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A Cultural Ventriloquist : A new study documents the roots of Walt Whitman's revolution : WALT WHITMAN'S AMERICA: A Cultural Biography, By David S. Reynolds (Alfred A. Knopf: $35; 638 pp.)

June 11, 1995|Peter S. Prescott | Peter S. Prescott edited "The Norton Book of American Short Stories" and is completing a life of two American eccentrics, Alfred and Blanche Knopf

In a surprisingly brief period--it took about 20 years, from roughly 1835 to 1855--American writers wrought two distinct revolutions in prose and poetry, endowing each with a distinctively American style that would be widely imitated around the world. Europe didn't expect this of us. Europe considered us a derivative culture, only the best of us capable of understanding what Europeans had to offer. Indeed, European actors, musicians and writers condescended to come to our shores to expose us to their art and to collect our dollars, and if in private they despised us, who would ever know?

The first revolution was the invention of the modern short story by Edgar Allan Poe and Nathaniel Hawthorne. Short stories had heretofore conveyed a sequence of incidents; Poe's focused on a single occurrence, and Hawthorne's applied psychology to the event. The second revolution was Walt Whitman's invention of modern American verse, and it comprised two parts.

One challenged poetry's slavish adherence to rhyme and formal metrics. In 1855, the year that Whitman's first version of "Leaves of Grass" was published, Longfellow's "Song of Hiawatha" also appeared, composed in rigid imitation of a Finnish epic. The numbing rhythm of this stupid poem endeared it to school teachers, who inflicted it on helpless students for nearly a century. By contrast, Whitman's lines were expansive, rhymeless and unmetered; he meant to be easy to read, the poet of the people. He didn't make it in his lifetime: Longfellow was always more popular, yet Whitman prevailed over the long haul. Nobody today writes as Longfellow did, but it's impossible to imagine Allan Ginsberg's "Howl" had not Whitman's "Song of Myself" preceded it.

The second part of his revolution had to do with what he wrote about. A "cultural ventriloquist," David S. Reynolds calls him in his new book, "Walt Whitman's America," and notes how "the shape-shifting, sometimes sex-changing persona of Whitman's verse" celebrates the body and its functions with a candor seldom before seen in literature sold above the counters of America's bookstores. (A cautionary note: we get so consumed by sentimental blather about the "family values" of uncorrupted prior generations that we forget that pornography flourished in America before the Civil War.) Whitman opposed pornography, but his own rather sanitary explicitness--"Perfect and clean the genitals previously jetting, perfect jetting, perfect and clean the womb cohering" --gave Emerson, who admired Whitman's poems, the cold staggers.

That Whitman revolutionized American verse nobody doubts. The great merit of Reynolds' exceptionally informed and aptly titled book is that it examines the sources of that revolution. To show how Whitman came by this device or that didactic passage takes nothing from his achievement; rather, it reminds us that all revolutions emerge from existing conditions. It reminds us, too, of what so many in our universities today deny: that to understand fully a "text," one had better take a sympathetic look at the culture that produced it. Many readers will be pleased, as I am, that Reynolds intends to be historically correct rather than politically correct.

When Whitman examines his own childhood, Reynolds sensibly suggests we look not to Freud, but to the then current theories of environmental and parental influence that Whitman thought important and which Reynolds summarizes. He considers Whitman's use of I --the word we most associate with him and which, Reynolds says, "assumes scores of identities"--and traces it to the popular orators of the time, like Daniel Webster, who were constantly stressing the first person; Whitman had wanted to be a great orator, but failed. Whitman supported equal rights for women, so Reynolds gives us a succinct account of 19th-Century feminism. Following the poet's other concerns, he explains briefly 19th-Century ideas of embryology and physiology, the prevalence of prostitution before the Civil War, spiritualism, Swedenborgianism, Mesmerism, the free love movement, Fourier's ideas of sexual magnetism, phrenology, the early history of photography, the early days of evangelical Protestantism, and--as P. T. Barnum (also referred to) would say--more, much more.

Whitman seemed to some contemporaries "an American freak," and much of his behavior encouraged this impression. He dressed oddly, warned his readers against Catholics and came down on both sides of the slavery question. In crowded New York City buses he would shout passages from Shakespeare, to encourage the unenlightened classes. Born in 1819 in a farming community in central Long Island, he tried to be a teacher, a journalist and a newspaper editor. He was a pedestrian journalist and seems to have been fired from every newspaper he edited. He celebrated himself as a "loafer," and in one famous poem invites his soul to loaf with him on the grass, where apparently he has some sort of sexual experience with it.

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