Walt Whitman, An American by Henry Seidel Canby, published in 1943, is an intimate look at the poet’s long struggle to create Leaves of Grass, which Emerson so famously hailed as the rising of a truly new American poet, of a type he famously had called for in his essays which urged readers to cast off European ways and forge a new consciousness based on the new American land and spirit. Canby is good on Whitman’s early life as a respected journalists and editor of several weeklies in Brooklyn and New York City where he cut a compelling figure among the writers and artists of the times. He was far ahead of his time, with a cunning understanding of publicity, a theatrical presence, and a sophisticated understanding of politics. He was viewed as a sophisticated political journalist who also had a flair for essays and portraits of people and events. All the while, his inner world, his meditative link with the unfolding of his daily experiences, was secretly putting down deep roots which around age 35 burst forth in epiphany-like awakenings, calling out the first poems celebrating himself:
From his notebook:
I am the poet of the body
And I am the poet of the soul…
I am the poet of reality
I say the earth is not an echo…
I am the poet of equality
I dilate you with tremendous breath
He saw himself as nothing less than a divine, incarnate prophet-teacher. He fully assumed the role – braving decades of public outcries of indecency because of his frankness (so tender and mild) when writing about sexual relations between women and men, the actual extent of which are shrouded in personal reticence. His service later in life as a volunteer hospital worker in Washington D.C. during the Civil War years stands out because it called forth and displayed his saint-like character. A touching moment: when Lincoln and Whitman confronted each other on several occasions, there seemed to have been a bow given my both men without an exchange of words.
The record he left of his volunteer service to the injured soldiers, Specimen Days, and his notebooks from that period, are a close second to his final, completed version of Leaves of Grass, which is now our national song of the 19th century America spirit (which, alas, lived and lives only in literature). Wth Emerson, Thoreau, Melville and Whitman we had a calling forth for an America which was never to be and four artful testaments to the causes of that failure: and yet, there is both an America which continues to live up to their ideals and an America which blusters along oblivious to the transcendence they called for to achieve a better human nature during our time on Earth. Even so, it was a bright era for American letters. Looking at Whitman’s life, you can’t help but see the link with Allen Ginsberg, a continuation of Whitman’s spirit and energy who lived in a time when the materialism and cynicism, foreseen by the 19th century writers, was firmly entrenched. It dominated Ginsberg’s time, but he did, indeed, Howl against it. Ginsberg’s public acceptance had obvious parallels to Whitman’s. A public misapprehension of his poetic style and widespread establishment shock at his unabashed homosexuality and willingness to assume a political role (something Whitman never did). And here we are, in hope, awaiting the emergence of another quartet of writers who will raise the banner in this century.
“This is what you shall do; Love the earth and sun and the animals, despise riches, give alms to every one that asks, stand up for the stupid and crazy, devote your income and labor to others, hate tyrants, argue not concerning God, have patience and indulgence toward the people, take off your hat to nothing known or unknown or to any man or number of men, go freely with powerful uneducated persons and with the young and with the mothers of families, read these leaves in the open air every season of every year of your life, re-examine all you have been told at school or church or in any book, dismiss whatever insults your own soul, and your very flesh shall be a great poem and have the richest fluency not only in its words but in the silent lines of its lips and face and between the lashes of your eyes and in every motion and joint of your body.”
A quick rundown on recent reading, just to get the ball rolling again.
In the past three months, I’ve read:
1 Advertisements for Myself by Mailer (for the second or third time), and what can I say, it’s Mailer at his best and his worse. That’s not a negative review, it just a reflection of what you get with an original artist who talked out his issues and interests in public to make it real. Someone said Mailer can be good and bad in the same sentence, much less a book, but overall I’m struck by his core artistry which by my lights never left him during his 50-odd year career, including his worse outing in Barbary Shore. He had to get that dialectic, intellectual writing out of his system and he did it in that book. What value does Advertisement’s offer? His fascination with God, Manichaeism, orgasm, a belief that each person is engaged in a spiritual struggle in life, a belief that America is geared to become totalitarian and to engage in wars – it’s all there in bits and pieces which are developed in full later. You get the tone of the times in the ’50s. Mailer was a young bear in a cage and from the 60s on to the end of his career (his death) he broke out and roamed the American times like no one else. He was basically fearless with a huge ego. The story of how his The Naked and the Dead came together is a lesson in itself. Such discipline at such a young age; 25 years old when it was published, one year younger than Hemingway and The Sun Also Rises, and Naked is a much larger, more ambitious work. Mailer’s heros were Hemingway (as the elder) and James Jones, his young contemporary, who he said probably wrote the better war novel and who made Mailer feel inferior as a person. Jones had great magnetism.
2 William Empson by John Haffenden. I completed the 1,700-odd pages of the two–volume biography in about two weeks. Empson, a poet and language/word-lover, is a new love of mine. The first volume is perfect. The second volume is good, but it has a jagged edge in the prose, very poor editing and proofreading that threw me off. For the Oxford Press, it’s a weak show of editing skills, really embarrassing. But Empson’s story is good, compelling, and adventuresome. The private school section is vivid; he was so precocious. People used the word genius when he was still in his teens. At Oxford, his teachers were rather inn awe of him. He taught in Japan and China and later Brittain. His literary criticism is original and I like his turn of mind and phrasing. Earlier, I read his Seven Types of Ambiguity and On Complex Words. He would have made a good AP writer, so direct and clear – one of the clearest writers I’ve ever read. He had a bohemian outlook and made most English eccentrics look middle-class normal. A line in one his poems: “The heart of standing is you cannot fly.” You have to love his mind. Next on my list are his Selected Letters and Argufying, his essay collection.
3 Hemingway’s Boat by Paul Hendrickson is a classic of nonfiction reporting, a plunge into the gut and heart of Hemingway, the man, the image, the failure, the tragic hero, the dissembler, and the enduring saint-like writer. I’ve read everything Hemingway wrote, and most of what’s been written about him: fiction,biographies, et al, and this book forged new ground in so many ways – it’s a cliche to say it’s a rounded, fair portrait of the man, but it is. What you don’t know, you don’t need to know; what you know will make you defend him against all possible criticism. If you want to study fame, read the book. It sends a cold chill through your mind. And yet, he wrote well throughout his life, despite unfair pot shots at his later work. Even the posthumous books, the so-called worse books, are far, far better than 90 percent of the serious fiction and nonfiction published. Many critics have a tendency to talk down real talent in order to lift themselves a little higher (in their own mind). I know his books will read even better, stronger as time goes on. They’re specific yet they all carry a large frame of universalism in the language and stories. When his public image fades and people again read the words fresh, they’ll cherish the record he left. At heart, he was a master reporter of his life, both in fiction and nonfiction. Hendrickson’s book is a classic, no question.
4. After the Boat, I re-read Papa by Gregory Hemingway, the wayward son. It surprised me. I couldn’t remember the book from my first read a long time ago. I was prepared for some insights and revelations, but they never came. The writing was commercial and coy, and I felt he wrote the book (if he did write it) without real interest. Read Hendrickson on Gregory Hemingway and you’ll be enthralled by Gregory’s life and the strange dance he and Ernest put together. Of more interest was the book by Gregory’s wife, Valerie Hemingway, Running with the Bulls; it completes the portrait of that wing of the Hemingway family. Strange fruit, but like the Old Man brave and strong each in their own way.
5. Dead Man’s Float by Jim Harrison. Jim is my kindred spirit poet-novelist-bear-man trail blazer, raw-souled writer. He writes poems as journal jottings. I relish his words. His whimsical cast of mind. This poetry book is right up to the present day, reporting on his illness, his life, his wife (who recently died) and the insults and pleasures of old age. I shudder to think about his life going forward and hope he can hold up and hold on to give us a little more of his heartening, everyday wisdom and brio, his realism: he says, ok, gang, just pay attention and get your work done while observing and living your life as truly as you can.
Galaxies are grand thickets of stars
in which we may hide forever
6 The Last Kind Words Saloon by Larry McMurtry. Larry, next time you publish a book at least get someone to proofread it before it’s published. Clumsy repetition and typos run through the sentences like stray yearlings. Otherwise, it had some potential but it came up woefully short in the dust. Cardboard characters. Bang, Bang, Blank… It’s best to read it as a big joke – on the reader.
7 Paris Dream Book by Lawrence Osborne. Osborne wrote a wonderful nonfiction book, Bangkok Days, about his life in Bangkok that reads like fiction. Paris is nothing like it. It’s like going through a florid garden of the past and present, Paris as muse, as lover, as sensual friend, as a palpable state of mind with roots and branches coming out of the past and going into the future. There’s no story, or maybe a tiny bit of story (Turkish baths), there’s unfurling fields of description written in a twisted brew with shades of Lawrence Durrell, Oscar Wilde and one hallucinating tour guide. It’s not a travel book. It’s a language-tour book of the streets, buildings and neighborhoods of Paris. Very original, non-repeatable, the work of a young writer intoxicated by language as he responds to his life of the senses.
8 Norman Mailer: A Double Life by Michael Lennon. This is an important book. It captures Mailer’s genius and his swashbuckling approach to life. He would have been a hell of a sea captain when the unknown world was new. An outright genius. Hemingway repressed his sexual nature; Mailer expressed it, lived by it, and strangely it seems not to have inhibited his energy or creativity but only increased it. I loved the description of how he approached his wide body of work, what triggered his demon. Lennon is understanding, because he knew Mailer intimately and it comes through in the steadiness of his prose, its subtle way of capturing Mailer’s thoughts and reasoning at important moments. If you pair up the books by Hemingway and Mailer from the ’20s to the first decade of this century, you have an arresting narrative of the past 100 years. For any would-be writer, you should study their lives and writing as early in your life as you can. Lasting lessons.
9 Graham Greene: A Life in Letters by Richard Greene. This is a selected overview of the decades of Greene’s life, the earliest to the end. He comes across differently from the impressions you get from his books. He’s less angst ridden, less depressed (at least he doesn’t express his depression much, he just mentions it in passing), morbid, selfish and he’s more attentive to his friends and family than you might have expected. You get the feeling that he’s observing himself and his life in the letters – there’s a strange distance here for a book of letters. That may be a key to the man. There are many, many more letters to come, which may change the picture considerably, especially if some letters address his life with his mistresses and his nocturnal jaunts through the brothels and opium dens of Saigon, Cuba, Europe and Africa. This book has none of that, but those other letters must exist unless, of course, his secret nature prevented him from writing such accounts in letters. I doubt it; at least there should be journals with those details at some later date.
10 Brando: Songs My Mother Taught Me by Robert Lindsey. I grew up fascinated by Brando and I’ve followed his career and his evolution from farm kid to mythical American presence to Orson Wells-like obsolescence. This book gets us fairly close to who he was and gives us some understanding of how he became what he ended up to be, a failure in his eyes. There’s a connection between Brando and Mailer that’s interesting: where their lives crossed. A key is Brando’s best friend, Wally Cox, or Mr. Peepers, if you remember him from TV. They came out of the same little town and they were young buddies and gave each other some sanity as they lived out their lives in Hollywood. Cox created that Mr. Peepers character as an actor, and he died young of alcoholism.
11. The Rhetoric of Religion by Kenneth Burke. A deep, revealing look at the words in the Bible, the Logos and the language, the specific words that account for the lasting spell of the story, especially Genesis. You see how the story is lashed together by words that are the bedrock of our innermost self. The hallowed words. The book has a strange parallel to the work of William Empson, who was an atheist, but who admired the book and thought it was excellent work as a study of language. Burke is not concerned with theology or religion as subject, only the way the words convey the message that is conveyed. He calls his interest “logology.” It’s a clumsy term, but it provides a description of his approach.
12 The Laughing Monsters by Denis Johnson. In the tradition of his crime noir novels, but set in high-octane Africa. It has the clarity and intensity of his Nobody Moves. He follows two erstwhile adventurers who’ve lost their way, their morals, their sanity almost, and are in the deepest of dark times with a scheme to rip off intelligence agencies and fellow spies and mercenaries with an outright con. Only idiots would believe and do what the do, but they do it with a sense of “this can be done,” a feeling that takes many people over the edge. There are many people walking the streets and living bizarre fantasy lives, crazy, twisted people trying to con crazy, bad people. The writing is beautiful. There are few laughs. Only paralyzing grins.
13 Finding Them Gone by Bill Porter (Red Pine). This is a travel book masterpiece for lovers of Asian poetry. Porter’s prose is light and fine and imbued with a Taoistic topping of pure joy as his days unfold touring the temples, homes and home ground of China’s greatest poets from earliest times to the last century. You get a sense of how it feels to travel in rural and urban China today. The book is a capstone of a great career by a master-layman-practitioner of Zen and Taoism, a follower of Cold Mountain, Stonehouse, and a host of worthies who he has translated and wrote commentaries about, not to mention his translations and commentaries on the core Buddhist sutras and the Tao Te Ching. I’ll write more about this book in a coming post.
Merry Christmas & Happy New Year!
Roy & Laddawan
“Pilgrims Going to Church in the Snow” by George Henry Boughton, Courtesy of the New-York Historical Society.
Pharadon Phonamnuai on the essence and fun of planting trees in Chiang Mai.