Books

Was Walt Whitman Christ?

"Just as the gospels and Pauline writings were the Bible of Christianity in the past, so 'Leaves of Grass' would be the Bible of Cosmic civilization in the future"

by

Whitmaniacs at Large

April 1982

The big embarrassment of Walt Whit­man’s later years was not his poverty (groups of writers in England and America had to take up a collection) but the cult that arose around him. Ardent followers celebrated him as Messiah, Christ, maybe a god. Some of these followers were individuals of genuine distinction, not exactly in the first rank of intellectual life, but not without talent either. William D. O’Connor, who wrote the pro­-Whitman tract, The Good Gray Poet, was a formidable polemicist. More formidable yet was the poet’s doctor, R.M. Bucke, an ac­complished figure by anyone’s lights. Dr. Bucke was a leading Canadian psychiatrist, superintendent of a lunatic asylum in On­tario, and president of various psycho-medi­cal societies. He was also a man of worldly experience. Five years of his youth were spent in the American West, prospecting and driving a wagon train. He fought Indians, almost discovered the Comstock Lode, lost one foot and part of the other to frostbite.

And yet as a result of two strange ex­periences that he associated with Whitman, Bucke subscribed wholeheartedly to the cult. The first experience occurred during a visit to London. While riding a hansom after reading Whitman and other poets, Bucke was suddenly enveloped in a flame-colored cloud, which he thought was a fire in the city, but then realized was an inner illumination. A drop of “Brahmic Bliss” fell on his heart. The second experience came when he presented himself to Whitman in the flesh. A few minutes of chat, and Bucke ascended into a “spiritual intoxication” that lasted six weeks. Un­der these circumstances it was natural that he would wonder about Whitman’s more than human powers and qualities and begin referring to him as “the Christ.”

Dr. Bucke’s great achievement was to come up with a scientific theory to explain Whit­man’s messianic role. You can see this theory in his biography of Whitman (1833), his let­ters, and his tract Cosmic Consciousness, which is regarded as a classic in certain circles and is still in print (Dutton, $6.25 paper). Eons ago, the theory went, mankind made a dramatic evolutionary leap from animal con­sciousness to human consciousness. Now the human race was about to make its next great leap, from ordinary human consciousness to Cosmic Consciousness, which means full awareness of eternity and the universe. Dur­ing the last couple of thousand years, a hand­ful of superior individuals anticipated this evolutionary development. These individuals, who stand in relation to ordinary people as humans do to dogs and cats, included Buddha, Jesus, and Muhammed. Also Balzac. Greatest of all was Whitman, the harbinger of evolution’s next step, who of­fered in his own person the fullest picture of what the future of the race would be like. That future was on its way and would take hold initially in the United States. Wealth and poverty would be abolished, and demo­cratic socialism would reign. Whitman, who had absorbed the entire human race, would in turn be absorbed back by every individual who attained the higher spiritual level. Bucke wrote in the biography that, just as the gospels and Pauline writings were the Bible of Christianity in the past, so Leaves of Grass would be the Bible of Cosmic civilization in the future. This, however, was a disputed point. In his later tract Bucke said that Cos­mic Consciousness would have no Bible.

All in all, it was an excellent theory, and commendable particularly for its optimism. “The immediate future of our race,” Bucke wrote, “is indescribably hopeful.” What was not indescribably hopeful, indeed was hope­lessly bleak, was the future of Walt Whitman so long as his reputation rested in the hands of Dr. Bucke and the other cultists.

Bliss Perry, the eminent editor of the At­lantic Monthly, addressed this situation with a biography of Whitman in 1906. (Perry’s book, not Bucke’s, has been reprinted by Chelsea House.) Dr. Bucke was mildly cracked, Perry implied. Whitman was a mere human — a very talented human, even a ge­nius, but a mere human nonetheless, and with too many objectionable flaws. Perry’s account of these flaws reflects the literary sensibility of turn-of-the-century Boston, which readers may find irksome and prissy. But one can salute him for the role he played in the history of Whitman criticism. He was the great de-Bucker and he brought the age of cultism to an end. So far as Whitman’s literary reputation was concerned, the dra­matic evolutionary leap was right here. Whit­man could be celebrated as a mere poet, not a messiah.

Only the problem with Perry is that Bucke­-ism won’t entirely go away, no matter how much you want it to. It’s not just that in his old age Whitman tolerated the cult and se­cretly collaborated with Bucke on the 1883 biography (all the while protesting against Bucke’s overenthusiasm). The messianic urge had been with him all along, ever since his emergence as a poet in the 1850s. Messianism exuded from the deepest struc­tures of his thought, indeed something very much like it exuded from his person, and Bucke was not the only one to make the observation. “You can’t confound him with the other inhabitants of Brooklyn or New York,” Thoreau reported after a visit to Whitman. “He occasionally suggests some­thing a little more than human.” Exactly.

Something a little more than human exudes even from Whitman’s occasional prose writings, at least the prose writings of the 1850s. You can see it in the reviews of his own book that he wrote and published anonymously in the press, where he described his whole purpose in life as “to stamp a new type of character, namely his own,” on American civilization. Or better still, look at his strange 1856 political manifesto, The Eighteenth Presidency!, which you can find by thumbing through back pages of the fat Library of America volume (thumbing through is your only chance: the Library of America edition is the most complete one-volume Whitman ever published, and a handsome book to boot, but has an almost useless table of contents, and no prose index at all). In this manifesto Whitman denounced the two political parties as a collection of pimps, malignants, VD suf­ferers, and body snatchers, along with murderers, kept editors, carriers of concealed weapons, and similar undesirables. And then unexpectedly the name “Walt Whitman” pops up as a possible alternative. You can’t confound this with other political manifestos.

Or turn to the front of the volume and read the celebrated Preface to the 1855 Leaves of Grass, where he called for an American “bard” or “seer” who will incarnate the nation, be more popular than the president, and be the universe’s greatest lover. The preface was written in a peculiar exalted prose that almost lifts off into poetry. In his own edition of this preface, the poet William Everson has abolished the almost by setting Whitman’s sentences into verse-a clever stroke which improves the readability. But I think the reason Whitman wrote in prose was to sug­gest a prose degree of literalness. He was being sober here, more or less. The preface was relatively restrained.

Where he let fly was in the poems that he intended as poems. Messianism was at the heart of the Leaves central character, “Walt Whitman, a kosmos,” who is the brother of Jesus, who sometimes becomes Being itself, and who promises to return in 5000 years. More especially it was part of the book’s technique and tone. I mean the King James­-style bombast and bluster, but also the half-­spectral, half-sensual intimacy that certain passages achieve — and the way one tone plays against the other. An example is “So Long!,” the last great poem in Leaves, which begins with bombastic Buckean prophecies: “I announce natural persons to arise,/I an­nounce justice triumphant,/I announce un­compromising liberty and equality,/I an­nounce the justification of candor and the justification of pride.” But then the big guns fall silent and he shifts to an infinitely more powerful tender intimacy:

My songs cease, I abandon them,
From behind the screen where I hid I advance personally solely to you.

Camerado, this is no book,
Who touches this touches a man,
(Is it night? are we here together alone?) It is I you hold and who holds you,
I spring from the pages into your arms — decease calls me forth.

The opposed tones correspond to the two elements of a messiah. On one hand a messiah must be a spiritual teacher who converts you to his doctrine by broadcasting what he has to say through sermons or poems. Those are the first lines, in which Whitman hurls his bombast. On the other hand a messiah must go beyond being a spiri­tual teacher. He must aim at redemption, and for this he needn’t broadcast at all. Instead he must establish an almost physical pres­ence, and let his message flow from him to you in direct communion, without any me­dium at all. As Whitman says in another poem, “I and mine do not convince by argu­ments, similes, rhymes,/We convince by our presence.” That is what he does in these second lines from ”So Long!” he establishes direct communion by springing into your arms, on the occasion of his death, in a vaguely sexual embrace.

Whitman does this so casually you may barely notice what he is about. The casual­ness is characteristic, and might lead you to think he is merely being chummy or touchy­feely. You might not think of sacraments at all. No matter: Read with an open heart and your hair will stand on end. Bliss Perry, confined by the mere-human conventions of secular criticism, cannot explain this. But a reader beginning with Dr. Bucke’s pre­posterous assumptions will realize that here is the more-than-human moment of redemp­tion. The messianic vocation is not just prom­ised, it is fulfilled, and Leaves of Grass is its fulfillment.

***

 

The authenticity of Whitman’s vocation accounts for why his admirers have always responded in extraordinary ways to him. He seems directly at hand, his lips pressed to yours in casual communion, and it would hardly feel right to experience this and not respond in some way. Dr. Bucke’s circle of Whitmaniacs (the term came from Perry) was one response, though not a very good one, and not fated to last. Better responses, liter­ary ones at any rate, were bound to emerge. Walt Whitman: The Measure of His Song, a remarkable anthology edited by Jim Perlman, Ed Folsom, and Dan Campion, is a record of precisely this. These editors show that from Swinburne to Dave Smith, scores of poets have responded to Whitman by talk­ing to him in their writings, as if in a con­versation across the ages. Some of this talk has been in essays, more of it in verse. Whit­man has been addressed directly in the sec­ond person, as when Hart Crane said, “My hand in yours, Walt Whitman”; and in the third person, as when Allen Ginsberg de­scribed him eyeing the supermarket boys. There have been so many invocations of Whitman by so many poets that one might say they constitute a modern genre. Call it the Walt-iad. Ed Folsom observes, “There’s nothing quite like it anywhere else in English or American poetry — a sustained tradition, a century old, of directly invoking or address­ing another poet. It has become a litany running through our poetry.” Not just ours, as the anthology shows, but poetry in Span­ish and Portuguese as well. The Walt-iad is an Anglo-Hispanic phenomenon.

Unsurprisingly, the Walt-iads have fol­lowed several of the major themes of the original Whitmaniacs — the celebration of Whitman as sexual liberator, for instance, which was a concern of O’Connor’s The Good Gray Poet as early as 1865, and later ap­peared in Bucke ‘s biography. Something of the same celebration can be seen in “Saluta­tion to Walt Whitman,” a 1915 poem in Portuguese by Fernando Pessoa, who struck a Ginsbergian level of sexual exuberance and humor: “Walt, my beloved old man, my great Comrade, I evoke you! … Open all the doors­ for me!/Because I have to go in!/My password? Walt Whitman!/But I don’t give any password … /I go, in without explaining … ” Or in a completely different fashion, the same response can be seen in the title poem of John Gill’s 1982 book, From the Diary of Peter Doyle (Alembic Press, $4.50). Peter Doyle was Whitman’s real-life companion for a number of years, and the poem is a fictional homosexual love letter, dry and restrained but still tender, to Whitman by Doyle.

The old Whitmaniac democratic and so­cialist themes survive in any number of Walt-­iads. Hart Crane celebrated Whitman for his democratic vision of America. Langston Hughes credited him with a definition of America that included everyone. June Jordan echoes Dos Passos (who is omitted from the anthology) by declaring, “I too am a descendant of Walt Whitman,” then further declares that Whitman is comparable to Mao Zedong and Ho Chi Minh, which is a dreadful thing to say. Another horrendous left-wing Walt-iad is by the Dominican poet Pedro Mir, whose idea is to convert Whitman’s individualist “Song of Myself” to a collec­tivist “Song of Ourselves.” On the other hand Thomas McGrath’s Walt-iad wittily places Whitman at a Marxist meeting. Kenneth Patchen in a poem and Meridel LeSueur in an essay place Whitman in the old American socialist tradition by remembering the Haldeman-Julius Little Blue Books editions of Whitman, published by the old Socialist Party. A Walt-iad by Neruda, a true son of Whitman, invokes him for a militant protest: “Because I love my country/I claim you, essential brother,/old Walt Whitman with your gray hands,/so that, with your special help/ line by line, we will tear out by the roots/and destroy this bloodthirsty President Nixon.”

What seems to have departed since Bucke’s day is a sense of Whitmanian op­timism. Not a single contributor to the anthology regards the future of mankind as “indescribably hopeful,” except possibly Henry Miller, who in a 1956 essay took the Buckean position that Whitman was a harbinger of a future golden age. A major theme of democratic Walt-iads is instead to contrast miserable present-day America to the fine democracy that existed in Whitman’s time. I’m not sure this Walt-iadic theme is fair to Whitman, since he never thought that Amer­ica in his own time was all that wonderful — ­on the contrary, he thought the country was ruled by pimps, malignants, VD sufferers, and body snatchers. Democracy was going to triumph in the future. Anyway, many Walt-­iads offer the contrast, beginning with a De­pression-era “Ode to Walt Whitman” by Ste­phen Vincent Benet, a dreary poet, who ex­plained to Whitman that things were not going well in these States. Dave Smith, in “With Walt Whitman at Fredericksburg,” dilates on nearly the same theme: “I want/to tell you how progress has not changed us much.” But traffic booming in the distance chants: “wrong, wrong, wrong, wrong.” End­less variations of this sort have been worked on the Open Road. In “A Supermarket in Cafifornia,” Ginsberg quietly contrasts the supermarket’s open corridors to the in­vigorating open road. Louis Simpson asks: “Where are you Walt?/The Open Road goes to open the road used leads car lot.” Ernest Kroll says: The “The open road leads only into space … The love of comrades is a hopeless case.”

Some poets look to Whitman for technical reasons, which is a decidedly unBuckean theme. William Carlos Williams cited Whitman for blazing the trail toward that dubious technical concept, the variable American foot. Robert Creeley and Robert Duncan praise the long line, and Galway Kinnell de­livers up the opinion that Whitman’s break with counted meter is the culmination to­ward which all prosody has been striving since the King James Bible. In a brilliant essay Muriel Rukeyser observed that Whit­man’s sensuality was a technical matter: “He remembered his body as other poets of his time remembered English verse.” By no means are all the selections in the anthology wild about him. Poets as different as Edwin Markham and Ezra Pound stressed their objections in verse, before agreeing to admire him. Pound wrote: “I make a pact with you, Walt Whitman — /I have detested you long enough.” Louis Simpson and Robert Bly have contributed essays expressing reserva­tons not so different from Bliss Perry’s complaints in 1906.

And yet nestled among these varied selections are a couple of contributions that do suggest the continuation of an almost religious current of Whitman worship. A single Chistological Walt-iad from 1901 by a minor British Whitmaniac stands for the old cult of Bucke’s day. From the new day Michael Kin­caid, in a shrewd essay, declares himself an adherent of Whitman’s poetic religion — care­fully keeping the quotation marks around “religion.” Patricia Hampl explains that she turned to Whitman for solace during the evil days of Vietnam and still reads him as gospel, or “good news.” This is different, less silly, than what the old Whitmaniacs had in mind, though I don’t doubt that a community o£ emotion stretches from them to more than a handful of contemporary writers.

In one respect the whole anthology can be seen as the continuation of a Whitmaniac custom. The Camden cultists used to repeat stories about Whitman’s amazing effect on certain individuals. Dr. Bucke’s flame-colored cloud and spiritual intoxication was one such story. Another, passed along by Justin. Kaplan in his biography, was the experience of a British Whitmaniac who paid a call in 1891 and underwent a palpable vision of his late mother. Walt Whitman: The Measure of His Song is in a sense a 400-page collection of stories like these, only told by poets, each to his own fancy. The old Whitmaniacs published a volume of birthday greetings to p their idol; here we have a volume of poetic greetings from our own day. What is striking is the continuity of love expressed in all this— gushing, reserved, off the wall, begrudging, levelheaded, scholarly, ecstatic, yet love nonetheless.

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