Whitman at war

6 months ago 87

Walt Whitman’s so-called autobiography of “jottings”, Specimen Days, is unfortunately not widely read: it is always in the shadow of his prominent celebratory poem “Song of Myself”, in his self-published twelve-poem book Leaves of Grass (1855). Over several decades he produced six editions of Leaves of Grass, the last of which (1892) contained 389 poems. Much has been made of which edition is authoritative, but the more compelling story is that of Whitman himself.

The first half of Specimen Days is something to celebrate. It is a propulsive testimony, in diary entries, of the three years (1862–5) that Whitman spent as a nurse, letter writer, gift giver and bedside friend to Union soldiers in army hospitals during the Civil War. In the hospitals he found his calling as a national healer. What he saw trained him to be clear-eyed and energized his project. The war was the defining event of his life. “I know very well that my ‘Leaves’ could not possibly have emerged or been fashion’d or completed, from any other era than the latter half of the Nineteenth Century, nor any other land than democratic America, and from the absolute triumph of the National Union arms”, he says in “A Backward Glance O’er Travel’d Roads” (1888). Without experience during these years, depicted with such intimacy here, he would not have become the first and only major poet of the American experience.

This new edition of Specimen Days offers a new and deeper understanding of Whitman’s oeuvre and sensibility. The editor, Max Cavitch, adds sharp insights about autobiographical literature in an accessible introduction. He distinguishes Whitman’s “boldly experimental life narrative” as one of the earliest “modernist memoirs”, aligning the book with twentieth-century literature rather than nineteenth-century autobiography. He also adds extensive notes, a glossary of people connected to the poet, two short prefaces by Whitman and a handy timeline. Whitman had arrived on the scene in 1855 with choppy sentences full of ellipses, dashes and slangy words, and lines that seemed not to know where on the page to end. He wrote in an idiom characteristic of American speech and raised up the working class. Specimen Days shows us how deeply his experiences during the war years shaped his hope for a unified America and emboldened his free-verse turn from European metrical poetry: the war matured him and nourished and polished his runaway American style. It also tells us he was a terrific salesperson.

Whitman claims that the autobiography’s war entries were taken “verbatim” from his “lurid and blood-smutch’d little note-books”, but the passages read beautifully. They start with an anecdote dramatizing the infamous Union Army defeat at Bull Run in Manassas, Virginia (the first important battle of the American Civil War, on July 21, 1861). Outmanoeuvered by Confederate troops, the Union miscalculated “the power and will of the slave States for a strong and continued military resistance to national authority”, says Whitman. The North, or Union, assumed that it would rout secessionist troops without ado, and that the war would be over quickly. Some units tied rope to their musket barrels – for prisoners they expected to lead back in nooses. But they were evenly matched and “the national forces at the last moment exploded in a panic and fled from the field”.

Whitman documents the war battles and the hospital dramas with riveting immediacy, which allows his observations about human savagery and suffering to take centre stage. “The real war will never get in the books”, he worried. So he wrote a forensic, page-turning account of the conflict’s human toll in a vivid style polished by his experience as a reporter in New York City. More than anything, the description of the war years in Specimen Days is a profound story of human caring.

Eleven years passed between the war and 1876, when Whitman began composing the Nature section of the book, a transcendentalist romp with a clear allegiance to Ralph Waldo Emerson. The chronology is key. A stroke in 1873 rendered Whitman, in his words, a “half-Paralytic”. He spent two years recovering, then moved to Timber Creek, a rural area near the Delaware River, where he began to compose these entries’ “memoranda”.

What made him present these two sections together, divided by eleven years? Whitman was a pathological organizer who edited Leaves of Grass for the length of his career. He wanted to be the beacon poet of the New World, the person who would fulfil Emerson’s description of the “Poet” – “beholder of ideas”, “Namer or Language-maker”; a man who, with persistence, can tap his imagination with such power that he becomes “the conductor of the whole river of electricity”. Whitman longed to embody what America was becoming. When it came to managing his public image, he was not spontaneous, but calculated. He took a letter from Emerson and put it into the second edition of Leaves of Grass (1856) without asking permission. The frontispiece for the first edition (1855) cast Whitman as a “rough” – shirt unbuttoned, hat cocked. For the edition of 1860 he used a romantic portrait. Countless dramatically lit daguerreotypes of the plush-bearded Whitman have added to the prophet-poet myth.

The pairing of war and nature diaries is brilliant from a publicity standpoint. Presenting himself as a healer of the dying masses, and placing these entries adjacent to later Edenic ramblings in the woods after a paralyzing stroke, casts Whitman, like those daguerreotypes, in a prophetic light. The myth of dying and paradisical resurrection mirrors the story of Christ himself. In “Democratic Vistas” (1871), his essay outlining America’s territorial expanse and wealth-producing power, Whitman suggests that an imaginative literature will hold up the democracy, with several original poets “mounting the horizon like stars”. Undoubtedly he saw himself as one of those poets.

One technique that sets Specimen Days apart is the way Whitman plays with duration. Even as the landscape shifts from grim hospital wards to the restorative outdoors, his prose is so uncannily lush that time seems to move in slow motion. He forces the reader to linger, for instance, over this sentence fragment without an active verb or obvious tense: “For underlay, trees in fulness of tender foliage – liquid, reedy, long-drawn notes of birds – based by the fretful mewing of a querulous cat-bird, and the pleasant chippering-shriek of two kingfishers”. Weeks or months pass between entries. Presumably Whitman was in pain and chose not to write. The war diaries are compressed and the Nature entries are leisurely, but the tone in both is heightened, urgent. He tells us what he feels by the movement and measure of his days, rather than by being explicit: “After I wrestle with the tree awhile, I can feel its young sap and virtue welling up out of the ground and tingling through me from crown to toe, like health’s wine”. He avoids talking about his illness and chatters about squirrels and walnut trees. In lieu of swarms of soldiers, he admires swarms of bumblebees. The mood is one of affirmation and joy. It is a moving testament to the role of personality in building resilience. Whitman does physical therapy outdoors; he sits in the sun and feels restored; he muses on the tone of a wind, counts leaves on a plant. The wind picks up and he exclaims: “It was just the place and time for my Adamic air-bath and flesh-brushing from head to foot”. He keeps his straw hat and “easy shoes” on and undresses. He invites the entire world to live on his skin, and celebrates it in every moment.

Reading Walt Whitman and the Making of Jewish American Poetry, Dara Barnat’s well-observed study of twentieth-century Jewish American poets, against Whitman’s nineteenth-century “autobiography” raises some intriguing and probably unanswerable questions. Is the Jewish writer part of the masses or an intellectual? What is a Jewish sentence, compared to a Whitmanian sentence? Do Jews have a moral imperative to pay witness to suffering? Barnat’s project is to establish a genealogy of Jewish American poets who engage with Whitman, and to explore their dialogue with one another. Her choice of nine poets across two centuries, from the objectivists of the 1930s to feminist poets writing today, is wonderfully various: Charles Reznikoff, Karl Shapiro, Kenneth Koch, Muriel Rukeyser, Allen Ginsberg, Gerald Stern, Adrienne Rich and the living poets Alicia Ostriker and Marge Piercy. Their work is alternately sardonic, laconic, talkative, weird, unfashionable, imagistic, macabre and feminist-political. They all generally write “free verse”, though that’s not to say that their poems do not possess formal qualities. Barnat seems more interested in the women, but is sharpest on Reznikoff and Shapiro.

At the end of every chapter she sums up each poet’s overlapping influences with the others. This reveals her formidable understanding of these poets and their sensibilities, but it can be difficult to sort out. More compelling is the way connections and themes emerge over two centuries of Jewish American poetry. Barnat’s vigorous close readings show us how these poets were preoccupied with persecution, assimilation, poverty, witness, antisemitism, Jewish identity, progressive Judaism, literary trends, civil rights and second-wave feminism. Along the way she explores the way each poet negotiates the feuding styles, personalities and milieux of high modernism, New Criticism and the New York School of Poets.

Barnat has done a prodigious amount of research and she is good at revealing the tacit and complex ways in which each of these poets “align with and resist” Whitman. Many said he was a liberating force. They follow his open-ended line, whether their own is copious or spare, or, in the case of the feminist women, closer to the contemporary lyric. They are often critical of one another, and of society, which is depicted as unjust, preening, shabby. In Koch’s Fresh Air, Whitman’s “average man” becomes “assembled mediocrities”, says Barnat, and the narrator mocks poets who, drawing on their influences, write an “entirely original” poem that is “so exciting that it cannot be here repeated”.

Regarding Whitman’s influence, Barnat does not take poets at their word. Reznikoff, who was a member of the objectivist school that emerged alongside Ezra Pound’s imagism in the early twentieth century, and accordingly valued clarity and concision (and Pound), dismissed Whitman’s work: “I had read Whitman, but I don’t particularly care for him”. Barnat investigates and uncovers abundant evidence of Whitman’s themes and style in his poems. In “Autobiography: Hollywood” this phrase about a starling could easily have been penned by Whitman: “how jauntily it rides a palm leaf here!”

Barnat excavates the tactics poets use to negotiate literary power and influence. Some welcomed Whitman’s anti-hierarchical lists and free spirit as a counter to the elitism and antisemitism associated with Ezra Pound’s and T. S. Eliot’s high modernist project in the 1920s. But Reznikoff and other objectivist poets were friendly with Pound. Ginsberg went to see Pound when he was incarcerated at St Elizabeths Hospital in Washington. (Pound had been arrested for treason in 1945, for supporting fascism in his radio broadcasts from Italy.) Ginsberg and Stern, who wrote distinctly “Jewish” poetry, responded differently. Barnat quotes Stern disparaging Pound’s “self-serving insane comment” to Ginsberg about how “suburban prejudice” influenced his antisemitism and ruined everything he worked for. Ginsberg gives him a pass. (On his release from St Elizabeths in 1958 Pound returned to Italy and gave a fascist salute to the press.)

Just as Whitman preserved the “hospital drama” of the war and concretized in the foundation of American literature the “great average bulk” of humanity (“prisoner, fancy-man, rowdy”, as he writes in the 1885 edition of “Song of Myself”), so Barnat conducts her own project against erasure. She is preserving memories of what it means to negotiate being Jewish in America and showing that Jews count, and matter, in the American story. Just in time for Whitman’s arriving again on the scene, in this new edition of Specimen Days, she offers a springboard for exploring these poets and how they connect to their own, and Whitman’s, outsider story.

Looking at how Whitman, and Jews, pay witness to people without privilege is a better approach than deciphering to what extent democracy panned out. Specimen Days’ war diaries and Whitman’s catalogues of humanity are one kind of witness. Reznikoff’s social realist epic Testimony (1934; 1965, 1968) retells stories he discovered while looking at court cases tried between 1885 and 1915, but leaves out the verdicts, suggesting that truth and justice are always more questions than answers. Rukeyser’s oral history, in poems, of the Hawks Nest Tunnel industrial disaster in West Virginia, which killed hundreds of mostly Black miners in the 1930s, is another kind of testimony. Both are unlike Rich’s interrogative witnessing of a self who is fighting to exist within the patriarchy. The feminist poets are most vocal, and eloquent, in assessing how Whitman’s America falls short. In a way they face the biggest reckoning. Rich criticizes Whitman for describing an America that is dangerous for marginalized groups and Ostriker says that he is useful for women poets, but not as useful as the poetry of other American women.

Something that has been useful to many poets is the American sentence that Whitman invented. His sprawling, brimming catalogues of 1855 were grandiose, attentive, unfettered. He knew what he wanted: candour, no ornamental adjectives or similes, no arguments, no “dulcet versification” (Notes and Fragments, 1899). With each edition of Leaves of Grass he edited his poems, without editing out those crucial qualities. He removed sloppy or extraneous language, learnt to be precise and cut the relentless ellipses. The sentences get smoother, logical, balanced, and are organized in tidier sections, under better titles. Here he is in 1855, in the poem now known as “I Sing the Body Electric”: “Have you ever loved a woman? Your mother … is she living? … Have you been much with her?” In 1856 he is direct: “Have you ever loved a woman? / Have you ever loved a man?”

As his sentences become more concise in later poems, his emotions grow more compacted. “As I Ebb’d with the Ocean of Life” was called “Elemental Drifts” in 1860. It began vaguely and was inexpert, verbose: “I wish I could impress others as you and the waves / have just been impressing me. // As I ebbed with an ebb of the ocean of life, / As I wended the shores I know”. By 1881 his skill is evident: “As I ebb’d with the ocean of life / and wended the shores I know”. The opener is an image instead of a wish, and he excises the second clunky “ebb”.

If Whitman invented the American sentence and emboldened generations with possibility, what are Jewish American writers doing with the sentence? It is not clear what Whitman would say to the idea of a Jewish sentence. “He speaks very little about the Jews”, says Stern. “I’m sure he loved the Jews. I’m sure he had a good nineteenth-century liberal vision of Judaism, if he thought about it. I don’t think he thought about it a lot.” But in a coup Stern brings Whitman into “Hot Dog”, a poem about poverty in New York City, with ambivalence and fiery Jewishness. Early in the poem the speaker sets a pantheistic Whitman against the Christian Augustine of Hippo, and says that if they had met, “he [Whitman] would have been a goat / and Augustine would have petted his bony head”. You have to choose one, says the speaker, before choosing Whitman – the outsider and minority in Christian America, and therefore emblematic of the Jewish condition. But the scene deteriorates. The Yiddish language vanishes, because of assimilation or genocide, and Whitman reappears, ominously, as the scapegoat. Here Stern writes what can only ever be a Jewish sentence: “Forgive me, / Jews, Jew; forgive me, kike; forgive me, / you fucking turd; ah, where should we put the bell / now that the goat his throat is slit? Ah Jew, / fucking Jew”. Languages and coffins float by; an antisemite starts to ask forgiveness, but reverts to being an antisemite.

What makes this a dynamite Jewish-Whitmanian sentence is the abrupt bitterness of what the listener hoped would be a reconciliation or redemption, an apology. As Bernard Malamud said: “If you ever forget you are a Jew, a Gentile will remind you”.

Diane Mehta’s most recent book is Tiny Extravaganzas, 2023. Her essay collection, Happier Far, will be published in 2024

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