A New Edition
Walt Whitman—Selected Poems 1855-1892--A New Edition, Edited by Gary Schmidgall, St. Martin's Press, 1999, 530 pages, $32.50
Anybody who knows me is well aware I've always been a messenger boy for Walt Whitman. In the nation's capitol, when I began skipping classes in seventh grade, I found myself seated in the office of the principal, an Eleanor Roosevelt look-alike, Miss Bertie Backus. Wielding what I considered an effective 1953 shock-excuse, I told Ms. Backus I was gay.
"If you're not going to go to classes, you should read Walt Whitman's Leaves of Grass," she explained kindly. It seemed a fair trade. Freed by a principal's fiat from having to attend cloistered classes, I sat in the open air and dipped into the Leaves, first discovering Whitman's Calamus poems—the most extraordinary literary paeans to all-male love ever written. Whitman promised:
I will sing the song of companionship…
I will therefore let flame from me the burning fires that were threatening to consume me,
I will lift what has too long kept down those smouldering fires,
I will give them complete abandonment,
I will write the evangel-poem of comrades and of love,
For who but I should understand love with all its sorrow and joy?
And who but I should be the poet of comrades?
Edward Carpenter, a great grandfather of the gay and lesbian movement (1844-1929) had been a messenger boy for Walt Whitman too. In fact, Carpenter had sailed the Atlantic specifically to meet the great poet, and, reportedly, had even slept with him. By the time I was fifteen I'd fully joined Carpenter in his enthusiasm for Whitman. "Walt Whitman is the sun," Carpenter had modestly announced, "and I am a moon reflecting his light." Ditto, I said to myself.
It was during this period I grew skeptical about all "holy" scriptures. I'd noted how the American revolutionary, Thomas Paine, had —in his critique of the Bible, The Age of Reason—suggested that if God had told Moses what to do, Moses should have jumped to do it pronto. And, confessed Paine, if God had personally told Paine himself what to do, he promised to get right to the job. But if God had reportedly told Moses to tell Paine as well as other people what to do, then Paine would blow his cease and desist whistle. To accept any such dictation from a so-called prophet, observed America's unremembered Founding Father, would be to accept a man's word—Moses' word-- not God's. This realization caused me to seek inspiration in venues other than so-called holy scriptures. Paine had said: "Every person of learning is finally his own teacher." Whitman preached much the same thing.
I'd no way to know in 1973 that later, in 1992, a hundred years following his death, New York City's cultural institutions would celebrate Whitman's Leaves to the hilt, and that he'd be suddenly be called, as the literary scholar Gary Schmidgall calls him, "America's greatest poet." Schmidgall, who has written biographies of both Whitman and Wilde as well as three books about Shakespeare, has now edited a new edition of Whitman's poems that's unsurpassed for its attractive elements.
First, its presentation of the poems is just as Whitman wanted. Their lines appear—lengthwise across each page-- in like manner as he'd first arranged them.
Recommending Walt Whitman as civilization's best tonic and therefore eager to present him in his best light, it seems natural to recommend Gary Schmidgall's newly edited edition of the bard's poems—released by St. Martin's Press in August. Its far superior to all other editions, including Whitman's own "deathbed edition" (1892) which he'd charged future publishers to use instead of the earlier editions of his Leaves. Whitman's best friends, however, were always only those who dared talk back to him, he said. Gary Schmidgall, a century later, has proved such a friend.
Schmidgall has wisely ignored Whitman's deathbed advice, and has resurrected the harder-to-find unexpurgated poems from the earliest editions. The earlier editions, Schmidgall knows, showcased Whitman at his best—at his most ecstatic, his most affirmative, his most unapologetically sexual.
Later in life, in his attempts to make himself more respectable, the great poet had eliminated some of his own best lines. Schmidgall, fortunately, balked at Whitman's "deathbed" advice. The best lines have been—in this new edition— fully restored and presented chronologically. Whitman once again shines like the central sun he is, invigorating and instilling in his lovers a satisfying passion for living and loving.
I challenge all thinkers—as Oscar Wilde did—to read Whitman (if not for his poetry) for his philosophy. The often cynical Wilde had said, nevertheless, that Walt Whitman "Is the herald to a new era. As a man he is the precursor of a fresh type. He is a factor in the heroic and spiritual evolution of the human being."
Gary Schmidgall's Whitman scholarship puts him at the top, as far as I'm concerned, of the good gay poet's literary champions. Though the poet was adept at revising himself and sometimes hiding his earlier thoughts, Schmidgall has flushed him out of hiding to reveal his full power and glory in a volume that will sit permanently at my bedside.
Dead Poets Society, a Robin Williams film, has recently been playing on HBO. At the end of the movie-- Williams' students recite the poetry of "WW" over their teacher's expired form. The lines they speak are the last in Whitman's greatest poem which he later named "Song of Myself". Read these lines aloud and see if Walt Whitman mysteriously tempts you—after work-- to walk with him, and, as a result, to rescue once again your own love of life by consciously absorbing his uncanny awareness:
Who has done his day's work and will soonest be through with his supper?
Who wishes to walk with me?
Will you speak before I am gone? Will you prove already too late?
The spotted hawk swoops by and accuses me…he complains of my gab and my loitering.
I too am not a bit tamed…I too am untranslatable,
I sound my barbaric yawp over the roofs of the world.
The last scud of day holds back for me,
It flings my likeness after the rest and true as any on the shadowed wilds,
It coaxes me to the vapor and the dusk.
I depart as air…I shake my white locks at the runaway sun,
I effuse my flesh in eddies and drift it in lacy jags.
I bequeath myself to the dirt to grow from the grass I love,
If you want me again look for me under your bootsoles.
You will hardly know who I am or what I mean,
But I shall be good health to you nevertheless,
And filter and fibre your blood.
Failing to fetch me at first keep encouraged,
Missing me one place search another,
I stop somewhere waiting for you.
Jack Nichols, GayToday's Senior Editor, is author of The Gay Agenda: Talking Back to the Fundamentalists: www.prometheusbooks.com/site/catalog/gay3.html