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.'"

Here is a fairly definite statement of the definite impression which Whitman has made upon one whose book gives every reasonable token that he himself is "a sane full-blooded man of fully awakened soul." It may be regarded as a typical declaration from such a man, of the class not immune by nature to the Whitman spell.

The shining example of acceptance in what Whitman called "the essay, critical, scholar, class" is of course John Addington Symonds. His declaration has become almost a classic bit in "Whitman literature:" "Leaves of Grass, which I first read at the age of twenty-five, influenced me more perhaps than any other book has done, except the Bible; more than Plato, more than Goethe." A more elaborate statement of his debt to Whitman is made at the end of his admirable "Study." He describes himself as having received the ordinary English gentleman's education—Harrow and Oxford—yet with physical disabilities which had made him "decidedly academical, and in danger of becoming a prig." At first his aesthetic, rather than his moral, sensibilities were repelled by what he found in Leaves of Grass. "My academical prejudices," he says, "the literary instincts trained by two decades of Greek and Latin studies, the refinements of culture revolted against the uncouthness, roughness, irregularity, coarseness, of the poet and his style. But, in course of a short time, Whitman delivered my soul of these debilities. As I have said elsewhere in print, he taught me to comprehend the harmony between the democratic spirit, science, and that larger religion to which the modern world is being led by the conception of human brotherhood, and by the spirituality inherent in any really scientific view of the universe. He gave body, concrete vitality, to the religious creed which I had been already forming for myself upon the study of Goethe, Greek and Roman Stoics. Giordano Bruno, and the founders of the evolutionary doctrine. He inspired me with faith, and made me feel that optimism was not unreasonable. This gave me great cheer in those evil years of enforced idleness and intellectual torpor which my health imposed upon me. Moreover, he helped to free me from many conceits and pettinesses to which academical culture is liable. He opened my eyes to the beauty, goodness, and greatness which may be found in all worthy human beings, the humblest and the highest. He made me respect personality more than attainments or position in the world. Through him, I stripped my soul of social prejudices. Through him, I have been able to fraternize in comradeship with men of all classes and several races, irrespective of their class, creed, occupation, and special training. To him I owe some of the best friends I now can claim, sons of the soil, hard-workers, 'natural and nonchalant,' 'powerful uneducated' persons."

Though "the deliverance from foibles besetting invalids and pedants" gave Symonds his special occasion for gratitude, this surely is an extraordinary acknowledgment of "value received." As perhaps the most important statement from a man of the scholarly type which Symonds brilliantly represented, it has seemed worth reproducing at length. The testimony of many others, expected and unexpected disciples, might be cited to swell the list. John Burroughs, the lover and interpreter of nature, belongs by every right to the band of admirers. Mrs. Gilchrist, the Englishwoman of cultivation and sensitiveness, forgave in her enthusiasm even the ignoring of our "instinct of silence about some things." Stevenson, though subsequently "saying yes with reservations," and winning Whitman's opprobrium thereby, found Leaves of Grass at first "a book which tumbled the world upside down" for him. Tributes like these came, and still come, just as frequently from those who had not encountered Whitman in the flesh, as from those who had.

Undoubtedly Whitman's physical presence made a strong appeal to many observers. Not only his bus-drivers and ferry-boat hands, the chance laborers with whom he exchanged greetings on the street, the wounded soldiers he nursed with all the feminine tenderness of his nature, but also the critical visitors who came to see the man because they knew his work, found in him something memorable. The early gray hair, the brow and eyes, the positive attribute of cleanliness, like that of some freshly rain-washed object in nature, all were tokens of a distinctive essence of personality. The insight and sympathy revealed in much of his talk, the impression of democracy personified, the largeness and individuality of his attitude towards life, the attitude of a prophet whose guidance was entirely his own—all these things impressed the visitor. And now that Whitman is gone some recognition of the force of the personal Whitman tradition in maintaining his peculiar spell must be made.

It cannot be said that the close acquaintance with all the aspects of Whitman's life, acquired through the biographical portions of the new books, strengthens the force of his personal appeal. All the familiar good and lovable qualities of the man are set forth afresh. Nothing in his life was finer than his service in the military hospitals, and that receives the full acknowledgment which is its due. But Mr. Binns, Mr. Carpenter, and Mr. Perry all tell the story, not hitherto made known to the uninitiated, of his paternity of six children for whom there is no evidence that either in life or in death he made provision. The extenuations for his course in this matter are urged with all consideration for his fame; yet one can hardly get away from the truth underlying a sentence (quite without reference to Whitman) in Mr. Owen Wister's latest work of fiction: "And you'll generally observe that the more nobly a Socialist vaporizes about the rights of humanity, the more wives and children he has abandoned penniless along the trail of his life." Nor can one reconcile the nearly simultaneous deeds and words which illustrate Whitman's conduct and theory in this most personal of concerns. The "episode," as Mr. Perry truly says, "might indeed be passed over with a reluctant phrase or two by his biographers, if it were not for the part it played in the origins of Leaves of Grass." Conduct, for one who put himself into his writings as the great composite representative of the new democracy, is manifestly inseparable from the theory he was expounding.

From Mr. Traubel's book, moreover, one gains a larger conception than any hitherto possible of the extent of Whitman's egotism. Again we remember the defenses of the egotism proper to the great democratic individual typified in the ever-present ego of Leaves of Grass. One is prepared to forgive in an imaginary giant qualities positively repellant in a flesh-and-blood contemporary. It is disquieting therefore to find in Whitman the person the precise quality and degree of egotism represented, by himself, in Whitman the type. It may fairly be said that Mr. Traubel undertook a dangerous service for his master when he determined to give forth the daily talk of an old man, with all its "hells and damns," to say nothing of all the kisses the old and the young man interchanged, all the trivialities of thought and speech uttered by the master, all the revelations of a critical faculty with horizons quite too obviously faculty with horizons quite too obviously determined by the opinions of him enter tained by the persons criticised. It is hardly enough to say he was an old man enfeebled by sickness, and, towards the end of the four months which Mr. Traubel's four hundred and sixty-eight ample pages record, cruelly shattered by shocks of paralysis. Many of us have known old men, some of them distinguished for achievement of one sort or another. Yet their fading days have not been shot with anxious consideration of what others have thought and will think of them, with repeated weighings of the merits of all the photographs and paintings for which they have ever sat, with fishing out of the litter which strewed an amazing floor the flattering letters—it was always these which magnetized the crook of Whitman's cane—and handing them over to be read aloud for the recipient's present pleasure, and printed for his future glory. Had our elderly friends made these revelations themselves, it would have been the part of friendship to suppress them. Mr. Traubel, in his somewhat explosive preface, declares, "I do not come to conclusions. I provide that which may lead to conclusions. I provoke conclusions." The pity is that this unrestrained Boswell did not provoke different conclusions; for, without any unwarrantable suppressio veri he might have done so. In all the mass of chaff there is quite enough of true grain—of sage and admirable thoughts and sayings—to have made a smaller book which would have done the fame of Whitman a laudable service. Whitman has sorely needed discreeter friends. Their zeal and loyalty as champions have been equaled only by the disciples of Mrs. Eddy.

ll the more, therefore, it was high time for an American of the despised "essay, critical, scholar, class," yet one whose spirit was not immune to the Whitman virus, to produce an ample critical biography. A Symonds in England could apprehend and appraise, as Symonds so generously did, the spirit and significance of Whitman's message and its medium. But an American, with an academic breeding as typically American as Symonds's was English, approaches the biographical task with a palpable advantage. If his native endowment places him, moreover, amongst "the born disciples of Whitman," he may be expected to arrive at conclusions at once sane and sympathetic. Without this native fitness, all the scholarly training in the world will profit him nothing. With it the fortunate biographer may write a judicial book about Whitman, and that without any lack of warmth where warmth is due. He may tell the story of Whitman's life with fullness, giving him cordial credit for all its distinctions and sincerities, yet not permitting an admiration for those qualities to blind him to what was merely cheap and insincere. He will subject the work of Whitman to the careful critical tests which can be made only by a scholar of wide reading and an enthusiast for the best in letters. In short, he will give us at last the true Whitman.

In a happy phrase about the pulse of the Whitman machine—"that unlucky machine of the 'official democrat' which sometimes kept on revolving when the poet was loafing"—Mr. Perry has accounted for much that encumbers the most hopeless pages of Whitman. When he writes as one of "the born disciples" he states their case—his own case—in words upon which it would be hard to improve: "It is plain that to such readers Whitman is more than a mere writer. To them the question whether he wrote poetry or prose counts for nothing compared with the fundamental question whether this was or was not a man with something glorious to say. To vex his message with academic inquiries about the type of literature to which it belongs is like badgering St. Paul about the syntax of his epistle to the Romans. Whitman has become to them no longer a rhapsodist to be read, enjoyed and quoted: he is an ethical force, a regenerator, a spiritual discoverer who has brought them into a new world." If this be a true ascription of power then Whitman deserves the place Mr. Perry gives him,—"upon the whole the most original and suggestive poetic figure since Wordsworth." Under the same proviso, the final venture into prophecy is warranted: "No American poet now seems more sure to be read, by the fit persons, after one hundred or five hundred years." Whether this fit audience is to be qualified like Milton's—"though few"—the coming centuries, in their dealing with the tentative prophecy, will tell. In the very present, one may assert with confidence that Mr. Perry has done more for Whitman than his most vociferous followers have accomplished. He acknowledges, even repeats, the worst that may be said of Whitman, writer and man, and then shows how triumphantly the best of him shines out above it all. This is an achievement for which the true friends of Whitman, whatever some of them may think at first, must come in time to be devoutly thankful.

There is one point in the consideration of Whitman upon which Mr. Perry touches but lightly,—his influence upon his successors. It is shown that his imitators "have not thus far been able to bend his bow." But what of those whose torches he has helped to light, whose spirit has caught something from his, even though they have made no attempt to follow his outward forms? Should the unwritten chapter on these persons have been headed "The Snakes in Ireland "?

A contributor to a recent Atlantic would have us think so. "Where are the spiritual descendants of Walt Whitman? " is the question with which this writer embarks upon the praise of three younger Americans joined together for their resemblance in the single quality of being unlike Whitman. A cardinal point in this unlikeness is their regard for form. Yet it is possible to imagine another critic undertaking to point out the debts of one or more of those singers to Whitman,—and proving his case. The statistics of spiritual indebtedness can be made to prove many things. But by good chance there is in another magazine for the same month as that in which the Atlantic article appeared a poem which in itself makes some reply to the critic's query. This is the Harvard Phi Beta Kappa poem, The Soul's Inheritance, by Mr. George Cabot Lodge. The line emphasized by repetition—"Let us report and celebrate the soul"—speaks for something deeper than the superficial kinship with Whitman betrayed in the very sound of the words. Not only in this line, but in the whole production, an essential spiritual kinship with Whitman expresses itself. The poem is not in any sense the work of an imitator. Such an one need not have troubled himself to translate Whitman into the terms of the schools. It is rather the utterance through a medium which has all the advantages of proved endurance, of the spirit which Whitman uttered. Mr. Lodge is not the sole voice of this spirit among his contemporaries. The spirit may have come to him and his fellows through channels with which Whitman has had little to do, Yet the resemblances are striking enough to fix a standing place of solid ground beneath those who believe that Whitman's "spiritual descendants" are many and widely distributed. To expect to find them all adopting Whitman's metrical methods would be like looking to-day for all the sympathy with the nineteenth-century revolt against Calvinism among those who wear the garb of the first insurgents.

But the writers who show the influence of Whitman must always, and happily, be outnumbered, a hundred to one, by the readers who feel it. What, after all, has he meant to them? Certainly he has not stocked their vocabularies with familiar phrases. This poet who confessed that he could not quote himself has done virtually nothing to enrich the currency of daily speech. Beyond the line, "I loafe and invite my soul,"—which, by the way, is pretty sure to be spoken with half a smile,—what phrase of Whitman has acquired anything like that place in the language which makes a dozen phrases of Longfellow and Emerson instantly recognizable in any circle above the most illiterate? To make such phrases, the true Whitmanite will tell you, was not in Whitman's province; and he is right. It is not the letter, but the spirit of Whitman which gives him his power over those to whom he means either something or everything. He will mean nothing to those who have in their own souls nothing of the "born disciple." Even this elect reader may have to overcome obstacles. "One thing is certain," said Stevenson, "that no one can appreciate Whitman's excellences until he has grown accustomed to his faults." In this preliminary of acceptance may surely be included the discounting of all the unfortunate impressions which are likely to come from knowing too much of Whitman's personal history and characteristics. It is the triumph of Whitman that after all this clearing of the ground so much remains. For all who have the eyes to see and the ears to hear what Whitman has to bring, these things, in the end, seem to be his bountiful offerings: to open new vistas of thought and feeling, new appreciations of beauty; to set free our understandings and sympathies; to help us to realize ourselves as individuals and—at the same time—to take our true places in a democratic world; to apprehend, as Americans, the bigness and significance of "these States," and, as human beings, the unity of mankind. All this is to place us in what is often a new and uplifting relation to the scheme of things. It matters not much by precisely what means it is accomplished. To accomplish it in any way is to work a spell beyond the power of all but a few of the greatest single forces that have influenced mankind.