Commentary

Selected Criticism

Title:
Australia and New Zealand, Whitman in
Author:
McLeod, Alan L.
Print source:
J.R. LeMaster and Donald D. Kummings, eds., Walt Whitman: An Encyclopedia (New York: Garland Publishing, 1998), reproduced by permission.

Within twenty years of the publication of Leaves of Grass there seems to have been an interest in the author in New Zealand, and by 1885 there was a small but dedicated following in Australia. But Whitman's influence was principally in outlook and philosophy; his poetic technique was apparently too modern and iconoclastic for even his most devoted admirer, Bernard O'Dowd.

Professor Macmillan Brown, head of the department of English at the then small Canterbury College in Christchurch, New Zealand, claimed, in a letter now in the Dunedin Public Library, to have visited Whitman in February 1875. There is, however, no corroborative evidence for this visit or for his assertion that he had contributed an article on Whitman to the Press in Christchurch. Nonetheless, Whitman studies in New Zealand continued and were advanced by W.H. Trimble, librarian of the Hocken library in Dunedin, and his wife, Annie E. Trimble. The couple first read Whitman in 1896, became avid collectors of Whitmaniana, and during the winter of 1903 gave a series of lectures that were published as Walt Whitman and Leaves of Grass: An Introduction (1905). Annie Trimble privately published two hundred copies of Walt Whitman and Mental Science: An Interview (1911), an exercise of her imagination which, through its style, suggested a verbatim report of an actual conversation. About this time the Trimbles and their friend Isaac Hull Platt produced a concordance to Leaves of Grass that was purchased by Henry S. Saunders and presented to the Brown University library in 1931. In the September 1909 Atlantic Monthly Mrs. Trimble contributed an article on the trio's concordance-making, saying that it required "about four years of steady work" with little encouragement (Trimble 365). They were told, "Nobody reads Whitman except a few cranks like yourselves" (364).

An undated and privately printed Catalogue of a Collection of Walt Whitman, Compiled by the Owner, W.H. Trimble indicated the ardor of the enthusiast to amass a unique antipodean archive. In more recent times Professor Sydney Musgrove of the University of Auckland published T.S. Eliot and Walt Whitman (1952), which demonstrates with some persuasion that Eliot owed more to Whitman in matters of poetic technique than is generally allowed.

In Australia, Whitman was warmly received by a small group of men and women interested in matters of literary and religious (or philosophical) importance; they were, in general, not academic folk and not in the urban centers or attached to intellectual cliques. The cynosure of this group was Bernard O'Dowd, a recusant Catholic who was for a time assistant librarian in the Supreme Court Library in Melbourne, and later Chief Parliamentary Draughtsman for the State of Victoria. While only nineteen, living in the country town of Ballarat, O'Dowd was introduced to Whitman's poetry by a local journalist, Tom Bury, who wrote as Tom Touchstone for the Ballarat Courier. O'Dowd's reading of Drum-Taps, we are told by Nettie Palmer and Victor Kennedy, came "as a clean, hot wind, blowing the cobwebs and dust of ages before it" (Kennedy and Palmer 53). The democratic content of Whitman's verse appealed to O'Dowd more than its innovations in style, but the appeal was insistent, and this intellectual encounter of 1885 became the turning point of O'Dowd's life. He said that the "wonderful stimulus of [his] communion with Walt Whitman" led to a reconsideration of his nationalism, religious beliefs, and general philosophy (qtd. in Anderson, Bibliography ix). Whatever Tom Bury's motivation in bringing Whitman to O'Dowd's notice, the experience changed O'Dowd's life; he carried his copy of Leaves of Grass with him always and wore a boutonniere of grass as a symbol of his commitment to all that Whitman represented.

O'Dowd, one of the most admirable and modest of Australia's poet-democrats, responded so completely to Whitman's message that he became (in the words of one of Australia's great literary critics, A.G. Stephens) "like a priest without a frock; a priest devoted . . . to the service of humanity" (qtd. in Kennedy and Palmer 126). On 6 August 1889 O'Dowd commenced a letter to Whitman, addressed as "My Reverend Master," which he never finished and, thus, never sent. In it he says that he and four friends were studying a newly acquired complete edition of Leaves of Grass and that he was "passionately fond of Walt Whitman"—to the point of "defending your very faults" (qtd. in Anderson, Bernard O'Dowd Twayne 26). By 1890 O'Dowd had become one of the mainstays of the Australeum, a study and discussion group established after the pattern of the American lyceums and Chautauquas. He addressed this and most of the other cultural and literary associations in the Melbourne metropolis on Whitman.

On 12 March 1890 O'Dowd sent his first complete letter to Whitman, thus inaugurating a correspondence that lasted until 1 November 1891 and that assumed the character of a religious experience for the small group of admirers gathered around O'Dowd in Melbourne. O'Dowd's wife's uncle, a cabinetmaker, built a special box (a sort of Ark of the Covenant) to house the letters, offprints, galleys, photographs, and reviews that arrived from Camden, New Jersey. These eventually became the property of the State Library of Victoria, and O'Dowd's letters to Whitman became part of the magnificent collection of Charles E. Feinberg of Detroit, Michigan.

The intensity of the O'Dowd commitment to Whitman can be judged from the salutations of the letters; they address the poet as master, bard, prophet, apostle, and other similarly reverential appellations. Whitman never failed to mention all the members of the Australeum whose names had been provided to him. The brief correspondence was intense and quasi-religious in its Melbourne part, appreciative and avuncular in its Camden part.

Shortly after Whitman's death O'Dowd contributed a number of obituary notices and literary appreciations (some anonymously) to Australian papers and periodicals. These were followed by public lectures on various topics related to Whitman, all marked by an evangelistic enthusiasm. In "Poetry Militant," the presidential address for the Literature Society of Melbourne in 1909, O'Dowd observed that "The world does not yet fully know, as it shall know, its deep debt of gratitude to the courage of poets like Walt Whitman (O'Dowd 23), adding that Whitman, like Nietzsche, was both Destroyer and Creator (28). He concluded his address by asserting that the case for militant poetry is best made in Whitman's "The Answerer." Until his death in 1953, O'Dowd was unswerving in his belief in the significance of Whitman's contribution to the development of the democratic spirit and of modern poetic technique, though he himself was unable to renounce traditional forms—especially the quatrain and the rhymed couplet.

A Scottish visitor to Australia, William Gay, had a high opinion of Whitman and in 1895 wrote a pamphlet, Walt Whitman: His Relation to Science and Philosophy, in which he demonstrated for the members of the Australian Association for the Advancement of Science— with commendable lucidity—that Whitman embraced all the fundamental questions of knowledge and that he was "a great man" (Gay, rpt. in McLeod, Australia and New Zealand 82). The editor of Gay's Poetical Works (1911) noted that Gay admired Whitman's matter rather than his idiosyncratic style.

J. Le Gay Brereton, later to become professor of English in the University of Sydney, in 1894 contributed two articles on Leaves of Grass to the university's literary magazine, Hermes. "He expresses the modern man," Brereton writes. "He stands naked and is not ashamed . . . he voices the claims of each and all" (Brereton, "Hints of Walt Whitman's 'Leaves of Grass,'" rpt. in McLeod, Australia and New Zealand 67). This evaluation is representative of all subsequent Australian criticism of Whitman. Even in music he was honored; the noted Australian pianist and composer Percy Grainger dedicated his "Marching Song of Democracy" (1916) to the Good Gray Poet.

While Whitman's poetic technique only slowly gained a following in Australia and New Zealand, his ideas were readily accepted. These essentially egalitarian countries could have found no American poet more congenial than Walt Whitman.

Bibliography

Anderson, Hugh. Bernard O'Dowd. New York: Twayne, 1968.

____. Bernard O'Dowd (1866–1953): An Annotated Bibliography. Sydney: Wentworth, 1963.

Kennedy, Victor, and Nettie Palmer. Bernard O'Dowd. Melbourne: Melbourne UP, 1954.

McLeod, A.L. "Walt Whitman in Australia." Walt Whitman Review 7 (1961): 23–35.

____, ed. Walt Whitman in Australia and New Zealand: A Record of his Reception. Sydney: Wentworth, 1964.

O'Dowd, Bernard. Poetry Militant: An Australian Plea for the Poetry of Purpose. Melbourne: Lothian, 1909.

Trimble, A.E. "Concordance-Making in New Zealand." The Atlantic Monthly September 1909: 364–367.


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