The Spell of Whitman

"It is to be recognized that the spell is not, and cannot be, universal. Multitudes have shown themselves, and other multitudes will remain, immune to it."

What is it in Walt Whitman, the writer and the Man, which will not permit people to stop writing and publishing books about him? When his unique star first rose above the horizon of letters, more than fifty years ago, it would have taken something beyond even his own confidence in himself to foresee the present extent of "Whitman literature." Year by year its growth has continued; and now at a bound it is enlarged, in a single year, by four volumes which are far from negligible. Two of these books are formal lives; a third embodies the personal and general observations of an ardent admirer; the fourth—most ardent of all, because it assumes most—preserves the daily words of Whitman during four months of his old age. If anywhere, then in these four volumes, one should be able to get at something of the spell which Whitman casts over those who feel his spell at all.

First of all it is to be recognized that the spell is not, and cannot be, universal. Multitudes have shown themselves, and other multitudes will remain, immune to it. Vaccine of a uniform strength and purity cannot be made to "take" in every inoculation. We know what happened, before the days of modern science, to seed that fell upon stony ground. The sower of the parable, however, might have made a shrewd guess about the chances of the seed which he distributed with so liberal a hand. Herein he differed radically from Whitman. The planting to which Whitman looked especially for his crop has come practically to naught. The ground which at the first he would have regarded as stony has borne fruit abundantly. The average American, working with his hands, unschooled, flannel-shirted, has displayed a preference for Longfellow and the traditional forms. What Whitman seems to have expected is stated in his own words:

"The woodman that takes his axe and jug with
          him shall take me with him all day,
The farm-boy, ploughing in the field, feels
          good at the sound of my voice."

In the lines that follow he expresses an equal confidence that fishermen, seamen, and soldiers will find him indispensable. On the contrary, it is from the highly civilized, the ultra-sophisticated, that the response to Whitman has chiefly come. Most of all—and to Whitman's frank astonishment—it came during his lifetime from English scholars and critics. "It is very odd to me," said Whitman to Mr. Traubel, "that such men on the other side—Symonds, Dowden, Gosse, Carpenter—such men—should take such a shine to me—should show themselves to be so friendly to my work—yes, should seem so truly to understand me. The same sort of men on this side are opposed—the essay, critical, scholar, class is dead against me—the whole clan with scarcely an exception." To Edward Carpenter he said in 1877, " I had hardly realized that there was so much interest in me in England. I confess I am surprised that America, to whom I have especially addressed myself, is so utterly silent." The untutored and the tutored American alike have fallen short of Whitman's expectations of their interest in him and his work. The hook that was baited for one kind of fish has landed quite another on the bank. It is not for the fisherman or the spectator to complain, but merely to observe the phenomenon, and, looking from the waters to the sky, to reflect that arrows shot into the air may sometimes be found in the most unforeseen of oaks.

There are, indeed, certain hearts in which the song of Whitman is sure not to be found. Just as surely its lodgment is made in others. Many radicals, of whom Edward Carpenter is a typical representative, turn instinctively to Whitman as their peculiar prophet. For all of Lowell's early following of strange gods, however, one is prepared to hear Whitman say of him, "I have always been told by the New England fellows close to Lowell that his feeling toward me is one of radical aversion." To this he joins a naive illustration of his own critical scope: "My own feeling towards him is a feeling of indifference: I don't seem impressed by him either way: I have no interest in him—when I look about in my world he is not in sight." To Emerson on the other hand Whitman could hardly have failed at one time to look as to his master; and the master would not have been quite true to his own colors had he withheld his "well done," however he may have come to repent the warmth of its first expression.

The bewilderment to which Emerson's prompt acceptance of Whitman gave rise, the failure of his followers to follow him into the precincts of the Whitman spell, are admirably set forth by Mr. Carpenter: "Here was Emerson, the imperial one, whose finger laid on a book was like a lighthouse beam to all the coteries of Boston, actually recommending some new poems to the whole world in terms of unstinted praise. The whole world, of course, went to buy them. A hundred parlors of mildly literary folk or primly polite Unitarian and Congregational circles beheld scenes over which kind history has drawn a veil!—the good husband or head of the house, after tea or supper, settling down in his chair. 'Now for the new book, so warmly spoken of!' the ladies taking their knitting and sewing,their dresses rustling slightly as they arrange themselves to listen, the general atmosphere of propriety and selectness; and then the reading! Oh, the reading! The odd words, the unusual phrases, the jumbled sequences, the stumbling uncertainty of the reader, the wonderment on the faces of the listeners, and finally—confusion and the pit! the book closed, and hasty flight and dispersion of the meeting. Then, later, timid glances again at the dreadful volume, only to find, amid quagmires and swamps, the reptilian author addressing the belovèd Emerson as 'Master,' and saying, 'these shores you found!' Was it a nightmare? Had the emperor gone mad? or was his printed letter merely a fraud and a forgery?"

Even outside the "coteries of Boston" there have always been plenty of readers demanding much more than the endorsement of Emerson to make Whitman endurable. But it is rather to those who have accepted him than to those who have not that our present concern directs itself. Mr. Binns's compendious volume is the significant expression of a man who begins by asserting that he is not a literary critic. He feels, moreover, that the final interpretation of Whitman must come from an American. What he undertakes is to "offer a biographical study from the point of view of an Englishman." In the course of his abundant biographical record he provides also his personal estimates of the quality in Whitman which has attracted and held him. He asks himself, for instance, "Does Leaves of Grass awake some quality of the soul which answers neither to the words of Tennyson nor Browning, Emerson nor Carlyle? In answer he says, "The proof of emotional reaction requires some skill in self observation and more impartiality; but, on the whole, I think those who have tried it fairly seem to take my part, and to answer emphatically in the affirmative." For the quality of the distinctive emotion which Whitman evokes in him he proceeds to say: "Briefly, it is the complex but harmonious emotion which possesses a sane full-blooded man of fully awakened soul, when he realizes the presence of the Eternal and Universal incarnate in some 'spear of summer grass.'"

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