American Poetry in the Age of Whitman and Dickinson

Posts Tagged ‘Thoreau

“the others have only knelt at her feet”

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In 1860, one Simeon Carter, “a Wood Choper by profession,” wrote a fan letter to Emerson:

Being housed with a bad cold & a cut thumb for a few days I have been reading your Essays for the 2nd time, I have to laugh right out, or make some exclamation of surprise evry few moments, they are just as fresh evry time you them them up as the Bible is. I call them concentrated Poetry, or a cargo of Poetry in bulk. It dont make any odds where you begin to read whether at the beining midle or end, They are rather too rich diet for ‘evry day.’ but if a Wood Choper cant digest them I dont know who can, for I believe smart exercise in the open air is about as necessary for the digestion of thought as for pork and beans….

The letter was printed in the Harvard College Bulletin in 1979 along with a few others to Emerson that touch on Leaves of Grass (the others are from a Harvard undergraduate, a geologist and Presbyterian clergyman, and a gentleman philosopher–this last James Eliot Cabot, who became Emerson’s editor. But the letter from Simeon Carter is the most interesting, in part because it’s the sort of response I associate with Whitman’s own reception, and Thoreau’s, more than Emerson’s. Here is what he writes of the other two men:

Is Thoreaus cabin yet alive? I should judge from what little I have read of him that he was one of the untamed. I have never read his book “Walden” but I swam across walden pond one day, some years ago, just to see what I could do and a fine pond to swim in it is. I have lately got hold of a book with which I am delighted, viz. “Leaves of Grass” by Walt. Whitman, and I must just whisper, Ralph, look well to your laurels or this uncouth bawler will slide them off your brows. He is a new man, he is fresh, he has been in the real presence; he has embraced the Goddess naked, while the others have only knelt at her feet, kissed the tips of her fingers, & some few, her lips. His Egotism is admirable, equal to that of Jesus, hear him, “I sound my barbaric yawp over the roofs of the world.” “My voice is Orotund sweeping & final!” Could anything beat that? we are all groping in shadows, he takes hold of the reals. God bless him! I should like to hug & kiss him.

The article containing this , by Eleanor M. Tilton, is freely available online, in volume 23, number 3 of the Bulletin. Begins here.

Written by Ben Friedlander

December 3, 2015 at 9:40 pm

Henry

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HDT

1856 daguerreotype of Henry David Thoreau (image by way of the Thoreau Society)

Hawthorne found Thoreau “ugly as sin, long-nosed, queer-mouthed, and with uncouth and somewhat rustic, although courteous manners”; while Alfred Munroe, a schoolmate, in later years recalled, “He seemed to have no fun in him.” But seeming only went so far; Mary Hosmer Brown: “During his father’s illness his devotion was such that Mrs. Thoreau in recalling it said, ‘If it hadn’t been for my husband’s illness, I should never have known what a tender heart Henry had.'” This perhaps explains Elizabeth Hoar’s remark, recorded by Emerson: “I love Henry, but do not like him.” Not contradicted by Whitman but turned at an angle: “I liked Thoreau, though he was morbid.”

(Some choice bits from The Quotable Thoreau.)

Poems of Places 12

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From Poems of Places, vol. 27, America: Middle States (Boston: Houghton, Osgood and Company, 1879), edited by Henry Wadsworth Longfellow:

[Fire Island, N.Y.]

Alfred Leslie, The Telephone Call, 1970-71,
part of a cycle originally called The Killing
of Frank O’Hara
(image via Isola di Rifiuti;
see also Leslie’s website)

I am tempted to call Fire Island the most haunted spot in American literature: two notable writers met their end there, one at sea, the other on land — and these were gruesome deaths as well. In 1850, Margaret Fuller drowned just offshore. Her body was never recovered, but others from the same ship — including that of her son, Nino — washed onto the beach where Frank O’Hara would be struck by a jeep in 1966.

O’Hara died young — he was 40 years old — and before the great majority of his writing had seen print. This surely added to the sense of emergency that attended his loss. According to O’Hara’s biographer, Brad Gooch, three of the poet’s friends — Kenneth Koch, Frank Lima, Larry Rivers — took possession of the manuscripts in fear that they would be destroyed or disappear.

Fuller, also 40, had published more extensively than O’Hara (three books and a great many uncollected essays), but in her case an important manuscript did disappear: her history of the Italian revolution, in which she participated as a director of one of Rome’s hospitals during the street fighting. The copy of her book that Fuller carried across the ocean sank, and no other copy ever came to light, despite the assiduous searching of her friends. From letters, and from Fuller’s dispatches for the New-York Tribune (the same newspaper for which Marx would later write), we have a good sense of what she witnessed. But what she learned after, and what she withheld, and what she made of it all in hindsight, these are gone for good.

The gruesome facts of O’Hara’s death were not set aside or forgotten in the grief over his loss. His death came in a hospital after 40 hours of intense pain, and O’Hara’s friends were witness to that suffering. Larry Rivers was especially graphic in his eulogy, evoking O’Hara’s mangled body for the assembled mourners: Read the rest of this entry »

falling into a lump, or flowing in waves

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It is time, indeed, that men and women should both cease to grow old in any other way than as the tree does, full of grace and honor.
— Margaret Fuller, Woman in the Nineteenth Century

But men and women aren’t trees, and Margaret Fuller wasn’t fated to enjoy a graceful old age.

In July of 1850, when she was 40 years old, Fuller’s ship from Europe, the Elizabeth, struck a sandbar within sight of Fire Island. The sudden jolt loosened Hiram Powers’ statue of John C. Calhoun, which was lashed in the hold, and the marble tore a hole through the hull. With the tide rising and a heavy storm coming down, the ship began to take on water at an alarming rate.

Fuller might have saved herself by swimming to shore with the aid of a sailor, but she refused to leave her husband — who couldn’t swim — and she refused to be separated from her two-year-old son, who couldn’t be carried in the rough sea.

When Emerson heard the news of Fuller’s drowning, he sent Thoreau to search for her body and effects. Some of Fuller’s manuscript material was recovered, but her book on the Italian revolution — she and her husband had been participants — was lost forever in the waves. Years later, in Cape Cod, Thoreau wrote:

Once … it was my business to go in search of the relics of a human body, mangled by sharks, which had just been cast up, a week after a wreck. …

Close at hand they were simply some bones with a little flesh adhering to them. … There was nothing at all remarkable about them, and they were singularly inoffensive both to the senses and the imagination. But as I stood there they grew more and more imposing. They were alone with the beach and the sea, whose hollow roar seemed addressed to them, and I was impressed as if there was an understanding between them and the ocean which necessarily left me out, with my snivelling sympathies. That dead body had taken possession of the shore and reigned over it as no living one could, in the name of a certain majesty which belonged to it.

Thoreau also died young. Emerson, the oldest, lived longest, to the very edge of his 79th year, though he suffered from dementia in his last decade, forgetting words and friends and then himself. After 1872, he wrote little, and then nothing, rereading his old journals while evincing a great contentment, sinking slowly into oblivion. In his last series of lectures, The Natural History of the Intellect, he wrote of memory:

Without it all life and thought were an unrelated succession. As gravity holds matter from flying off into space, so memory gives stability to knowledge; it is the cohesion which keeps things from falling into a lump, or flowing in waves.

I like to think of my scholarship and poetry as autonomous activities, with occasional points of crossing. Most of those points are marked in pencil in my books. Sometimes, I try to gather them up, to make a line, to make a text. The text above was written for a poetry reading in New York, with Fanny Howe. I’m not sure why I thought it was necessary, or even a good idea, but I wanted to set the three quotes alongside my own work, much of which recently loops tangentially from hospital and nursing home. Fuller’s dream, Thoreau’s appraisal, Emerson’s accedence: three incommensurate stances I’d like, somehow, to reconcile.

Written by Ben Friedlander

April 6, 2010 at 8:42 am