Sarah Ruden, who has also done a good translation of Augustine’s Confessions has a piece up at National Review “Walt Whitman Isn’t America’s Greatest Poet”. It’s causing great consternation over there and, as near as I can tell, almost nowhere else in the known universe.
I’m not qualified to judge Whitman as a poet. I’m not qualified because I’ve never read much of the guy. I have a beautiful edition of Leaves of Grass on my shelves at home but, despite many attempts, I have never been able to read it. Not because it’s not good, possibly even great, poetry. The problem is that it fails to excite me. I just don’t care enough to keep reading.
And there, I think, is where Ruden strikes home. If we take it that there is a difference between “America’s Greatest Poet” and the “Greatest Poet Who is an American” it becomes possible to say that, whether he is a great poet or not, there is nothing about Whitman that speaks to America.
I’ve made similar points about James Joyce. Joyce may be a great writer but he hasn’t touched anyone outside the academic world. He’s read outside the academic world but only as a duty. Compare Joyce with Proust and we see that, there too, we have a writer revered by the academic world and read out of duty outside it but with a crucial difference: there are readers who dutifully slog through Proust only to get enraptured by him. I know of no one who reads Joyce or Whitman and has that experience.
Instead, we have a writer who is read because he is “important” and continues to be affirmed as “important” because, damnit, he’s “important”. Most of the rejoinders at NR have that circular quality.
I have nothing against orthodoxy per se. I think there is a difference, however, between people who defend an orthodoxy because they love what we might call the content of that orthodoxy and people who defend it because it gives them a secure sense of identity to be aligned with an orthodoxy. I read Kevin Williamson’s rejoinder to Ruden, for example, and I find the usual good writing and sound argument I’ve come to expect from him. What is missing is any sense of genuine enthusiasm for Whitman.
Years ago, a Quebecois separatist whose name escapes me at the moment caused great outrage among defenders of PierreTrudeau by saying that Trudeau wasn’t an intellectual. When challenged, the separatist said, “Show me a time when Trudeau uses a quote that isn’t in Bartlett and I’ll concede. This stirred up even more outrage. As a teenager, what really struck me was that no one took up the challenge. For it should have been an easy matter, where Trudeau a genuine intellectual, to cite many examples of his having actually read the authors he cited in depth.
Similarly, if Whitman is America’s Greatest Poet, it should be possible to cite poetry that speaks to America. We haven’t seen that. All we have is a bunch of angry gesturing.