Tuesday, May 12, 2009

`Even Admiration Feels Like Insolence'

Few great American writers were born into so unpromising a family as Walt Whitman. His father, a descendent of some of the earliest Dutch settlers on Long Island, is optimistically described as a housebuilder. Born in Huntington Township, L.I., Walt was one of eight children who survived infancy. Jesse, born in 1818, one year before Walt, is usually termed “unstable,” and died in a lunatic asylum in 1870. Hannah Louisa, born in 1823, was probably psychotic; Andrew, 1827, alcoholic; Edward, 1835, “feeble-minded.”

In Whitman’s less euphemistic age, his siblings would have been known as “idiots.” Whitman used the word twice in one of his greatest poems, “The Sleepers,” an early version of which appeared in the first edition of Leaves of Grass. The first mention, as it appears in the final version of the poem, comes in the first section:

“The wretched features of ennuyes, the white features of corpses, the
livid faces of drunkards, the sick-gray faces of onanists,
The gash'd bodies on battle-fields, the insane in their
strong-door'd rooms, the sacred idiots, the new-born emerging
from gates, and the dying emerging from gates,
The night pervades them and infolds them.”

And he uses the word again in the sixth section of “The Sleepers”:

“The consumptive, the erysipalite, the idiot, he that is wrong'd,
The antipodes, and every one between this and them in the dark,
I swear they are averaged now--one is no better than the other,
The night and sleep have liken'd them and restored them.”

In both cases, one is touched by Whitman’s sense of human inclusiveness. No one, regardless of gifts or circumstances, is left out. All are worthy of celebration, a thought I remembered Monday while working in a large, loud special-education center with kids Whitman would have recognized and probably joined on the floor during play period. Over lunch I reread Randall Jarrell’s great Poet Reclamation Act of 1952, “Some Lines from Whitman.” It dates from an era when Whitman was still on probation in the academy, his place in American literature only tentative. I thought of the lines above when Jarrell writes:

“It is only a list – but what a list!...occasionally one of these lists is metamorphosed into something we have no name for; the man who would call the next quotation a mere list – anybody will feel this – would boil his babies up for soap.”

If readers remember Jarrell, it’s for his reputation as a hitman-cum-critic (and for “The Death of the Ball Turret Gunner”). His demolitions are vicious and funny but I think Jarrell’s finest essays are acts of celebration. Read his pieces on Kipling, Frost, Marianne Moore and Christina Stead, and stray remarks about Chekhov, Elizabeth Bishop, Proust and Wordsworth. None is an unambiguous stamp of approval; each is written by a man in love with the seldom-realized perfection some writers, on rare occasions, achieve. Read what Jarrell writes about the son of obscure Long Islanders, brother to idiots, after citing a passage from “Song of Myself”:

“In the last lines of this quotation Whitman has reached – as great writers always reach – a point at which criticism seems not only unnecessary but absurd: these lines are so good that even admiration feels like insolence, and one is ashamed of anything that one can find to say about them. How anyone can dismiss or accept patronizingly the man who wrote them, I do not understand.”


Fran Manushkin said...

Why isn't Whitman's mother mentioned? Who was she descended from?

Nige said...

Re Randall Jarrell - what about Pictures From An Institution? And The Animal Family will surely last, if only for the wonderful Sendak illustrations...

Rebecca V. O'Neal said...

"these lines are so good that even admiration feels like insolence, and one is ashamed of anything that one can find to say about them" <-- This is PRECISELY why I wonder about my having a book blog. Certainly there is nothing I could have to say about the classics that hasn't already been said - and more eloquently. That and the self-evident brilliance of great writing such as that of Whitman make for lots of futility on my part.

Or not. Though I may come to conclusions that are well known and oft discussed amongst those more widely read - arriving at them independently has proven to be very instructing.

"Let us, then, consider literature as a productive science." <-- I keep this J.V. Cunningham quote at the top of my blog to discourage my discouragement, to counteract the fear I have of my writing, interpretations, and observations appearing infantile or prosaic... because it's a learning process.