Commentary

Selected Criticism

Title:
Parodies
Author:
Andriano, Joseph
Print source:
J.R. LeMaster and Donald D. Kummings, eds., Walt Whitman: An Encyclopedia (New York: Garland Publishing, 1998), reproduced by permission.

Although Whitman himself was not a parodist, he has been much parodied. In 1888, Walter Hamilton included him in the fifth and last volume of his vast collection of parodies of English and American authors. Hamilton pointed out that most of the parodies of Whitman were unfair because so few people had actually read him; it was therefore impossible for readers ignorant of the original to appreciate the parody. In an attempt to remedy this situation, Hamilton provided an excerpt from "Song of Myself," as well as a few minor poems from Leaves of Grass. Most of these early parodies collected by Hamilton ridicule Whitman's notorious (alleged) egotism: the earliest (1868) shows no understanding of Whitman's Self expanded beyond mere ego: "I am Walt Whitman. / You are an idiot" (Hamilton 257). A similar sentiment is expressed in a parody that appeared in Judy (a publication that favored rhyming over free verse) in 1884.

Occasionally, Whitman's celebratory and incantatory tone was parodied not so much to poke fun at him but to ridicule someone else: e.g., Walter Parke's "St. Smith of Utah" finds Whitman's idiom particularly appropriate for a mock-heroic mistreatment of the patron saint of the Mormons, who "profited" from his role as a "prophet" and is summed up as a "boss saint" (Hamilton 261–262). As one might expect, most parodies of Whitman's style lack his genius for converting mere "inventories" into song (despite Emerson's famous complaint). Readers whose ears were used to traditional verse could not recognize the musical qualities of Whitman's free verse; their parodies often make this painfully clear: e.g., H.C. Bunner's frequently anthologized "Home Sweet Home with Variations (As Walt Whitman might have written all around it.)" (1881). Far more tedious than any of Whitman's catalogues, Bunner's evokes the quotidian with more banality than Whitman was ever capable of. More successful is the anonymous "A Whitman Waif," hilariously incoherent as it enumerates a Whitmanesque catalogue of cities and states, then intrudes editorially: "The poet's MS is here lost in space. [See] Colton's Intermediate Geography" (Falk 138).

Some parodies were downright mean-spirited, like Richard Grant White's "After Walt Whitman" (1884), which does occasionally succeed at exaggerating Whitman's exuberance into gush: "Put all of you and all of me together, and agitate our particles by rubbing us up into eternal smash . . ." (Falk 135). But mainly White views Whitman as a drunken, disreputable boaster reveling in physical corruption—"Of the purity of compost heaps . . . and the ineffable sweetness of general corruption" (Falk 135)—while remaining naive about political corruption—"Of the honesty and general incorruptibility of political bosses" (Falk 136). White especially takes umbrage at Whitman's vision "Of the beauty of flat-nosed, pock-marked" Africans (Falk 135), whom Whitman supposedly extols over genteel respectable white men, who are of no more account "than a possum or a woodchuck" (Falk 137).

Most Whitman parodies are more reverent, however; some even aspire to emulate rather than ridicule Whitman (e.g., Bayard Taylor's "Camerados" [1876]). Swinburne's "The Poet and the Woodlouse," though included in Carolyn Wells's A Parody Anthology (1922), is not a parody at all—it is a reverent rhyming variation on a theme in "Out of the Cradle Endlessly Rocking."

By far the funniest and most famous of parodies of Whitman is E.B. White's "A Classic Waits for Me" (1944), obviously spoofing "A Woman Waits for Me," with amusing allusions to other poems ("Into an armchair endlessly rocking") (Macdonald 145). Unlike most of the early parodies by Whitman's contemporaries, "A Classic" does not satirize Whitman (to whom he apologizes). Instead, White imitates his celebratory voice to gently mock the pseudo-elitist exclusivity of the Classics Club: "And I will not read a book nor the least part of a book but has the approval of the Committee . . ." (Macdonald 146).

G.K. Chesterton also wrote a Whitman parody, as part of a parodic cluster of "Variations . . . on Old King Cole" (1932). Again, Whitman himself is not the butt of satire; rather, his style is appropriated by the parodist for mock-heroic effect. Perhaps the cleverest parody of Whitman, besides E.B. White's, is Helen Gray Cone's verse dialogue, "Narcissus in Camden: A Classical Dialogue of the Year 1882" (Zaranka 211–214). Whitman's name in the poem is Paumanokides, and his interlocutor (it becomes clear when one recalls that the two writers met and chatted that year in Camden) is Oscar Wilde, called here "Narcissus." The poem records, in stanzas alternating between Whitman-like free verse and Wilde-like Swinburnesque doggerel, an actual conversation they had about aestheticism. That Whitman may have confided to Wilde that he too was gay is also implied in the poem, which satirizes Wilde's narcissism and seems to side with Whitman.

Parodies of Whitman, then, seem to fall into three categories: those that ridicule him, those that revere or emulate him, and those that imitate his style to satirize someone or something else.

Bibliography

Falk, Robert P., ed. American Literature in Parody. New York: Twayne, 1955.

Hamilton, Walter, ed. Parodies of the Works of English and American Authors. 1888. Vol. 5. New York: Johnson Reprint, 1967.

Macdonald, Dwight, ed. Parodies: An Anthology from Chaucer to Beerbohm—and After. New York: Random House, 1960.

Saunders, Henry S., comp. Parodies on Walt Whitman. New York: American Library Service, 1923.

Wells, Carolyn, ed. A Parody Anthology. New York: Scribner's, 1922.

Zaranka, William, ed. The Brand-X Anthology of Poetry. A Parody Anthology. Cambridge, Mass.: Apple-Wood Books, 1981.


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