Commentary

Selected Criticism

Title:
Gide, André (1869–1951)
Author:
Asselineau, Roger
Print source:
J.R. LeMaster and Donald D. Kummings, eds., Walt Whitman: An Encyclopedia (New York: Garland Publishing, 1998), reproduced by permission.

André Gide was introduced to Leaves of Grass by his friend, the poet and critic Marcel Schwob, as early as 1893. He was above all interested in Whitman's homosexuality, for it corresponded to his own, which he justified and more and more loudly defended as normal in Corydon (1911–1924), invoking the example of Whitman. When Bazalgette's biography appeared, followed by his translation of Leaves of Grass, Gide criticized Bazalgette severely for misinterpreting "Calamus" and "heterosexualizing" Whitman's poems as well as for gratuitously inventing a heterosexual love affair in New Orleans. For this reason, he undertook to do a new translation of Leaves of Grass with the collaboration of some of his friends: Louis Fabulet, Jean Schlumberger, Francis Vielé-Griffin, and Valery Larbaud. Paul Claudel rejected his invitation on moral grounds. The translation was delayed by World War I and appeared in 1918 under the title of Walt Whitman—Oeuvres choisies. It was only a selection. "Song of Myself" in particular was represented by only one section (section 24). But it was definitely better than Balzagette's, which, as Gide pointed out, was too flat, and was literal rather than literary. Gide, who was a very scrupulous and sensitive artist, was also attracted to Leaves of Grass by its literary qualities. Being above all a prose writer, he approved of the revolution carried out by Whitman in the new medium he had invented halfway between prose and verse. He even experimented with Whitmanian free verse and published Les Nourritures terrestres (1897), in which he also created a Whitmanian character, Ménalque, a vagabond traveling on the open road, giving his young disciple, Nathanaël, lessons in life and fervor reminiscent of "Song of Myself" and "Song of the Open Road." His stylistic debt to Whitman is striking, and it is still important in Les Nouvelles Nourritures (1935), in which he no longer addressed Nathanaël, a name he now considered affected and plaintive, but his "camarade," Whitman's "camerado," in prose, rather than free verse. It was a call to manly action at a time when he was attracted by the voices of communist sirens. He now renounced dilettantism and sensuality and, like Whitman, dreamed of democratic vistas. His travel to Russia, however, disillusioned him (Retour de l'URSS 1936). He then realized the vanity of all such dreams.

Bibliography

Allen, Gay Wilson. The New Walt Whitman Handbook. 1975. New York: New York UP, 1986.

Erkkila, Betsy. Walt Whitman Among the French: Poet and Myth. Princeton: Princeton UP, 1980.

Rhodes, S.A. "The Influence of Walt Whitman on André Gide." Romanic Review 31 (1940): 156–171.


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