For the epigraph to his newly published Bob Dylan in America, Sean Wilentz chooses a line from Walt Whitman:
“Only a few hints—a few diffused, faint clues and indirections…”
The source, not identified by Wilentz, is “When I Read the Book”:
“When I read the book, the biography famous,
And is this then (said I) what the author calls a man's life?
And so will some one when I am dead and gone write my life?
(As if any man really knew aught of my life,
Why even I myself I often think know little or nothing of my real life,
Only a few hints, a few diffused faint clews and indirections
I seek for my own use to trace out here.)”
This is the version Whitman included in the “Inscriptions” section of his 1871 edition of Leaves of Grass. Note the unannounced emendation of “clew” to “clue” in Wilentz’s epigraph. Justin Kaplan, a Whitman biographer and editor of the Library of America’s Complete Poetry and Collected Prose, tells us the poem in the 1867 edition of Leaves of Grass had only five lines and concluded like this:
“(As if any man really knew aught of his life,
As if you, O cunning soul, did not keep your secret well!)”
Wilentz’s choice is inarguably appropriate to Dylan, a renowned shape-shifter and expectation-confounder. Has any major performer so perversely defied the hopes of audiences, scorned wishes while fueling speculation about motive and meaning? Whitman is also a Dylan forebear, culturally if not literarily, and Wilentz cites him eight times, usually in connection with another windbag, Allen Ginsberg. My problem is not with Wilentz but Whitman.
The excerpt out of context is good but the poem is awful. The second line is almost unreadable – try it aloud – with eight monosyllables in a row like knots in a shoe string. The poem reads like a throwaway, the sort of thing Horace Traubel was dutifully recording on Mickle Street a few years later. Significantly, Wilentz’s epigraph stands as serviceable prose.
Whitman’s coyness here is cloying. On one level, he’s suggesting what Henry James posed in the first sentence of “Louisa Pallant,” a story from 1890, two years before Whitman’s death: “Never say you know the last word about any human heart!” But Whitman is also baiting readers with portentous hints, whether of bastard offspring or homosexuality, take your pick. There’s something tawdry and self-regarding about the strategy. It’s a cute variation on what later was called “confessional” poetry.
I write this as a longtime admirer of Whitman’s best work. As a poet, he’s best at the level of words, phrases and lines. Like Wordsworth and Tennyson, he benefits from scrupulous editing by someone less likely than the poet to celebrate himself.