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his blunt directness
Why We Still Read Whitman
After watching the evening news coverage of warfare in Iraq, Syria and Yemen, I turn to other wars to try to understand what is perhaps beyond one’s ability to make sense of conflict. The why and wherefore of all these years of perpetual war for perpetual peace, whatever that means, seems to be getting more vague to me as time goes by.
An on-line class I’m currently enrolled in is examining the poetry that came out of our own Civil War. Although not a keen enthusiast of Walt Whitman, I have come to appreciate what he was trying to do when he chose to be “embedded” with Union forces marching into battle early on in the fighting.
In our coursework, we have been asked to comment on the critique the 22-year old Henry James made of Whitman’s short book of poems entitled Drum Taps which was published early in the war. The young James in 1865 wrote a scathing review of Whitman’s book of poetry that appeared in the first-ever issue of The Nation. Asserting that Drum-Taps “exhibits the effort of an essentially prosaic mind to lift itself, by a prolonged muscular strain, into poetry,” he called the effort of reading and reviewing Whitman’s Civil-War-themed collection “a melancholy one.” James, the young Boston man of leisure, was too young to have fought in the war but he takes Whitman to task for a critical mistake. Whitman, to James’ sensitive demeanor, fell far short of measuring up to what James considered the high standards of writing because he wrote for the common, everyday man in a “crude and inelegant way.”
As the war divided people and families, I believe it also divided literature and emphasized traditions in conflict. In this case, though, perhaps it is the young James who is the one in conflict with the older Whitman, a conflict that James simply cannot understand since the two men and their approach to literature are so disparate. In his dismissal of Whitman’s poetry, James has shown himself to be none other than the “pale poetling, seated at a desk, lisping cadenzas piano” that Whitman derides in his poem 1861. When James complains that the chore of reviewing Whitman’s book, I can believe him, since he is incapable of appreciating what Whitman had achieved.
For Whitman, the character he has illustrated is the American of the future mapped out in the bold, strong lines of the direction he intends to follow. I don’t think Whitman would give a fig that James thought he was crude and unliterary and reputedly “unartistic.” Whitman had earlier discarded such criticism just as he had also discarded such opinions as effete. He had already rejected the models and standards of the likes of James and was speaking for what he believed to be the up and coming man who would dominate the time to come. What James missed is that the book is a strong reaction against the petty, dainty, driveling ways into which literature had found itself. Just as the war had torn the country apart, the “new” literature was also putting people on different sides of tradition.
Of course, James doesn’t do himself any favors by writing in such a pejorative and jejune way. As he says, “It is not enough to be rude, lugubrious, and grim. You must also be serious. You must forget yourself in your ideas. Your personal qualities—the vigor of your temperament, the manly independence of your nature, the tenderness of your heart—these facts are impertinent. You must be possessed, and you must strive to possess your possession. If in your striving you break into divine eloquence, then you are a poet. If the idea which possesses you is the idea of your country’s greatness, then you are a national poet; and not otherwise.”
It’s all rather silly blather that he fortunately had the good sense to be ashamed of years later. As Mark Twain said, man is the only animal that blushes … or needs to. Some forty years after writing such nonsense, let us hope that James was sincere in saying he regretted his comments.
In Drum Taps, the poems do not have the character of carefully elaborated specimens—of gems cut and polished by the intellect, as James would have wanted. Rather, they are warm and muscular with blood flowing through them, like living organisms. They are the result of the poet’s experience in the army and in the hospitals. Poems with titles like Beat, Beat! Drums, Cavalry Crossing a Ford, Bivouac on a Mountain Side, and An Army Corps on the March are full of warlike passion, singularly blended with a great sense of much sadness. But I, like James, don’t really care for 1861, a jingoistic and propagandistic poem. But lest we forget, it was written at the beginning of the war, when patriotism and enthusiasm were rampant. There had been no savagery or horrific encounters at that time. Remember the opening TV images and hype of the Iraqi incursion under Papa Bush’s presidency.
What is remarkable, though, even at the early stages of the Civil War was the attention that Whitman the poet had shown to the individual soldier, not the army as a unit. He was content to show the tremendous power not wielded by a single will, but by the private soldier, the man in the ranks, from the farm, the shop, the mill, the mine, still a citizen engaged in the “sacred warfare” of peace. The thread that binds us to this poetry seems to always relentlessly tie us to the individual. This is Whitman’s modern doctrine, as opposed to the slavery and caste system and the results of the feudal world we normally focus on when we think of in the antebellum South.
Drum Taps has not the demeanor of the exultant and arrogant tone of the later editions of Leaves of Grass. Here the thought is of death and suffering, and of the desolation of hearts. Though his themes are mostly suggested by the Civil War, his purpose is not to give descriptions of battles and of great campaigns, or to celebrate great leaders and brilliant achievements. It is rather to give the human aspects of anguish that follow in the train of war.
The gravity and seriousness of the book and its primitive untaught ways apparently were new in literature and baffling to many, including the young James. There was simply no profuse sentimentalism, just a deep human solemnity—the solemnity of a strong, earnest affectionate, unconventional man.
At the same time, there are plenty of expressions of pathos and tears of mourning. But there is also an attitude or habit of the greater man beneath the surface which is not expressed by melancholy. Despite all he had seen, Whitman remained a cheerful man of good nature. He wrote in the plainness and simplicity that apparently was foreign to the ear of many nineteenth-century men of letters. The poems were not meant to be examples of fine writing, which to Whitman amounted to little. His aim was to find himself in accord with the simple ways in which he saw nature playing itself out. It was not the delicate fancies or poetical themes that held him. It was rather the calm, all-permitting, wordless spirit of nature “yet so eloquent to him who hath ears to hear.” As he enunciated them, it was the sunrise, the heaving sea, the woods and mountains, the storm and the whistling winds, the gentle summer day, the winter sights and sounds, the night and the high dome of stars that were the themes that should keep us company.
As many critics have suggested, such is the lore that breathes the breath of life into all so many of Whitman’s moving poems of boys going off to war. Without this everyday touch, his sentiments may never have been distinguished from the literary efforts of others. It was Whitman’s poetry, not theirs, that captured what life was like for many of the young men who had no idea how their lives were to change in such a short time. With Whitman, there is a kind of transcendence of understanding what is important in life that can only come from its hardships and eventual loss.
We see it being played out afresh each night on the news in the stark summary of those who fight today, those millions left hopeless and homeless, those maimed beyond description, and those who perish along with their treasure as the same real estate changes hands over and over. With Whitman, we learn—to James’ abhorrence—about this “other stuff”, the real appalling nature of war through the blunt directness of Whitman’s utterances. Through his eyes, warfare changed from being our patriotic duty to something it really is: ugly, vicious, and horrific. Sadly, it has changed little from our own Civil War to today’s brutal conflicts elsewhere. Whitman was there to tell us how the soldier lived and died. He used no “refined style” or allowed no filtering or modification. It was what it was, and Mr. James would have been wiser had he recognized what Whitman was trying to do.