Mitchell Santine Gould
Or rather, to be quite exact, a desire…Walt Whitman,
had been flitting through my previous life
“A Backwards Glance O’er Travel’d Roads”
Although an origin story has always naturally been part of the biographer’s bread and butter, the field lacks its own term for this, and so we must borrow the notion of “origin story” from contemporary pop culture. Having been flogged for more than a century, Walt Whitman’s personal origin story is painfully familiar to Whitman’s readers, to say the least. Doubtless, a serious re-examination of its cultural context would overturn some hoary, simplistic clichés and yield important new insights, but it is not the intention here to address the origin story of the poet, but rather, of his poems. In the course of doing so, we shall find ourselves profoundly engaged with vital questions first raised in 1938 by the eminent Quaker historian Frederick Tolles, (Tolles) and shall reach some startling conclusions.
Suffice it to say that, for the purposes of our story, Whitman was twenty-three in 1842, and was attempting to restart his career in journalism in Manhattan. He had lost all his teen-aged prospects in New York’s Great Fire of 1835, which annihilated both the printing and financial districts, and then, the onset of the Panic of 1837 drove him further into a kind of economic exile on rural Long Island, where he survived most of the time as an itinerant country schoolmaster.
The following account consists of a very close reading of six snippets regarding Transcendentalism in his newspaper, the New York Aurora. This paper aims to reveal Whitman’s earliest advocacy of unspeakable love beneath the spiritual charter of Inner Light. It therefore suggests that the prominent Whitman scholar Jerome Loving was more right than he knew, when he declared, “The year 1842 was pivotal in Whitman’s development as a poet.” (Loving 62)
If 1841 marked the beginning of Whitman’s return from exile on Long Island, to journalism and to his mast-hemmed city, then 1842 signaled something of its triumph. In February, he was merely writing penny-a-line copy for the Aurora, but by March – in the words of the publisher – this “bold, energetic and original writer” had become ensconced at the editor’s desk in Herrick, West, and Rope’s newspaper office on Nassau Street. (Rubin and Brown 2) The Brooklyn Daily Eagle, ever friendly to Whitman, noted a marked journalistic change for the better, albeit one colored by the occasional dash of egotism. Glorying in his promotion from freelance reporter to editor, the smug flâneur sported, for his investigative tramps around the Battery: a trim beard sans ‘stache, a frock coat, and a heavy cane. (4-5)
Whitman took “a fancy” to young (he always liked ‘em young) typesetter William Cauldwell, who revealed a few years after Whitman’s death that the Aurora was the New York organ for Whig President John Tyler. Tyler’s administration controlled the Aurora through the agency of the Collector of the Port of New York. The Aurora’s formerly-British publisher, Herrick, in turn, sought to “inspire” Whitman, but this proved easier said than done. They frequently had vehement disagreements over editorial copy, and typically, Whitman snatched up his hat and cane, and strutted out in a huff. Soon enough, however, recalled Cauldwell, Whitman would return and comply with Herrick’s demands. “Herrick, who ran the political crank, was to have the toning of its [editorials],” added Cauldwell, but Whitman drew a line in the sand beyond which he would not write: “If you want such stuff in The Aurora, write it yourself.” After Whitman resigned/was fired in May, Herrick characterized him as “the laziest fellow who ever undertook to edit a city paper.” (81-82)
It may be difficult to grasp the endless nuances of Whig Party history, but a cursory glance will be necessary to correct the misattribution scholars have made of the Aurora’s coverage of Ralph Waldo Emerson’s lecture on poetry during Whitman’s short-lived editorship. The Whig Party platform and its demographics are exceedingly hard to summarize. It contained both liberal and conservative elements, but it is known that one of the few common themes which bound these disparate interests was a demand for economic prosperity, made more urgent in the context of the lingering Panic of 1837 – the same force that had driven young Whitman out of Manhattan. For the present purpose, just know that Christian evangelicals comprised one of the Whig constituencies, and there were also working-class and aristocratic factions. By 1842, these diverse factions were no longer united, and the party was falling apart, a situation echoed at the highest level, namely, the Presidency.
Vice President Tyler’s unexpected promotion was the result of Whig President Harrison’s death after 31 days in office, and once in office, Tyler wrested his power away from the Whig Party’s control. According to the biography of Horace Greeley by Whitman’s close friend James Parton, New York Tribune kingmaker Greeley undertook a mission to Washington in December of 1841 to reconcile Tyler to the Whig party line. (Parton 164) When Tyler refused these overtures, Greeley seems to have become an enemy of the administration, and so naturally, was made a target of ridicule in Tyler’s organ, the Aurora. With this sketchy background in hand, we can now better examine six instances of Transcendental coverage under Whitman’s tenure as editor.
Item 1: Is it only a coincidence that the first Transcendentalist critique printed during Whitman’s tenure, on February 28, is exclusively concerned with Rev. Theodore Parker? Perhaps not: fundamentalists rightfully regarded Parker, a radical, increasingly popular Unitarian minister, as more of a clear and present danger than Emerson (and it should go without saying this anonymous piece was not submitted by Whitman). Parker was advocating for a rationalist reformation – one, for example, which would treat the Old Testament as a collection of primitive legends. He had recently lectured in New Bedford, a whaling town perched on the very edge of the continental United States. Leadership there was, in good part, composed of Quaker-tarians who had deeply impressed Emerson – those liberal Friends who had turned Unitarian during the New Light Schism more than two decades before, leaving behind an Orthodox Meeting. (Tolles) Over the years, Parker always found an enthusiastic audience in New Bedford, because these ex-Friends turned up their noses at the naïve fundamentalism of “the world’s people,” – and so did its sailors, using the self-same phrase: “the world’s people.”
New Bedford’s newspaper, the Bulletin, had just published accounts of the Parker lectures given there, and the Aurora’s anonymous contributor denounced them in a primitive editorial, trimmed here with a few omissions:
…The New Bedford Bulletin is giving abstracts of a series of transcendental lectures in the course of delivery in that town, by Rev. Mr. Parker… Why does not the editor of the Bulletin enrich his columns with extracts from “Paine’s Age of Reason,” instead of these lecture abstracts? Paine is the most able, concise, and lucid writer of the two. Mr. Parker, however, has one virtue not generally possessed by transcendental writers. In his diction he approaches civilisation. Occasionally, however, he gives evidence with Mohawk syntax – his flight among the clouds of words being as wild as the flight of a hawk among clouds of mosquitoes… [emphasis on the lame pun, mine] lest we should be considered dealing out unmerited censure, we present a passage or two of Mr. P.’s lecture on the “Scriptures.”
…the books of [Mosaic] law “could not have been written by the inspiration of God, is proved by the fact that their statements contradict nature, and we could not, at this day, say that ‘nature lied,’ when her teachings did not accord with the Bible…
And again, this eagle eyed reasoner says, “If we examine the prophecies with candor, we shall find that nothing was foretold in them, that had been fulfilled, which men occupying the position these writers held, and with the knowledge they possessed, might not have naturally predicted…”
…We can only express our surprise that such sentiments can be calmly listened to, and drunk in with avidity, as they appear to be, by the sons and daughters of the pilgrims.
We alluded above to the Unitarian denomination. Many of them we know are open to the charge of encouraging such views. But there are honorable exceptions. We know at least one clergyman of that school, who once gave his congregation such a [primitive therapeutic] sweating on Parkerism as effectually made the poison ooze off. (“Transcendentalism” Feb 28, 1842)
Herrick would have viewed these controversial statements as pandering to evangelical Whigs, softening them up for regular praise of President Tyler and Whig Senator Henry Clay.
Item 2: The next look at what Andrews Norton dubbed “the latest form of infidelity” came on March 7, two days after Emerson entered the New York Society Library’s fine Ionic façade on Broadway (“A Further History of the Library”) to address a full house. The lingering depression had rendered his bank unable to pay any dividends, and as Rusk put it, “his Boston market was slipping.” (286-7) That is why, reluctantly, Emerson took his show on the road: a six-part mini-series entitled “The Times,” the second installment of which was entitled “Nature and the Powers of the Poet.” (“Note on the Poet Lecture”) For what it’s worth, Emerson’s host on Staten Island, his brother William, said that the lectures had “produced a marked sensation in the best part of our community,” and as a result, Waldo had accumulated many new “lovers & admirers.” This was fortunate, considering that he hadn’t cleared much profit over his expenses. (Rusk 287)
MR. EMERSON’S LECTURE. – The transcendentalist had a very full house on Saturday evening. There were a few beautiful maids–but more ugly women, most blue stockings; several interesting young men with Byron collars; lawyers, doctors, and parsons; Grahamites and abolitionists; sage editors, a few of whom were taking notes, and all the other species of literati. Greeley was in ecstasies whenever any thing [sic] particularly good was said, which seemed to be once in about five minutes – he would flounce about like a fish out of water, or like a tickled girl – look round, to see those behind him and at his side; all of which very plainly told to those both far and near, that he knew a thing or two more about these matters than other men.
This lecture was on the “Poetry of the Times.” He said that the first man who called another an ass was a poet. Because the business of the poet is expression – the giving utterance to the emotions and sentiments of the soul; and this expression or utterance is best effect by similies and metaphors. But it would do the lecturer great injustice to attempt anything like a sketch of his ideas. Suffice it to say, the lecture was one of the richest and most beautiful compositions, both for its matter and style, we have heard anywhere, at any time. (“Mr. Emerson’s Lecture”)
Generations of Emerson and Whitman scholars have, without any evidence, attributed the Aurora coverage of that evening’s historic lecture to Whitman. But there are too many compelling reasons to think they were mistaken. Let’s set aside its oft-cited praise for Emerson’s lecture: “one of the richest and most beautiful compositions… we have heard anywhere, at any time.” And let us instead concentrate on some sour rhetoric in this 2-paragraph piece, in light of what we know about Whitman, as well as about the Tyler Administration. The first paragraph devotes half of its space to the audience in general, and the other half to Tyler’s powerful frenemy, Horace Greeley. After a swipe at ugly bluestockings (that is, intellectual or nerdy women), it mentions: “interesting young” men with Byronic collars (mashed-down collars, open at the neck, a sign of libertinism); doctors; ministers; bran-chewing followers of Sylvester Graham; abolitionists; and newspaper editors – all offered up as various species of New York literati.
Flaxen-haired Greeley had once been an important friend to Tyler. But now, if we read between the following lines, we suddenly get the feeling that every red-blooded son of the President ought to pity that fidgety, effeminate New York egotist (and turncoat).
Greeley was in ecstasies whenever any thing particularly good was said, which seemed to be about once in five minutes – he would flounce about like a fish out of water, or a tickled girl – look around, to see both those behind him and those at his side; all of which very plainly to told those both far and near, that he knew a thing or two more about these matters than other men. (“Mr. Emerson’s Lecture”)
Whitman, by contrast, simply had no motive for insulting Greeley in this way; on the contrary, he had a lifelong affection for this fellow journalist and social radical. In his deathbed commentaries on Greeley, he stated that he had always been “drawn” to this egalitarian dreamer, a tragically stubborn man who had nevertheless always been kind to Whitman. (Whitman, “Saturday, June 15, 1889,” Whitman, “Monday, July 28, 1890″)
The second paragraph of the lecture coverage, besides the superlative praise already mentioned, practically reduces Emerson’s lecture down to one vulgar quip – “He said that the first man who called another an ass was a poet” – before entirely throwing its hands up in the air: “it would do the lecturer great injustice to attempt anything like a sketch of his ideas.” This is not even trying. This does not sound like Walt Whitman at all.
In sum, it would seem that Whitman was not allowed to write the Aurora’s Emerson piece, simply because it afforded Herrick a chance to smear Greeley, one too juicy to pass up. To paraphrase Whitman, Herrick “wanted such stuff in the Aurora,” and he wrote it himself. But this was a slap in Whitman’s face, because he really liked Greeley, and more to the point: there was no journalist in Manhattan better qualified than Walt to get at the heart of Transcendentalism.
Item 3: Which brings us to the third Aurora piece on the subject, published the next day. It deserves to be printed in full.
(For the Aurora)
TRANSCENDENTALISM. – As Mr. R. W. Emerson is now among us, and has been favoring us with a very learned lecture, and as he stands at the head of transcendentalism in this country, we will endeavor to convey to our readers some idea of its true definition. We can give but a glimpse of this new opinion. John Locke, the celebrated metaphysician, asserted that all knowledge is received into the soul through the medium of the senses, and thence passes to be judged of and analysed by the understanding. Kant, the learned German metaphysician, rejects this as false. He denies that all knowledge is received through the senses, and maintains that all the highest, and therefore most universal truths, are revealed within the soul to a faculty transcending the understanding. This faculty is called pure reason. This reason is called by Transcendentalists “the God within.” They believe that all perceptions of the true, the good, and the beautiful, are revealed in its unconscious quietude; and that the province of the understanding, with its five handmaids, the senses, is confined entirely to external things, such as facts, scientific laws, etc.
The Quakers see transcendentalism through a religious medium – [whereas] Kant [sees it] in a light purely philosophic. Unitarianism does not, as has been supposed, involve transcendentalism; on the contrary, it often cherishes an extreme aversion to it. The more popular and common forms of theology have a natural affinity with the metaphysics of Locke.
Transcendentalists and Perfectionists touch at one point, and one only, like rounded marbles. Both believe we may “be perfect as our Father in heaven is perfect,” though they may utter the idea in very different expressions. They may be considered as Unitarian and Calvinistic forms of the same thought; hence, one naturally speaks in the language of philosophy, and the other of scripture.
These Transcendentalists are not a sect, and have no creed. No two individuals of them think alike, except on the point that the highest truths are perceived by a faculty transcending the understanding, and not dependent on the senses for knowledge. It is true that men at present begin to feel responsible for their own opinions, and not for those of presbyteries, synods, assemblies, conferences, meetings of elders, associations, or parties. Transcendentalism is the most ultra form of this increasing feeling. In the language of Mr. Emerson himself – “This is the era of individuality. It is All Soul’s Day.” (“Transcendentalism” March 8, 1842)
This precis has been ignored by those who may have read too much into what is in essence mostly Herrick’s hatchet-job on Greeley. Oddly enough, the observation that “no two of them think alike” was a fact known within Emerson’s innermost circle, (Rusk 286-7) but we don’t know how a reporter would have learned this. The piece most resembles an exposition published decades later by the eminent Transcendentalist historian, Octavius Brooks Frothingham, an important exposition first studied by Tolles. (Tolles)
“Transcendentalism, properly so called,” Frothingham wrote in 1876, “was imported in foreign packages,” adding that the original Transcendentalist authors were the first to introduce the writings of certain European philosophers to America. The press responded favorably to these brainy volumes, but above all, recounted Frothingham, the respected historian, George Bancroft, who had spared
no pains to commend them and the views they presented. The spiritual philosophy had no more fervent or eloquent champion than [Bancroft]. No reader of his “History of the United States,” has forgotten the noble tribute paid to it under the name of Quakerism, or the striking parallel between the two systems represented in the history by John Locke and Wm. Penn…
….To Locke, conscience is nothing else than our own opinion of our own actions; to Penn, it is the image of God and his oracle in the soul… Some may be of opinion that inasmuch as Quakerism traces the source of the Inner Light to the supernatural illumination of the Holy Spirit, while Transcendentalism regards it as a natural endowment of the human mind, the two are fundamentally opposed while superficially in agreement. However this may be, the practical issues of the two coincide… (Bancroft 115-120)
The question remains: did Whitman write Item 3’s deep, incisive analysis? Whitman, the same editor who surely wrote the following, on the previous day?
…Most of these newcomers [to a Temperance meeting] were young men, with the firemen’s uniform – red flannel shirts, and their suspenders bearing the number of their “machine” embroidered upon the back. A great many were “Thirty-Three’s boys.” We don’t believe we ever saw a set of finer, handsomer looking young fellows… (“The New Movement: Great Times at the Franklin Theater” March 7, 1842)
… and who penned this burst of wishful thinking, one which bears the hints of recent brushes with rural bigotry, on March 26?
PRUDERY. – In good society, nowadays, far more latitude of thought and expression is allowed than formerly. The old notions about delicacy, and chasteness of conversation are voted a bore. It is only country girls, and women that have never been where they know any thing, who retain these old traits of antiquated prudes. (“Prudery” March 26, 1842)
Whitman had been desperately unhappy in the country, and indeed, may have encountered some sort of prudery there. As one example, CJ Furness found the following suppressed passage in the manuscript of a published memoir written by one of Whitman’s dearest friends, Mrs. Ellen O’Connor. During the Civil War, Furness confessed to her that “the grown up son of the farmer with whom [Walt] was boarding while he was teaching school became very fond of him, and Walt of the boy, and he said the father quite reproved him for making such a pet of the boy.”
Despite its unusually legalistic and defensive emphasis on the youth’s age, this passage, though mild and euphemistic, was considered too controversial to print. (Allen) On the other hand, contrary to the breathless accounts in numerous acclaimed Whitman biographies, Whitman was never tarred and feathered for sodomy during his years as a teacher. This is old gossip and scurrilous hearsay, but soon enough, the reader will see why the issue is no mere digression.
In 1872, a different bachelor poet living in Whitman’s hometown of Huntington was tarred and feathered for unwanted advances to a young girl. After this humiliation in front of the (approving) girl, Charles G. Kelsey was murdered and mutilated. His dismembered legs, still feathered, were discovered in the bay ten months later, but the rest of his body was never found. Walt Whitman was still in Washington, DC, at the time. This debunking of the old wives’ tale conflating Kelsey with Whitman was reported on the author’s website, LeavesOfGrass.Org, roughly a decade ago. (“The Kelsey Outrage”)
While the scholars who have repeated this gossip were misguided from the point of view of academic standards for evidence, the reality of grisly vigilante reprisal for unwanted sexual advances ought to give the reader some idea of just how high the stakes were for a sexual outlaw, and why Whitman was so exacting and cagey in expressing his sexually liberatory testimony – whether in poetry, prose, correspondence, public speech, or private conversation.
And now, returning to Item 3: on the one hand, Frothingham, who would soon become a leading Transcendentalist among Unitarian ministers, was about Whitman’s age, and it’s conceivable that he could have mailed Item 3 in from Harvard, where he was still a Divinity student. Then again, there is the possibility that George Bancroft could have written Item 3. There may have been other veteran Transcendentalists disposed to the task, as well. But it’s more likely that Whitman was the author, for the following reasons.
The notion that spiritual history was repeating itself in this, the American Renaissance, had just been expounded in one of the latest editions of the Transcendentalist organ, The Dial.The Dial’s editorial on Transcendentalism quoted a private letter from a Quaker.
It is very interesting to me to see, as I do, all around me here, the essential doctrines of the Quakers revived, modified, stript of all that puritanism and sectarianism had heaped upon them, and made the foundation of an intellectual philosophy, that is illuminating the finest minds and reaches the wants of the least cultivated. (“Editor’s Table/Transcendentalism”)
With this, the Dial really let the cat out of the bag: Transcendentalism represented the stripping, or secularization, of “the essential doctrines of the Quakers” (Inner Light being the most essential of all). Tolles quoted Emerson’s clear endorsement of the suggestion, calling the identity between the positions of “the first Quakers” and those of “serious persons at the present moment” something that was “indeed so striking.” (Tolles)
This essay could have provided Whitman inspiration for Item 3. He had recently mulled an application for membership in Friends Meeting as a “young fellow up on the Long Island shore” (as previously mentioned, he returned from Long Island in 1841), and the spiritual legacy of Elias Hicks would haunt him until the end of his life. (Whitman, “Thursday, July 19, 1888”) Moreover, given that Whitman’s notebooks were crammed with meditations on poetry, Transcendentalism, German philosophy, Emerson, and Quakerism, perhaps Item 3 is the Whitman article our historians should have been poring over for more than a century. If Whitman had needed a revered authority for pitting Locke/Calvinism versus Kant/ Quakerism, Bancroft’s popular and magisterial History of the United States, published in 1837, would have been at his fingertips. And if he needed an authority for linking Transcendentalism to Quakerism, there was no higher authority than The Dial itself.
Despite the direction of our discussion so far, focusing as it does on the question of authorship of various news items, the goal is not to offer up a literary who-done-it. The point is that Item 3 acts as an overture for the motive themes in Leaves of Grass, a full thirteen years later. Suppose we streamline Item 3 as follows:
[U]niversal truths… are revealed within the soul to a faculty transcending the understanding. This faculty is… called by Transcendentalists [as well as, for centuries, by Quakers] ‘the God within.’ The Quakers see transcendentalism through a religious medium – [whereas] Kant [and Transcendentalists see it] in a light purely philosophic [or psychological]. …Transcen-dentalists and Perfectionists touch at one point, and one only, like rounded marbles. Both believe we may “be perfect as our Father in heaven is perfect,” though they may utter the idea in very different expressions… [M]en at present begin to feel responsible for their own opinions, and not for those of presbyteries, synods, [etc.]. Transcendentalism is the most ultra form of this increasing feeling [which Emerson has called Self-Reliance].
But wait a minute, this version emphasizes that something new has been added – by Whitman. Quakers believe in God Within the Soul, check. Transcendentalists believe in Reason within the Mind, check (or to be precise: Intuition, rather than Reason, in the Mind. As a matter of fact, this gaffe in nuance might suggest that Whitman, not an expert, was indeed the author). We have every reason to believe that Whitman’s conclusion necessarily implied Bancroft’s conten-tion: that is, “the practical issues of the two coincide.”
But where did Perfectionism come in? The answer is in just “one point:” escape from sin. The fear of sin – for Calvinist, Quaker, Transcendentalist, Perfectionist, Bluestocking, Abolitionist, Minister, Editor, Prude, Libertine, Fireman, Emerson, Whitman, the whole shebang – is, ultimately, the motive for all these persons and all their theological agendas. Sin is the problem that demands a solution for everyone in Whitman’s audience.
On this point, Whitman would have known the late Elias Hicks to have clearly been a Perfectionist – that is, a believer in the possibility of acting without sin, under the leading of the Inward Light. Walt would have had at least an acquaintance, if not a (F)riendship, with his Quaker colleague Isaac T. Hopper, in the Prison Association of New York. We know that during the 1840s he applied for permission to carry on some sort of humanitarian ministry to the inmates, (Carpenter) and board member Hopper would have had to approve it. By the time Whitman wrote his Transcendentalist precis, Hopper had already published Hicks’s correspondence, which included the following passage:
Hence the necessity of every individual rallying to the standard, the light within; for in that only can we, as a people, unite our strength; that being our only standard principle from the beginning; and if we desert that, or add anything to it, as essential, besides good works, we shall become a broken and divided people, and must remain so until all recur to this first principle as our only rule of faith and practice; and prove by our fruits that we are led and guided by it; that is, by our just and righteous works, doing unto all others as we would that others should do unto us. We are then as perfect as Jesus and the gospel require, being as perfect as our Father in heaven is perfect; and, if any man requires more than this of any of his fellow creatures, he requires more than God and his prophets, and his son Jesus Christ require… (Hicks 186)
Or, again, it was said that in one sermon, Hicks
was led, in a clear manner, to show the ground from whence all darkness and unbelief proceeded; that it was from a want of due attention to, and right belief in, the inward manifestation of divine light, which reveals itself in the heart of man against sin and uncleanness; and at the same time shows what it right, and justifies for right doing. Therefore while men disregard this inward divine principle, of grace and truth, and do not believe in it, as essential and sufficient to salvation; they are in danger of becoming either Atheists, or Deists… [or] becoming so blinded as not to believe in… the very essential doctrine of perfection, as contained in the clear, rational, and positive injunction of our dear Lord: Be ye therefore perfect… It is by obedience to the Inward Light only, that we are prepared for admittance into the heavenly kingdom. (Forbush)
If Perfectionism was good enough for Hicks, then it was good enough for Whitman. Alcott’s interview with Whitman in 1856 showed him to still adhere to Perfectionism fourteen years later: “[Whitman has] never been sick, nor taken medicine, nor sinned; and so is quite innocent of repentance and man’s fall,” Alcott jotted down. (Loving 224)
Of course, there would have been a high risk of blowback if Whitman had been too forthcoming in print anywhere about any theological view which was sexually liberating. The “country girls” he had encountered in the dreary village of Woodbury, and the other “antiquated prudes” of Long Island, would not have objected to Whitman’s civic pride in the handsome young volunteer firemen, but if they had any reason to think there was an erotic edge to this Brotherly Love, well, then, Katie, Bar the Door!
In Sunday sermons at the Presbyterian Church, his former neighbors would have often imbibed the following sort of fundamentalist blowback, which ascribes such “concupiscence,” (Webster: “strong desire; especially: sexual desire”) or “dangerous cravings,” to the damning consequences of following the Inward Light. According to the Princeton Seminary’s influential Presbyterian journal, the Princeton Review, by 1846 it was recognized that among Perfectionists…
…real sins are called… frailties… Concupiscence is reduced to the blameless, though, when they become excessive, somewhat dangerous cravings of physical appetite… Many Perfectionists have substituted impulses, or the inward light, for the teaching of the [Bible]; and have spoken in disparaging terms of the latter… [W]e might refer the reader to the votaries of ancient Quakerism, Shakerism, and Mystics and Quietists of every description… they who are perfectly holy [would rather] read the word of God… on the tablet of their own minds, than on the perishing pages of a book, printed by human hands. (“Sanctification” 436-9)
Dangerous cravings, indeed: prior research has shown that the Inner Light which shone on Whitman’s Leaves was explicitly linked to the horrible sin not to be named amongst Christians within a few months of Leaves of Grass’s appearance in 1855. Rufus Griswold charged that people like Whitman, “bloated with self-conceit,”
now commonly strut abroad unabashed in the daylight, and expose to the world the festering sores that overlay them like a garment. Unless we admit this exhibition to be beautiful, we are at once set down for non-progressive conservatives, destitute of the “inner light”…. These candid, these ingenuous, these honest “progressionists;” these human diamonds without flaws; these men that have come, detest furiously all shams; “to the pure, all things are pure;” they are pure, and, consequently, must thrust their reeking presence under every man’s nose.
Griswold added that he felt morally impelled to be this candid. “The records of crime show that many monsters have gone on in impunity,” he intoned, “because the exposure of their vileness was attended with too great indelicacy. Peccatum illud horribile, inter Christianos non nominandum [the horrible sin not to be named among Christians].” (Gould, “Walt Whitman’s Quaker Paradox”) Here again the themes given above are restated: a liberal-conservative controversy, Inner Light, diamond-bright Perfectionists “without flaws,” candor and escape from shams, and Purity. Griswold hints at what is at stake: Victorian taboos against open discussion of pornography and sex-crime enables “monsters” to repeatedly offend. Two new inflammatory themes, however, have been added to the mix. The first is the standard-issue Victorian trope for sexual libertinism: a stench. But most alarming of all is a pragmatic reminder of the serious, ever-present danger of the era’s nearly incurable and therefore AIDS-like plagues: syphilis and gonorrhea.
As previously shown, in a paper which carefully explores Hicks’s theology of “God given” human instincts, or “propensities,” (Gould “Walt Whitman’s Quaker Paradox”) Hicks’s Perfectionist theology of the Inner Light had also been attacked during an Orthodox Quaker campaign which seems to have been called off about one year after Hicks died in 1830. In 1825, Orthodox operative Anna Braithwaite charged that Hicks’s “standard of morality” would lead to “the commission of acts, which under the influence of christian doctrines and principles, it would have turned away from with horror or disgust.” (Braithwaite)
In 1828, another Orthodox preacher, Ann Jones, said she had preached to sailors so debased that she wouldn’t trust them to shepherd her sheep, and even they would blush at Hicksite conduct. (Her charges of blasphemy, by comparison, were portrayed as mere afterthoughts.) (Shotwell, et al) And in 1831, Orthodox firebrand Elisha Bates wrote that Hicks “took occasion . . . to introduce the doctrines of infidelity, as to gain admiration of the licentious . . . It will not seem strange that the doctrines of Elias Hicks, should be congenial to the feelings of those who are disposed to the free indulgence of their corrupt propensities and desires . . .” (Bates)
We cannot leave Item 3 without examining how Whitman’s contemporaries also understood Transcendentalism to be the secularization of Hicksite Quakerism, and how they identified Emerson’s Self-Reliance as the psychological equivalent of the Inward Voice. As the prolific third-generation Transcendentalist author, John Burroughs (a close friend of both Emerson and Whitman) pointed out two years after Whitman’s death,
The inward voice alone was the oracle he obeyed: “My commission obeying, to question it never daring” . . . In many ways was Whitman, quite unconsciously to himself, the man Emerson invoked and prayed for – the absolutely self-reliant man. (Burroughs)
Furthermore, in a totally-neglected eulogy of 1892, Moncure Conway, another close friend of Emerson and Whitman, himself a prolific author and sometime-Unitarian-minister, identified Whitman’s “popular transcendentalism” as a Hicksite phenomenon:
That any one could find a trace of prurience in his pages was a thing Whitman could not conceive. Those who have censured him on this score cannot, on their side, conceive the completeness with which the popular transcendentalism of the Hicksite movement revolutionised the minds trained in its atmosphere. It was a sort of mystical naturalism to which nothing in nature – literally nothing – was common or unclean; and it was accompanied by an hereditary tendency to write with what Emerson used to call “biblical plainness.” (Conway)
Biblical plainness? Perhaps one example among many (which would include the reference to “man-balls, man-root” in “I Sing the Body Electric”), would be the beginning of “From Pent-up Aching Rivers:”
FROM pent-up, aching rivers;
From that of myself, without which I were nothing;
From what I am determin’d to make illustrious,
even if I stand sole among men;
From my own voice resonant–singing the phallus,
Singing the song of procreation,
Singing the need of superb children, and therein
superb grown people,
Singing the muscular urge and the blending,
Singing the bedfellow’s song, (O resistless yearningཀ…
(“From Pent-up Aching Rivers”)
Item 4: A week after Item 3, following another lecture, the Aurora fleetingly tipped an admiring hat to Emerson. This time, no fear was expressed over heresy. One can feel confident that Whitman dashed this off terse mention.
EMERSON. – The lecture of this great gun of Transcendentalism was attended by a very full and fashionable audience last evening. Mr. E. is a quiet, easy speaker, with much grace, and a little of the Yankee twang in his voice. We should not be surprised if he made a good many converts in Gotham. (“Emerson,” March 15, 1842)
Item 5: The next fleeting mention of Emerson comes on March 29th. It would have been Whitman who gloated that the orthodox mind (a subtle taunt at Orthodox Quakers?) was suffering from the triple shocks of modernity.
GEOLOGY AND THE SCRIPTURES – PROFESSOR LYELL AND MOSES.–The clergymen in this city seem to have become suddenly astounded at some of the wonders of geology as taught in Lyrell’s lectures. Brownson’s lectures “On Civilisation,” and Emerson’s “On the Times,” gave a severe shock to the religious mind. (“Geology and the Scriptures”)
Item 6: The final item does not explicitly reference the deep analysis of Transcendentalism, Quakerism, or Perfectionism previously published in Item 3. Nevertheless, as we shall see, it makes “dog-whistle” references to them, exquisitely pitched to reach only highly-sensitive comrades, but utterly over the head of the bourgeois reader.
One thing which Item 3 failed to do was to forge any link between the interior rays of Inner Light and advocacy of an eroticized species of Brotherly Love. Whitman was constitutionally unable to leave it that way – had it remained unsaid, he would have exploded. There is something fierce and terrible / in me, eligible to burst forth, / I dare not tell it in words–not even in these songs. (Whitman, “Calamus 36 ”) So on April 20, shortly before he lost the ability to play his own tunes on the Whig organ, he began to forecast some familiar and vital “Calamus,” themes, such as the tragedy of an unspeakable desire for love, in an editorial he entitled “Life and Love.”
This editorial’s subversive message has long been buried beneath a good bit of boilerplate sentimentalism, which is disavowed with some self-conscious sarcasm. (In one example, he advises: “Reader, get out a fresh handkerchief.” In a more suggestive example, he talks about taking “a plummet in hand” and “[sounding] the depths.”) Underneath all that, it is, debatably, his most heartfelt piece of prose. Once cleansed of the self-conscious treacle of Victorian sentimen-tality, we can see the whole universe of Leaves of Grass reflected in this tiny grain of sand.
…But the soul’s life! …O, what venturesome mariner shall launch forth, and explore it, and take a plummet in his hand and sound out its depths?
And part of the life of the soul is love; for the chambers of the heart are pleasant as well as costly. Things of surpassing fairness are there – thoughts that glow and dazzle – benevolence – innocent and holy friendship. Among their windings, restless and sparkling like rays of sunshine, lurk a hundred promptings and capabilities for delight. They are planted by God – and he would stifle them is a bigot and fool.
Ever faithful, too, there is the monitor conscience, sitting on her throne, with a sleepless eye, and a never tiring finger. And down, deep down, from the innermost recesses, wells up the pure fountain of affection, the sweetest and more cheering of the heart’s treasures.
What a superb verse is that of Coleridge’s:
“All thoughts, all passions, all delights –
Whatever stirs this mortal frame,
Are but the ministers of Love,
And feed his sacred flame.”
So let us be more just to our own nature, and to the gifts which the Almighty has made ineradicable within us… we shall see that everywhere are the seeds of happiness and love. But unless they are fostered, they will lie entombed forever in the darkness and their possessors may die and be buried, and never think of them but as baubles and worth no care. (“Life and Love” April 20, 1842)
The salty-sedge fragrance is no accident. We have already seen that a whaling community such as New Bedford provided a receptive audience for Transcendentalism, as well as a major seaport like New York, and Whitman was master of three worlds: sailors, lovers, and Quakers. (Recall the richly-deserved reputation of sailors for sexual adventurism – and vastly more so in the nineteenth century than in modern times.)
What Whitman ultimately called “our Cause” was their gift to humanity: that one passion in the set of all passions, which is stifled by bigots and fools, yet continues to burn with its own sacred flame. It does no evil, because it is constantly monitored by conscience (the Inner Light), which sees everything and needs only lift a finger to restrain passion from exploitation. Considering that “propensities” were implanted by a loving God, according to Friend Hicks, (Gould “Walt Whitman’s Quaker Paradox”) they are “ineradicable,” and so, he implores, “let us be more just to our own nature.” (In an anonymous self-review of Leaves of Grass, he would one day prophesy, “We shall cease shamming and be what we really are.”) (“Walt Whitman and His Poems”)
Don’t leave these in the dark forever, Whitman says, don’t dismiss these feelings as trivial baubles: they are the seeds of happiness in life. Years later, in “Poem of the Road,” he would exhort:
Allons! [“Go!”] Whoever you are– come forth!
You must not stay in your house, though you built
it, or though it has been built for you.
Allons! out of the dark confinement!
It is useless to protest–I know all, and expose it.
Behold through you as bad as the rest!
Through the laughter, dancing, dining, supping, of
Inside of dresses and ornaments, inside of those
washed and trimmed faces,
Behold a secret silent loathing and despair! (“Poem of the Road”)
Shortly after publishing “Life and Love,” Whitman’s time at the Aurora came to a contentious end. And, irony of ironies, after he moved on with his life, he treated the historic testimonies he published therein as “but baubles and worth no care.” But the fossil imprint left by the spiritual embryo of Leaves of Grass survived both the decay of time, and Whitman’s egregious neglect, in the yellowed pages of what was supposed to be merely a crass public-relations venue for a second-rate politician.
In “A Backwards Glance O’er Travel’d Roads,” one of many last hurrahs in his life and his book, Whitman mentioned commencing Leaves of Grass, “at the age of thirty-one to thirty-three,” (the years 1850-1852) as “a special desire and conviction.” And then, coyly, he added:
Or rather, to be quite exact, a desire that had been flitting through my previous life, or hovering on the flank, mostly indefinite hitherto, had steadily advanced to the front, defined itself, and finally dominated everything else. (“A Backward Glance O’er Travel’d Roads”)
Whitman was vaguely referring here to the legendary “long foreground somewhere” that Emerson could sense in the shadows beyond the sudden sunbeam of Whitman’s poems. The findings presented here drag the actual issues out of the shadows, and suggest the possibility that this Long Foreground Somewhere is real and objective, and that sustained research can partially map it out in time and space. This story returns us to the Big Bang of Transcen-dentalism, which followed soon after the death of that lightning-rod theologian, Elias Hicks. This was still a fresh, impulsive origin-time, a period in which a neophyte such as Whitman could immediately take to heart an anonymous Friend’s enthusiastic insistence that Transcendentalism represented the secularization of Quaker theology – especially given Emerson’s own endorsement.
The account given here also shows how, at the turn of the 20th century, Whitman’s intimate followers, Burroughs and Conway, still had the same deep understanding of Transcendentalism as the one published by Whitman in 1842, and were making a last-ditch effort to connect the dots with a little less cautious indirection that Whitman habitually employed. Following Whitman’s death in 1892, this understanding quickly decayed, diffused, and dwindled. There are many important reasons for this, given in a previous paper, (Gould “Forgetting Friend Walt”) but to give one additional example, Moncure Conway, who always stood in awe of Whitman’s breakthroughs, abandoned Transcendentalism following the horror of the Civil War, because it had never grown sufficiently serious about the theological depth of evil in the world. (d’Entremont 222)
As far as Whitman was concerned, above all, he cherished both Hicks’s “radical” spiritual testimony and its psychological doppelganger, Transcendentalism, for their support of his “ultra” Perfectionist message: Brotherly Love could have an erotic side, stemming from “ineradicable,” God-“planted” propensities. Later, in Leaves of Grass, he would label these with the pseudo-scientific but, to him, eminently useful, term, “Adhesiveness.”
Of course, he believed that the soul needed to pursue any romance, and certainly a forbidden one, under the monitor of conscience/the Inward Voice. And even our apparent digression on the tarring, feathering, and lynching of fellow poet Charles G. Kelsey turns out to offer a sober insight into how much was at stake with Whitman’s sexual program, and why he chose his words so carefully throughout his adult life.
—, “Editor’s Table: Transcendentalism,” The Dial, vol. 2 no. III
(January, 1842), 382-4.
—, “Emerson,” New York Aurora, March 15, 1842, 2.
—, “Geology and the Scriptures,” New York Aurora,
March 29, 1842, 2.
—, “Life and Love,” New York Aurora, April 20, 1842, 2.
—, “Mr. Emerson’s Lecture,” New York Aurora, March 7, 1842, 2.
—, “Prudery,” New York Aurora, March 26, 1842, 2.
—, “The New Movement: Great Times at the Franklin Theater”
New York Aurora, March 7, 1842, 2.
—, “Transcendentalism,” New York Aurora, February 28, 1842, 1.
—, “Transcendentalism,” New York Aurora, March 8, 1842, 2.
—, “Walt Whitman and His Poems,” United States Review, vol. 5
(Sep. 1855), 205-12.
Allen, Gay Wilson. The Solitary Singer: A Critical Biography of Walt
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Braithwaite, Anna. A Letter from Anna Braithwaite to Elias Hicks, on
the Nature of His Doctrines. Being a Reply to His Letter to
Dr. Edwin A. Atlee; Together with Notes and Observations.
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no. 2. (Philadelphia:Horace Traubel, 1894), 131-134.
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Note on the Poet Lecture: Be advised that Bosco and Myerson have pointed out that this lecture, “The Poet,” should not be confused with the majestic essay, “The Poet,” which was published years later: the textual overlap between the two is actually relatively minor. Ralph Waldo Emerson, The Selected Lectures of Ralph Waldo Emerson, edited by Ronald A. Bosco, Joel Myerson (Athens: University of Georgia Press, 2005), 82-3.
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Tribune”, from His Birth to the Present Time, (J.R. Osgood and Company, 1872), 164.
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Cause at Issue in the Court of Chancery of the State of New Jersey, Between Thomas L. Shotwell, Complainant, and Joseph Hendrickson and Stacy Decow, Defendants: Taken Pursuant to the Rules of the Court, Volume 2. (J. Harding, Printer, 1831), 87.
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