- Walt Whitman: From Moon to Starry Night by Philip Callow
Allison and Busby, 394 pp, £19.99, October 1992, ISBN 0 85031 908 0
- The Double Life of Stephen Crane by Christopher Benfey
Deutsch, 294 pp, £17.99, February 1993, ISBN 0 233 98820 3
Demurely feline himself, and also the blandest of experts at suggesting but never revealing his own private life, the English writer Edmund Gosse enthused on the resemblance of the aged Walt Whitman to ‘a great old Angora Tom’. The marvellous old poet, with his soft white hair and snowy silken ruff of beard, would have been delighted by the compliment. Philip Callow’s book is the most imaginative re-creation yet made of the poet’s daily physical being, and the photographs of the poet at all ages, from early manhood and the strange Piero Christlikeness of middle age to the bearded and Lear-like sage of Mickle Street, Camden, paralysed in his rocking-chair, admirably complement the text.
Whitman was overwhelmingly his own sort of creature: giant silken pussy-cat or, as he once described himself to Edward Carpenter, ‘an old hen ... with something in my nature furtive’. Gosse and Carpenter were of course all eager to know what was really going on. But Whitman was less furtive than serene: like any other big animal, he simply had his own complete sufficiency – he was wrapped up in himself, not cerebrally, but in the joyousness of being his own body and man. The words he wonderfully uttered were a part of that sufficiency. Having such confidence in his own being gave him the certainty that he contained millions, the whole swarming body of young America. ‘Your very flesh shall be a great poem,’ he wrote in 1855 in the Preface to Leaves of Grass, ‘not only in its words but ... in every motion and joint of your body.’
Including the penis, if you happened to be a man – ‘This poem drooping shy and unseen that I always carry, and that all men carry.’ It was the apparent daring of some of the sections of Leaves of Grass that was to cause misunderstanding, and with later writers to lead to what Whitman might well have felt was a dead end: sexual explicitness in writing for its own sake. When Whitman visited Boston, Emerson advised him to cut out the inflammatory bits, which would make Leaves ‘not as good a book but a good book’. Whitman listened respectfully to the sympathetic old Brahmin, but felt the price was too high. ‘If I had cut sex out,’ he mused later, ‘I might just as well have cut everything out.’ But he was never caught, as Lawrence was to be, in the trap of a readership that supposed sex to be his special thing. Openness about it was so happily equivocal with him that it became a kind of privacy: ‘shy and unseen’ indeed, but shedding a great glow of animation on everything the poet saw and put into words.
In a sense it was much the same for Henry James, that other great equivocator of the American literary scene, and always a great admirer of Whitman. James’s prose, even the late prose, is paradoxically as physical as Leaves of Grass, and in the same way. A kind of sublimation was involved in both cases, although in neither does the word suggest a substitute, an alternative in spirituality. Quite the reverse. Whitman and James, just as much as Stephen Crane and Hemingway, helped the liberation of American literature into physicality, inspired by but growing away from the Emersonian traditions of Puritan New England. Poe, whom Whitman met when they were fellow editors of small-time papers, was doing the same thing in the opposite way, among corpses rather than lively bodies. But Whitman, who took to Poe at once and liked his work, had a dark side too, and a sensuous passion for the dead and their graves, for night as the mother, and for oblivion.