January 17, 2018

Weighing Whitman

On this day in 1892 Walt Whitman died at the age of seventy-two. The high and controversial emotions which surrounded Whitman in life attended his death: in the same issue that carried his obituary, the New York Times declared that he could not be called "a great poet unless we deny poetry to be an art," while one funeral speech declared that "He walked among men, among writers, among verbal varnishers and veneerers, among literary milliners and tailors, with the unconscious majesty of an antique god."

By this time, the debate was in its fifth decade, as Leaves of Grass was in its eighth, ever-changing edition. There had been some progress since the first, 1855 reviews -- "a mass of stupid filth," by one "as unacquainted with art as a hog with mathematics" -- but all that the Atlantic Monthly found to praise in the seventh, 1882 edition was not enough to "palliate the gross impropriety," or cover up the "laudation of the flesh," or forgive the trampling of "the delicate, inexorable laws of modesty" -- by one who "has had ample opportunity to free himself from his youthful crudities." On their side, the "Whitmaniacs" had also been busy. In 1855, Whitman had famously introduced himself as "an American, one of the roughs, a kosmos"; in Cosmic Consciousness, published not long after Whitman's death (and still in print), Richard Bucke listed Whitman as one of some dozen -- the list included Jesus, Buddha, Mohammed, Dante ... and Bucke -- who had reached such a vantage point. In his biography of the poet -- this was published while Whitman was still alive, as part of the wider lobby on his behalf -- Bucke had to be persuaded not to say that "Walt Whitman Is the Saviour, the Redeemer of the Modern World."

The person who did the persuading was Whitman, though he apparently did a lot of ghostwriting for Bucke's biography, too. Some of their collaboration occurred when Whitman paid a long visit to Bucke in London, Ontario, where he ran an insane asylum. Whitman later described attending the asylum church, sitting in an armchair by the pulpit before a "motley, eager, pitiful, huddled, yet perfectly well-behaved and orderly congregation." He also described a late night, wine-fueled "frolic" with an unclear group of asylum celebrants, culminating in a different sort of ritual: "... the night wore on: by and by someone proposed that we bury the bottles ... we marched in procession out, across the lawn, chanting, chanting: here and there an invocation."

The above is in Jerome Loving's engaging 1999 biography, Walt Whitman: The Song of Himself. Such snapshots seem to capture the real Whitman, and put him beyond reach of those who would vilify him, or those so determined to deify him that, over the objections of his family, they had an autopsy done in search of medical evidence that would "silence forever the slanderous accusations that debauchery and other excesses" had ruled and ruined him. He was not a drinker, though he liked a glass of champagne. His coded diary entries show us that he felt sexual passion for this or that young man, and that he tried not to. He was friendly but firm with the women and men who made advances (the list of those who did so by mail included a young Bram Stoker). He was happy to receive the visits of the great (this list included Oscar Wilde, resplendent in brown velvet) but happier riding the ferryboats. He would energetically and unscrupulously promote himself, but from his deathbed (this in the small house he was finally able to afford, the two-room kind that he and his carpenter father had built in the early days) he instructed his disciples not to "prettify" him. "Do I contradict myself? / Very well, then, I contradict myself" he says near the end of "Song of Myself," before these closing lines:
    I bequeathe myself to the dirt, to grow from the grass I love;
    If you want me again, look for me under your boot-soles.

    You will hardly know who I am, or what I mean;
    But I shall be good health to you nevertheless,
    And filter and fibre your blood.

    Failing to fetch me at first, keep encouraged;
    Missing me one place, search another;
    I stop somewhere, waiting for you.

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