Commentary Magazine


Walt Whitman: A Life, by Justin Kaplan

Speaking for Whitman

Walt Whitman: A Life.
by Justin Kaplan.
Simon & Schuster. 429 pp. $15.00.

The best opportunity a biographer has for appreciating Walt Whitman’s unfolding sense of himself lies in the careful examination of his successive revisions of, and additions to, Leaves of Grass. The comparative study of texts, however, is not a task that has much appeal to the author of the latest attempt to assess the poet’s life, because in Justin Kaplan’s view biography is something other than a “historical or scholarly form.” Biographers ought to think of themselves, Kaplan recently asserted in Harvard Magazine, as creative artists whose work has “a lot in common with the novel,” rather than as mere historical observers or literary critics.

Thus in Walt Whitman: A Life the various versions of Whitman’s poems have not been handled with care, they have been smashed into fragments and distributed through the text as thematic accompaniments to the telling of a highly unhistorical tale. For although Kaplan’s book is purportedly the story of a 19th-century writer, its hero has a startlingly modern mind. Particularly in his sexual and political attitudes, Kaplan’s Whitman appears to be the product not of a Victorian world, but of the post-World War II period.

“In a way,” Kaplan declares in his Harvard piece, “you have to speak for Whitman. Though he’s a very eloquent fellow, sometimes you’ve got to give him a voice where he remains silent. You take that liberty. For example, I decided to face the issue of homosexuality in a worldly and sophisticated way. So what if he is homosexual? What is the big news? Where’s the scandal? There simply isn’t any.”

What is most striking about this passage is its lack of perspective. Like many other self-described sophisticates of our time, Kaplan is apparently convinced that he is living in the age of ultimate truths, one of which is that homosexuality is not an illness. So committed is he to the current wisdom that he finds it hard to imagine that any sensitive person could ever have subscribed to a harsher wisdom, particularly not anyone who was the author, as Whitman was, of a series of salutes to the pleasures of male companionship. As a result, Kaplan experiences not a tremor of historical doubt as he takes the liberty of endowing the hero of Walt Whitman: A Life with an assumption about the healthiness of homosexual preference that is in reality his own.

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The psychological crisis that unarguably overtook Whitman in 1859, four years after the publication of the first edition of Leaves of Grass, the “slough” of melancholy into which he fell, the hours of dread that he endured, had three sources, Kaplan’s biography would have us believe. The first was his awareness of being forty years old. As the poet “rounded the potently symbolic turn into his fifth decade, he entered a dark period.” What makes this explanation immediately suspect is that Kaplan has a habit of finding psychological significance in birthday anniversaries. But far more damaging to the explanation is the biographer’s failure to come up with any evidence in support of it—which is not surprising, because the only explicit response to his fortieth birthday that Whitman ever made was to say to himself in his notebook that the time had come for him “to stir . . . and get out of this Slough.” Far from plunging him into despondency, Whitman’s entrance into his fifth decade prompted him to try to surmount his gloomy feelings.

Kaplan also argues that the crisis of 1859 was partially precipitated by the decision of Whitman’s beloved brother Jeff to get married. “His cherished and exclusive relationship with Jeff had been fractured. . . . Confronting his bare-stripped heart, the brave and joyous poet yielded to the profoundest melancholy.” Once again, alas, resounding words conceal a factual void. In 1890, the aged Whitman recalled that he and Jeff had been “greatly attached to each other till he got married.” But there is no indication in this reminiscence, or in any other autobiographical commentary, that at the time of the wedding Whitman’s joy in his brother’s happiness was shadowed by a sense of loss. As for the woman Jeff married, Whitman was not only not jealous of her, but quickly came to love her as if she were a sister.

Finally, Kaplan associates Whitman’s loss of morale in 1859 with the discovery that he was a homosexual. But in keeping with his blasé “Where’s the scandal?” attitude, Kaplan downplays the importance of the discovery, first by giving house room to alternative explanations of the poet’s despondency (the birthday anniversary and brother Jeff), and second by severely underestimating what Whitman was talking about when he spoke of the “sick, sick” feelings that accompanied his consciousness of the sort of sexual creature he was.

Whitman’s special word for his homosexual thoughts was “perturbations,” which his biographer takes as a synonym for the mental distresses attendant upon a sexual itch. Kaplan’s poet knows the torment of physical longing, the humiliation of undignified pursuit, and the sense of inadequacy that unfulfillment breeds. But he most definitely does not know the agony of guilt or the hell of self-hatred. That “perturbations,” in Victorian usage, referred not only to the distresses of desire, but to the agitations that were “characteristic of a bad conscience,” as Cardinal Newman once put it, is not an etymological lesson one will learn from a biographer who does not like to have his creative artistry constricted by any form of scholarly inquiry.

Kaplan also misses the self-revulsion that is at work in some of the additions to the 1860 edition of Leaves of Grass. In the mid-1850′s, the poet had joyously celebrated bodily contact. “I mind how once we lay such a transparent summer morning/How you settled your head athwart my hips and gently turn’d over upon me. . . .” Then suddenly the author of those lines came to perceive himself as a poetic dupe who had utterly failed to understand the significance of what he had been saying. In the poem “As I Ebb’d With the Ocean of Life,” first published in the Atlantic Monthly in April 1860, he confessed how oppressed with himself he felt for having “dared to open my mouth,” and how bitter the realization was that “amid all that blab whose echoes recoil upon me/I have not once had the least idea who or what I am. . . .” Only a few years earlier he had looked down into the water and seen the haloed head of a poet-god (“the fine centrifugal spokes of light round the shape of my head in the sunlit water”); now he gazed again into the watery mirror and saw

     loose windrows, little corpses,
Froth, snowy white, and bubbles,
(See, from my dead lips the ooze
    exuding at last,
See, the prismatic colors glisten-
    ing and rolling,)
Tufts of straw, sands, fragments.

Yet at the same time that Whitman expanded the 1860 edition of Leaves of Grass to include a number of poems in which images of vileness loom large, he defiantly added a series of exquisitely tender dramatizations of homosexual love. The pressure of desire as well as the pressure of disgust is felt in the 1860 edition, and the contradiction between them is so intense that one has to wonder whether the bedeviled writer was not headed for collapse.

With the coming of the Civil War, however, Whitman was able to transcend his emotional conflict by assuming the role of a wound dresser to the young men who came to recuperate, or to die, in the military hospitals around Washington, D.C. If he sponged, fed, caressed, and finally bestowed a kiss on a “darling boy” named Lewy that lasted fully half a minute, was he not simply doing his nursely duty? Sexual embraces in a hospital setting were not a sign of sickness, they were a part of the drama of trying to get men well, and in the light of that reassurance Whitman bloomed. “I am running over with health,” he exclaimed to a friend in 1863, “fat, red & sunburnt in face &c. I tell thee I am just the one to go [to] our sick boys.”

Whitman gained from his wound-dressing experiences the moral stamina to write the poems of despair and hope that he eventually collected in Drum-Taps (1865). But with the return of peace his own peace was soon lost. Without the moral sanction that had blessed his encounters with Lewy and other soldiers, a newly cultivated friendship with the Washington streetcar conductor Peter Doyle devolved into an “incessant enormous abnormal perturbation.” By 1870, he was desperate. “Depress the adhesive nature,” he finally commanded himself in his notebook. “It is in excess—making life a torment . . . diseased feverish disproportionate adhesiveness.” Control of his sexual thoughts had become absolutely vital to the sense of personal well-being on which his future career as a poet depended. Yet how could this control be established?

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In the only intelligent review of Kaplan’s book that I have seen, Marcus Cunliffe complains about its failure to grapple with the great unsolved questions about Whitman’s life. One of the questions that Cunliffe cites is, why did Whitman seem to welcome the onset of old age? If Kaplan’s treatment of Whitman’s homosexual problem had not been so casual, he would have been in a position, it seems to me, to propose a plausible, if admittedly speculative, answer to that conundrum.

Whitman in the early 1870′s was a man in his early fifties who looked fifteen to twenty years older. He had reduced the intolerable pressure on his imagination by suddenly turning into an old man. For the Good Gray Poet, grayness was the guarantor of his goodness, or at least of his ability to deny that his relations with young men had ever been anything but fatherly. Thus in 1890, when the English cultural historian John Addington Symonds wrote to him and asked, in curiously urgent tones, whether the poems of male companionship that had first appeared in the 1860 edition of the Leaves had not been calculated to “encourage ardent and physical intimacies,” Whitman was able to disavow the question as “damnable.” Vastly disappointed by this reply, Symonds thereafter characterized Whitman as a poet whose feelings were “at least as hostile to sexual inversion as any law-abiding humdrum Anglo-Saxon could desire.” No more revealing words have ever been written about Whitman’s tortured inner conflict, but Kaplan, unfortunately, does not perceive their importance.

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Another question about Whitman’s life that still awaits a convincing answer is, how did Walter turn into Walt? What moved a hack journalist of the 1840′s, whose principal contribution to American literature had been a fictional confection called Franklin Evans, or the Inebriate, to reappear before the reading public in 1855 as a Broadway swaggerer sounding a “barbaric yawp” for all the world to hear? In strictly personal terms, no explanation of this astonishing metamorphosis is possible, because of the paucity of evidence about Whitman’s day-to-day development during his chrysalis years. Nevertheless, the question can be dealt with by discussing the political and cultural context within which the transformation took place.

Such a discussion, however, not only does not occur in Walt Whitman: A Life, but would be doomed to failure if it did, because of the author’s time-bound inability to look at any large event in American history from the point of view of the participants. Thus in his prejudged account of Whitman’s career as editor of the Brooklyn Daily Eagle in the 1840′s, Kaplan speaks of the Eagle’s editorial support of Manifest Destiny and of the conflict with Mexico in the accents of a Vietnam war critic condemning contemporary American “imperialism.” “When Polk’s war message came over the telegraph from Washington, Whitman, a Democratic regular writing for a Democratic paper in support of a Democratic President, took up the rant of the war party.” This knee-jerk sentence betrays not the slightest awareness of why, for instance, the late historian of the American West, Frederick Merk, once called Manifest Destiny the greatest of all the reform movements of the reform-minded 1840′s. Like many other youthful idealists of the period, Whitman took up the cause of American expansionism into territories controlled by Mexico because he saw in it the means of renewing the dying Jeffersonian dream of a land-based egalitarianism.

Manifest destiny also spoke to the cultural anxiety, which Whitman shared with other writers and artists, that American nature, with which they identified all the pioneer virtues of our national life, was being debauched and overwhelmed by the onrush of an artificial civilization. As the late Perry Miller pointed out in his brilliant essay, “The Romantic Dilemma in American Nationalism and the Concept of Nature,” the American mind of the 1840′s was racked by a “secret hidden horror” that in conquering the wilderness we were not only defacing the land, but destroying our naturalness as a people and becoming like Europeans. Territorial expansion at the expense of Mexico promised to give “Nature’s nation” a somewhat longer lease on life. And in the decade following the Mexican war, a handful of writers endeavored to safeguard their society permanently against artificial temptations by supplying it with imaginative examples of an invincible barbarism. The year before Walter Whitman’s histrionic debut as Walt, Thoreau recounted the story of his uncluttered life at Walden Pond, and in the very year the Broadway swaggerer sounded his first yawp, Melville pictured John Paul Jones in Paris as an incorrigible barbarian inside one of the citadels of civilization: “Intrepid, unprincipled, reckless, predatory, with boundless ambition, civilized in externals but a savage at heart, America is, or may yet be, the Paul Jones of nations.”

Barbarism, as George Santayana knew, is a disease of culture. The poetic identity Whitman seized upon as the promise of America’s future was in reality a tribute to its past. In spite of his presentation of himself as the prophet of the people, the people had no interest in repudiating the desirability of wealth, learning, power, and other accouterments of civilization. During Whitman’s lifetime, his expressed wish to “turn and live with the animals, they are so placid and self-contained” was either scoffed at or ignored by the general American audience, and in our time he is still regarded as a strange duck among the working-class occupational groups his poetry so picturesquely describes. First and last, the bard of democracy has primarily been the poetic companion of intellectuals.

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