"Offstage Whitman in His Final Years: A Review of Brenda Wineapple’s Walt Whitman Speaks" by Kiyotaka Sueyoshi
Kiyotaka Sueyoshi is PhD Student in the Doctoral School of Literature at the University of Szeged, Hungary. His research interests are the American Renaissance and the American Enlightenment. His future dissertation is concerned with the differences between the textual and contextual readings of Walt Whitman’s texts. He is currently the holder of a Stipendium Hungaricum Doctoral grant (2019-2023). Email:
Walt Whitman Speaks: His Final Thoughts on Life, Writing, Spirituality, and the Promise of America as Told to Horace Traubel
New York: Library of America, 2019.
Brenda Wineapple’s Walt Whitman Speaks: His Final Thoughts on Life, Writing, Spirituality, and the Promise of America as Told to Horace Traubel doubles as the celebration of Whitman’s bicentennial and an introduction to Whitman’s art. The Library of America, its publisher, on its website, calls the book “a keepsake edition to touch the soul, capturing the distilled wisdom of America’s greatest poet” (“Walt Whitman Speaks” 2019) and categorizes it as biography. The novelty of Wineapple’s approach in Walt Whitman Speaks is that she focuses on the poet’s final years, especially on the way Horace Traubel documented them in With Walt Whitman in Camden (1906-1996). Horace Traubel, “a young poet and social reformer,” (Wineapple 2019, 14) visited Whitman, ran errands for him, established rapport with him, and recorded their conversations on a daily basis. Traubel’s Walt Whitman in Camden is a chronicle of the daily life of Whitman during this time they had spent together and afterwards Traubel transcribed and published his conversations with Whitman in a verbatim manner; Wineapple edited Traubel’s transcripts of Whitman’s speech into thematic sections that focus on Whitman’s most important and recurring ideas. The present tense in the title of her book connotes the contemporary validity of Whitman’s words, an additional goal of the book is to deliver the messages of Whitman to current readers in an accessible way.
Wineapple adds no comments of her own except in the “Introduction” and consequently, she presents herself only through her meticulous editing. In the limited space of the “Introduction,” Wineapple touches Whitman’s major milestones of his oeuvre, such as Leaves of Grass (with special emphasis on the 1855, 1860, 1881, and the subsequent “deathbed” edition). She includes detailed explanations for Whitman’s revisions made in those volumes, which reflect on issues like democratic freedom and ageing. To show various sides of Whitman’s art besides those of an innovative poet, she also describes Whitman as a “good grey poet” (Wineapple, 12), a sage old author, a “wound dresser,” and the critic of the Civil War (14). In the main text, the editor of the volume skillfully cuts and compiles conversations between Whitman and Horace Traubel about Whitman’s last four years into thematic sections and points out that Traubel was at pains “not to trespass and not to ply him [Whitman] too closely with questions necessary or unnecessary” (9); without such external restrains, the spontaneous outflow of Whitman’s reflection was secured. Wineapple leaves out from Trauble’s texts the comments on daily life, leaving only those that pertain to the Whitmanian wisdom writing that “in this work Traubel’s bulky nine volumes are turned into a table-talk edition of Whitman’s reflections” (16), all in a rather focused form. Wineapple’s itemization of the enormous intellectual architecture of Whitman under the thirty-five categories is a Herculean task which succeeds in delivering the American poet’s final thoughts in an easily accessible form with all necessary details so that even a reader with no prior knowledge about Whitman can properly understand this book.
Wineapple’s above-mentioned thirty-five categories range from those of Nature, The Human Heart, Writing, Self, Love, America, Politics, History, Religion to many others. Instead of using alphabetical order, Wineapple structures the book according to groups of categories like the examples above and without numbering them. Most of these topics abound in Whitman’s poetry and prose and thus the contents under those items often contain no new insight but are simply repetitions of what Whitman had already expressed in his works. For example, in Leaves of Grass, Whitman writes about the nature of evolution, spontaneity, and totality and the tone of the volume—due to Whitman’s utterances about various topics—is overall positive. Wineapple’s portrayal of Whitman tallies with Roger Asselineau’s statement about Whitman’s late years when she subscribes to the well-known fact that Whitman “in spite of his illness and suffering, continued to celebrate the joy of living” (Asselineau, 1999, 259). Actually, one of the goals of Wineapple’s book is to exhibit this kind of portrayal about Whitman. Nevertheless, she allots the largest part to the Literature section, in which Whitman talks about various writers of both the Old World and New World, including Shakespeare, Rousseau, Keats, Emerson, and Thoreau among many others, making this approach of tidying up of the relationship between Whitman and various writers one of the most valuable parts of the book.
It is necessary, however, to make a distinction between the so-called ‘onstage’ and the ‘offstage’ Whitman in order to point out an ambiguity of this edited project. The ‘offstage Whitman,’ the elderly private person portrayed as a smooth talker in Wineapple’s book is different from the ‘onstage Whitman,’ the poet in his prime. Wineapple quotes Whitman who is saying that “I seem to be developing into a garrulous old man—a talker—a teller of stories” (Wineapple, 7). Wineapple’s book is nevertheless about the old ‘offstage Whitman,’ who is talking only to Traubel and so cannot offer a complete and thus more complex image of the poet. The greatness of the ’onstage Whitman’ lies in his political and poetical radicalness but in Wineapple’s compilation it is ambiguously an ‘offstage Whitman,’ who finally becomes institutionalized as “America’s greatest poet” (“Walt Whitman Speaks” 2019).
The talkative Whitman that Wineapple refers to is incompatible with the American poet in his prime as a poet, for two reasons. Firstly, Whitman had valued silence very much. Admitting in With Walt Whitman in Camden Vol. I. that he talked little and kept silent in his prime, he said that his “own greatest pleasure at Pfaff’s was to look on—to see, talk little, absorb. I never was a great discusser, anyway—never. I was much better satisfied to listen to a fight than take part in it” (Whiteman qtd. in Traubel, 1914, 417). Pfaff’s, the underground restaurant-saloon at 689 Broadway, was a den of artists Whitman frequented. Also, one needs to acknowledge that the term ‘silent’ is one of the main tropes of his poetry. In “I Sit And Look Out,” Whitman ends with “All these—all the meanness and agony without end I sitting look out upon, / See, hear, and am silent.” Moreover, in the Preface of Leaves of Grass (1855), Whitman writes: “Of the traits of the brotherhood of writers, savants [sic!], musicians inventors, and artists nothing is finer than silent defiance advancing from new free forms” (Whitman, 1855, 9, my emphasis). Whitman’s silence signifies his single-mindedness to save his country through his poetry—not through ‘talk’ in which everyday people at the time hotly engaged. This alternative approach is the core of ‘onstage Whitman,’ enabling him to challenge the political and literary status quo. Secondly, Whitman acknowledged also in the Preface of the 1872 edition of Leaves of Grass that he had already said what was to be said in all of his forthcoming volumes. He claimed that “the present and any future pieces from me are really but the surplusage forming after that volume, or the wake eddying behind it” (Whitman 1882, 275-276). Paradoxically, this last claim is rather inconsistent with the nature of the talkative Whitman that Wineapple presents to the reader.
A slight problem that I found lies within the goal of the book, which states that “America’s greatest poet,” Whitman, becomes an “institution.” Indeed, Whitman originally wrote his poetry from perspectives that came outside of political and literary institutions and he was rather ambivalent about being labelled as an institution. He paralleled this with his “reputation” when he wrote that
I was to irradiate, or emanate buoyancy and health. But it came to me in time that I was not to attempt to live up to the reputation I had, or to my own idea of what my programme should be, but to give out or express what I really was, and, if I felt like the devil, to say so! And I have become more and more confirmed in this. (Johnson 1918, 137)
Wineapple portrays Whitman more as an institutionalized ‘guru,’ who left messages to Traubel that stood near him as an apostle, and to Wineapple herself, who actually codified the ‘gospels.’ She obviously set up the project to immortalize Whitman’s basic tenets by pointing out that the poet “did not mask his own wish, even his burning need, to be recognized” (Wineapple, 17). And as she further writes, “he collaborated with Horace Traubel, and hence with me, and with all of us who can for a little while eavesdrop on Whitman speaking about Whitman and his work, about other poets, about critics, about religion, and about his beloved America” (17). However, it should be noted that this institutionalized, contemporary Wineapple’s Whitman differs substantially from the poetically innovative Whitman of 1855.
Overall, Wineapple’s Walt Whitman Speaks is a gift to the average reader with its streamlined compilation but leaves questions about its overall relevance. The compilation covers only ‘Whitman’s final thought’ and therefore it shows only one side of the artist, which is the talkative ‘offstage Whitman.’ Without the claim for a more canonized or ‘distilled’ version of Whitman, Walt Whitman Speaks is most useful when read alongside and in conversation with Whitman’s earlier poetic output.
- Allen, Gay Wilson, ed. 1980. Leaves of Grass with an Introduction by Gay Wilson Allen. Harmondsworth: Penguin Books.
- Asselineau, Roger. 1999. The Evolution of Walt Whitman an expanded edition. Iowa City: University of Iowa Press.
- Johnston, John and Wallace. 1918. J. W, Visits to Walt Whitman in 1890-1891. London: G. Allen & Unwin.
- Traubel, Horace. 1906. With Walt Whitman in Camden (March 28 to July 14, 1888). Boston: Small, Maynard.
- Whitman, Walt. 1855. Leaves of Grass. New York: Walt Whitman, 1855.
- Whitman, Walt. 1882. Specimen Days & Collect. Philadelphia: Rees Welsh & Co.
- “Walt Whitman Speaks.” Available: https://www.loa.org/books/601-walt-whitman-speaks Access: 1 June 2019.