The Magazine

A Whitman Sampler

One writer’s effort to bring the poet of democracy to life.

May 3, 2010, Vol. 15, No. 31 • By MARK BAUERLEIN
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Scholars have written 300-page monographs on each one, but Williams breezes through and past them. What really matters in his “dialogue” isn’t Whitman’s ideas or judgments, but the “musical language” in which they unfold. Williams acknowledges, for instance, that Whitman’s initial pronouncement “I celebrate myself” has been understood as “a metaphysical stance, a sociopolitical identification, the proclamation of a new vision of culture and art,” but the “most important” thing it does is reaffirm “the lyric ‘I.’ ” Repeatedly, the lyricism stands out: “voluptuousness of sounds,” “radiant detail,” “his singing, his cadence,” “dances of vowels.” Reviewing Whitman’s sexual scenes, Williams finds that “most remarkable to me .  .  . isn’t their social-revolutionary implications, but rather their exultant sensual exuberance.”

Fair enough, and the emphasis on the aesthetics of Leaves of Grass nicely contrasts with the professionalized fixations on race, sexuality, and politics in academic criticism. But as the observations pile up, suffused with marvel at the verbal craft, and as we move hastily through Whitman’s actual beliefs, one begins to wonder whether the writer-on-writer approach doesn’t produce the opposite effect. Instead of unveiling the poet’s power and purpose, it limits the endeavor to the dexterous performance of a creative writer. All too frequently, the commentary sounds less like a contemporary poet fired with the meaning of the bard than a creative writing instructor pinpointing for MFA students this word and that image and that rhythm and affirming how effective they are. 

Ironically, this is a domestication of poetry that Whitman renounced when he spoke contemptuously of “schools” and “salons.” Yes, Williams cites the contents of Whitman’s vision, but they appear in brief and hollow assertions, such as “he really did want his poetry to help, or compel, what he thought America could be.” He doesn’t take seriously enough the moral and political import of Whitman to pursue them. Whitman declares in the preface to Leaves of Grass that poets “are the voice and exposition of liberty,” and a few sentences onward adds, “Come nigh them awhile and though they neither speak nor advise you shall learn the faithful American lesson.” What does Williams think? Those and other statements about America equal the fulminations of “a schoolboy, like a youth in an unquestioning patriotic frenzy.” 

But Whitman does question his country, as in this passage one page later in the Preface:

When the swarm of cringers, suckers, dough-faces, lice of politics, planners of sly involutions for their own preferment to city offices or state legislatures or the judiciary or congress or the presidency obtain a response of love and natural deference from the people whether they get the offices or no .  .  . when it is better to be a bound booby and rogue in office at a high salary than the poorest free mechanic or farmer with his hat unmoved from his head and firm eyes and a candid and generous heart .  .  . then only shall the instinct of liberty be discharged from that part of the earth.

Tea Partiers would appreciate that equation of office-seeking and the loss of liberty, but the writer-on-writer isn’t interested. Like thousands of other writers who work in more than 250 creative writing degree programs in the United States today, he cares about .  .  . writing. Perhaps it’s inevitable for a professor-poet. When any writer who spends so much time thinking and doing and talking and teaching creative writing is asked to write a book about another writer—and to write it as a writer—the result will emphasize, precisely, the creativity of the writing. This is, once again, refreshing change from academic criticism, but it misses too much. As one commentator, Joel Chandler Harris of “Uncle Remus” fame, put it in a symposium in Chicago just after Whitman’s death: 

Those who are merely literary will find little substance in the great drama of Democracy, which is outlined by Walt Whitman in his writings,—it is no distinction to call them poems.

Mark Bauerlein, professor of English at Emory, is the author, most recently, of The Dumbest Generation: How the Digital Age Stupefies Young Americans and Jeopardizes Our Future (Or, Don’t Trust Anyone Under 30).

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