Walt Whitman Speaks
Edited by Brenda Wineapple.
Library of America, distributed by Penguin Random House, 2019. 197 pages.
Reviewed by Anthony Madrid
Apparently people have been trying to whip up an audience for Whitman’s table talk for a long time. There are a number of obstacles. Number one, the source volumes of Whitman’s jabber make up nine thick volumes. Who’s gonna read all that? But that’s not even the most formidable difficulty. There’s Whitman himself. It should not be forgotten that the recorded talk is all from 1888–1892: Whitman was old, infirm, venerated. His self-approval ratings were never higher; his ability to form and express an insight, never lower. So what an editor faces is a sublime hyperabundance of second-rate material. I’m not saying none of it is any good. Some of it is wonderful. But can you get 176 pages of wonderful out of those nine volumes? Apparently not.
Actually maybe you could, if you handled the stuff differently. I think it was a mistake to cut out Traubel’s voice, the give-and-take of the two men’s dialogue. Brenda Wineapple, the editor here, makes Whitman’s remarks look like aphorisms or the meditations of Marcus Aurelius or something. And they just will not stand up to being read that way. It would be too easy to pelt you with examples of trivial gushing pronouncements; let this one stand as representative:
Oh! The great Darwin! None greater in our time! Big—big—big! I for one am grateful to have lived as one of his contemporaries.
That’s the whole passage. Big, big, big. Lincoln, Emerson, Sir Walter Scott—all very big. Epictetus! Big. Rousseau! Big. Goethe, lots of people, everyone you’d expect. And whom doesn’t he like? Everyone you’d expect. Samuel Johnson! Matthew Arnold!
Whitman seems, in the last five years of his life, to have had only three or four ideas, of which he never tired. Outdoors is better than indoors; the common man is better than the highfalutin; don’t take any advice; all men are brothers; history is full of inaccuracies; America is very, very, very special. Less than a quarter of the way into the book, one begins to long to hear him (a) come off it, and (b) talk about anything other than himself. There are perhaps two passages in the whole book wherein he describes something he observed at first hand, describes it simply because the thing was interesting. Everything else, his only reason for bringing it up is so the Oracle can weigh in on the Topic. (Again, the editor is a least partly to blame for the faulty proportions here.)
I’m making the book sound worse than it is. Lemme throw down a couple good bits. An insight:
I always insist that Emersonism, legitimately followed out, always ends in weakness—takes all color out of life. Not that this could be said of Emerson himself, because, as I point out—as is plain to me—Emerson supplies his own best antidote—teaches his own destruction—if seen at his best.
A non-oracular passage:
A woman I knew once asked a man to give her a child: she was greatly in love with him: it was not done: he did not care that much for her: he said to her, “all children should be love children”: then he thought she might repent if the thing was done: after his refusal she said: “Now I suppose you despise me.” He said: “Despise you? no: I respect you: I feel that you have conferred the highest honor on me.” Years after, he met her again. She was married—had children. But she said to him: “I still love my dream-child best.”
Then there are paragraphs where he’s not saying anything remotely original, but the diction-syntax is exciting for its own sake:
We can’t get on with a world of masters: we want men—a world of men: backbone men—the workers, the doers, the humbles: we want them. The ornamental classes make a lot of noise but they create nothing: you may crack a whip over men and you may be useless nevertheless: lots in business that passes for ability is only brutality: don’t forget that—you masters: you are not so damned clever as you think: you’re only coarse, cruel, wanton: that’s all: that’s all.
UPDATE, TWO WEEKS LATER
I have just closed Walt Whitman’s Camden Conversations (Rutgers, 1973), “selected, arranged, and with an introduction by Walter Teller.” I feel confirmed in my suspicion that the new Library-of-America selection is not well done. In Teller’s book, you get a lot more Traubel; you get more atmosphere in general. Banalities still abound, and I still wish ’em away, but there’s more humor and homely chitchat that’s not trying (and therefore not failing) to be deep or timeless. There’s a lot more charm here. My next step is clear: Traubel’s original volumes—at least a couple. Maybe it’s like Guy Davenport believed: The only thing that will really do is the whole enchilada. God help us.
ANTHONY MADRID lives in Victoria, Texas. His poems have appeared in Best American Poetry, Boston Review, Fence, Harvard Review, Lana Turner, LIT, and Poetry. His second book is called Try Never (Canarium Books, 2017). www.anthonymadrid.net