April 2015

Patrick James Dunagan


Whitman Noir: Black America and the Good Gray Poet edited by Ivy G. Wilson and Whitman among the Bohemians edited by Joanna Levin and Edward Whitley

Walt Whitman looms large over American Poetry. Whitman's influence continues in spite of the feeling among women and poets of color that his heavy insistence Leaves of Grass speak on behalf of everybody, regardless of race, nationality, or gender is an unasked for, reprehensibly presumptive embrace. As we pass further into the twenty-first century, Whitman's presence only further reverberates. It may not always be nice, and certainly not always pretty, but it is undeniable. Whitman Noir: Black America and the Good Gray Poet, from the Iowa Whitman Series, addresses some of the inconsistencies and bumps along this road of influence in regard to the development of African American poetics. While direct in terms of its criticism, the collection as a whole yet remains nonetheless celebratory, acknowledging the gregarious nature of Whitman's lasting impact.

As editor Ivy G. Wilson explains:

[The collection] seeks to explore the meaning of blacks and blackness in Whitman's imagination and, equally significant, to also illuminate the aura of Whitman in African American letters from James Weldon Johnson to June Jordan, Margaret Walker to Yusef Komunyakaa.

June Jordan's exemplary "For the Sake of People's Poetry: Walt Whitman and the Rest of Us" couldn't express the relevancy of Whitman's "aura" any clearer. She opens, "In America, the father is white... I am curious about this man." She then notes how "it is the curiosity of a stranger trying to figure out the system of the language that excludes her name and all of the names of her people," which "leads me to the poet Walt Whitman." For Jordan, "Walt Whitman is the one white father who shares the systematic disadvantages" of minority groups in America. Yet she also pointedly remarks the irony (especially true at the time her essay was written when the Iowa Whitman Series, for instance, was not happening) that "if you hope to hear about Whitman, your best bet is to leave home." Jordan continues, stressing the international regard with which Whitman's held: "[A]sk anybody anywhere else in the world [...] who is the distinctly American poet, the giant American 'literatus'? Undoubtedly, the answer will be Walt Whitman."  

The best writing in Whitman Noir is rigorously textual and veers away from ground already covered. There has been significant attention given over the years across Whitman criticism to the anecdotal mention by Whitman himself, as well as others, to his having had a possibly mulatto mistress in New Orleans and even fathered children; yet rather than further regurgitate the slim factual evidence concerning this matter, Matt Sandler's "Kindred Darkness: Whitman in New Orleans" does not "establish the race or gender of [Whitman's] hypothetical southern lover(s)." He also "leaves unsettled the questions of Whitman's political attitudes towards slavery or his periodic racism toward people of African descent." He does nonetheless uncover a new perspective from which to view Whitman's time in Louisiana's only major city and successfully "argue that the 'Creole' and 'Africanized' cultures of New Orleans informed Whitman's poetics." His "main discoveries" being that "Whitman saw the city's famed Mardi Gras festivities and engaged, in some way, with New Orleans voudou." 

Wilson's own contribution, "Postwar America, Again," looks in part at the arch Marxist C.L.R. James's sense of Whitman. James shrewdly reads nineteenth-century American writers such as Herman Melville and Whitman for telltale signs mirroring in advance later and future developments within twentieth-century American society. James saw Whitman's ebullient praise for all American people as caught in a crux. While appreciating that Whitman made the "attempt to reconcile a faith in individualism while maintaining a commitment to the masses," James was frustrated by his impression "that when blacks or anyone else, for the most part, are listed in Leaves of Grass en masse, they are virtually indistinguishable from one another." This boils down to the fact that, in James's words, Whitman had "mastered the art of substituting the individual for anything that was too difficult for him to overcome in reality." 

Whitman's idealism is a common fault pointed out in his work by critics. He reaches for a world that doesn't quite exist, often preferring his vision to the reality. As Wilson points out when comparing Ralph Ellison's essay "The Way It Is" with Whitman's poetry:

Whitman places seeming opposites side by side to create a sense of parity devoid of hierarchy within the lines of his stanzaic landscapes in an effort to describe America. In his efforts to describe the world of Harlem, Ellison too relies upon contradictions; but whereas Whitman deploys them to formulate a notion of equivalency, Ellison does so to illustrate inequities.

This isn't to say that Whitman refuses to acknowledge inequity or injustice. There are numerous individual lines which might be quoted to show his resolve directed against many a social and economic wrong. Yet within and across the overall composition of Leaves of Grass these individual lines get subsumed under the rushing tirade of the poetic means Whitman taps to usher in his larger vision. He's so eager to get in the celebration and welcome, in his enthusiasm the business of actual liberation is ultimately swept aside. 

Iowa Whitman Series editor Ed Folsom's contribution, "Erasing Race: The Lost Black Presence in Whitman's Manuscripts," performs close textual reading of the ever-varying alternate manifestations of the Leaves of Grass manuscript throughout Whitman's life. It is disappointingly clear that slavery became a casualty of Whitman's desire to refurbish his lasting image. As Folsom sums up, "Erasing race from his work during the final twenty-five years of his life was one of Whitman's occupations, as he became increasingly silent about one of the defining issues of American history." Despite these disappointingly conservative self-edits Whitman made later in life, "he left behind, however, enough traces that we can still glimpse the beginnings of his brave vision, his attempt to imagine a democratic subjectivity open enough to speak black experience in often subtle and moving ways." Folsom's opinion is that this "lasted, sadly, only until soon after the Civil War."

The Civil War altered Whitman's grand vision. During the pre-war years the poet's work expressed a freedom that in his later years he would only seek to curtail. The Iowa Whitman Series' Whitman Among the Bohemians offers insight into this pre-war version of Whitman, focusing upon the relatively brief period of time leading up to publication of the third edition of Leaves of Grass in 1860 and the beginning years of the Civil War in 1861-62. During the years leading up to these events, Whitman frequented Pfaff's beer cellar in New York City where he mixed in the company of an array of intellectuals, writers, artists, and editor/publishers. This was among his most vibrant period as an active figure in the artistic and intellectual social climate of his time. He wasn't yet the older literary figure either embraced or scorned by reputation alone. He mixed among his predominately male drinking associates in a lively atmosphere where art, politics, and social mores of the period were freely explored, brought together, questioned, and at times challenged.

A key publication for this ad hoc gathering group was the Saturday Press to which Whitman contributed poems and reviews, including several from his own pen concerning Leaves of Grass. Ingrid Satelmajer's "Publishing Pfaff's: Henry Clapp and Poetry in the Saturday Press" demonstrates how "poetry was part of a generative, performative, and collaborative process" surrounding the activities of the press. She also gives lively description of the general scene at the beer hall: 

"At Pfaff's, Whitman 'read a draft' of 'Beat! Beat! Drums,' as well as 'Out of the Cradle Endlessly Rocking.' And bohemian Fitz-James O'Brien, we are told, once followed a Broadway sidewalk brawl by entering Pfaff's and performing 'a poem that he said he had that evening written.' O'Brien reportedly delivered the poem with a black eye on which he 'applied' 'a leech'; in Pfaffian William Winter's description of this memorable event, the 'vial with a leech in it' came from one pocket, 'the manuscript of a poem' from the other." 

This description sounds like the bar scene at Pfaff's was precursor to those found later in post-war 1950s San Francisco and New York. When the poet Robert Creeley regularly brought a knife to the bar as the painter Jackson Pollock prowled about looking for a fight and ripping bathroom doors from off their hinges.

Adah Isaacs Menken was one only a handful of women who were involved with the Pfaff's milieu. A popular, if rather risqué, stage performer, Menken held her ground amongst the men. Eliza Richards's "Whitman and Menken, Loosing and Losing Voices" explores how Menken's poetic accomplishments compare with Whitman’s own. After all, "Menken was a woman of many partial, plastic, fabricated, and contradictory identities" which is a fitting description for Whitman's oscillating tendencies. Richards shows however that Menken's poems fail to overcome limits of her personal craving as a performer for the approval of the audience: "[P]erversely mimicking the objectifying gaze of her admirers, Menken exposes the death-life that results from cultivating an identity based entirely on the desire of others." 

Whereas Whitman achieves a universalizing voice that partakes of and promulgates as it borrows from the lives of others, Menken presents a closed, mirrored version of her public performative self in line with her audience's expectations. She empties herself in order to write but instead of then filling the space of her poems with the force of life from out of the experience of others, as Whitman does with his Civil War poems, drawing upon the soldiers he nursed from off the battlefield, she inserts her own ultimately vacuous experience as a performer: "If Whitman speaks both for and through the corpses of young men, enlivening them and giving them presence, Menken's female speaker, an actress who is clearly identified with herself, is left to be both the victim and the savior, in an enclosed and impossible circuit." The inferior qualities of Menken's poems, the very poetic values which they lack, thus serve to illuminate Whitman's greater accomplishment, bolstering the value of his achievement. 

Stephanie M. Blalock's "Tell what I mean by Calamus: Walt Whitman's Vision of Comradeship from Fred Vaughn to the Fred Gray Association" explores wider ramifications of the possibly homoerotic scene at Pfaff's. The Fred Gray Association was a loose-knit grouping of young professional men who were about at Pfaff's, and in whose company Whitman found ready example of the easy going affable camaraderie his poems so often take delight in extolling. Not too surprisingly, there's little evidence to indicate that Whitman's vision of the group's gatherings was mutually matched over the years by any of the other participants:  

Whereas Whitman's dedication to establishing associations of comrades would continue to be a lifelong love affair, Pfaff's and its social circles appear to have been more akin to one last summertime fling for his Fred Gray comrades. This does not mean that Fred Gray or his associates were less open to exploring "Calamus" affection or that their comradeships with the poet or with one another were less intimate, less homoerotic, or less meaningful in their lives. What it does suggest, however, is that they would come to see the association as a temporary community of friends at a specific time in their lives, whereas for Whitman, who wrote and reminisced about these men long after he had left Pfaff's they represented the "Calamus" roots of what Whitman called a "City of Friends." 

The experiences at Pfaff's obviously played out as key elements in Whitman's vision continually expressed within Leaves of Grass. Unlike his portraits and associational images connected with slaves and slavery, with which he wavered and excised from his work over the years, Whitman hung onto his memories of Pfaff's cherishing the gatherings he took part in. As the Iowa Whitman Series continues further illuminating somewhat furtive pathways in Whitman scholarship, our understanding of Whitman only grows stronger. There are no minor characters or minor chapters in the far ranging conglomerate body that is Leaves of Grass.

Whitman Noir: Black America and the Good Gray Poet edited by Ivy G. Wilson
University of Iowa Press
ISBN: 978-1609382360
200 pages

Whitman among the Bohemians edited by Joanna Levin and Edward Whitley
University of Iowa Press
ISBN 978-1609382728
276 pages