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.
When his friend Horace Traubel, who also wanted to be his Boswell, interrogated Whitman about events in his life, the poet had no trouble combining a benevolent openness with the slyest possible duplicity. As to Edward Carpenter later on – he was always much more on his guard with homoerotic English visitors – Whitman told the tale of his six illegitimate children (‘one living southern grandchild – fine boy’) adroitly locating them in the Deep South, where any verification would have been all but impossible, and by implication during his time as an editor in New Orleans. It used to be taken for granted that although the poet might have been drawing the longbow a bit, he really had scattered his seed far and wide, in heterosexual as well as homosexual affairs, but modern scholarship is inclined to doubt the truth of any of it. Fortunately no one will ever know for sure: the only certain thing is that he was touchingly shy with both sexes. His mass of papers and private notebooks, most of which remain unedited, will certainly not turn out to be like the Casement diaries, or even those jottings about payment to sailors in Paris which Housman may or may not have left among his surviving writings. Leaves of Grass, especially the ‘Calamus’ section, may be as easy to interpret now as The Shropshire Lad, but neither gives us any indication of what went on. Possibly Whitman, like Housman or like James himself, was in his own robust way a man of glimpses and day-dreams. Trees could mean as much as men, or as the grass on graves, as in his poem ‘I saw in Louisiana a Live Oak Growing’:
Without any companion it grew there uttering joyous leaves of dark green,
And its look, rude, unbending, lusty, made me think of myself,
But I wonder’d how it could utter joyous leaves standing alone there without its friends near, for I knew I could not,
And I broke off a twig with a certain number of leaves upon it, and twined round it a little moss,
And brought it away, and I have placed it in sight in my room,
It is not needed to remind me of my own dear friends
(For I believe lately I think of little else than of them)
Yet it remains to me a curious token, it makes me think of manly love.
Callow comments that it was probably down there, ‘separated from his friends, that he understood once and for all the difficulties of his own nature. He had thought until then that he was self-sufficient, and he was not.’ The poems are so open, and yet, as Callow says, ‘he was a sly old man. Fiction, lying concealment, doubleness – that was the approach he favoured.’ ‘They used to say,’ he once told Horace Traubel, ‘that all the babes in the land were Walt Whitman’s babies – like the first snow, the first blade of grass, the first anything – unstudied, unelaborated, untouched by rules.’ That would be horribly like Peter Pan if it were not for the slyness in the sweetness. It shows how crafty the most ‘spontaneous’ art invariably is – if it succeeds as art.
At the same time Whitman’s jottings and MS do reveal more disturbed and even distracted feelings and relations, which he seems sometimes to have covered up by writing ‘she’ for ‘he’. As long ago as 1920 Emory Holloway found the original manuscript of one of the ‘Children of Adam’ poems in Leaves of Grass where the poet had made a significant alteration.
I remember I say only that woman who passionately clung to me ...
I see her close beside me with silent lips sad and tremulous.
This was originally
Rude and ignorant man who, when I departed, long and long held me by the hand, with silent lips, sad and tremulous.
There can be no doubt which version is, as poetry, the more movingly effective. At the same time there was clearly no element of emotional finality, of Housman’s ‘To this lost heart be kind’, in any of Whitman’s male relationships. Kind he was, but it was a loving-kindness that included men and women with equal ease. He was upset when a special comrade of long standing, Peter Doyle, a Washington streetcar conductor, drifted apart from him in the Seventies, when he was growing an old man; but Doyle was nearly thirty years younger and had his own life to live, as Whitman was the first to recognise. To a young English widow, Mrs Gilchrist, who wrote him passionate letters and came over to America with the intention of marrying him, Whitman remained invariably kind and helpful: being a woman of sense she saw how the land lay, bought a house nearby and helped look after him as he grew old.
The poet’s heroic period was in the Civil War, when he acted as welfare officer to the Union wounded, bringing them fruit and candy as Hemingway was to do to the Italian Army in 1916. Unlike Hemingway, he made no personal heroic myth out of it, though what he saw and helped do was probably more terrible than anything the later writer experienced.
Callow’s feel for his poet is as sensible and as sensitive as it was in his biographies of Lawrence and Van Gogh. He is especially good on Whitman as loafer and as man in the street from day to day. The poet who was fascinated by ‘a policeman who suddenly looked up at him as he showed the way or a soldier who sat next to him in a railway carriage’ was no different in what he felt for the other sex – ‘solving the problem’, as Callow puts it, ‘by the expedient of finding her in himself’.
That recognition, about which Lawrence was so touchy – he complained of Whitman that ‘everything was female in him: even himself’ – was of the highest importance to Whitman and women understood it: flinty feminists from Boston and California melted about his ‘great mother-nature’. Even Emerson melted, warmly recommending the poems to his friend the critic Charles Eliot Norton, who thought that in some ‘preposterous yet fascinating’ way they fused ‘Yankee transcendentalism and New York rowdyism’. At the same time, he missed the point, gravely assuring James Russell Lowell that ‘one cannot leave the book about for chance readers, and would be sorry to know that a woman had looked into it past the title page.’ One woman who did was Lady Wilde, Oscar’s mother, an early enthusiast for Leaves of Grass. Another was a lady in Hartford who at once experienced ‘a mysterious delicious thrill’ and wrote to the poet assuring him that her ‘womb was pure and ready for our child’ who ‘must be begotten on a mountain top, in the open air’. Perhaps Norton had a point after all. Whitman, as his biographer comments, ‘had succeeded in his act of public intimacy too well’.
Early in 1861 Whitman saw Lincoln in New York, just before his Inauguration. In his ‘seam’d and wrinkled yet canny-looking face’ and his air of ‘almost insolent composure’ the poet felt the genius of four separate artists, the ‘finger-touch of Plutarch and Aeschylus and Michelangelo, assisted by Rabelais’: there was ‘something farcical about the scene, such as Shakespeare put in his blackest tragedies’. Always intensely literary in his responses – he never forgot how Junius Booth, the father of Lincoln’s murderer, had played Richard III – Whitman also had a shrewd eye for the incongruous. Even his moving and heroic poem on Lincoln’s death suggests an absurdity inseparable from the face of heroism. And it was in that direction that Stephen Crane’s odd sleepwalker’s gift was to lie. Born in 1871, nearly eight years after the Civil War had ended, he was mysteriously able to imagine its dreadful and yet heroic incongruities without having experienced them. His novel The Red Badge of Courage was instantly successful, seeming like a war reporter’s account, bringing to savage life far-off things already encrusted with hallowed myth and legend. His readers were convinced Crane had taken part in the actions he described – one veteran of the war claiming that he had ‘been with Crane at Antietam’.
Crane’s Faustian gift was to urge him towards the realising of situations he had once imagined. The writers who met him in England – Wells, Kipling, Conrad, even the ever sceptical Henry James – were fascinated by Crane’s besoin de la fatalité, his air, which Scott Fitzgerald was to hit off so well in The Great Gatsby, of needing to fulfil a personal myth and become the man he had dreamed of. Lord Jim and Gatsby are doomed by the plot they invent for themselves: Crane’s own tale was ironically haunted by just the kind of démarche or incongruous detail he was good at describing. The debonair poker-playing war reporter was in fact a mother’s boy, his father an eminently respectable New England Low Church minister. And although part of his myth as a ‘natural aristocrat’ was the overwhelming attraction that he felt should be felt for him by fashionable upper-class girls, Crane was never at home with them, preferring the society of good-natured demi-mondaines of a motherly sort, like Cora Taylor, who had run the Hotel de Dream in Jacksonville, Florida, and who became his companion, possibly his wife. Crane indeed planned his courtship of an attractive society debutante, Nellie Crouse, in purely literary form, in a series of seven letters, ending on a note of bittersweet farewell which implies he is too refined and naturally ‘well-born’ (Crane like Hemingway had an obsession about high birth and breeding) to be understood or valued by a girl like Nellie. Quite unmoved, Nellie naturally married a Harvard man, and Crane switched his myth to the romance of fallen women, adventurers and spies, producing on his visit to Cuba, where he was sent to report the Spanish-American War, what was to become a classic archetype in the hands of Hemingway and Graham Greene – the quiet spy Johnnie, a ‘little tan-faced refugee without much money’, who works undercover for American naval intelligence, and whose immensely valuable reports are in the end unused and disregarded. Crane himself liked it to be thought that his own clandestine surveys, accompanied by a real spy, had helped to contribute to American success in the war. Perhaps they had.
Christopher Benfey tells the story extremely well, with a light touch and a lot of scholarship. He likes and admires Crane but is judicious about the quality of his work and does not try to claim too much for it. The stunning success of The Red Badge of Courage, the spell of his personality and his early death, produced a legend of his genius which might well have been dissipated almost entirely if he had lived longer. As it was, something in the not unusual mixture of ‘genius’ and death continued to haunt and inspire American poets and novelists: Hemingway may be said to have pondered Crane’s despatch and then carefully cut out all the fine writing. For most of Crane’s stuff is certainly overwritten, even in an age which went in for the purple patch, the eloquence of Conrad and the bravura performances of Kipling. Like Kipling, Crane has an annoying habit of pretending to understatement when he is really pulling out every stop. The first page of The Red Badge of Courage, which Benfey reproduces in facsimile, has the touching air of a story done for a school assignment by a precocious youngster. ‘A river, amber-tinted in the shadow of its banks, purled at the army’s feet; and at night, when the stream had become of a sorrowful blackness, one could see across it the red, eyelike gleam of hostile camp-fires set in the low brows of distant hills.’ ‘Amber-tinted’ is decorative only; ‘sorrowful’ completely de trop: a critic or instructor today would strike both out. And yet he would be wrong. The story depends on the devotion and breathless expectancy of youth, both immanent in the manner, as well as the attempt to be blasé (later on the hero comes on a body whose face is covered with ants – ‘one was trundling some sort of bundle along the upper lip’).
In one of his sermons, which Benfey quotes as a preamble, Crane’s methodist father remarked on the number of modern young people who led ‘double lives’, and ‘whose ignorance of the world of fact is poorly compensated by their acquaintance with the world of dreams’. His son was to be a striking instance of the unconscious wish to bring the two together. Crane’s factuality, even in the case of his famous tale ‘The Open Boat’, which Conrad thought so highly of, is all made up; and in a sense its mesmeric power for the reader lies in the way this seems to validate the reader’s own dream world. Crane did have some sort of boat ordeal, after he had thought of the idea for the story, but like Conrad’s actual experiences at sea or in the Congo it amounted to an ignoble nothing beside what art could make of the idea. And while Conrad had the experience first Crane sought to find it later.
He looked for it in New York police courts, in Florida and Cuba and the Greco-Turkish War; in the grand Elizabethan house in Sussex called Brede Place, which he couldn’t afford, but where half the best writers of England bicycled across Romney Marsh to attend his parties. He was still looking, still making up the story of an event to come, when he died in a Black Forest sanatorium. Apart from the TB that finally got him Crane’s only failure in his proleptic and reversed world of life and art was with sex. He never made a Nellie Crouse, but he got a novella out of it, ‘The Third Violet’, which Benfey rather deprecates but I remember being decidedly impressed by. Its opening is like that of a D.H. Lawrence story: ‘The engine bellowed its way up the slanting, winding valley. Grey crags, and trees with roots fastened cleverly to the steeps, looked down at the struggles of the black monster.’ That is as vivid as Lawrence, though he would not have written that ‘cleverly’, which has the Crane hallmark. The train is going up to the fashionable resort where Hawker the hero will meet his upper-class girl Grace. Her behaviour is suitably enigmatic, but of course provocative, as the disdainful gift of the violets indicates. As with most of Crane’s tales (‘The Blue Hotel’,‘A Dark-brown Dog’, ‘The Bride comes to Yellow Sky’) there is a period emphasis on Art Nouveau primary colours. Hawker’s young brother will pop up much later in The Catcher in the Rye as Holden Caulfield; for the ghosts that haunt Crane’s fiction live in the future rather than the past. He is full of inspirations yet to come, audible in ‘The Third Violet’s’ last sentence: ‘Later she told him that he was perfectly ridiculous.’ Does that mean that Grace has accepted him or is telling him to buzz off? Crane did not know: or rather he was still waiting to find out.