I recently completed the brief biography simply titled, Walt Whitman, written by David Reynolds. Reynolds puts forth concise biography that retains a broad scope. He touches on the logistics of Whitman’s life, his family, and the economic, cultural, and societal climate in which Whitman lived. Beyond the logistics, Reynolds delivers a succinct explanation of the various things that inspired Whitman in writing his poetry – from politics, theater, and art, to science, sex, and religion. All of this serves as a good foundation and provides a springboard for delving deeper into the life and times of one of America’s greatest poets.
Regarding theater, in his own words, Whitman said that he spent his youth “absorbing theaters at every pore.” As he grew older he became very theatrical in his day-to-day interactions, often “spouting” portions of Shakespeare with all manner of dramatics while walking the streets or riding the ferry. Whitman also admired noteworthy lecturers and orators. He confessed to a friend that he once desired to be a great orator, saying;
. . . I was to be an orator–to go about the country spouting my pieces, proclaiming my faith. . . I thought I had something to say–I was afraid I would get no chance to say it through books: so I was to lecture and get myself delivered that way.”
Apparently Whitman’s voice projection did not lend itself to being a great orator, but of course, Whitman found his “voice” with poetry, which interestingly does have an oratorical quality to it. Whitman remained passionate about oratory and his admiration for it is reflected in this excerpt:
O the orator’s joys!
To inflate the chest, to roll the thunder of the voice out from the
ribs and throat,
To make people rage, weep, hate, desire, with yourself,
To lead America–to quell America with a great tongue”
Whitman’s poetry contains numerous references to the philosophic, the spiritual, and the scientific. Reading about the sciences and pseudo-sciences that appealed to Whitman was intriguing! For Whitman, the mystical and the scientific sat well together, as is implied by the inclusion of both in his poetry. He looked to philosophy and religion to fill in the gaps left by science. He did not believe in the exclusivity of any religion but embraced and celebrated them all.
All of those topics made for fascinating reading but I was perhaps most captivated by the chapter on the visual arts, in which Reynolds points to specific paintings and sculptures that may have influenced his poetry.
The following are a few examples along with parallel excerpts from Whitman’s poems:
The Trapper’s Bride
I saw the marriage of the trapper in the open air in the far west, the bride was the red girl,
Her father and his friends sat near cross-legged and dumbly smoking, they had moccasins to their feet and large thick blankets hanging from their shoulders,
On a bank lounged the trapper, he was dressed mostly in skins, his luxuriant beard and curls protected his neck, he held his bride by the hand,
She had long eyelashes, her head was bare, her coarse straight locks descended up her voluptuous limbs and reached to her feet.
Shooting for the Beef
The western turkey-shooting draws old and young, some lean on their
rifles, some sit on logs,
Out from the crowd steps the marksman, takes his position, levels his piece;
Whitman expounded on the effects of light in poems like the one below, A Prairie Sunset. So it is not unreasonable that he may have also felt an affinity with certain luminist painters such as Fredric Edwin Church.
Shot gold, maroon and violet, dazzling silver, emerald, fawn,
The earth’s whole amplitude and Nature’s multiform power consign’d for once to colors;
The light, the general air possess’d by them-colors till now unknown,
No limit, confine- not the Western sky alone- the high meridian- North, South, all,
Pure luminous color fighting the silent shadows to the last.
I enjoy learning what artists think and believe about their own work in addition to the intention of art in general. The artists that Whitman admired were the ones who, like him, depicted and elevated the ordinary, the everyday, the commonplace. Yet, he felt that there was something lacking in American art during his time. While paintings such as these were picturesque and relevant to the common people, they were also complacent. He felt that art should include “heroic actions, especially revolutionary or subversive ones. (Reynolds, p.72)” As Reynolds relates, Whitman “regarded art as a means of refining and elevating the masses.” His dream was that society could be reformed by art.
I admire both Whitman’s idealism and ambition with this idea. My own thoughts about what art should embody and project are somewhat pliant. I do not have a background in art and my approach is very much learn as you go. I also appreciate George Eliot’s perspective, when she expressed, “If Art does not enlarge men’s sympathies, it does nothing morally.”
My inclination is to view the visual arts in the same way that I do literature. It should be enjoyable on some level, yes, but I don’t look to literature for a diversion or to be entertained. I want something with substance. I want something that makes me feel awake and alive, alters my perspective, shakes my perceptions, and makes me ask questions, or do more research. I want to read literature that is an expression of humanity, history, and ideas.
I want to read literature that has a pulse.
Of course, all of that is highly individualistic. Though I admire Whitman for his stance, I’m not so sure that societies on a grand scale can be reformed or elevated through art.
What do you think?
The Brittanica Online Encyclopedia defines art as “the use of skill and imagination in the creation of aesthetic objects, environments, or experiences that can be shared with others.” Is it okay if art is merely aesthetically pleasing, or demonstrates a beyond-proficient use of a certain technique or skill — or should art communicate something more?