Whitman and the Beats

Wills, D., ‘Whitman and the Beats’ in Wills, D., (ed.) Beatdom Vol. 1 (City of Recovery Press: Dundee, 2007)

It’s hard to read Kerouac or Ginsberg and not think of the father of American poetry, Walt Whitman. Well, it’s hard for me. I’ve spent four years studying American literature, and it’s hard to look at anything post-Whitman without thinking of him. Emerson called for an American poet, and Whitman answered, and then defined the criteria for future American poets. The American poet would be knowledgeable of books, but experienced in the life and nature of the continent. He (or she) would celebrate the grassroots of the New World and embrace the people and geography.

Two of the most famous letters in the history of American literature relate to the introduction to the literary community of Whitman and Ginsberg by their mentors. Upon reading Leaves of Grass, Ralph Waldo Emerson wrote to Whitman,

DEAR SIR–I am not blind to the worth of the wonderful gift of “LEAVES OF GRASS.” I find it the most extraordinary piece of wit and wisdom that America has yet contributed. I am very happy in reading it, as great power makes us happy. It meets the demand I am always making of what seemed the sterile and stingy nature, as if too much handiwork, or too much lymph in the temperament, were making our western wits fat and mean.
I give you joy of your free and brave thought. I have great joy in it. I find incomparable things said incomparably well, as they must be. I find the courage of treatment which so delights us, and which large perception only can inspire.

I greet you at the beginning of a great career, which yet must have had a long foreground somewhere, for such a start. I rubbed my eyes a little, to see if this sunbeam were no illusion; but the solid sense of the book is a sober certainty. It has the best merits, namely, of fortifying and encouraging.
I did not know until I last night saw the book advertised in newspaper that I could trust the name as real and available for a post-office. I wish to see my benefactor, and have felt much like striking my tasks, and visiting New York to pay you my respects.
R.W. EMERSON

Concord, Massachusetts, 21 July, 1855

Without Emerson’s consent, the fame hungry Whitman presumptuously published the above letter in the New York Tribune on 10th October 1855. This helped publicise the work for which he had previously had to write his own reviews.

Emerson’s unwitting patronage compares to William Carlos Williams’ foreword to Howl!, which famously began, “Hold back the edges of your gowns, Ladies, we are going through hell.” Williams had been friends with, supported and promoted Ginsberg since their first encounter in Paterson, 1950, when Ginsberg wrote “I inscribe this missive somewhat in the style of those courteous sages of yore who recognised one another across the generations as brotherly children of the muses.” He sent Williams nine of his poems with the letter. Williams was unimpressed with the rigid style of Ginsberg’s early poetry, but delighted with the letter.

Both introductory letters served their beneficiaries well and bestowed upon them a certain notoriety, as the proverbial batons were passed from generation to generation, and a reference of approval was given to dangerous young madmen by respected literary figures.

Leaves of Grass, Whitman’s epic collection, beginning with ‘Song of Myself’, created a tradition of opening up and embodying America, using lists to build imagery representative of as much of the country and the people as possible, and involving the poet in this celebration of himself and his surroundings.

Kerouac and Ginsberg both clearly display evidence of Whitman’s influence throughout their work as well as in their lives. Sometimes such evidence is obvious, but sometimes it requires a great deal of searching to find. Certainly the embodiment of an America free from governmental oppression is inherent in the major works of each, and one cannot deny the obvious confessional approach in On the Road and Howl! that is clearly inspired by Whitman.

But perhaps the reason for such similarity in style and content lies in certain similarities in their lives. The Beats and the Transcendentalists came one hundred years apart, but were surprisingly similar literary and cultural movements, protesting against tradition, conformity, commercialism, industrialisation and urbanisation. Both sets of poets and writers tended to portray the wilderness as divine, contrasted against the gaudy human nightlife of the city. And both groups of poets wrote in times when danger loomed: Whitman before and during the Civil War, and the Beats following World War II, when the threat of nuclear war became very real.

And so, with such dissatisfaction, the Beats and Whitman looked for something else, perhaps truth. Yes, they chastised the cult of possession, but they also looked for importance in life. Strangely, both seemed to find god, although in different places from the masses. In ‘Song of Myself’, Whitman declares “I hear and behold god in every object.” This compares to Kerouac’s description of Neal Cassady in On the Road: “Everything amazed him, everything he saw…” Of course, there are innumerable mentions of Cassady’s love of all things and his worship of every object and sight and sound and person, the point being that Cassady and Whitman saw some spiritual wonder in everyday events and objects and places.

Leaves of Grass also contains the self-declarations of oneness and openness and self-expression and communion with nature that one sees in Ginsberg and Snyder and other Beat poets. Most obvious are the sexual descriptions in Leaves of Grass and throughout Ginsberg’s volumes of poetry. Both Ginsberg and Whitman were tried for obscenity because of their homosexually explicit lyrics, which portray their fantasies and sex lives as natural and something not to be ashamed of. Sex is seen as inseparable from the natural world – “Winds whose soft-tickling genitals rub against me it shall be you/ Broad muscular fields…” [Song of Myself: 542] Whitman’s openness inspired Ginsberg, and Ginsberg’s helped change the world in the latter half of the twentieth century as people came to discuss taboo subjects and bring about social change.

And in Snyder there are yet more connections to ‘Song of Myself’, when Whitman celebrates the relationships animals have with god, not one of dependence and self-pity, but something pure and natural that he envies. In his celebration of animals and of humans, Whitman berates the idea of possession as one of which animals are unaware. All this is evident in Snyder’s poetry. Known as the ‘Thoreau of the Beat Generation’, Snyder communed with nature from an early age, working as a fire-lookout, logger and ranger. His poetry reflects his life and his views, most famously in his first volume, Riprap (1959). He presents simple imagery, as free from disruptive and misleading metaphor as possible, in the style of Pound and Williams, coupled with a presentation of harmonious wilderness idolised by Whitman, resulting in crisp, clear scenes of mountain America and forest life.

But Snyder was obviously not the only Beat to connect with and respect nature. Kerouac’s novels all highlight a stark contrast between city and country life, but he seeks the beauty in both. Big Sur is an example of lonely wilderness and the overwhelming wonders (and some of the troubles) of roughing it in California. On the Road goes further and shows Kerouac experiencing a oneness with the whole of America – the people, the city, the countryside, the rivers and mountains and beaches. He celebrates himself and his Beat contemporaries, and all of America, and in this respect it is hard to see any difference from Leaves of Grass. (As a sidenote, of which most will be aware of, One the Road and Leaves of Grass have both become American classics.) Both writers strive to see godliness in the minutiae of everyday life.

But it is not only in style and theme that One the Road can be seen as a descendant of the Whitman/Transcendentalist tradition. Kerouac’s classic road novel centres on a loosely fictionalised version of himself following a loosely fictionalised version of Neal Cassady around America. Kerouac had read Whitman as a child, and then re-discovered him over and over in later life. He read Cassady’s writing and adored its aesthetics, referring to Cassady as the ‘great Walt Whitman of this century.’ Later, after reading ‘Children of Adam’, he decided that Cassady was Whitman’s Adamic man. His depiction through Dean Moriarty portrays Cassady as a ‘sexual revolutionary’, and coupled with his appreciation of Whitman’s insinuation that humans are mere animals, and that sex is therefore an entirely natural thing, On the Road can be seen as continuing and developing a Leaves of Grass worldview.

But like Ginsberg, Kerouac uses simple everyday language to express complex ideas, whereas Whitman’s simplicity lies in language and message (although his messages may be numerous and conflicting, they are each in their own way simple). Both Beat writers were influenced in their use of language by Whitman, whose ‘Slang’ explained that language evolves through the everyday working folks that use it the most. However, in works such as ‘Sunflower Sutra’, Ginsberg takes this idea and pushes it further, with expressions like ‘tincan banana dock’, that consist of single basic words, but which have no apparent overall meaning, and can often be read through the idea that they juxtapose images, often contrasting nature and humanity and government and sex… Of course, Ginsberg’s poems, most notably Howl!, make use of his idea of structuring lines to the patterns of speech and breathing, and follow Kerouac’s idea of spontaneous prose.

A ‘Supermarket in California’, however, is perhaps the most obvious Whitmanian influence upon Ginsberg’s poetry. Ginsberg directly references Whitman throughout the poem, imagining a relationship between them developing among the vegetables and shoppers, and spreading out into the streets, rueing a Lost America.

Certainly, Whitman’s American vision was one of criticism yet optimism, rather than the Beat philosophy of laying back and making their own little space in an essentially doomed society, while looking back to the past and lamenting the losses of freedoms and the rolling tide of development that led to the crushing weight of an uncaring world by the 1950s.

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Author: David S. Wills

David S. Wills is the founder and editor of Beatdom magazine and the author of The Dog Farm. He travels a lot, and is currently working as a professor in China. His latest book is called Scientologist! William S. Burroughs the Weird Cult. You can read more about and by David at his blog, www.davidswills.com or on Tumblr.

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