One of the most striking things about Walt Whitman’s poems is just how distinctly we, his future audience, are addressed — as the audience who will finally understand him. Ironically, we no longer understand Whitman because we no longer understand the New York of 1855. Addressing we who have CRISPR, pervoskites, artificial neural networks, and an ungodly climate crisis on our hands, Walt fondly but naively says, Just as you look on the numberless masts of ships, and the thick-stem’d pipes of steamboats… His poetry drops countless references to his place in this antebellum maritime society — references whose true import have remained obscure. Above all, the bedrock economic forces behind Walt Whitman’s life story have been passed over for too long. My findings have recovered the backstory of Quaker influence in the “long foreground” of Leaves of Grass, near the climax of the Age of Sail.
For one last moment, their tall ships hauled America’s international commerce, and the trade winds still spun this economic windmill. Until the completion of the Erie Canal in 1825, when Master Walter was six years old, New England had been the center of shipping. Following three developments, however — the introduction of packet shipping by transatlantic Quakers; the increasing need for a deep harbor to accomodate larger vessels; and the opening of the Erie Canal, a new waterway to the western frontier — the axis shifted to Gotham. Walt delighted in loafing the emerald green tip of Manhattan, Battery Park, where import goods arrived, and America’s export goods left for far-flung markets. As the development of New York exploded around him — at least until the wrenching changes of the Civil War — he witnessed what amounted to a tide of cash flowing to the shipowners, captains, and merchants. My own favorite loafing places have always been the rivers, the wharves, the boats, he recalled in 1888, I like sailors, stevedores.Wednesday, August 1, 1888.
Unfortunately, the tradition of Whitman biography, despite fresh insights, and the frequent introduction of new avenues for investigation, essentially started off on the wrong track, and ignored all this — and so much more. The primary blame must be assigned to Whitman himself, who laid quite a rotten foundation for all subsequent accounts. He seeded the ground far too selectively, overemphasizing some themes and events while assiduously suppressing, minimizing, or even deliberately disavowing others. The only three words which adequately describe Whitman’s autobiographical foundation are “crude,” “simplistic,” and “truncated,” and, when placed in true historical perspective, are considerably even more truncated — that is, censored and simplistic — than they are crude. Far above and beyond all else, various controversial issues which could not explicitly be addressed in Whitman’s own time have always caused us no end of confusion.
To some extent, this may be understandable. As we have shown above, many poems in the Leaves casually allude to a context that was a given, an utter commonplace, to his contemporaries, who breathed the same sooty, tuberculosis-laden atmosphere. These allusions remain opaque, however, to critics entering their speculative latter-day interpretations into powerful laptops unimaginable to the Victorians. As David Reynolds put it, “Literary texts are intricate tapestries whose threads can be followed backward into a tremendous body of submerged biographical and cultural materials.” He cited Whitman’s own advice: “In estimating my my volumes, the world’s current times and deeds, and their spirit, must first be profoundly estimated.”David S Reynolds Walt Whitman’s America: a Cultural Biography (New York: Alfred A Knopf, 1995), “Introductory Note.”]
To borrow Reynold’s formulation, so many realities alluded to in Walt’s poetry were familiar to Whitman’s contemporaries, but became “submerged” after the sinking of the Age of Sail. Indeed, the earliest biographers worthy of that title — the English Quaker, Henry Bryan Binns, and Bliss Perry, and George Rice Carpenter — all came along soon enough following Whitman’s death, that they should have been wide awake to this historical context. But, on the other hand, everything pertaining to the New York Seaport was by then a wretched, outrageous scandal, and by definition, a scandal is a taboo topic. As the Age of Steam gave way to the Age of Oil, investors could no longer harness and exploit sailor sexuality to great gain. In this new Age of Science, everyone wanted to forget the sordid old days of Sailortown: all that alienation, spendthrift recklessness, misery, disease, gambling, brawling, boozing, and whoring. (Although, much later, US Navy training films would still be warning its sailors about the lingering grip of some of these evils.) As much as the poet or his early biographers may have wanted to tell the honest story, the best that they could offer us was: only a few hints — a few diffused, faint clues and indirections.
Nor was Sailortown the only place where Walt could dance with the dancers, and drink with the drinkers. There was a landlubber equivalent: the volunteer firestations, “nurseries where the youths of the city are trained up in vice, vulgarity and debauchery; where licentiousness holds her nightly revel.”David D. Dana The Fire Departments of the United States (Boston: James French, 1858), 92-3.
After the Civil War — in repressive Gilded Age/Reconstruction America — Whitman spent the rest of his life denying that he had worn a volunteer fireladdie’s infamous red shirt. In particular, he had to disavow Emerson’s 1877 complaint to the future gay-rights advocate, Edward Carpenter, that “he had a noisy fire-engine society. And he took me there, and was like a boy over it, as if there had never been such a thing before!”Edward Carpenter Days with Walt Whitman (London: George Allen, 1906),166.
Whitman strove to minimize the fact that these were the licentious loci described in “Native Moments,” where he “share[d] the midnight orgies of young men.” While Whitman Studies has remained utterly ignorant of the reputation of Whitman’s sailor and firemen friends, it was of course glaringly obvious to his contemporaries. When reviewers complained about his “rough” and “rowdy” “b’hoy” ways, they were by no means thinking of the tepid degree of vulgarity and boozing that later characterized the Vault at Pfaff’s. They were thinking about the violent melees which broke out when Walt’s volunteer-fireladdie friends clashed over the right to put out a neighborhood fire; about their shoulder-hitting role in voter intimidation on behalf of a corrupt Tammany regime; and about the haste with which the libidinous system was outlawed, the very moment that the end of the Civil War made it feasible. The first critic of Whitman’s obvious pride in this disreputable Tammany Hall society was Henry David Thoreau. The elderly Whitman privately told his young lover Herbert Gilchrist, “I remember Thoreau saying once, when walking with him in my favourite Brooklyn — ‘What is there in the people? Pshaw! what do you (a man who sees as well as anybody) see in all this cheating political corruption?’ I did not like my Brooklyn spoken of in this way.”Herbert Harlakenden Gilchrist Anne Gilchrist: Her Life and Writings (New York: Scriber & Welford, 1887), Chapter 19.
For Whitman to have been any more forthcoming than he indeed was would have constituted a magnitude of risk that has never been understood. Literary historians may or may not be sufficiently aware of all of society’s options for retaliation against offenders of “public decency:” censorship, ridicule, hate mail, vandalism, ostracism, loss of status, loss of employability, loss of family, mental institutionalization, and criminal prosecution — even including capital punishment. What they are clearly not aware of are even-greater dangers: the persistence of manhood’s Code of Honor, which mandated that insults be answered with duels, and the vigilante violence of poorly-governed, poorly-policed early America — such as tarring and feathering, extending all the way to lynching. Not until one appreciates the full spectrum of options for retribution can one appreciate how gingerly Whitman calibrated the angle of openness to his closet door. Much of the admiration for his life was a recognition of the supreme courage and discernment that it took to dare publish Leaves of Grass. Whitman perfectly reduced all this into a single dictum: be radical — be radical — be not too damned radical!
Under these circumstances, the derivative biographies have continually refined and clarified minor details — too often, mere epiphenomena — to decorate Whitman’s skeletal narrative, without fleshing out the missing context. This tradition culminated in Gay Wilson Allen’s Solitary Singer, which went on to spawn several knockoffs. “Though there have been new insights,” groused David S Reynolds in his 1995 Walt Whitman’s America: a Cultural Biography, “we have continued to take our basic facts from a critical biography [Allen’s Solitary Singer] written more than forty years ago. Otherwise, the facts of Whitman's life have been Freudianized and historicizcd to fit current political and literary ideologies.”
Jerome Loving caustically replied four years later: “The standard biography, no longer in print, is The Solitary Singer... Published more than forty years ago, it has become out of date... [Three recent biographies] make unique contributions to our appreciation of the poet, yet none of them goes signiﬁcantly beyond the basic facts of the life as established in The Solitary Singer.” In case you didn’t catch on, Reynolds implied that the biographical tradition remained in a hopeless rut before he came along, and Loving implied that the biographical tradition remained in a hopeless rut after Reynolds came along. Perhaps Loving considered Reynold’s cultural biography overly ambitious: too broad and shallow to provide the promised insights.
Although Whitman is the main cause for his own muddled biographies, there is an additional systemic problem: Whitman is only studied as a great, likely the greatest, poet. In secret, Whitman scholars seem to be unconsciously casting Whitman as the male equivalent of Emily Dickinson: an eccentric failure of heterosexuality, an author a century ahead of his/her time — one capable of entirely reimagining how powerful a poem can be. In the first place, this may be right, but only for the wrong reasons. Despite all the rhetoric about not being understood until the future, nothing could possibly be more a creature of antebellum America’s endemic mystical mania than Leaves of Grass. And in contradiction to the assertion heard so frequently today, Whitman did not invent a radically innovative poetic form. On the contrary, he made a shrewd gamble that the sort of oracular, sprawling lines that had made Martin Farquhar Tupper’s Proverbial Philosophy a perennial best-seller could offer him marketplace success.
Like a great swath of literate, thoughtful America, he had already found in Emerson the century’s most truly spectacular prose. In 1842, he first encountered The Sage of Concord’s Request for Proposals to Become America’s Great Poet in the form of a lecture on “The Poet” in Manhattan. Like most of Emerson’s and Whitman’s prose, the original speech — never printed in Emerson’s lifetime — gains its greatest power when the chaff is sifted away. In that spirit, here is what the bright-eyed young Whitman heard.
I have shown that the famous, thoroughly boorish review of this lecture in Whitman’s paper The Aurora was not penned by him, but the opportunistic Whig flack who ran the operation. I further showed how Walt Whitman, the editor, thereafter published a very penetrating essay in the same paper which explicitly linked the new Transcendentalism to old Quakerism and to the sexy theology of Perfectionism. Merely reading that essay, as long as he digested it, instantly made Walt Whitman an expert on Transcendentalism as early as 1842.Mitchell Santine Gould “Walt Whitman of the New York ‘Aurora:’ Editor, Transcendentalist, Quaker, Perfectionist” Quaker Theology Spring-Summer 2016, no 28.
Despite Walt’s repeated, vehement old-age denials — issued purely to protect the frail Emerson from the rabid hate being directed at Whitman — one of the things we can be certain about is that Whitman was simmering until Emerson made him boil over. The majestic words summarized here were sufficient to ignite the simmering, but two years later, Emerson quite drastically revised this treatment of “The Poet” for his book Essays, turning up the notch on its spiritual flame. The finished essay — the most beautiful essay ever published — dazzles with a blue-white radiance. Whitman would surely have read this more luminous incarnation in print (although many of the most interesting passages in the lecture were discarded). It’s inevitable that he returned to the essay in the early 1850s, and by that time, Walt’s psychic temperature was so high that with the last lick of Emerson’s fire, it flashed over in what a physicist would describe as a phase transition.
It’s no coincidence that this happened once he adopted and adapted Tupper’s formless poetic form. He discovered that he, too, could write truly spectacular, truly immortal prose, and need apply only the merest facade of poetry. This he implemented by simply breaking prose lines purely at random, with a sprinkling of commas. Contemporary critics could see this clearly, and often complained about it, but English professors, in lockstep, quote those complaints only to tacitly ridicule how stodgy, conventional, and rigid the times were, compared to the modern reverence for Whitman’s breathtaking lines. The hilarious kicker is: such is the case, despite the simple fact that scholars have documented many instances of pure prose in Whitman’s manuscript notebooks translated directly into poems.
Forget Dickinson. In reality, it is the parallel between Whitman’s gay Quakerism and Susan B Anthony’s lesbian Quakerism which is exact. En-Light-ened by the daring legacy of Elias Hicks, they both used the power of words, as well as the example of their own lives, for the cause of liberation. This is what Whitman meant when he spoke of “Our Cause.” In 1840, Whitman vowed,
I would compose a wonderful and ponderous book [about] the nature and peculiarities of men, the diversity of their characters, the means of improving their state… I would carefully avoid saying any thing of woman [because I have] not been able to gather any knowledge, either by experience or observation... Yes: I would write a book! And who shall say that it might not be a very pretty book! Who knows but that I might do something very respectable? ...Light has flowed in upon me… [Walter Whitman] “Sun-Down Papers” Long-Island Democrat 29 September 1840, 3. [Emphasis mine.]
Secretly, elsewhere, he confessed: My final aim / To concentrate around me the leaders of all reforms — transcendentalist, spiritualists, free soilers.Walt Whitman Notebooks and Unpublished Prose Manuscripts, volume 1, Edward F Grier, editor (New York : New York University Press, 1984), 147.
As Matt Miller has shown, in one of the most thrilling Whitman studies I’ve ever read, in the early 1850s — when Whitman was still positively on fire to finally speak his mind — he helplessly cast about for the right genre before finally hitting upon Tupperian poetry:
The discovery of his line and its compositional flexibility must have been an extraordinary moment for Whitman. Suddenly the many years he spent with his journals writing about astronomy, religion, and linguistics, about the sights of New York, the natural world, and his ecstatic response to opera—suddenly all this was no longer idle jotting or mere diary fodder. Matt Miller Collage of Myself: Walt Whitman and the Making of Leaves of Grass (Lincoln: University of Nebraska, 2010), 35.
To cut to the chase: I have alluded to the lack of historical perspective in Whitman biography. There has not yet been any book which adequately situates the Leaves-of-Grass-era Whitman at the heart of New York’s economic miracle: the spectacular antebellum growth of its dominance as America’s premiere seaport. What we are instead shown is either a professional scribbler existing exclusively in the abstract world of journalists, poets, and memoirists, or a melodramatic, albeit heroic, Civil War nurse.
One clear example of all this difficulty is the fuss made over Whitman’s participation in the literary clique of Pffaf’s saloon — an irresistable magnet for professors of literature, but merely a transient epiphenomenon years after the Big Bang of the Leaves. Pffaf’s, of course, clearly did not inspire Leaves of Grass. The rough, rural sailor bars on the shores of Long Island, as described in his early short story “The Child’s Champion,” and the rough, urban taverns of Manhattan, such as Tammany Hall’s Pewter Mug, were infinitely more important. Putting so much focus on Pfaff’s, or the aberration of Whitman’s short sojourn in New Orleans, represents the recurrent problem of Whitman Studies: it is the old problem of the drunk who only looks for his keys under the streetlight, because that’s where he can see.
To summarize, long before Walt Whitman richly earned notoriety for audacious, freewheeling, forbidden sexuality, the sailors who fundamentally made New York what it is today richly earned notoriety for audacious, freewheeling, forbidden sexuality. When he announced his elevation to the august post of spokesbard for long dumb voices... voices veiled, there were several classes of society Walt had in mind — but sailors were pre-eminent among them. Then falter not, O book! fulfil your destiny! Consort to every ship that sails — sail you! Bear forth to them, folded, my love — Dear mariners! for you I fold it here, in every leaf...
From his park bench in the Battery, he could marvel as each wealth-bearing ship paused to rendezvous with its own pilot boat. No responsible captain trusted himself to know the channel well enough to dock his own vessel. Everywhere Walt Whitman went it seemed that gay men, like a ship puzzled at sea, conned for the “true reckoning.” He convinced himself that he could become that pilot. Here, sailor! he cried out, take aboard the most perfect pilot!