Select Page

whitman_nov_boughs_front.jpg

The subject of my lecture this morning in our Writing New York class is “Walt Whitman: High and Low.” I’ll try to tell two intersecting stories about Whitman and U.S. literary history. The first is the “high” story about his engagement with New England Transcendentalism and, particularly, the thought of Ralph Waldo Emerson. The “low” story concerns Whitman the man of Brooklyn and New York, who works for the penny press, draws on sensationalist writing, and is inspired rather than revulsed by the influx of immigrants into the city. Along the way, I’ll give a quick tour of poetic forms, from Barlow to Bryant, to try to get across just why Whitman’s poetry looked so different to his contemporaries that some of them (most famously Whittier) refused to think of it as poetry.

The lecture makes use of clips from Ric Burns’s film New York: A Documentary History, which does a marvelous job of offering both insightful commentary (including choice words from Allen Ginsberg) and wonderful period images.

We read Whitman’s poetry in the light of Tom Bender’s essay “New York as a Center of Difference,” presenting Whitman as a cosmopolitan thinker who embraces difference in a variety of different forms. Near the close of the lecture, we’ll listen to what is thought to be the one recording of Whitman reciting that survives, a 36-second wax cylinder recording of the poem “America,” published in the New York Herald in 1888:

Centre of equal daughters, equal sons
All, all alike endear’d, grown, ungrown, young or old,
Strong, ample, fair, enduring, capable, rich,
Perennial with the Earth, with Freedom, Law and Love, 

[The last two lines, not in this recording, are: 
A grand, sane, towering, seated Mother,
Chair’d in the adamant of Time.]

You can listen to the recording here at whitmanarchive.org.

And we’ll close by thinking of Whitman as a realist, an inspiration to the painter Thomas Eakins. This gives me an excuse to talk about the French Realist painter Gustave Courbet (that’s “Realist” with a capital R) and to show his painting The Origin of the World (1866), currently on view at the Musee d’Orsay in Paris:

courbet_origin.jpg
I’ll suggest that Courbet’s painting is analogous to Whitman’s poetry in terms of its shock value, using Le Printemps, painted by the “academic” artist William-Adolphe Bouguereau in the same year as Origin to offer a contrast:

bougereau_printemps.jpg
This, by the way, is probably the painting that Edith Wharton was thinking of in The Age of Innocence, when she described the scandalous painting by Bougereau that Julius Beaufort has the “audacity” to hang in plain sight for his guests to see. But I’m getting ahead of myself …

[The photograph of Whitman above was taken in 1888 or so and served as the frontispiece for November Boughs. It and other images can be found at the whitmanarchive.org.]