Sunday, July 10, 2016

Seasons and Writers

 Walt Whitman, Henry David Thoreau, David Reynolds, Rebecca Solnit

Does it seem to you as it does to me that some writers have their seasons? Just as a nicely chilled Pinot Grigio served with gazpacho on the back porch seems perfect for hot summer days, so do Walt Whitman and Henry David Thoreau seem the perfect literary companions. I could no more read Thomas Mann--say, Doctor Faustus--in July than I could sit down to a pot roast. Nor could I (I've tried) reread Paradise Lost or, heaven help us, a single stanza of The Faerie Queen, or dip into Shakespeare's problem plays on a 101 degree afternoon than I could consume a plate of fettuccine alfredo. American writers, and I mean the originals, not derivative figures like Fenimore Cooper (Walter Scott) or the ruthlessly sententious Ralph Waldo Emerson (our Plato), or Joseph Conrad's pale cousin Herman Melville (yes, yes, I am well aware of how absurd this statement is, but next time you pick up White Jacket be honest: wouldn't you rather read Heart of Darkness? ) but true originals like Whitman and Thoreau. Like the Hudson River painters, our great romantics offer the promise of sunny skies, cool mornings and languid afternoon walks, long evenings of conversation and light fare--exactly the two writers I pack on hikes or take to the beach.

Rereading the first (1855) edition of Leaves of Grass this past week, I was struck yet again by the felicity of Whitman's eye; truly he is not only the greatest poet of democracy, but the most philosophical American writer, Jefferson with a soul.

"All goes onward and outward...and nothing collapses, / And to die is different from what any one supposed, and luckier." 

What a line! You could brood on these words all afternoon, staring in the cumulus clouds bunching on the horizon, and not feel as if you'd wasted a minute. Or this piece of American Platonism, so much more digestible than Emerson, whose platitudes unfold like a bolt of cloth--

"If I and you and the worlds and all beneath or upon their surfaces, and all the palpable life, were this moment reduced back to a pallid float, it would not avail in the long run, /
We should surely bring up again where we now stand, /
And as surely go as much farther, and then farther and farther...

See ever so far...there is limitless space outside of that,
Count ever so much....there is limitless time around that.

Our rendezvous is fitly appointed...God will be there and wait till we come. 

Old Walt, the sly sensualist. Remember this line from Ginsburg? "I saw you, Walt Whitman, childless, lonely old grubber, poking among the meats in the refrigerator and eyeing the grocery boys," written, I am certain, with wry affection, though Whitman, alone in Camden, wasn't the same man as the would-be seducer of Brooklyn, the man who wrote this beautiful line: "For me lips that have smiled, eyes that have shed tears,/ For me children and the begetters of children." 

I hadn't read any of Whitman's prose since college, but then came upon this passage in Spiritual Laws:

A man is a method, a progressive arrangement; a selecting principle, gathering his like to him, wherever he goes. He takes only his own out of the multiplicity that sweeps and circles around him....Those facts, words, persons, which dwell in his memory without his being able to say why, remain, because they have a relation to him not less real for being as yet unapprehended. They are symbols of value to him, as they can interpret parts of his consciousness which he would vainly seek words for in the conventional images of books and other minds.

These few sentences offer a remarkably astute analysis of how poetry works, Whitman's included. The real poet isn't merely crafty with words, but is able to draw from memory and experience those "symbols of value" that help him and the reader interpret parts of consciousness that might otherwise remain inaccessible. A person is a method...a selecting principle. And the artist, the writer, is especially this, sorting through experience not for its Meaning, but for the way in which individual experiences tie the world together, the way in which they bind people, rich and poor, black and white, gay and straight, together--yes, the finest democratic poet, perhaps the only democratic poet--a democratic vista rooted not in ideas but in the body, the source, as Whitman shows us, of all meaning.

The only critic of American literature I have read who recognizes the wit as opposed to the sagacity of Thoreau is David Reynolds, author of a very fine study designed to bring F. O. Matthiessen's magisterial American Renaissance up to date. In Beneath the American Renaissance, an investigation of what he calls "the subversive imagination," Reynolds writes: "Thoreau was confronted with a problem which faced several other major American writers of the period: theoretically committed to incorporating popular idioms, he nevertheless recoiled from the directionlessness and devilishness that characterized these idioms as they usually appeared in the popular press." Thoreau found beneath, or within, the crude wit of American popular literature an unhappiness, a despair, that he addressed in the first chapter of Walden. American angst, as Reinhold Niebuhr would later point out, was attributable to American materialism, precisely the point made by de Tocqueville, Harriet Martineau, and other dispassionate observers of 19th century American life.

This combination of sociological insight, humor, compassion, and social criticism make Thoreau the perfect companion for a long walk or a quiet hour in the hammock. While I love Walden, my favorite summer reading in Thoreau, an essay that I come back to again and again, is "Walking," found in the perfectly backpack-sized Modern Library edition (with a nice introduction by Brooks Atkinson) of Selected Thoreau, a book first published in 1937--think of that!--which I have owned since 1968. Last summer, at 57th Street Books in Chicago, I came upon Wanderlust: A History of Walking, by Rebecca Solnit, a writer of whom I knew nothing. (Don't you love it when this happens? You're browsing and by chance pick a book off the shelf, page through it, read a few paragraphs, then sit down and read for half-an-hour, entranced. This happened with Ms. Solnit, whose other books I have slowly begun to read.)

Anyway, Ms. Solnit has this insight into Thoreau's essay: "For Thoreau, the desire to walk in the unaltered landscape no longer seemed to have a history, but to be natural--if nature means the timeless truth we have found, not the historic specific we have made." This is a smart rewording of Thoreau's wonderful opening sentence: "I wish to speak a word for Nature, for absolute freedom and wildness, as contrasted with a freedom and culture merely civil,--to regard man as an inhabitant, or a part and parcel of Nature, rather than a member of society...." and then the wit of which Reynolds speaks takes over...."I wish to make an extreme statement, if so I may make an emphatic one, for there are enough champions of civilization: the minister and the school-committee and every one of you will take care of that."

And here the two strands of our complicated history, our two most original writers, and our summer season come together. As Perry Miller noted many years ago, taking his title and theme from a famous sermon ("Errand into the Wilderness") by Samuel Danforth (1670), America was at first seen as a great opportunity, as a divinely inspired project, a utopian settlement designed to glorify God's works, a city upon a hill. But as Miller points out, the aspirations of the first generations of New England settlers ran aground on the realities of the wilderness, a wilderness that proved to be both physical and moral. How, the Puritans and America's most original writers asked, can one balance the spiritual errand into the wilderness (purification, temptation, preparation) with the material wealth this wilderness bestows and the rapaciousness this wealth inspires? Whitman's genius was to discover what was universal in American life--to lift the body electric out of greed and war and slavery and into the benign fantasy of his imagination. Thoreau walked away (with a scathing look back). He walked into the woods, along the Concord River, across the beaches of Cape Cod--to escape the din of the school-committee's "civilization."

And summer? I hope wherever you are--and I know we have readers from Moscow to Paris to London to Albuquerque--and, of course, for some of you, it's actually winter!--you have time to read the books you've set aside for this season of relative idleness.

George Ovitt (7/10/16)

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