by Doubleday, Page & Co. 1926. 8vo. xii + 312 pp. Illustrated. $2.50.. New York:
ONE carefully, reluctantly, puts away this book and determines to read it through again on the morrow. Also one finishes the last page conscious of deep regret that Whitman could not have been presented in this fashion years before, led right out into the open, introduced in his splendid, engaging manhood, given a chance to greet us as a person, in advance of being presented as a worker in verse.
To a whole generation now in middle life Walt Whitman was portrayed by the elders as some wild man of the woods whom one might visit clandestinely from not too innocent curiosity and at grave danger to one’s good reputation. Happy the young person of to-day who knows nothing really of Walt Whitman, who desires to know, and who climbs with Cameron Rogers up into the clearing, and there finds, as he actually is, the Good Gray Poet.
It is an overwhelming platitude to say that no great poetry was ever more personal than Leaves of Grass, and this commonplace is the justification for such a fine book as The Magnificent Idler.
Let me say again, he is fortunate who comes at his friendship for Whitman and his understanding of him through so felicitous a medium. Here is no literary criticism, or very little, no talk of mysticism and of matters transcendental, for the author knows what he is about and realizes, probably, that all this has been done sufficiently well by other, perhaps more expert hands. But here is the cradle endlessly rocking, here is the open road, here is the ferry to Brooklyn, and masts of Manhattan, and passage to India, and more than India, and high-piled military wagons bound for the war, and drumtaps, and the healer of wounds, and hospital wards stretching on to eternity. Through it all is the scent of the lilacs that last in the dooryard bloomed, and the revelation of the powerful western star in the heaven of letters.
The style lacks in distinction rather than in cleverness, but it is good writing. It is discouraging to watch a recent critic, who calls himself a disciple of Whitman, making wry faces over the manner of this book One would suppose that the primary lesson to be learned of the maker of Leaves of Grass ought to be tolerance of the newer ways, patient attention while the other fellow tells his story. Our author is truthful, and he is reverent — pretty substantial qualities in a biographer.
The one serious fault in the book has been hinted at already. This is not a matter of form at all. It is a defect of creative spirit. He has not revealed to us how he thinks the inner elements must have worked to change a minus sign, the loafer, into so prodigious a plus sign as the serious maker of great poetry. Are we to suppose this process to have been a miracle? Or was it conformable to some law of forces that have been and may be again? The middle of the book arrives, but our author does not strip for this contest, nor does he seem to be aware that this is the wrestling match we have been staying for.
I once heard John Swinton, that oldest old reporter, tell of a meeting with Whitman at Pfaff’s on Broadway. ‘Walt, that was a good poem of yours, this morning, in the Tribune.’ ‘Good? Can’t you say more than that, John?’ ‘Look here, Walt! When God Almighty had made this wonderful world He sat down and said, “ It is good.” And if that adjective “good” was enough for the Universe, it’s enough for your damned old poem!’ Whereupon the wife of a little old jeweler in Union Square arose and tremulously announced to the company, ‘It is getting late, but before we go I should like to read to you another “shef-doover” of Walt.’
This is a good book, and in its fine, new, original way it is ‘another shef-doover.’