches the social background, everything that enriches the individual, everything that impels and clarifies in the modern world owes something to Whitman. . . . Emerson before him had provided a kind of skeleton outline; but what Emerson drew in black and white Whitman filled in with colour and set in three dimensions.
Brooks is careful to return to that idea of the “focal centre” and even italicizes it to get the reader’s attention. A country’s focal center is not what most people would take it to be; it is not “the sense of national or imperial destiny which has consolidated the great temporal powers of history.” A focal center is not an aggressive impulse, such as the desire to invade another country. No, it is actually a “point of rest”, a phrase Brooks takes from Samuel Taylor Coleridge to mean “that upon which the harmony of a work of art is founded and to which everything in the composition is more or less unconsciously referred.” Whitman’s (and America’s) focal center is the universality that Saintsbury identified 60 years earlier: “Whitman’s instinct was to affirm everything”, writes Brooks, “to accept everything, to relish the personal and human elements in everything. . . . As regards the world, he was equally catholic and passive.” And then Brooks offers a charming catalog of the kinds of things that pleased Whitman:
Soldiers being the strapping animals they are, he accepts armies because armies breed them. He enjoys an old restaurateur because he knows how to select champagne, likes to look at nursemaids because they are so trim and wholesome and at fashionable women because they are so pretty and gay, likes money because of a certain strength it implies and business because it is so active, nimble and adventurous.
No doubt the populist poet would have been perfectly comfortable with a lot of money. Bob Dylan used to walk in Woody Guthrie’s shoes singing “This Land is Your Land.” When he recently appeared in a Victoria’s Secret ad, some observers saw this as a sign that the end of times was upon us. But if Whitman never sold his poems to corporations, it is only because he never had the chance. No doubt he would have been glad to license “When Lilacs Last in the Dooryard Bloom’d” to 1-800-FLOWERS.COM.
Whitman was “lost on the plane of ideas”, says Brooks: “He had no ideas, and he was satisfied to have none.” That is not quite right, and Brooks corrects himself when he writes, “On the plane of ideas, the practical effect is that, in accepting everything, he accepts the confusion of things and the fait accompli.” Rather than having no ideas, Whitman had all ideas, just as he had all of everything else.
As a populist, Whitman wanted not only to write about the people but to be read by them, and so he wrote poems the way songwriters have always written songs. The alliteration, chiasmus, antithesis and repetition Saintsbury notes in Whitman’s work are all techniques that have been used throughout the ages by composers from medieval troubadours and Restoration lutists to Tin Pan Alley song-a-day lyricists and today’s pop singers. Indeed, Whitman’s best known poem is “Song of Myself”, and he wrote 14 other poems with “song” in the title (“Song for Occupations”, “Song of the Redwood Tree”, “Song of the Universal”) as well as the 17-poem cluster called “Songs of Parting” that forms a section of Leaves of Grass.
By its very nature, a pop song arises from a particular cultural moment, which is why the music they played at our proms seems cheesy and embarrassing today. But the people who write pop songs are like every other artist, always creating for the moment–and sometimes transcending it. Some pop music never gets beyond the circumstances of its birth. On the other hand, you can’t walk across midtown Manhattan on a nice day and not hear a street musician play “Greensleeves”, or a happy tourist sing “Jeepers Creepers” to his embarrassed wife, or see break dancers putting “Jailhouse Rock” to uses Elvis never dreamed of.
How to be contemporary and immortal at the same time–that’s the question Whitman tackles in his short poem “Native Moments”, which he wrote as early as 1860. The poem begins by depicting its maker as he emerges out of present time–“Native moments–when you come upon me–ah you are here now . . . / I come forthwith in your midst”–but concludes by confidently predicting immortality for him and his work: “I will be your poet, I will be more to you than to any of the rest.” (By the way, the singers and songs I mention in this essay are mainly from the pop and rock categories, but since Whitman encouraged every kind of culture, it would be just as appropriate to refer to jazz–whose bridging of the music of the Old World and the New would appeal to Whitman–or to his preferred genre, opera, with its easy mix of jokes and heartbreak, its fights to the death over an empire or a handkerchief. You can put anything on an iPod these days.)
It is that freedom from self-censorship noticed by Brooks which allows Whitman to center his work in the energies of his day, and yet transcend them. In his essay “Montaigne”, Emerson, who was Whitman’s first fan, speaks of logorrhea, not mentioning the poet but singing the praises of the nation’s aboriginal singers, its people. “Blacksmiths and teamsters do not trip in their speech”, says Emerson; “it is a shower of bullets. It is Cambridge men who correct themselves and begin again at every half sentence, and, moreover, will pun, and refine too much, and swerve from the matter to the expression.” Whitman actually does both, showering language on his readers but then correcting and refining so that the reader gets both matter and expression. Recall what Saintsbury said: Whitman uses a handful of techniques over and over again, “but none of these so freely as to render it characteristic.” Just when we think we have Whitman’s number, he changes the subject.
And as he talks, he moves. In “Song of the Open Road”, he says, “You but arrive at the city to which you were destin’d, you hardly settle yourself to satisfaction before you are call’d by an irresistible call to depart.” (Oh, I wish Whitman had had a car!) As an idea, America stands in part for freedom from ideas, from prejudices so much a part of Old World societies that often they were written into law, biases based on race and class and caste and religion and gender. When you’re playing cards in Whitman’s kitchen, all ideas are on the table; you pick up the ones you need, you revere some, and others you take to the bank. That’s why the first settlers from Europe came and why many people from all nations, even ones we may be bombing at any particular moment, want to be Americans today.
A century and a half after the first edition of his book appeared, Walt Whitman is the world’s oldest teenager. Leaves of Grass is still America’s jukebox. And Whitman’s America is the America the world still recognizes–muscular, brash, open, rich, bold, hard-talking, loud-singing, self-promoting, optimistic, impatient, calculating and universalist stem to stern. On the occasion of this 150th anniversary, certainly the world sees Whitman’s America when it looks at a certain Texan in the White House, one to whom the term “cowboy” is sometimes applied (and not as a compliment) in the foreign press. But an altogether different Arkansan might have stepped out of the poet’s imagination as well. As “Song of Myself” says, “All truths wait in all things.”