American Poetry in the Age of Whitman and Dickinson

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While Shoddy’s on the Brain

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To mark Maine’s ignoble defeat of the Gay Marriage law, here’s a song from another era, about another war that extended “from Gulf to Maine” (the war stretches even further today). As partial explanation of what’s meant by the chorus — and why it pertains to the present moment — here are some passages from an article by E. P. Whipple in The Atlantic Monthly (1871). The article begins in the Civil War, with the profiteers who grew fat on government money:

Soon came the cry from the camps that cheats at home were thriving on the miseries of the volunteers; that the soldier starved in order that the contractor might feast; especially that the defenders of the nation, hurrying from their homes to insure safety to the homes of their plunderers, were so sleazily clothed that they were literally left naked to their enemies and a word of ominous and infamous significance, a word in which is concentrated more wrath and wretchedness than any other in the vocabulary of the camp, the word shoddy, flew into general circulation, to embody the soldiers’ anathema on the soldiers’ scourge.

Then Whipple continues:

But it seems to us that a word of such ill repute should not be confined to one class of offences, but should be extended to follies, errors, vices, and policies which, though they boast of softer names, illustrate the same essential quality. For what is the essential characteristic of shoddy clothing? Is it not this, that it will not wear? In its outside appearance it mimics good cloth, but use quickly reduces it to its elemental rags. Now; it might be asked, have we, in our experience during the past ten years, been deceived by no other plausible mockeries of reality than shoddy uniforms? Have we not all, more or less, been wearing shoddy clothing on our minds and consciences? … The essential mischief of this shoddy clothing for the popular mind is due, in a great degree, to the name it assumes. It eludes the grip of thought by calling itself common sense. If its object were to distinguish itself thus from real sense, its modesty might be commended; but when its purpose palpably is to point the finger at all clear perception and sound thinking, its impudence merits the rod.

And more:

The meaning of common sense, then, is plain; but how often do we use the term as a cover for common nonsense, the nonsense which one mind has in common with others; or, what is worse, as a convenient phrase to impart dignity to any narrow opinion or obstinate misjudgment or foolish crochet, which we may personally pamper and pride ourselves upon, and thus give to our private whim the character of a universal belief. This shoddy common sense is the most detestable of all forms of nonsense.

— Detestable thinking certainly won yesterday.

“Shoddy on the Brain” is not exactly “Battle Hymn of the Republic.” In denouncing the profiteers, it more or less dismisses the aim of stamping out slavery. Or anyway, it dismisses the notion that this is the actual aim. But after two editorial verses, the song veers elsewhere.  The song itself is shoddy! Ending in a church, in marriage.

Anyway, for me today, shoddy is indeed on the brain.

The image comes from the Library of Congress American Memory website, from the collection America Singing: Nineteenth-Century Song Sheets. I found the Whipple article in a second collection: The Nineteenth Century in Print: Periodicals.

Written by Ben Friedlander

November 4, 2009 at 12:26 pm

Paying Major Heed to Minor Poets

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Or not minor, no, definitely not, just underappreciated. Or better: insufficiently understood …

A few days ago Ron Silliman linked to a recent post of mine, Paying Little Mind to Major Poets. Today he has a response (link here). It’s a thoughtful note, and I’m thankful to Ron for working through my remarks so carefully, even if he does focus on the effect (my insistence on the importance of Marianne Moore — and dislike of others — and the rewriting of history that proposes), ignoring what I said about the cause (reading’s affective resistances and attractions, themselves historicizable, and the potentially distorting effects they have on understanding). The short answer, though, is that Ron is right: I am, at bottom, hallucinating a world — a future world from which the past looks very different than it does today.

The issue for me is when such hallucinations, which is to say errors, become legitimate revisions of understanding. Is the dividing line purely subjective? Or is it a matter of polemical interpretation? Or something susceptible of verification? If the last, what else could this verification be, if not the work done as a result? For instance, if Language Poetry is a reading of the New York School in which Coolidge, Greenwald, and Mayer are, counter-intuitively, more central than Berrigan, Berkson, and Padgett, what might the test of that reading be, if not Language Poetry itself? (And if you think, as I do, that the first three names are as significant as the last three, then Language Poetry has gone far toward passing the test, even if you don’t think you like it.) [1]

But beyond the issue of error vs. understanding, there is a subsidiary issue of how. How is it that the line gets crossed? How does it happen that an eccentric personal preference becomes the eccentric preference for a whole subculture, and then, under certain circumstances, the central preference for culture at large? The most famous example of this unlikely trajectory is Eliot’s reevaluation of the metaphysical poets, which became a modernist preference, and then, by way of New Criticism, part of a new hegemonic theory of poetry. Was that hegemony a distortion, or a legitimate revision of understanding? Or can we have it both ways?

Those last questions are deeply interesting to me. They go to the very heart of my present interest in nineteenth-century American poetry. How could they not when I speak of that century as “The Age of Whitman and Dickinson,” even as I try to map a lost landscape in which Whitman was marginal and Dickinson invisible?

Can one accept the present’s view of the past and still inquire into the past’s own view of itself? Or to put this another way: Can one eat the fruits of distortion, and then — fortified — go out and chop down the tree? And still have fruit the next season? Probably not …

Or maybe so! If we throw away the core, letting the seeds take root …

Anyway, go read Ron’s response, if you haven’t already. (I love his analogy to birdwatching.)


Regarding Moore herself: I’ve written before about her importance; the essay in which I did so (which incorporates, btw, a brief statement by Ron!) was published in Critics and Poets on Marianne Moore: “A Right Good Salvo of Barks,” edited by Linda Leavell, Cristanne Miller, and Robin G. Schulze. Much of the essay is available through Google Books (but not, alas, the pages with Ron’s statement; link here).

As an addendum to Ron’s note, though, let me add that the modernism I see with Moore at the center has nothing to do with her social relationships. I see her as the first American poet to make “the linguistic turn” (as it came to be known), and one who did so without ever reducing language to words and grammar. Rhetoric, she understood, is as intrinsic to language as any of the more material elements (such as letters and sounds); and though she did on occasion succumb to rhetoric — conceiving of readers in the old-fashioned way, as an audience to be swayed — her best work, composed with found language, demands a new kind of reader. In this sense, the difficulty of her work supports an entirely different pedagogical mission than that of Eliot or Pound.


1 [Back to text] I am thinking here of Ron Silliman’s anthology In the American Tree (1986), which includes Coolidge, Greenwald, and Mayer but not Berrigan, Berkson, or Padgett. That reading of the New York School was specific to a certain historical moment, though perhaps it would still hold true for Silliman and others who might have shared it. In any case, it is this notion of centrality (and others like it from my early education as a poet: Duncan’s insistence on H.D., Creeley’s insistence on Zukofsky, the Language Poets’ insistence on Stein) that I had in mind when I made my claim for Moore.

Written by Ben Friedlander

October 28, 2009 at 7:30 am

The Center of Modernism (Not)

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gotham-book-martI’m getting far afield of the nineteenth century here, but I couldn’t resist posting the picture to the left as a followup to my last post, which referred to Marianne Moore as the center of modernism (my modernism, I would add, if that qualification means anything).

The picture, taken at the Gotham Book Mart in 1948, is a famous one, though it’s not exactly a gathering of the gods. How could it be, with Stevens and Williams both missing in action? (Both lived within driving distance.) The occasion was a party for Osbert and Edith Sitwell, who were visiting the United States on a lecture tour, and a picture of the occasion appeared soon after in Life. The full text of that issue is available through Google Books (link here). The article, which is on the Sitwells, begins on page 164; there’s a photo on page 169 taken just before or after the one I’ve reproduced.

Anyway, I thought of this picture because I faintly remembered that Moore sits in the center. Which turns out to be false: the woman in the center is Edith Sitwell. Moore is a little to her right, just under Auden, who is staring over everyone else from a ladder.

Now Sitwell is in many respects a more interesting figure than Moore for the purposes of this blog, as she’s a poet who commanded a great deal of respect in her own lifetime (witness the coverage in Life), but who has since fallen out of general currency. She still has admirers; Lisa Robertson is one. And I am too, after a fashion. I love her Poet’s Notebook, which I first read at Robert Duncan’s behest — he mentions it, I think, in one of his essays — and I hold Façade in high regard. Also, I once edited a magazine with Andrew Schelling called Dark Ages Clasp the Daisy Root; though the title comes from Joyce, I found it in a commonplace book by Sitwell. So yes, I think of her as a figure well worth rescuing from oblivion, if that’s in fact where she’s headed. The kind of poet I would write about here, if only she had flourished a century before (and been American). Not the center of my attention, but part of a circle well worth turning in my head. Read the rest of this entry »

The Birth of Poetry

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waldenA story too precious to keep to myself. I found it by way of Vernon Loggins, The Negro Author in America (1931), but it comes from the introduction to Walden’s Miscellanous Poems (1872).

But first some background.

Islay Walden was born into slavery in Randolph County, North Carolina; emancipated at age 22 at the end of the Civil War.

Critics have linked Walden to George Moses Horton (about whom I wrote briefly here), not only because both were born into slavery — in the same state — but also because both became poets before gaining literacy. Horton’s story is the more striking. He published his work in the South while still a slave — hoping, in fact, to earn enough money to buy his freedom — but Walden’s career is a worthy sequel. Unlettered at the time of Emancipation, he worked his way North, performing manual labor, lecturing, and selling poems. He had been a prodigy with numbers as a child, performing feats of calculation in public, and this must have made him an effective speaker. In Washington, he helped to organize Sabbath Schools, and later attended Howard University, his tuition paid by a church in New Jersey. Walden’s Miscellaneous Poems appeared while he was still a student.

The book is very evocative of Reconstruction, especially in its framing details. Dedicated “to the cause of education and humanity,” it begins with a letter from the War Department (commending Walden for his work on the Sabbath Schools), and follows this with a brief endorsement from Howard. Books in the slavery era used documents in the same way, but there the aim was abolition, hence the emphasis fell on the bare fact of a slave’s humanity. Here, humanity is taken for granted; the aim is improving conditions of life.

Apart from the poems, the book includes letters by Walden himself, especially in the second, enlarged edition of 1873 (text here). There is also a brief introduction (signed “C. C. H.”), which tells the story of how Walden became a poet. The story must come from the poet himself, and it makes me long for a full autobiography:

When about eighteen years old he was engaged at a gold mine in driving oxen. The owner was a very passionate man, and was so angry one day that he was about to strike an ox to the ground with a mattock. Walden remonstrated, saying, “The ox will die.” It fell dead in a few moments. They threw its body into a pit where a shaft had been sunk, and while they were standing over it Walden made and recited impromptu his first verses–

“Poor Old Dick,
He died quick!
He died all in a minute.
Here is a shaft thirty feet,
And we have thrown him in it.

He was red,
And he is dead!
The buzzards may forsake him;
For he is buried thirty feet,
Where they can never get him.”

After he had repeated this the man says, “Walden, you are a poet.” Walden asked, “What is a poet?” He replied, “One who writes poetry.” “What is poetry?” asked Walden. The man explained by asking him if he did not know what hymns are? &c.

From this time he was running over rhymes in his head, and longing to learn.

Isn’t poetry wonderful that way? Humble in origin, even doggerel can be its true spark.

After finishing his studies, Walden succeeded in bringing out a second collection, but critics have dismissed it out of hand. Joan R. Sherman calls it “uninspired and repetitious,” and Loggins goes further, saying “[it] proves that education had spoiled whatever poet there had been in Walden.” I haven’t seen this book, but I don’t doubt the judgments are correct. The thing is, Walden didn’t want to remain unlettered, and didn’t live at a time when he might have been both sophisticated and folk. Not in the manner of Langston Hughes, who managed to synthesize the two (and Hughes came from the middle class, a very different vantage on the problem). Absent that possibility, Walden’s only option was to be a different kind of poet after Howard than before. In effect, he had to start over.[1]

Of course, it’s hard in any era to be two kinds of poet, one on each side of a threshold. But Walden at least had the chance. Horton didn’t.


1 [Back to text] I discount here the later example of Paul Laurence Dunbar, who wrote genteel verses and dialect at the same time, as this way of being “both” would have still required Walden to be genteel. In effect, his output was very much like Dunbar’s, with the two aspects coming sequentially, however, instead of at the same time. And only one of the, apparently, successful.

Shakespeare in a Log Cabin (Random Thoughts from a New Semester)

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Production photo for The Gladiator

Production photo for The Gladiator

I’m teaching a class this fall with the inherited title “American Romantics.” I have no idea what that actually means, but I’ve never been a letter of the law kind of fellow, so I’m approaching this course as a mixed-genre survey, not limiting myself to any single period style. Assuming that Romanticism is a style — I find these kinds of terms perplexing. Myself, I like a course name easily explained on the first day of class. American Vulgarians would be just about perfect.

Anyway, even Romanticists now teach and write about the entire period, so my approach is probably more doctrinaire than antinomian, even for those who find the label “American Romantics” meaningful. Or still meaningful, since it did hold sway for a generation. But no longer than that! Nineteenth-century American literature has never had a stable syllabus. Which is one of the things I like about it.

My own tendency has been to shift focus from a small circle of writers to a small number of decades, though a 15-week semester is far too short to accommodate more than a few writers anyway. But I try. That is, I try to give “period” precedence over “author.” A very slight precedence, one that is hardly sufficient for overcoming the vast precedence authors assume in our imaginations.

To bring decades alive, without letting history crowd out every other consideration — it’s hard! But one method I’ve found productive is using my students’ own preconceptions as a guide. Basically, we start with a speculative model, then read and research with an eye toward improving it. This time, for example, my students volunteered that antebellum writers (as they imagined them) were an urban, educated elite out of touch with the rural and largely illiterate majority. A hypothesis we’ll be testing throughout the semester, so I won’t say too much about it here. But since I did point the class toward the University of Virginia’s Historical Census Browser (a useful site for following through on one’s intuitions), let me offer a small factual correction to their characterization. According to the 1840 census, the first to include data about education, the ability to read and write was far more widespread than my students guessed. Here are the figures for Maine, which is where I teach: Read the rest of this entry »

Written by Ben Friedlander

September 13, 2009 at 3:22 pm

Poems of Places 8

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From Poems of Places, vol. 9, France 1 (Boston: James R. Osgood and Company, 1880), edited by Henry Wadsworth Longfellow:


In honor of the new school year, “The School-Boy King” by Walter Thornbury, a poem that also appears in A Metrical History of the Life and Times of Napoleon Bonaparte, edited by William J. Hillis (1896). There the poem is given the following introduction:

Of Napoleon’s early childhood little is positively known. Accepting the corroborated record, as it stands, it would appear that he was a child with a disposition and a manner peculiarly his own. Not a loving or a companionable boy, but rather of a sullen, retiring nature; melancholy and irritable in his temperament and impatient of restraint. While his companions were enjoying themselves at play, natural to their age, he would wander off by himself and spend hours, with no other company than his own thoughts. There is still to be seen in Corsica the isolated rock, known as “Napoleon’s Grotto.” Tradition tells us that this was the favourite resort of the child, destined to become the conqueror of the world. He, himself, has said: “In my infancy I was extremely headstrong; nothing ever awed me; nothing disconcerted me. I was quarrelsome, mischievous; I was afraid of nobody; I beat one; I scratched another; I made myself formidable to the whole family.”

At the age of ten Napoleon entered the Military School at Brienne, near Paris, where he remained upwards of five years. His career while at that school is very aptly and concisely told in the following verses.

Thornbury’s poem is written from the teacher’s point of view, which folds in a very stupid prejudice against Corsica. A more hagiographic assessment of the brilliant, raging boy opens Abel Gance’s Napoléon (1927), viewable at Dailymotion (here). A beautiful stretch of film, with music by Arthur Honegger. In the film, the teacher’s anti-Corsican prejudice makes us sympathize with Napoleon. Here are some screen captures of the classroom sequence: Read the rest of this entry »

Written by Ben Friedlander

September 2, 2009 at 3:08 pm

Songs of the Diaspora (part one)

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How two Yiddish poems about the class struggle in America became songs of Russia.


"Mrs. William B. Owen standing between Miss Alice Stone Blackwell, and Mrs. James Lees Laidlaw," 1915 (Library of Congress)

In her self-published Songs of Russia (1906), Alice Stone Blackwell includes four Yiddish poems, two each by David Edelstadt and Morris Rosenfeld, the latter versified from prose versions by Leo Wiener. The former are also versified, but no individual collaborator is given. Since no dates of composition are given either, it is left to the reader to imagine which of the four, if any, were written before the poets fled Russia — assuming the reader is aware that the poets did flee; there are no biographical notes to prompt curiosity on the point. This was surely purposeful. Blackwell was an officer of the Society of Friends of Russian Freedom, a group originally organized by Julia Ward Howe (its founding members also included several other old soldiers of the abolitionist movement: William Lloyd Garrison, Thomas Wentworth Higginson, John Greenleaf Whittier). Her anthology was designed to aid the Society in its work. That is, “to give a glimpse into the thoughts and aspirations of some Russian lovers of freedom, as revealed in their poetry.” I’m inclined, then, to see the presentation of Edelstadt and Rosenfeld as a deliberate obscuring, especially in the case of Edelstadt, in order to emphasize the Russianness of the two American Jews. Yet the very fact that their work was rendered into English — without facing text — only serves to re-Americanize it: an American impersonation of a Russian song, albeit one that performed its Americanness in a very different manner than Edelstadt or Rosenfeld.


Alice Stone Blackwell, sometime between 1905 and 1917 (Library of Congress)

But I don’t mean to be criticizing Blackwell. Her accomplishments are every bit as deserving of celebration as those of the two poets. Born in 1857, she was an editor as well as writer and translator, and also a lifelong political activist, as befits a daughter of Lucy Stone. Her career stretched, amazingly, from the end of Reconstruction to the dawn of the Atomic Age, a longevity beautifully illustrated in the photograph above, which shows her in a plain cloth dress and shawl, looking like a character out of Uncle Tom’s Cabin — an effect heightened by the two women beside her; their silk dresses and fancy hats seem to shine forth from a different century altogether. Not that Blackwell was a relic, not even in her attire: her fashion could be as radical as her politics, witness the second photograph, which shows her in a tweed suit, holding up a copy of the Woman’s Journal, which she edited from 1909 to 1917. And since I’m harping on fashion here, let me also cite one of Blackwell’s last appearances in the press, a New York Times story from 1947: Read the rest of this entry »