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The Knot of Contrariety

ISSUE:  Autumn 1984
Walt Whitman: The Making of the Poet. By Paul Zweig. Basic Books. $18.95.

Paul Zweig’s Walt Whitman is harder to keep in his place than most people’s Walt Whitman. He is more mysterious, more psychologically and morally restless; above all an angrier, touchier character than almost anybody else has been willing to allow. Whitman’s poetry begins in anger, Zweig claims—not only in the abolitionist wrath that has routinely been ascribed to him but also in chronic, revealing rages against European influence, Whig politics, and human vice or folly generally. His long, cadenced, Biblical rhythm itself begins to cohere in drafts for nationalistic jeremiads in his early notebooks. That heated voice belongs to the radical Whitman of New York City, the difficult years leading to civil war, and the first three editions of Leaves of Grass, the Whitman who had not yet begun the extended postwar program that turned him more and more to strategic revision and eventually made of his revolutionary book a characteristic, if monumental, 19th-century masterpiece.

The emphasis on the irascibility of the radical democrat at once follows certain ideological precedents and tacitly disturbs a number of longstanding assumptions about temperament. Similar alternations between the familiar and unsettling inform Zweig’s characterization throughout. At one time Whitman emerges as a shockingly unironic sentimentalist of domesticity, motherhood, and other official pieties of his era, who delighted in the gimmickry of technological progress and the effusions of Fanny Fern. His journalism, Zweig observes, was an expression of “the age itself at its lowest and most ordinary.” At another time he develops a connoisseur’s interest in high opera or flouts conventional taste and morality in more direct and reckless ways. In 1860 several of Boston’s literary Brahmins refused to meet him, apparently for reasons of decorum, even though Emerson had praised him and his work appeared in the Atlantic magazine. The notorious ambiguities of his libido are described in equally contradictory terms. Zweig finds the sexual clues to Whitman’s character as elusive and intriguing as other commentators have, agrees with them that Whitman customarily remained “fairly chaste,” but is willing to speculate about physical experimentation in imagery more graphic than most of them have cared to venture: “Were at least some of Whitman’s young men also bed partners? Such encounters— trysts in the dark, the lamp unlit—leave no trace, although I would guess that they were, and that they were not happy experiences. . . .” These inconsistencies of character and event, multiplied and elaborated, are not so much problems for Zweig as the very essence of his vision of Whitman, whom he conceives with insight and affection as a man of dualisms, perplexities, and perturbations. If his Whitman does not literally contain multitudes, he does seem able, somehow, to generate an apparently endless procession of alternate selves.

Zweig’s cultivation—celebration, really—of the human complexities of his subject yields a fresh sense of a curious, vulnerable, even a successful man of his time. That, as much as anything, has earned the biography its early laurels. It is distinguished in its generosity, empathy, and powers of discrimination, but it is not original in either fact or argument. Interpretatively, it is intelligent and sophisticated rather than revisionist. Instead of novelty, Zweig offers familiar scenes and topics—the influence of George Sand’s Consuelo, Dr. Henry Abbot’s wonderful Egyptological collections, the promotional atmosphere of the Phrenological Cabinet of Messrs. Fowler and Wells, a famous walk on Boston Common with Ralph Waldo Emerson, and so forth— all reimagined so vigorously that they seem as impressive as if they were being revealed for the first time. Zweig’s success with such historical recovery does not depend on knowledge—although his knowledge is full and deftly managed— so much as on his ability to recognize Whitman in all his genius and contrarieties, accept him, and relax with him. Because Whitman has had an uncanny power to keep even sympathetic critics uncomfortable and defensive, that last, especially, is a welcome virtue.

The central issue according to which Zweig organizes his story has to do with the elusive event of some undetermined time prior to July 4, 1855, whereby Walter Whitman, Jr., radical journalist, small-time politico, and local character, whose sappy verses and fiction still embarrass his admirers, became Walt Whitman and redefined many possibilities of American life. The dramatic trauma or conversion that might have provoked the transformation has been a matter of persistent, at times ingenious speculation since the days of the more or less hagiographic work of Horace Traubel and Richard Maurice Bucke. Whitman himself added to the mystery by teasing Traubel and self-consciously erasing as much as possible the record of his own inner life during the early 1850’s. Zweig tacitly demystifies the event by concentrating on the long, intricate, lovely process of interaction by which Whitman shaped and refined the influence of his United States even as he opened himself to it. Instead of a transfiguring moment of sexual or religious crisis, Zweig submits, there was a sustained period of hard, purposeful work, the curious turns and returns of which should prove mysterious and suggestive enough for anyone interested in Whitman or his era. I can’t swear that Zweig’s representation of Whitman’s emergence as a great poet and original American is objectively correct, but it feels right, and it seems unlikely that we are going to have a more satisfying explanation.

The narrative begins with Whitman’s brief sojourn in New Orleans in 1848, during which he caught his first mature glimpse of the varieties of American geography and manners, then follows him through the domestic, political, and intellectual turmoil of the 1850’s in New York City. He spent that final decade of the old America in a state of spiritual ferment, giving himself over, on the one hand, to both the advantages and perils of urban life and, on the other, preparing in his notebooks to make himself into the new American man for whom the age was calling. “Self-made or never made”: Zweig’s repeated quotation of the phrenologist’s motto underscores his own observation that Whitman did not discover or assume his heroic Americanness. Rather he willed it. Then he created it by inventing idealized models of the self and living into them. The insight is fundamental and indispensable. Zweig earns it by imagining Whitman without embarrassment or apology and by taking him at his word about such matters as the interchangeability of poem and person and the authenticity of the democratic voice. The method is so straightforward and rewarding that one wonders why so few of Whitman’s critics have tried it.

Whitman’s dual experiment in art and life during the 1850’s gives the book its heft and center, and it culminates in two major discussions: one of the 1855 Leaves of Grass, which Zweig reads, persuasively but maybe a shade too categorically, as the first great literary (or antiliterary) expression of the modern temperament, the other of Whitman’s volunteer work as a nurse and companion for wounded soldiers during the Civil War. As a way of completing the various strands of historical, biographical, and literary narrative, the decision to end the story among the hurt and dying was inspired. On his daily rounds in those terrible army hospitals, Whitman became something remarkably like the great spirit he had so often imagined, whose lineaments and vocabulary he had drafted in his early notebooks. His poetry of the war, like his life in war, summarized, coordinated, and applied long-developing powers of both emphasis and inflection, enabling him to turn to his own advantage even such fearsome vulnerabilities as his inclination to homosexuality. In other times and places, his feminine component exposed him to spasms of guilt, fear, and shame, but in the hospitals he could legitimately hold and kiss his young men; his desire gained him access to heroic consolation and service. Reading Zweig’s account of that time, one is reminded anew of what an extraordinary evolution Whitman achieved. The concluding lines of “The Wound-Dresser,” for instance, with their bittersweet vision of the dying soldiers:

Some suffer so much, I recall the experience sweet and sad,
(Many a soldier’s loving arms about this neck have cross’d
  and rested,
Many a soldier’s kiss dwells on these bearded lips.)

bear witness to the liberation and assumption of power of that feminine self that American culture traditionally mistrusts and proscribes. The visual imagery of the great womanly man, holding, mourning for the lost son, naming his sacrifice, sharing it, hoping somehow to redeem it, arranges itself unaffectedly into an American pietà. Biographically and artistically, the wound-dresser is a marvel of self-making, using the most unpromising and recalcitrant sorts of materials.

The best achievement of Zweig’s book is, finally, a similar creation of a personality. There are other achievements, too, in the frequently brilliant historical and critical writing, but they have been anticipated by other commentators and are not so spellbindingly analogous to Whitman’s own peculiar genius. Zweig’s openness to the dialectical energies of Whitman’s life and times, his feeling for the charm, edginess, and grit of the man, may well be the greatest contributions a biographer of Whitman can now make. We need to rescue him from monumentalism as others have had to rescue him at various times from attributions of barbarism, outlawry, boosterism, or complacency. Zweig’s is one of those books that periodically rediscovers how original and untranslatable Whitman—man and book—truly was. His recovery of the elusive person is thus an important and welcome triumph.


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