Saturday, December 22, 2012

Whitman: the "grandfather of literary Booklyn": an excerpt from the book by Evan Hughes

(Bellemeade Books is running a series of gift suggestions from this year's posts.)

Evan Hughes' new book Literary Brooklyn: The Writers of Brooklyn and the Story of American City Life surveys the writers' landscape of the borough, home at times over the years to authors as varied as Hart Crane, Richard Wright, Thomas Wolfe, and Henry Miller. Walt Whitman wrote for the Brooklyn Daily Eagle during his years there before the Civil War and was uncertain of the future for the American experiment. Here is an excerpt from Hughes' chapter "The Grandfather of Literary Brooklyn":
... Around him Whitman increasingly saw corruption and “a general laxity of morals” that “pervades all classes.” His empathy for the masses was being stretched to the limit by the increasingly chaotic nature of urban life. The political battles in the metropolitan area were fierce enough to explode into physical violence, as they did in Manhattan in 1857 when the Dead Rabbits, a gang allied with the Democratic Party, clashed with the nativist Bowery Boys, leaving eight dead and thirty wounded.

Later that year, Whitman would write, “Mobs and murderers appear to rule the hour.” Whitman sought, in Leaves of Grass, to channel all voices, to encompass all things — “I am large, I contain multitudes” — and thus, as biographer David Reynolds has suggested, to apply a kind of unity and a healing balm to the republic. If Whitman could say, “I am all people,” implicit was that we were all one people. It was a belief and hope that would be put to the most severe test within a decade of the first Leaves of Grass.

The social ills of the city echoed a looming national crisis. In the late 1850s, Whitman, in a gloomy period, wrote the elegiac poems “Out of the Cradle Endlessly Rocking” and “As I Ebb’d with the Ocean of Life,” both of which he added to the 1860 edition of Leaves. In that year, Whitman, ever a self-appointed “seer” and often a very good one, also wrote this line in a poem called “Year of Meteors (1859–60)”: “O year all mottled with evil and good — year of forebodings!” New York was divided over slavery and over Abraham Lincoln, but when the Civil War finally broke out, many Brooklynites, New Yorkers, and northerners generally, including Whitman, welcomed what they saw as a coming cleansing of the nation.

At the outset, Whitman watched exultant, blue-clad troops marching through Brooklyn, near where he and his family now lived, on Portland Avenue. The men had ropes tied to their muskets, in his words, “with which to bring back each man a prisoner from the audacious South, to be led in a noose, on our men’s early and triumphant return!” Walt’s brother George went off to war at once.

In 1863, writing for the Brooklyn Daily Eagle, his old paper, Walt wrote an article about George’s regiment called “Our Brooklyn Boys in the War.” Full of local pride, it said that in fourteen months the regiment had been in seven pitched battles, “some of them as important as any in American history.” Vague word of George’s injury at Fredericksburg in 1863 drew Walt to the front to find him. The wound was minor, but the sight of the war dead left a strong impression.

Soon after, Whitman moved to Washington and, while serving in government jobs, tended to the wounded as a hospital volunteer. Although he envisioned a short stay, he would remain in Washington for ten years. Over the course of the war, Whitman, who had been opposed to Lincoln’s candidacy in the Illinois Senate race of 1858, emerged as a devout convert. Lincoln became his political hero and probably his utmost hero of all. Whitman felt that Lincoln supplanted George Washington as the true democratic father of the country.

Whitman in 1848

Whitman rejoiced at the rise of a man who embodied, he felt, “the commonest average of life—a rail splitter and a flat-boatsman!” Whitman devoted four poems to the president and called him “the greatest, best, most characteristic, artistic, moral personality” in American life. Whitman’s two most famous Lincoln poems are the celebratory “O Captain! My Captain!” and the grave “When Lilacs Last in the Dooryard Bloom’d,” both published after the president’s death, and added to late editions of Leaves of Grass.

Each is bold and emotionally raw, perhaps too much so, moving away from the incantatory hymns of his earlier verses into a tone of exaltation and almost rapturous grief — “But O heart! heart! heart! / O the bleeding drops of red.” David Reynolds has suggested that Whitman saw not only something of himself in Lincoln but something of the healing “I” that Whitman created in Leaves of Grass, a man who absorbed all and brought union.

What Whitman also found captivating was that Lincoln was “essentially non-conventional,” that he embodied the American spirit by taking unpopular positions. He didn’t care if he was the underdog. Often he liked it.

And so, too, did Whitman. After his time in Washington, during which he visited Brooklyn only for short periods, Whitman moved to Camden, New Jersey, where his brother George had settled, taking a room in his house. Now distant both physically and temporally from his farmhouse roots and his father’s working-class struggles in Brooklyn, Whitman became in a certain sense more conservative, as some do in old age.

At times he granted that the raffish youth pictured in the lithograph from Leaves of Grass — a thirtysomething firebrand who wrote, “I sound my barbaric yawp over the roofs of the world” — was no longer the same man. As his work slowly gained some acceptance and acclaim, he enjoyed the fruits of his work, giving speeches, granting audiences, and generally curating his legacy.

Back home in Brooklyn, the workings of the American republic, though often crooked and halting, were bringing more and more newcomers and an ever-greater frenzy of activity. A bridge was being built, not only a grand bridge across the East River but a bridge to modernity. The Brooklyn Whitman knew as a child was long gone, and the Brooklyn of his pre–Civil War adulthood was fading from memory, too. Yet the democratic spirit Whitman had given voice to and the urge to capture the whole of America would echo down through the decades, continuing to breathe life into the place and its literary tradition.
More about Whitman's life in Brooklyn and the era's architecture and history is at the Whitman's Brooklyn site, curated by Russell Granger. Literary Brooklyn is published by Henry Holt & Co.

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