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Walt Whitman


A STRANGELY impudent agitation has just been started with regard to what is called "Walt Whitman's Actual American Position."1 Whitman, it may be explained, is an American writer who some years back attracted attention by a volume of so-called poems which were chiefly remarkable for their absurd extravagance and shameless obscenity, and who has since, we are glad to say, been little heard of among decent people. It now appears that, although there is a small coterie of persons in this country who are not ashamed to confess their liking for Whitman's nastiness, his own countrymen have universally repudiated him. "The real truth," says an American journal, which has taken up the subject apparently in the interest of Whitman, "is that, with the exception of a very few readers, Whitman's poems in their public reception have fallen still-born in this country. They have been met, and are met to-day, with the determined denial, disgust, and scorn of orthodox American authors, publishers, and editors, and in a pecuniary and worldly sense have certainly wrecked the life of their author." "No established publishing house will publish his books. Most of the stores will not even sell them." "Repeated attempts to secure a small income by writing for the magazines during his illness have been utter failures. The Atlantic will not touch him. His offerings to Scribner are returned with insulting notes; the Galaxy the same. Harper's did print a couple of his pieces two years ago, but imperative orders from head-quarters have stopped anything further. All the established American poets studiously ignore Whitman." We are of course sorry that Whitman, or any other man, should be in sore distress, but we must say that we are very glad indeed to hear that his writings are unsaleable, and that no respectable publisher or editor in America will give him countenance by printing his contributions. This fact, if it is true, shows that the moral sense of the American public is, after all, not quite so much deadened as some recent events might lead one to imagine. If the New York Herald will not have anything to do with Walt Whitman, it is a proof that even the Herald draws the line somewhere. We can only regret that the same view is not taken by all publishers on this side of the ocean, and that there is one firm at least in London which is not ashamed to advertise a "complete" edition of Whitman's works. We have no desire to pry into details of Whitman's private life. The description which he gives of himself in his writings as "disorderly, fleshly, sensual," and fond of loafing, is not perhaps to be taken in a literal sense; and in any case we have no desire to speculate as to how far his private life may have been imprudent or irregular. The important fact is that he has found it impossible to get a living by his writings, which are everywhere shunned and rejected. Considering the character of these writings, this seems to us a very natural and desirable result, and it is difficult to understand why people should be expected to buy an article which disgusts them. Some of Mr. Whitman's friends and admirers in London have, however, worked themselves into a state of theatrical indignation with regard to the treatment of this great man by his unappreciative and ungrateful countrymen. Mr. Robert Buchanan,2 who has made himself the mouthpiece of this extraordinary agitation, not only claims for Whitman "literary immortality," but exalts his "ineffable goodness" and "beneficence," and declares, in a passage flavoured with a touch of blasphemy which we prefer not to quote, that "only this last consecration of Martyrdom was wanting to complete our poet's apotheosis." Mr. Buchanan, being himself a poet, naturally chafes against the restraints of ordinary prose, and we are treated to a wonderful picture, in the highest style of fine language, of a "golden eagle sick to death, worn with age and famine, or with both, passing with weary waft of wing from promontory to promontory, from peak to peak, pursued by a crowd of prosperous rooks and crows, who fall screaming back whenever the noble bird turns his indignant head, and which follow frantically once more, hooting behind him, whenever he ascends their way."3 This is all very fine no doubt in its way, but it may be thought to be hardly a fair description of the case of a dirty bird which is shunned on account of its unclean habits. Mr. Buchanan also breaks out into furious vituperation against all American publishers and men of letters, whom he abuses in the most vulgar terms; and warns the American nation collectively that its "honour will be tarnished eternally by the murder of its only remaining prophet." Mr. Buchanan concludes by what is really an insulting appeal to his own countrymen, as "loving and revering" this apostle of beastliness, to give him "a substantial proof of the honour in which he is held here in the heart of England."

From the height of this rhapsodical outburst it is a sad descent to the prosaic facts of the case. It is of course open to any one who admires, or is simply sorry for, Whitman to subscribe for his support; but it is difficult to understand why those who dislike his flagrant indecencies should be denounced because they do not feel inclined to give him any encouragement. Mr. Buchanan himself, though he does not scruple to rank Whitman with the Saviour, and declares that his teaching is "as heavenly manna," thinks it necessary to "disclaim entire sympathy with Whitman's materialistic idealism, which seems to go too far in the direction of illuminating the execrable." Mr. Buchanan does not explain exactly what he means by "execrable," but in any sense such an admission goes far to justify the distrust and loathing with which Whitman is regarded both here and in America. Mr. Buchanan holds that "these great experiments in poetry" are "destined to exercise an extraordinary influence on the future of religion as well as poetry," and this, he says, "no one who has read his works will deny." Public opinion, however, both here and in America, has expressed itself very decisively as to these great experiments; and there is very little chance of Mr. Buchanan or any of his associates bringing the world round to a different view. It is no doubt true that there are many people who have never read Whitman's so-called poetry all through, but enough is known to show that it is an attempt to make animal brutality and indecency pass for poetry. No doubt the present effort to revive curiosity on the subject will be a useful advertisement to any bookseller who happens to have a stock of Whitman's garbage on hand. It must be remembered, however, that his earlier works have been before the public for some twenty years, and that during the whole of that time the opinion originally formed of them has been steadily sustained, and, if possible, intensified; and there is, we imagine, very little danger of this judgment being now reversed by friendly puffery and agitation, even when such great authorities as Mr. Buchanan supposes himself to be take up the matter.4 There are, no doubt, questions both of art and philosophy on which public opinion at times goes astray; but in the present instance the elementary instincts of mankind are sufficient to settle the question. There would indeed need to be a very remarkable change both in the moral and intellectual constitution of educated people before such writings as those of Whitman could be accepted as, in any sense, honest literature.

When Mr. Buchanan screeches about "literary outlawry," "murder," "official persecution," he is obviously only talking nonsense. We have no desire to say anything in disparagement of American publishers, but they are no doubt not absolutely exempt from the weaknesses of other tradesmen; and we suspect that, if there really were a market anywhere for Whitman's wares, he would have no difficulty in finding some one to retail them for him. It is reasonable to assume that American publishers and editors know their own business, and that they have sufficient reasons for having nothing to do with Mr. Whitman. He has chosen to identify himself with unsavoury things, and whatever he might now write, his name would be a taint to any respectable periodical. The fact is that it was only the indecent exposure which Whitman made of himself in the first instance that attracted passing attention to him as a sort of psychological monstrosity. Apart from his scandalous eccentricities, his writings are poor stuff, and the affectation of deep philosophy is easily seen through. The assumption that a man who sets himself to outrage public decency should be gratefully supported by public charity is certainly a very curious one. Mr. Buchanan asserts that his idol has many worshippers in this country, but we venture to say that this is a part of his delusion; and we may add that those who are so unfortunate in their tastes as to belong to this sect would perhaps act prudently for themselves in not proclaiming it too loudly. The conclusion would seem to be that the "illumination of the execrable" is not a remunerative business; and so far the lesson is a useful one, and may be taken to heart by any other writers who have a weakness that way. There is also, however, a general principle underlying Mr. Buchanan's letter which deserves notice. He appears to imagine that society is bound, as a matter of course, to contribute to the maintenance of any one who chooses to set up as a man of genius. The genius may be less apparent than some other characteristics, but society is bound all the same to accept implicitly the claimant's own assurance, and that of a few sympathetic friends, that he is a genius, and to provide for him accordingly. This, we fancy, is a favourite idea with a certain class of poets, who have usually reasons of their own for holding that their incomes ought not to be dependent merely on the popularity of their works and the respect in which they are held by those who know them. Instances can no doubt be mentioned of great poets who were not sufficiently appreciated while alive; but, on the other hand, it would be rather hazardous to undertake to provide for every one who, believing himself to be a poet, could not get a living by his works. We should then have a fine flock of hard-up "golden eagles" eager to take advantage or public charity. If the appeal on behalf of Whitman were based simply on his age and indigence, we should not think ourselves bound to say anything against it. But the plan proposed is to help him circulate his writings, and thus implies approval of them. It is satisfactory to believe that agitation for such a purpose is likely to prove as futile as it is audacious.


1. "Walt Whitman's Actual American Position" was an unsigned article published in the West Jersey Press on January 26, 1876, lamenting the poet's poverty and his neglect by the United States. This article was written by Whitman himself, in a successful effort to incite international controversy over the value of his work. Excerpts from the article appeared in the London Athenaeum (11 March 1876), followed by Robert Buchanan's and William Michael Rossetti's letters to the London Daily News, attempting to rally assistance through a sale of subscriptions to Whitman's Leaves of Grass (1876). [back]

2. Robert Williams Buchanan (1841-1901) was a British poet, novelist and dramatist. His article entitled "The Fleshly School of Poetry," published in the Contemporary Review (October 1871), was notorious for its criticism of the poetry of Dante Gabriel Rossetti, Algernon Swinburne and others. [back]

3. "He who wanders through the solitudes of far-off Uist or lonely Donegal may often behold the Golden Eagle sick to death, worn with age or famine, or with both, passing with weary waft of wing from promontory to promontory, from peak to peak, pursued by a crowd of prosperous rooks and crows, which fall screaming back whenever the noble bird turns his indignant head, and which follow frantically once more, hooting behind him, whenever he wends again upon his way. The rook is a 'recognized' bird; the crow is perfectly 'established.' But for the Eagle, when he sails aloft in the splendor of his strength, who shall perfectly discern and measure his flight?" (Excerpt from Robert Buchanan's letter to the London Daily News, 13 March 1876). [back]

4. This phrasing is present in the original. [back]

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