Monday, May 31, 2010

`Bursting the Petty Bonds of Art'

Today is Memorial Day, a holiday enacted in the shell-shocked wake of the Civil War, and we also observe the one hundred ninety-first birthday of Walt Whitman, the great poet of that conflict and tireless caregiver in Union field hospitals. The first-hand experience of so much suffering and death transformed the poet and his work, though who wouldn't be transformed and remain human? Though one hundred fifty-six poems had already appeared in the 1860 edition of Leaves of Grass, Whitman described the war as “pivotal” to his life’s book. In a letter written March 19-20, 1863, to his friends Nathaniel Bloom and John F. S. Gray, and with another two years of war to follow, Whitman says:

“These Hospitals, so different from all others—these thousands, and tens and twenties of thousands of American young men, badly wounded, all sorts of wounds, operated on, pallid with diarrhea, languishing, dying with fever, pneumonia, &c. open a new world somehow to me, giving closer insights, new things, exploring deeper mines than any yet, showing our humanity, (I sometimes put myself in fancy in the cot, with typhoid, or under the knife,) tried by terrible, fearfulness tests, probed deepest, the living soul's, the body's tragedies, bursting the petty bonds of art.”

A moving admission for a poet. It’s characteristic of Whitman to project himself imaginatively, “in fancy,” into the lives of sick and wounded soldiers and in doing so, “bursting the petty bonds of art.” His imagination was absorbent and empathetic, characterized by what he would have called, using a phrenological term, “adhesiveness.” He viewed the sick and wounded not as conventional heroes but fellow humans, in no way alien to him, and this radical democratizing of imagination called for a new art. These sentences immediately follow the ones above in the letter to Bloom and Gray:

“To these, what are your dramas and poems, even the oldest and the tearfulest? Not old Greek mighty ones, where man contends with fate, (and always yields)—not Virgil showing Dante on and on among the agonized & damned, approach what here I see and take a part in.”

Never one to feign humility, Whitman elbows aside Homer, the Greek dramatists, Virgil and Dante, and usurps their artistic and national primacies with his witness of the American Civil War. Walker Percy’s description of Shelby Foote’s The Civil War: A Narrative as “an American Iliad” echoes with Whitman’s boast. Today, to honor Whitman and the war dead, read some of his war poems, letters and miscellaneous prose, and recall what he said to his friend Horace Traubel in 1888 (from Walt Whitman in Camden, Vol. 2), four years before his death:

“The merit of the war pieces is not chiefly literary—if they have merit, it is chiefly human; it is a presence-statement reduced to its last simplicity—sometimes a mere recital of names, dates, incidents –no dress put on anywhere to complicate and beautify it.”

[Coming in this decade are the bicentennials of three writers who collectively define what America and American literature can be: Thoreau, born July 12, 1817; Whitman, May 31, 1819; Melville, Aug. 1, 1819. The truest way to celebrate this constellation of birthdays is to read and reread their work, and aspire to write with their audacious American eccentricity.]

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