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Long before Walt Whitman was established in the canon of American poetry, feminists, socialists, spiritual seekers, and supporters of same-sex passion saw him as an enlightened figure who fulfilled their religious, political, and erotic yearnings. Worshipping Walt is the first book to examine the Whitman disciples—the fascinating, eclectic group of nineteenth-century men and women who regarded Walt Whitman not simply as a poet but as a religious prophet.
To his disciples Whitman was variously an ideal husband, radical lover, socialist icon, or bohemian saint. In this transatlantic group biography, Michael Robertson explores the highly charged connections between Whitman and his followers, including Canadian psychiatrist R. M. Bucke, American nature writer John Burroughs, British activist Edward Carpenter, and the notorious Oscar Wilde. Painting a colorful portrait of an era of intense religious, political, and sexual passions, Robertson sheds new light on why Whitman's work continues to appeal to so many.
|Publisher:||Princeton University Press|
|Product dimensions:||5.60(w) x 8.90(h) x 1.00(d)|
About the Author
Michael Robertson is professor of English at the College of New Jersey. He is the author of the award-winning Stephen Crane, Journalism, and the Making of Modern American Literature and the coeditor of Walt Whitman, Where the Future Becomes Present.
Read an Excerpt
Worshipping Walt The Whitman Disciples
By Michael Robertson Princeton University Press
Copyright © 2008 Princeton University Press
All right reserved.
Introduction Have you reckon'd a thousand acres much? have you reckon'd the earth much? Have you practis'd so long to learn to read? Have you felt so proud to get at the meaning of poems? Stop this day and night with me and you shall possess the origin of all poems.
When i was in my twenties and living in New York City, I quit my job teaching English at a private school and was, for a period, seriously underemployed. I taught part-time and worked as a freelance journalist, both of which paid miserably, and a lot of my interior life consisted of trying to decide what I wanted to be when I grew up. I probably spent as much time, though, trying to decide what I believed.
I grew up Presbyterian in Oklahoma, a religion and a place that took belief seriously. In my junior high school confirmation class a bunch of bright kids, loosely guided by a young minister, wrestled with Calvinist theology. Predestination, foreordination, infant damnation-we gnawed on the dense polysyllabics like puppies, though splinters kept catching in our throats: How can we be free to choose if God has foreknowledge of our choices? Doesn't salvation have anything to do with good works? By the time I left Oklahoma for college, I'd concluded that Calvinism was logically elegant but emotionallyrepellent, and I put religion behind me.
Until a few years later in New York when, professionally unmoored, I found myself with time on my hands and a desire for some sort of spiritual life. This was the late 1970s and I was living on the Upper West Side, fertile ground for a spiritual seeker. Within a few blocks of my apartment were a Zen temple, a Vedanta group, and a Society for Ethical Culture. I sampled them all. The theologies of Vedanta and Ethical Culture were appealing-both replaced the angry God and selective salvation of Calvinism with a democratic sense of equality and a conviction of the holiness of everyday life- but their services, with hymns and sermons and readings, seemed aimed at reproducing the forms of the conventional Protestantism I'd fled in Oklahoma. The meetings at the Zen temple were nothing like Oklahoma Presbyterianism, but I never felt completely comfortable in the temple's Japanese austerity.
I turned to books. Bookstores with extensive religion sections were strung along Broadway and Columbus Avenue, and I climbed the stairs to my fifth-floor walk-up with shopping bags full of titles by Alan Watts and Ram Dass, with translations of the Dhammapada and the Tao-te ching. Yet the book to which I kept returning was one I'd had since college, a paperback reprint of the first edition of Leaves of Grass. I'd bought the book for my freshman English course. At the time Walt Whitman's poetry was so far over my head that it might as well have been some sort of nineteenth-century dirigible. Still, it had made an impression, and, years later, searching for spiritual guidance, I turned to the dimly remembered volume.
The timing was perfect. A few years before, the poems in Leaves of Grass had meant nothing to me. Now they seemed as profound as the Eastern-tinged mysticism of Alan Watts, though much more powerful and vivid. I was helped along in my spiritually charged interpretation of Leaves of Grass by Malcolm Cowley's elegant introduction to my edition. Cowley wanted to replace the commonly accepted views of Whitman as American nationalist or political democrat with an image of him as a religious visionary and Leaves of Grass as a nineteenth-century Yankee equivalent of Indian spiritual classics like the Bhagavad Gita and the Upanishads. Cowley pointed to passages in Leaves of Grass that were virtually identical to reports of ecstatic mystical experiences in both Eastern and Western religious traditions:
Swiftly arose and spread around me the peace and joy and knowledge that pass all the art and argument of the earth; And I know that the hand of God is the elderhand of my own, And I know that the spirit of God is the eldest brother of my own, And that all the men ever born are also my brothers.... and the women my sisters and lovers.
He juxtaposed an excerpt from The Gospel of Sri Ramakrishna with a spiritually playful passage from "Song of Myself":
Why should I wish to see God better than this day? I see something of God each hour of the twenty-four, and each moment then, In the faces of men and women I see God, and in my own face in the glass; I find letters from God dropped in the street, and every one is signed by God's name, And I leave them where they are, for I know that others will punctually come forever and ever.
In college I'd studied Whitman in the context of American literary traditions, but now those traditions seemed less important than the book's urgent religious messages. "Folks expect of the poet [...] to indicate the path between reality and their souls," Whitman wrote in his preface to the first edition, and with Cowley's guidance I saw Leaves of Grass as a guide to a spiritualized apprehension of reality. "I swear I see now that every thing has an eternal soul!" Whitman wrote in one of the poems of the first edition. "The trees have, rooted in the ground.... the weeds of the sea have.... the animals. / I swear I think there is nothing but immortality!" Leaves of Grass proved more helpful than anything I'd yet come across as I attempted to construct a belief system that was more flexible and joyous than my childhood Presbyterianism, oriented not toward future salvation through supernatural agency but toward the beauty and immortality of the here and now.
At the time I wasn't conscious of how representative my spiritual quest was. As a baby boomer, born in the 1950s, I was one among hundreds of thousands of my contemporaries who spent the 1970s searching for enlightenment among a variety of religious traditions and writings. By the 1980s pop sociologists were already deriding the trend as spiritual shopping or cafeteria spirituality. However, recent work in religious studies has demonstrated that spiritual seeking didn't originate about the same time as the musical Hair, as the pop sociologists would have it, but instead has a long history in the United States.
The concept of spirituality (individualistic, mystical, pluralist) as distinct from religion (institutional, creedal, orthodox) arose in the 1830s with the flowering of Emersonian romanticism. Emerson resigned as pastor of Boston's Second Church before he was thirty; he spent the rest of his career preaching a highly individual spirituality that mixed German idealism, Asian religion, and nature mysticism. The transcendentalists surrounding Emerson were the nation's first spiritual seekers; their numbers swelled as the century progressed. The major churches were ill prepared to respond to the rapid advances in nineteenth-century science that undermined the biblical account of creation and to address the new scholarship that regarded the Bible not as a divinely inspired work but as a disparate collection of historical texts. Before the Civil War most spiritual seekers abandoned the church and turned for inspiration to some combination of Emersonian transcendentalism and non-Western religious writings and traditions. From the 1860s on, many turned as well to Walt Whitman's Leaves of Grass.
I first came across Whitman's nineteenth-century disciples through biographies of the poet that mentioned, briefly, some of the women and men who regarded him as a religious teacher, a prophet-even a messiah-rather than as a poet equivalent to Long-fellow or Tennyson. John Burroughs, for instance, who met Whit-man during the Civil War and began writing about him soon after, said that "Leaves of Grass is primarily a gospel and is only secondarily a poem." Burroughs scoffed at the notion of classing Whitman with "minstrels and edifiers"; he belonged among the "prophets and saviours." The disciples R. M. Bucke and Edward Carpenter published books that placed quotations from Leaves of Grass alongside passages from the New Testament, Buddhist scriptures, the Upanishads, the Bhagavad Gita, and the Tao-te ching.
In the twenty-first century, with aesthetic and political interpretations of literature dominant, moral interpretation-that is, reading literature as a guide to life-seems faintly embarrassing, and it is left to conservatives like William Bennett. Yet the disciples, all of whom came from the political and cultural left, insisted that Leaves of Grass should be interpreted in primarily moral and spiritual terms. "Whitman means a life as much as Christianity means a life," Bur-roughs said. Most people today encounter Whitman through individual poems printed in anthologies, a situation that would have appalled the disciples. They insisted on the "essential unity" of Leaves of Grass; the book had to be taken whole, not read as "merely a collection of pretty poems." Leaves of Grass offered "a religion to live by and to die by," in the words of Thomas Harned, a Camden attorney. "I can never think of Whitman as a mere literary man," he said. "He is a mighty spiritual force."
The disciples' reactions to Whitman and Leaves of Grass can seem extreme, a charge that bothered Whitman himself not at all. "Someone was here the other day and complained that the Doctor [Bucke] was extreme. I suppose he is extreme-the sun's extreme, too: and as for me, ain't I extreme?" Whitman said in conversation. Whitman himself insisted on the spiritual dimensions of Leaves of Grass: "When I commenced, years ago, elaborating the plan of my poems," he wrote in 1872, "one deep purpose underlay the others, and has underlain it and its execution ever since-and that has been the religious purpose." Critics have explained away Whitman's statement-at other times he emphasized other purposes; he became more religious as he got older-but it struck me that the disciples, who took Whitman at his word, might have been on to something. "No one will get at my verses who insists upon viewing them as a literary performance, or attempt at such performance, or as aiming mainly toward art or aestheticism," Whitman wrote, and the disciples concurred. Paul Zweig speaks of the puzzle that Whitman's work creates for his readers: "Do we respond to his poem as we might to a poem by a more conventional poet-Wordsworth, say, or Shelley-or as followers of an impassioned saint speaking radical new words?" The disciples chose the latter response.
Whitman's disciples were a large, diverse, loosely affiliated international group. "Dear Walt, my beloved master, my friend, my bard, my prophet and apostle," wrote one in an homage from Melbourne, Australia. Another, the French critic Léon Bazalgette, applauded the German writer Johannes Schlaf for translating a Whitman biography; the book, Bazalgette said, "will further the knowledge of the poet-prophet in Germany whom in a few centuries, humankind will place among their Gods." A comprehensive history of the Whitman disciples would include hundreds of figures across several continents. I've limited this study to nine of the principal disciples, all of whom were from North America and Great Britain and knew Whitman personally. Focusing on those who not only worshipped but actually encountered Walt offers the opportunity to study the interactions between Whitman and his disciples.
Most disciples, primed by their reading of Leaves of Grass, came to their first meeting with Whitman prepared to be overwhelmed. They were not disappointed. "Whitman's magnetic quality was peculiar," wrote one. "I never knew a person to meet him for the first time who did not come under its spell; most people going away in such a curious state of exaltation and excitement as to produce a partial wakefulness, the general feeling not wearing off for a fortnight." The magnetism likely was a result of the disciples' own receptiveness combined with the mature Whitman's personal qualities. Whitman was a late bloomer who did not publish his first book of poetry until he was thirty-six; he gained his first disciples when he was past forty. The late start gave him plenty of time to cultivate his image. Daguerreotypes of the young Walter Whitman reveal an urban dandy in a stylish black suit with a cravat and cane. By the 1860s, when the first disciples came onto the scene, he had perfected his mature style: long hair and full beard, wide-brimmed hat, opencollared shirt-working class with a bohemian flair. He worked on perfecting his manner also. In a notebook he outlined a sketch of a "superb calm character": "He grows, blooms, like some perfect tree or flower, in Nature, whether viewed by admiring eyes, or in some wild or wood, entirely unknown." That this superb, calm character was a goal rather than an achieved reality is demonstrated by the entry's placement in his notebook; it occurs just after a passage recording his extreme emotional turbulence surrounding his friendship with Peter Doyle, a young working-class man. Still, there is much evidence that, from his forties on, Whitman largely succeeded in projecting the image of benign wisdom that the disciples sought in a spiritual master. Bucke, the most fervent of the disciples, invited Whitman on a three-month visit to his home in Canada expressly to observe the poet for a biography he was writing. In the published book Bucke paid lavish tribute to Whitman's "personal magnetism" and concluded that he never experienced common human feelings of fretfulness, antipathy, anger, or fear. Whitman was a bit taken aback by the resulting portrait-"I am by no means that benevolent, equable, happy creature you portray," he wrote Bucke-but he let the encomium stand.
Whitman basked in his disciples' attention. Leaves of Grass never won a wide audience during his lifetime, and it produced only a modest income. In compensation, however, it brought him ardent followers. He welcomed the adoring young men who gathered round him, from William O'Connor and John Burroughs during the Civil War years to Oscar Wilde, who made two pilgrimages to Camden in the early 1880s, and Horace Traubel, a Camden bank clerk who served as a volunteer literary assistant during the last years of Whitman's life while, on the side, keeping a voluminous record of their daily conversations. Whitman was made uneasy at times by the more effusive demonstrations of devotion-"You all overrate me too much, immensely too much," he wrote to a group of disciples in Lancashire, England, who raised the money to send one member, J. W. Wallace, on a trans-Atlantic pilgrimage-yet at the same time Whitman was flattered by the attention.
One English disciple, John Addington Symonds, figures prominently in this book even though he never met Whitman in person. Stretching my criteria to include this purely epistolary relationship allows me to examine the reception of Leaves of Grass among a set of British male intellectuals who revered Whitman both for his religious message and for his poems about love between men. Symonds began corresponding with Whitman in the early 1870s, decades before the word homosexual entered the English language. Immersed in a moralistic culture that condemned his desires as sodomitical and perverse, Symonds seized on Whitman's "Calamus" poems, which portray intimate male friendships as pure and ennobling. During a twenty-year period Symonds wrote Whitman a series of devotional, cagey, inquisitive letters attempting to pin down the meaning of "Calamus."
Excerpted from Worshipping Walt by Michael Robertson
Copyright © 2008 by Princeton University Press. Excerpted by permission.
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Table of Contents
Walt Whitman and His Principal Disciples xi
Chapter One: William O'Connor and John Burroughs: Reading Whitman's New Bible 14
Chapter Two: Anne Gilchrist: Infatuation and Discipleship 51
Chapter Three: R. M. Bucke: Whitman and Cosmic Consciousness 97
Chapter Four: John Addington Symonds, Edward Carpenter, Oscar Wilde: Whitman and Same-Sex Passion 139
Chapter Five: J. W. Wallace and the Eagle Street College: "Blazing More Fervidly Than Any" 198
Chapter Six: Horace Traubel and the Walt Whitman Fellowship: The Gospel according to Horace 232
What People are Saying About This
Whitman's nineteenth-century worshippers have long hovered in biographies of the poet like so many ghosts, always there but barely visible. In this well-researched book, Michael Robertson brings them passionately alive. The would-be lovers (male and female), the mystics, social reformers, starry-eyed teenagers, and jaded truthseekersall attracted by Whitman's rapturous poetry and personal magnetismcome sharply into focus in Robertson's book, which makes an important contribution to our understanding of the poet's world.
David S. Reynolds, author of "Walt Whitman's America"
Worshipping Walt is an important book. It clarifies the development of Whitman's reputation, highlights the nature of his key friendships, and illuminates his ongoing significance as a spiritual force.
Kenneth M. Price, author of "To Walt Whitman, America"
'I stop somewhere waiting for you,' Whitman says in the last line of 'Song of Myself.' Michael Robertson gives us the stories of readers who, in Whitman's own lifetime, took him at his word. This informative and highly readable book is a window onto the world of Whitman's early readers. It teaches us how devoted they were to him, and how they read his poetry in a religious idiom, as a new kind of devotion. Illuminating and personal, it gives us Whitman anew through the eyes of these disciples who knew him.
Michael Warner, Yale University
That Whitman imagined himself to be at heart a religious visionary is as clear as day, but this spiritual striving has been repeatedly obscured in his literary canonization. The concealment of religion has been even more pronounced through the neglect of Whitman's most devoted admirers. Michael Robertson's Worshipping Walt brilliantly recovers the religious world that Whitman generated through Leaves of Grass and beautifully unveils the "Whitmanites" in all their social, erotic, and creative complexity.
Leigh E. Schmidt, author of "Restless Souls: The Making of American Spirituality"
An illuminating look at some of the people who knew Whitman and saw him as a new spiritual leader, Worshipping Walt is an outstanding bookclear, beautifully written, insightful, and informative.
Ed Folsom, editor of the "Walt Whitman Quarterly Review"
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