Sunday, October 01, 2006

Laughing Walt

Two years ago, Greil Marcus and Sean Wilentz edited a collection of essays, The Rose and the Briar: Death, Love and Liberty in the American Ballad. The musician David Thomas, founder of Pere Ubu, contributed “Destiny in My Right Hand: `The Wreck of Old 97’ and `Dead Man’s Curve,’” It’s one of the best pieces in the book, and here are its final sentences, unexpected conclusions from a rock musician:

“Emerson and Thoreau smile. Whitman laughs aloud.”

Probably without having read American Humor: A Study of the National Character, Thomas was echoing what Constance Rourke had written more than 70 years earlier:

“To enter the world of Whitman is to touch the spirit of American popular comedy, with its local prejudices, its national prepossessions, its fantastic beliefs; many phases of comic reaction are unfolded there.”

There’s much laughter, much comedy, in Whitman, especially when he drops the mystical gasbag routine. Laughter, in Whitman, is an expression of joy, camaraderie, of sheer, stupid, preverbal astonishment at the way things are. This is from “A Song of Joys”:

“…I join the group of clam-diggers on the flats,
I laugh and work with them, I joke at my work
like a mettlesome young man.”

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