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CHAPTER VI THE CARPENTER
In the fifties a change came over America, a change preluding the great struggle which ensued. The population grew rapidly with its former mathematical regularity; but the settlement and development of the country went forward even more rapidly. During the decade, the area of improved land increased by one-half, and the value of farm property was doubled. The west bank of the Mississippi being already settled, the future of the lands still further west between the Missouri and the Rockies, became of paramount interest to the nation. It was this problem of the West which strained until it broke that policy of compromise which for a generation had bound American politics.

The year 1850 itself is memorable for Clay’s opportunist resolutions in Congress, which were intended to settle nothing; and for the fierce debates upon them and upon the Fugitive Slave Bill, in which Webster and Seward, Calhoun and Jefferson Davis participated.[141] Clay and Webster died soon after, and their party being utterly routed at the polls in 1852, finally went to pieces. The vote of the liberty party had declined, and compromise still held up its foolish head. But the victorious Democrats brought all hope of its continuance to an end by reviving the principle of “squatter sovereignty,” and proceeding to apply it in the newly settled lands. It was their policy to snatch the question of slavery out of the hands of Congress; for which, as the organ of the[Pg 80] Federal power, they nursed an increasing enmity. The bloody scenes which drew all eyes to Kansas made it plain that compromise was done; the South had thrown it over, and was now half-consciously driving the country into war.

When the leaders of 1850 died there was no one to take their places, though the crisis called for men of counsel and of spirit. President Pierce, of New Hampshire, the tool of the party machine, merely represented the political weakness of the nation. It was not till after the next elections that their new leaders were discovered by the American people. Judge Douglas, the champion of “squatter sovereignty,” rose indeed into prominence in 1854, but his greater antagonist still remained comparatively unknown in the country, though famous in his State and among his neighbours for keen logic and humorous common-sense.

There was no leadership. Compromise was yielding not to principle but to the spirit of the mob. Immigration and the increase of the towns favoured organised political corruption; and the tyranny of interests and privileges was beginning to make itself felt on every hand. When parties are separated by motives of personal gain rather than by principle, party-feeling finds expression not in devotion and enthusiasm, but in violence. It was not only in such newly settled lands as Kansas, nor alone in such chaotic aggregations of humanity as were being piled together in New York, that constitutional methods were abandoned and private violence was condoned. The spirit of anarchy was abroad, and members of Congress went armed to the Capitol itself.

The violence was a natural reaction from the compromise, and like the compromise was a birth of the materialistic spirit. America’s idealism, so triumphant at the close of the eighteenth century, had fallen upon too confident a slumber, and heavily must the Republic pay for that sleep. A young nation of idealists is doubtless more subject than any other to these outbreaks of materialism and its offspring. It is optimistic, and[Pg 81] when it sleeps it leaves no dogs on guard. The nation becomes engrossed in material tasks, and is presently surprised by the enemy. But being so surprised, and fighting thus at disadvantage, it accomplishes more than the wary old pessimists whose energy is absorbed in prudence.

American idealism was asleep, but its slumbers were by no means sound. The voices of Garrison, Emerson and others mingled troublously with its dreams. And the pursuit and capture of fugitive slaves like Anthony Burns, in Boston itself; and the extraordinary sale, both in America and Europe, of Uncle Tom’s Cabin,[142] did much to quicken that Abolitionist sentiment which in the end won the day. For the present, however, and until the third year of the war, abolition remained outside the region of practical politics. The question which was dividing the nation was whether slavery should become a national institution—whether it should take its place, as the South intended, as one of the essential postulates in the theory of American liberty—or should be restrained within its old limits as a State institution, an evil which the Federal Government would never recognise as necessary to the welfare of America, but which it was too proud and too generous to compel its constituent States to abolish. The situation was one of unstable equilibrium, and the illogical position could not much longer be maintained. It was the logic of ideas that first drove the South into secession, and afterwards the nation into abolition.

Immigration was now beginning to create a difficult problem in the metropolis,[143] and was in part accountable for the corruption which from this time forward disfigured its politics. By 1855 New York counted more than six hundred thousand inhabitants; a number which in itself must inevitably have created many a delicate situation in a new country, but which was rendered tenfold more difficult to manage by its rapid growth and[Pg 82] heterogeneous character. It had doubled in fifteen years, and a continuously increasing stream of immigration had poured through it.

The first great wave had brought nearly two millions of Europeans, principally Germans and Irish, across the Atlantic during the later forties. The failure of the Irish potato crop in 1846, the crisis of 1848, when Europe was swept by revolution and afterwards by reaction, sent hundreds of thousands of homeless men across the sea. Many of the Germans afterwards took their share in another struggle for freedom in their new home; but on the other hand, the more helpless of the immigrants, and a large proportion of the Irish, swelled the population of New York; and proved themselves quicker to learn the advantages of party subserviency than the ethics of citizenship. Many of them had been trained in the school of tyranny at home. Thus the city government became almost hopelessly corrupt, falling into the hands of the genteel and unprincipled Mayor Fernando Wood,[144] and Isaiah Rynders, captain of his bodyguard of blackguards. Men of this stamp began to control not only the government of New York city, but the national party which had its headquarters at Tammany Hall. Whitman was intimate with the condition of things there,[145] and knew the men who manipulated the machine, and pulled the strings at the nominating conventions. He has described those of this period in the most scathing words, and has made it clear that they were among the worst of a bad class. They did not favour slavery so much as inaction; they longed only for a continuance of their own good fortune, desiring to fatten peacefully at the troughs of corruption. To men like these, ideals seem to constitute a public danger. And the war which broke over America in 1861 was due as much to the northern menials of Mammon as to the real followers of Calhoun. It was not only against the South that America fought—or rather it was not against the South itself at all—but against the hosts[Pg 83] of those who used her freedom for the accomplishment of an end antagonistic to hers.

Evidences of the demoralising influence always present in the life of a great city were thus painfully patent in New York, especially in the lowest strata, becoming hourly more debased and numerous. The plutocracy also began to imitate the showy splendours of Paris under the second Empire.[146] But it would be wrong to assume that corruption and display characterised the metropolis of the fifties. For in spite of the foreign influx, and the venality of a considerable class both of native and of foreign birth, and in spite too of the snobs, in spite that is to say of the appearance of two dangerous elements, the very poor and the very rich, there was still predominant in New York a frank and hearty democratic feeling. The mass of the people still embodied much of the true American genius; they were marked by the friendly, independent and unconventional carriage which is still upon the whole typical of the West.

New York was full of large democratic types of manhood. Notable, even among these, was Walt Whitman. Even here, he was unlike other men: the fulness of his spirits, his robust individuality, the generosity of his whole nature, was so exceptional as to make itself felt. His figure began to grow familiar to all kinds of New Yorkers during these years. He was frequently to be seen on Broadway,[147] in his favourite coign of vantage, on the stage-top by the driver’s side, a great, red-faced fellow, in a soft beaver, with clothes of his own choosing, an open collar like that of Byron or Jean Paul, and a grey beard. The dress suited him, he was plainly at home in it, and in those days it was not specially remarkable or odd; it was the man himself who compelled attention.

On many a holiday through 1853 he might also have been seen at the International Exhibition or World’s Fair,[148] which was held in the Crystal Palace on Sixth[Pg 84] Avenue and Fortieth Street, and offered a remarkable object lesson to the people of New York on the development of American resources and the value of that national unity which railroads and machinery were yearly making more actual. Here America was seen in all her own natural promise, and also in her relation to the Transatlantic world.

It was one of those sights which Whitman dearly loved. The Exhibition taught him far more than books about the country in which he lived; for his mind was like a child’s in its responsiveness to concrete illustrations—a quality which may explain the long strings of nouns which figure so oddly on many a page which he afterwards wrote. He loved a medley of things, each one significant and delightful in itself. A catalogue was for him a sort of elemental poem; and being elemental, he sought to introduce the catalogue into literature. We who live in another and more ordered world, rarely respond to this kind of emotional stimulus, which was doubtless very powerful for Whitman, and cannot but laugh at his attempts to move us by a chatter of names. It may be we are wrong, and that another age will smile at us in our turn, though at present we remain incredulous.

Here, too, he studied such examples as he found of statuary and painting, arts of which he must hitherto have been largely ignorant. It is only very old or very wealthy cities that become treasuries of the plastic arts, and at this time New York was not yet sufficiently rich, or perhaps sufficiently travelled, to have accumulated this kind of wealth. Whitman was not blind to painting, like Carlyle, for in later years he so appreciated the genius of J. F. Millet that he used to say, “the man that knows his Millet needs no creed”.[149]

After a varied experience as teacher, printer, journalist and editor, Whitman had settled into the life of an American artisan. He had inherited much of the Dutch realism,[Pg 85] the love of things and of the making of things, from his mother’s side; while on his father’s, the associations with mallet and chisel had been strong from his childhood; and thus his trade helped him to gather together the fragments of his identity and weld them into one. As he was never in any sense its slave, it also provided him with the means for that constant leisurely study of life which was now his real occupation. When a house was off his hands and the money for it assured, he would take a holiday, extending sometimes over weeks together, in the remote parts of Long Island.[150] The open spaces helped his mood, and the quietness furthered the slow processes of self-realisation.

While at Brooklyn, he was every day on the ferry, and almost every evening he was in New York. He read during his dinner hour, and thought and meditated while he worked. The physical exercise quieted his brain. Taken earlier, it might have deadened it; but he was now a mature man full of thoughts, and well furnished with experience. What he needed was to assimilate all this material and make it his own. And while he built houses, the co-ordinating principle of his personality was building up for him a harmonious self-consciousness, which gradually filled out the large and wholesome body of the man. This gestating process required precisely the deliberation and open-air accompaniments which were afforded by his present life—a life so different from the confinement and incessant strain and stress which check all processes of conscious development in most men and women before they reach maturity. His nature was emotional, and music played a considerable part in its development. Always an assiduous opera-goer, Whitman took full advantage of the musical opportunities which New York offered him at this time. In 1850, Barnum had brought Jenny Lind to the Castle Gardens—now the Aquarium—a fashionable resort on the Battery, and Maretzek of the Astor Opera House, had replied with Parodi, and Bettini the great tenor.[151]

[Pg 86]

Best of all, in 1853, Marietta Alboni visited the city, and Whitman heard her every night of her engagement.[152] This great singer, whose voice was then in the plenitude of its power, had been some twelve years before the public and was already beginning to attain those physical proportions suggested in the cruel but witty saying that she resembled an elephant which had swallowed a nightingale. She was low-browed and of a somewhat heavy face, though Whitman thought her handsome; but it was by her voice, not her face, that she triumphed. Critics found her talent exceptionally impersonal and even cold, though they confessed that never voice was more enchanting.[153] This coldness is rather difficult to understand, for Whitman, who was a judge in such matters, felt it to be full of passion, and a passion which swept him away in the Titanic whirlwind of its power.[154] He had found Jenny Lind somewhat immature and her voice unrewarding, but Alboni awakened and illumined his very soul, and became, as it were, the incarnation of music.

The same summer[155] Walt took his father, whose health was failing, on a visit to Huntington, to see the old home for a last time. Two years later, Walter Whitman died and was buried in Brooklyn.

The family seems to have been living in Ryerton Street,[156] in a house which was the last building on that side of the town. Beside Walt, there were three unmarried brothers at home, George and Jeff as well as Edward; and Hannah, Walt’s favourite sister. We hear little of Jesse, the oldest brother, who appears to have been a labourer, of Andrew, or of the remaining sister Mary. Probably they were all married by this time and living away.

The three at home were the ablest of the brothers, and doubtless they shared the financial responsibility between them. The Portland Avenue house, into which they presently moved, bears witness to their comfort[Pg 87]able circumstances. Walt contributed his share with his brothers; beyond that he seemed indifferent about money; he hardly ever spoke of it, and perhaps by way of contrast with the others, evidently regarded the subject as of minor importance. Indeed, just as his own work had really grown profitable and he was on the way to become rich, he gave up carpentering for good. This was early in 1855.

Of late he had been more and more absorbed and pre-occupied; his days off had been more frequent and numerous, and whatever his immediate occupation he was continually stopping to write. He seemed to grow daily more indifferent to opinion, daily more markedly himself.

The fragments which he wrote in out-of-the-way places or at work he would read aloud or recite when by himself, to the waves or to the trees; trying them over at the opera, on the ferry, or on Broadway, where in the midst of the city one can be so unobserved and so unheard in the heart of its hubbub. He must assure himself that they were without a hint of unreality or of books.

For he was now deliberately at work upon his great task, his child’s fancy. He was come up into his manhood. He had, it seemed to him, thoroughly perceived and absorbed the spirit of America and of his time. His message had come to him, and he was writing his prophetic book, his Song of Walt Whitman.

At last, the manuscript was done, and in the early summer he went to work in a little printing shop on Cranberry Street, and set up much, perhaps the whole, of the type jealously with his own hands.[157] About the beginning of July, and a few days only before his father’s death, it was completed. In the New York Tribune for the sixth of the month, it was advertised as being on sale at Fowler & Wells’s Phrenological Dep?t and Bookstore on Broadway, and at Swayne’s in Fulton Street, Brooklyn. The price was at first two dollars,[Pg 88] which seems a little exorbitant for so slender and unpretending a volume, in shape and thickness a mere single copy of one of the smaller periodicals, bound in sea-green cloth, with the odd name, Leaves of Grass, in fanciful gilt lettering across its face. It was presently reduced to a dollar.

The other members of the household took the new venture very quietly. They had never been consulted in the matter—it had been Walt’s affair, and only his; and the father’s death must speedily have obliterated the little mark it made upon their minds.[158] “Hiawatha” was published about the same time, and a copy found its way into the house. The mother, turning the pages of both, considered that if Longfellow’s were acknowledged as poetry, Walt’s queer lines might pass muster too. Brother George fingered the book a little, and concluded it was not worth reading—that it was not in his line anyhow.

Doubtless they were relieved when the writing and printing were done, thinking that now surely Walt would return to the ways of mortals. For he had certainly fallen into the most irregular habits. He lay late abed, and came down still later to breakfast; wrote for a few hours, and when the table was being laid for dinner, took down his big hat and sauntered out, to return presently after the meal was over and the dishes cold.[159] He was not intentionally inconsiderate, but he was wholly engrossed in his work, and so pre-occupied that he must often have been tiresome enough.

After dinner he disappeared altogether, spending the afternoon and evening in his own leisurely way; setting type, perhaps, on his book at Andrew Rome’s little office, and then going off to the opera or to some friend’s; and, as he came back, staying far into the night in talk with the young fellows on the ferry, or on one of the East River steamers. Sometimes Hannah or Jeff might accompany him, but as a rule he went alone.

If his family anticipated any change in his ways when[Pg 89] the book was out, they were doomed to disappointment. The new task was but begun; the methods approved themselves to his mind and were pursued. He had weighed everything over again that summer, as soon as the book was out, going away to the eastern shore of Long Island for months of thought and solitude.[160]

As one turns the ninety broad pages of the volume, with their large type, their long flowing lines, their odd punctuation and occasional slips in orthography, every detail telling of the individuality behind it, one feels a little of what it must have meant to its maker. Five times, they say,[161] he wrote and re-wrote, made and un-made it, and looking back it seemed as though for seven years it had been struggling with him for utterance.

He had written tales and verses with the others, but this book he knew was different from them all. It was not so much his writing as himself. It was a man, and, withal, a new sort of man. For better or worse it was Walt Whitman, a figure familiar enough to the common people of Brooklyn and New York, familiar and beloved—he was not unconscious of his exceptional power of attraction[162]—but a Walt Whitman whom, as yet, they understood very little, who had, indeed, but recently come to an understanding of himself, and who was now approaching to speak with them. Here is the frank declaration of himself, which he proffers to all. Now, at last, we shall understand one another, he seems to say.

It was the old, old need for expression, the ultimate and deepest necessity of man, which urged him to his task and made its publication possible. Self-revelation is, of course, continuous and inevitable upon its unconscious side. It is only when it becomes a deliberate act that it astonishes the beholder to outcries of admiration or indignant horror.

Now the passion that overwhelms the poet is near[Pg 90] akin to the lover’s, for he is a lover whose heart is transfigured by the presence of Beauty, the Beloved, immanent in his world. And only by a naked avowal can such passion be satisfied.

There are those, of course, who regard every self-revelation as an immodesty, and who will and do avert their eyes from all passion, crying shame. But some at least of the others, who are well aware of the weakness of words, and know how few can use them perfectly, will reverently approach such a confession as Whitman’s; not, indeed, as if it were that of a young girl, but as that of a man, na?ve, yet virile, and of heroic sanity. And if they feel any shame they will frankly acknowledge it to be their own.

There is a kind of egoism which all self-revelation pre-supposes—the consciousness of possessing something supremely worthy of giving. This glorious pride is not incompatible with the profoundest humility, for it is divine, like the “I am” of Jehovah, the egoism of God.

If self-expression is the outcome of passion, its new incarnation has some of the wonder which attends a birth. The most virile of poets must here become as a woman; and the mystery which, for any mother, enwraps her first-born, clings for his Muse about her slender child by the great god of song. And when, as in the instance of this book of Whitman’s, the children of the Muse betray in every feature the abandonment of the remote passion in which they were conceived, one cannot oneself handle them without emotion.

Walt regarded the book with undisguised pride and satisfaction. Mother-like, he eyed it as the future saviour of men. He saw it prophetic and large with destiny for America. He was confident that the public would be quick to recognise that quality in it for which they had been so long half-consciously waiting. The people would read it with a new delight, for surely it must be dynamic with the joy in which it was written.

He often said in later years that Leaves of Grass was[Pg 91] an attempt to put a happy man into literature.[163] Others may discuss the optimism and the egoism of his pages, for of both qualities there is plenty in them, but, after all, they are but secondary there. As to the qualities themselves, we may hold contrary and even disparaging opinions of their value, they will certainly at times repel us. But primarily these pages portray the happy man, and a strong and happy personality has the divine gift of attraction. Byron may dominate the whole of Europe for a generation by the dark Satanic splendour of his pride; Carlyle may hold us still by his fierce, lean passion for sincerity; but Whitman draws us by the outshining of his joy.

Happiness is not less infectious than melancholy or zeal; and if it is genuine it is at least equally beyond price. As far as it goes, it seems to indicate that a man may be perfectly adjusted to this world of circumstances, which to us appears so often contrary. A happy and intelligent man of thirty-six, who has looked at life open-eyed, and is neither handsome, rich nor famous is worthy of attention. There is something half-divine about him; and we cannot but hope he may prove to be prophetic of the race.

Some such thought must have been in Emerson’s mind, when a few days after the perusal of Leaves of Grass, he wrote his acknowledgment to its unknown author.[164] The letter has been often quoted, but it is so significant that I must quote it again. For no other literary acknowledgment ever accorded to Whitman possesses anything like equal interest or importance.

Emerson was certainly the most notable force among American writers at that time; and one might add, the only figure of anything like the first magnitude. In Great Britain, the century had already produced the literature which we associate with the names of Wordsworth, Coleridge, Scott, Byron, Shelley, Keats and[Pg 92] Carlyle, not to mention the earlier work of Tennyson, Browning and others. Emerson was the only American who could venture to claim rank with these, and then hardly equal literary rank. But in some respects his influence was greater, for his was certainly the clearest and fullest expression of the American spirit in letters. His words are therefore of importance to us:—

    “Concord, Mass’tts, 21st July, 1855.

    “Dear Sir,—I am not blind to the worth of the wonderful gift of Leaves of Grass. I find it the most extraordinary piece of wit and wisdom that America has yet contributed. I am very happy in reading it, as great power makes us happy. It meets the demand I am always making of what seems the sterile and stingy nature, as if too much handiwork, or too much lymph in the temperament, were making our Western wits fat and mean. I give you joy of your free and brave thought. I have great joy in it. I find incomparable things said incomparably well, as they must be. I find the courage of treatment that so delights us and which large perception only can inspire.

    “I greet you at the beginning of a great career, which yet must have had a long foreground somewhere, for such a start. I rubbed my eyes a little, to see if this sunbeam were no illusion; but the solid sense of the book is a sober certainty. It has the best merits, namely, of fortifying and encouraging.

    “I did not know until I last night saw the book advertised in a newspaper that I could trust the name as real and available for a post office. I wish to see my benefactor, and have felt much like striking my tasks and visiting New York to pay you my respects.

    R. W. Emerson.

    “Mr. Walter Whitman.”

Picture of Ralph Waldo Emerson.

R. W. EMERSON

The epigrammatic style of the sentences, together with a strong flavour of sentiment, may set the reader in his turn rubbing his eyes, and wondering whether Emerson were consciously inditing a mere complimen[Pg 93]tary letter. But a second perusal renders such an idea untenable. The epigram and the sentiment were parts of the Emersonian mannerism. The letter was not penned in hot haste, after a first glance at the pages; a delay had taken place between reading and writing. Moreover, when about this time a visitor called at Concord, he was sent on his way to Brooklyn as upon a pilgrimage, with the significant words, “Americans abroad may now come home: unto us a man is born”.[165] Another epigram, uttered perhaps with a gentle smile, but without a flavour of irony.

Emerson was then a man of fifty-two. The first and second series of his lecture-essays had been published more than ten years, and the first volume of his poems in 1847; he was already famous in England as well as in America. But though he was in certain quarters the cynosure of admiration, in others he was the butt of ridicule. This same year the London Athen?um praised Irving because, as it said, his fancies were ideal, and not like Emerson’s merely typographical—because they did not consist, like the latter’s, in the use of verbs for nouns, in erratic punctuation, tumid epithets, which were startling rather than apposite, or in foreign forms and idioms.[166]

This though milder, is not unlike what many of the critics were soon to be saying with better reason of Whitman; and it is interesting to recall that in 1839, when he was Whitman’s age, Emerson was struggling to escape from the limits of metre into a rhythm that should suggest the wildest freedom; that should be “firm as the tread of a horse,”[167] vindicate itself like the stroke of a bell, and knock at prose and dulness like a cannon ball; a rhythm which should be in itself a renewing of creation, because it was the form of a living spirit. In later years, Emerson seems to have harked back again to the more regular forms, believing them to correspond to essential pulse-beats, or organic rhythm.[Pg 94] But his journal contains several little prose poems of the date of 1855 or 1856, notably the sketch of the “Two Rivers,” outlined partly in loose irregular metres.

This search of the Concord prophet after a new free rhythmical form, must have predisposed him to interest in such a book as Leaves of Grass, where the laws of metre are in force no longer. But beyond this, the older man felt a close kinship with the younger. Whitman had declared himself unequivocally for the faith in life which was Emerson’s gospel; and he smacked of the soil and air of America in a way that Emerson could not but love. Here at last was an actual incarnation of the ideas he had so long been hurling at the heads of the American people.

A beautiful and characteristic modesty is evident in the tone of the letter. Emerson might well have acknowledged the younger man as a pupil rather than as a benefactor; it was the same quality as had appeared in his reply to Frederika Bremer, when, five years earlier, she had been praising his own verses: “The Poet of America,” he answered gravely, “is not yet come. When he comes he will sing quite differently.”

The idea of an American poet was “in the air”. Intellectual America was in revolt; she would remain no longer a mere province of Britain; her writers should shape themselves no more upon merely English models. Lowell in his “Biglow Papers” and Longfellow in “Hiawatha” were among many who sought to exploit the literary soil of the New World. Whatever their success in this, they can hardly be said to have inaugurated a new literature. No American Muse had yet appeared upon the Heights of Helicon to spread a new hush over the world, and by her singing raise the place of song perilously near to the stars. But though she had not appeared she was eagerly expected; and Emerson’s letter is like nothing so much as the heralding cry that he had at last caught a glimpse of her across Whitman’s pages. It was but a glimpse, and he was yet in doubt; he must come to Brooklyn himself, must meet this fellow face to face, and see.


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