American Poetry in the Age of Whitman and Dickinson

Are You an Astor? No. I’m a Whitman.

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DeMille cover Last week I read The Gold Coast by Nelson DeMille, about a Mafia don on the North Shore of Long Island, the same setting as The Great Gatsby. But the book’s most delicious twist on literary precedent is not the setting, but the blueblood narrator, John Sutter, a Wall Street lawyer whose middle name is Whitman.

Early on there is a scene in which Sutter takes a brief Rabbit, Run-like flyer on his life, ending up in a working class bar. He’s asked there by a biker, “Do you live around here?” Then comments to the reader:

You have to understand that even in jeans and sweatshirt, unshaven, and with a Bronco outside, John Whitman Sutter was not going to pass for one of the boys, especially after I opened my preppie mouth. You understand, too, that there was deeper meaning in that question. I replied, “Latting-town.”

“La-di-da,” he responded musically.

I’m honestly glad there is no class animosity in this country, for if there were, the leather gentleman would have been rude.

He subsequently flirts with a woman at the bar, a waitress just off her shift. But since he’s drunk, and a joker, and flirting with reinvention as well as with the waitress, a lot of what he says is untrue. But not all:

We chatted for a few minutes before she asked, “What are you doing in a place like this?”

“I think that’s my line.”

She laughed. “No, really.”

I suppose I was flattered by the question, my ego stroked by the knowledge that no one in that bar thought I belonged there even before they caught the accent. Conversely, I suppose, if any of these people were in The Creek, even in tweeds, I’d ask the same question of them. I replied to Sally, “I’m divorced, lonely, and looking for love in all the wrong places.”

She giggled, “You’re crazy.”

“And my clubs are closed today, my yacht is in dry dock, and my ex-wife took the kids to Acapulco. I have my choice of going to a Mafia don’s party, my aunt Cornelia’s house, or here.”

“So you came here?”

“Wouldn’t you?”

“No. I’d go to the Mafia don’s party.”

“That’s interesting.” I asked, “Are you by any chance a Roosevelt?” Roozvelt.

She laughed again. “Sure. Are you an Astor?”

“No. I’m a Whitman. You know Walt Whitman, the poet?”

“Sure. Leaves of Grass. I read it in school.”

“God bless America.”

“He wrote that too?”

“Possibly.”

“You’re related to Walt Whitman?”

“Sort of.”

“Are you a poet?”

“I try.”

“Are you rich?”

“I was. Lost it all on Lotto tickets.”

“God, how many did you buy?”

“All of them.”

What makes this especially fun for me is that the great New York poet before Whitman, now utterly forgotten, was indeed a chronicler of the narrator’s world, or its precursor world: the Wall Street of early nineteenth-century America. And was, in fact, an Astor, or anyway John Jacob Astor’s personal secretary. I mean, of course, Fitz-Greene Halleck: not one of the roughs like Whitman, but a preppie like John Sutter; more tweed and club than jeans and dive.

Sketch of the Halleck Statue in Central Park

Sketch of the Halleck Statue in Central Park

Halleck was not himself a blueblood; he observed the rich and fashionable from a clerk’s perspective, with sympathies quite other than those of Leaves of Grass, but with an irony that John Sutter would have appreciated. Here are some sample stanzas from his long poem Fanny (1819), about an aspirant to the world of wealth and influence, nouveau riche like DeMille’s Mafia don:

Money is power, ’tis said—I never tried;
I’m but a poet—and bank-notes to me
Are curiosities, as closely eyed,
Whene’er I get them, as a stone would be,
Tossed from the moon on Doctor Mitchill’s table,
Or classic brickbat from the tower of Babel.

But he I sing of well has known and felt
That money hath a power and a dominion;
For when in Chatham Street the good man dwelt.
No one would give a sous for his opinion.
And though his neighbors were extremely civil,
Yet, on the whole, they thought him—a poor devil.

A decent kind of person; one whose head
Was not of brains particularly full;
It was not known that he had ever said
Any thing worth repeating—’twas a dull,
Good, honest man—what Paulding’s muse would call
A “cabbage-head”—but he excelled them all

In that most noble of the sciences,
The art of making money; and he found
The zeal for quizzing him grew less and less,
As he grew richer; till upon the ground
Of Pearl Street, treading proudly in the night
And majesty of wealth, a sudden light

Flashed like the midnight lighting on the eyes
Of all who knew him: brilliant traits of mind,
And genius, clear, and countless as the dyes
Upon the peacock’s plumage; taste refined,
Wisdom and wit, were his—perhaps much more—
’Twas strange they had not found it out before.

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Written by Ben Friedlander

February 1, 2009 at 4:11 pm

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