Commentary

Selected Criticism

Commentary

Alan Helms & Hershel Parker


Following is an exchange between Alan Helms of the University of Massachusetts, Boston, and Hershel Parker of the University of Delaware, occasioned by Parker's article "The Real 'Live Oak, with Moss': Straight Talk about Whitman's 'Gay Manifesto,"' which appeared in the September 1996 issue of Nineteenth-Century Literature (51:2), 145–60.

Professor Helms writes:

A year ago in this journal, Hershel Parker attacked me because of a sequence of twelve Whitman poems called "Live Oak with Moss," which I had published in The Continuing Presence of Walt Whitman, a collection of essays edited by Robert Martin and published by the University of Iowa Press on the centennial of Whitman's death in 1992. My version of "Live Oak" differs from Parker's version in the Fourth Edition of The Norton Anthology of American Literature (1994), and Parker disapproves of my version, my title, and my interpretation. But before I respond, a brief history is in order for those who missed Parker's essay.

Sometime around 1858 or '59, Whitman copied out in a little notebook a sequence of twelve poems ("Live Oak with Moss" or "Live Oak, with Moss") that narrate the story of a love affair with another man—the most frank treatment of male homosexuality in all of his work. He never published the original sequence nor as best we know ever mentioned it, but he revised the poems slightly and included them among the forty-five poems of the 1860 "Calamus," where they appeared reordered and dispersed, their narrative erased. Fredson Bowers discovered the sequence in the early 1950s while working with the Valentine Collection of Whitman manuscripts now at the University of Virginia. Bowers published his amazing find in 1953 in Studies in Bibliography, and again in slightly altered form in Whitman's Manuscripts: "Leaves of Grass" (1860) (1955). Although it's inconceivable that a newly discovered sequence by Wordsworth or Dickinson or Yeats would have received anything but clamorous attention the Whitman sequence was largely ignored until I published my version and then Parker published his, which brings us to the present.

Parker is wrong to say that "The first full attempt to read 'Live Oak, with Moss' was Helms's essay in . . . The Continuing Presence of Walt Whitman." My essay first appeared in American Poetry Review months before The Continuing Presence came out, and with an introductory paragraph that Iowa Press asked me to write but that they didn't publish. Had Parker been aware of the APR essay he would have seen that some of his complaints are groundless. In any case, it's the later essay with my version of "Live Oak" that Parker rails against.

Parker has published the holograph versions from Whitman's notebook whereas I've published the poems as they first appeared in print. Parker is right in saying that I neglected to defend my choice, clearly a flaw in my essay. I chose not to publish the holograph versions because Whitman saw fit to revise the poems before publishing them in "Calamus." My best guess is that Whitman was concerned with improving the poems, not with revising them in light of their new positions in the narratively incoherent "Calamus." In any case, revise them he did, so I presented them in the form Whitman himself gave them for publication. Since we'll never know Whitman's preference in the matter, it comes down to a matter of critical interpretation and editorial judgment. Parker is wholly mistaken in claiming that his version is the "Real" one and mine is by implication somehow false. The fact of the matter is that at present there are two versions of "Live Oak."

There are also two titles for the sequence: Parker's "Live Oak, with Moss" and my "Live Oak with Moss." Parker is furious about what he repeatedly calls my "no-comma 'Live Oak with Moss,'" "the no-comma text," and "'Live Oak with Moss' (without the comma)," but I chose the title on the authority of Fredson Bowers, who in Whitman's Manuscripts says, "It is significant in the extreme that the early heading for the series was 'Live Oak with Moss'" (p. lxvii). Gay Wilson Allen, the dean of Whitman biographers, uses both titles, writing in The Solitary Singer (1967) of "'Live Oak, with Moss'" (p. 222) and in The New Walt Whitman Handbook (1975) of "a group of poems which Whitman at first called 'Live Oak with Moss"' (p. 89). In other words, there's genuine confusion about the title, so Parker could have performed a service by acknowledging the fact and making a case for his title instead of claiming mine is eccentric and mistaken.

It's difficult to understand Parker's agitation over my version of the poems since he agrees that they were "altered . . . by minor revision." Yet in his attempt to explain the gulf between our interpretations, he says that he and I "are describing journeys over radically different terrain." So through some critical sleight-of-hand, "minor revision" results in "radically different terrain." But that's simply not so: our differences come from Parker's willful misreading of the sequence, a nice example of ignoring evidence that doesn't suit your interpretation. Basically, "Live Oak" narrates the poet's infatuation with another man, his being abandoned by his lover, his attendant shame and remorse, and his consequent transformation from a lover to a teacher of young men with desires like his own. Parker finds this unhappy sequence "confident," "ebullient," "liberating," and "ultimately triumphant"—a woefully misleading view, but that's another matter. In transforming "minor revision" into "radically different terrain," Parker's manipulation of language is of a piece with his title: "The Real 'Live Oak, with Moss': Straight Talk about Whitman's 'Gay Manifesto.'" Since I'm clearly a gay critic and Robert Martin (whom Parker castigates for approving my version) is one of the best known gay critics of American literature, the phrase "Straight Talk" is obviously working overtime—as if I've done harm as a gay critic that the "Straight" Parker is rectifying. Moreover, "Gay" is an anachronistic word for Whitman and his writing, and one might reasonably wonder how a sequence Whitman never published and as best we know never acknowledged can possibly be considered the "Manifesto" of Parker's title, or again, "a brave sexual manifesto." What would an unpublished manifesto be, and how can Whitman's suppression possibly be conceived as "brave"?

Parker's concluding imputation that my interpretation could harm gay teenagers is the most underhanded piece of slander I've ever read in an academic journal, and I'm amazed it found its way into print. And his alarm at this remote possibility is grossly exaggerated, considering that The Norton Anthology of American Literature has rather more readers than The Continuing Presence of Walt Whitman. Besides, since when is possible harm to readers a criterion of acceptable interpretation? I'm sure Parker has never entertained such a consideration in anything he's ever written.

But Parker is a slippery fish, as anyone familiar with the new first volume of his two-volume biography of Melville can attest—an exhaustive, exhausting book in which conjecture repeatedly turns into "fact" without so much as a nod to evidence of any kind. In a recent review of that book in The New York Review (15 May 1997) Andrew Delbanco takes Parker to task for this misleading habit, and he characterizes Parker's early chapters as "written with a striking combination of pity and contempt." In an article on Melville scholarship in The New York Times Magazine (15 December 1996) Philip Weiss says that Parker, who's nothing if not proprietary, "can be withering about other's views," and he quotes a Melville scholar who says about Parker, "I think he's a very angry man." It can't be a pleasant fate to be so constantly angry, but it should be possible in the name of scholarship to keep one's ire to oneself'. For years I've heard people say that academics descend to the nasty and vicious because "the stakes are so small," but I never fully understood the point until I read Parker's article. He will be responding to this letter in the same issue, but for anyone interested in discerning the merits of our different versions and interpretations of' "Live Oak with Moss," they're now in print. Regardless of what Parker or I have to say about the matter, readers can decide for themselves.

Professor Parker replies:

The only authorial text of the twelve-poem sequence "Live Oak, with Moss" is the one Fredson Bowers discovered—the one Whitman wrote out neatly, heading the poems with consecutive roman numerals. The no-comma "Live Oak with Moss" published by Alan Helms in The Continuing Presence of Walt Whitman is not the sequence Whitman wrote; instead, it consists of the poems of that sequence as they stood, reordered and revised, in the 1860 "Calamus." Helms's choice of the "Calamus" texts may be an extrapolation from the "Rationale of Copy-Text" articulated by W. W. Greg, in which the editor adopts as copy-text the text last revised by the author, but Greg's theory of final authorial intention does not apply to poems that have been taken apart from a sequence and then shuffled, in revised form, among other poems, including many new ones.

I reaffirm my conclusion in the September 1996 Nineteenth-Century Literature: Whitman matters too much to let a spurious text drive out the real "Live Oak, with Moss," particularly a nonauthorial text that (judging from Helms's essay and his new defense of it) asks to be read as a document dealing with "homophobic oppression." It would, as I said, be tragic "if even one young person" coming to terms with his or her homosexuality encountered Alan Helms's text, "Live Oak with Moss," instead of Whitman's real text.

Granted, in my enthusiasm over the strength and coherence of the sequence I too hastily described "Live Oak, with Moss" as a "gay manifesto," but I would defend it as a manifesto of tolerance and understanding in a culture that (as Helms's new statement makes clear) still very much needs it. We strengthen ourselves by acknowledging that the fact that Whitman wrote "Live Oak, with Moss" can prove liberating to readers today, even though he did not publish it.

Granted, Fredson Bowers and other critics before Helms carelessly used the title "Live Oak with Moss" (without the comma). However, they applied it to Whitman's real poetic sequence, not to twelve poems altered for the 1860 "Calamus." Only Helms has ever attached the no-comma title to something other than Whitman's real "Live Oak, with Moss."

Granted, Helms is right in saying that more people will see a classroom anthology than will read his text in The Continuing Presence; certainly there should be more readers of NAAL than of American Poetry Review, where Helms also printed his text, as "Live Oak With Moss" (no comma, the first letter of "With" capitalized). But Helms is wrong to minimize the impact of The Continuing Presence, self-described, and accurately so as "the most aggressive gathering of essays" on topics related to Whitman's homosexuality. Many teachers (among them many critics who publish on Whitman) as a matter of convenience as well as academic responsibility will consult this momentous collection rather than a classroom anthology, and they will have no way of knowing that the text printed there is not Whitman's "Live Oak, with Moss." My article was called for precisely because Helms's essay (as printed in The Continuing Presence) would wield enormous influence and because important critics such as Robert K. Martin and Gary Lee Stonum had already endorsed it before I wrote (both of them under the false impression that Helms was talking about Whitman's "original 12-poem sequence," as Stonum wrote).

Helms's initial paragraph in American Poetry Review does not alter his argument in The Continuing Presence. Indeed, that paragraph promises that he will "explore a little known sequence of love poems that Whitman wrote in the late 1850s and then suppressed," while in fact what Helms explores are twelve poems taken out of the 1860 "Calamus." Helms's confusion is basic, and, as I said in NCL, there "is nothing merely 'academic' about the distinction between a correct text and an incorrect text of this Whitman sequence." Helms himself, in 1992 as well as in his new statement, pays a high price for reading a spurious text. In 1996 1 sympathized: "'What a sad journey the sequence takes us on' (p. 191), he lamented after exposing what he found—a 'narrative of homophobic oppression' (p. 190)." Helms was right, I emphasized, about the miserable confusion he identified in the first poem of his text; my good news was that in Whitman's real text there was no confusion at all. (Whether or not there is confusion in the poem in "Calamus" is a separate question.) By devoting an attentive reading to a spurious text, Helms was suffering needlessly. Still, my reason for exposing Helms's erroneous text was not primarily that it can have baneful effects on any reader, as it did on Helms, but simply that it is not Whitman's "Live Oak, with Moss."

Whitman never wrote Helms's "Live Oak with Moss" (or the title in American Poetry Review, "Live Oak With Moss") as a sequence, and we should forget the text in The Continuing Presence (and American Poetry Review) and get on with real work. Helms himself points the way by saying that the 1860 "Calamus" is "narratively incoherent." Whitman scholars need to rethink Bowers's efforts to date the dozens of poems written between the 1856 and 1860 editions of Leaves of Grass. Attention needs to be focused on the imperfection of Whitman's efforts to revise the "Live Oak" poems and place them in the 1860 "Calamus" cluster. Attention needs to be focused on his subsequent efforts to revise all of "Calamus" as a sequence, quite apart from the original twelve-poem sequence. In "'Live Oak, with Moss' and 'Calamus': Textual Inhibitions in Whitman Criticism," Walt Whitman Quarterly Review, 14 (Spring 1997), 153–65, Steven Olsen-Smith and I further the liberation of criticism on "Calamus" by identifying and scrutinizing some still-closeted assumptions. There is exciting work to do. Saying so sounds strange even to my own ears, but study of "Live Oak, with Moss" and of the origins and revisions of "Calamus" (and "Children of Adam") has hardly begun.


Publication Information
Reproduced, by permission, from Nineteenth-Century Literature 52 (December 1997), pp. 413-16.


Whitman Archive ID
anc.00152


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