Posts Tagged ‘ Nathaniel Hawthorne ’

“… before an unknown hollow darkness of the heart”

Carson McCullers at 100

Isaiah Berlin based his most famous essay1 on a fragment of Archilocus: “The fox knows many things, but the hedgehog knows one big thing.” Berlin forced this enigmatic apophthegm into a classification for writers and thinkers: “there exists a great chasm between those, on one side, who relate everything to a single central vision, one system, less or more coherent or articulate, in terms of which they understand, think and feel—a single, universal, organising principle in terms of which alone all that they are and say has significance—and, on the other side, those who pursue many ends, often unrelated and even contradictory, connected, if at all, only in some de facto way, for some psychological or physiological cause, related to no moral or aesthetic principle.” The first group are the hedgehogs, and the second the foxes. He illustrated this division by putting, among others, Plato, Dante, Hegel, Dostoevsky and Proust among the hedgehogs and Aristotle, Shakespeare, Goethe, Pushkin and Balzac with the foxes. His use of this dichotomy is something of a rhetorical trick, because his essay is about Tolstoy for whom he says the division does not apply. But it is, perhaps, much better suited to the 100th anniversary of the birthday of Carson McCullers (February 19, 1917 – September 29, 1967), who, unlike almost all  American novelists, is a hedgehog.

When one considers the celebrated novelists of the first half of the 20th century, it is difficult to imagine any of them conceiving of the need for a systematic organization of thought into a single way of looking at things. Such thinkers are rare enough throughout history, and American fiction writers, with the exception, perhaps, of Hawthorne and certainly, of Melville, have not been been systematic moralists or practicing metaphysicians; rather, they have usually preferred psychological, and occasionally political, approaches to stories, and both are notoriously digressive methods.

Nabokov hated the kinds of novels hedgehogs produced, deriding them as books with “messages.” But all novels more-or-less have messages, even Tolstoy’s. (Anna Karenina after all begins with the epigraph: “Vengeance is mine; I will repay.”) The difference with hedgehogs, however, is that the central view is not a moral of a particular story or even an organizing principle for a work; it is rather a way of looking at the world which informs (and usually is the reason for undertaking) a writers total output. And given that the author so concentrates on that central vision (it is perhaps the reason why he becomes an author), it casts the story in a slightly heightened light, immediately noticeable, often by the adoption of a tone that is emotionally noncommittal and measured, although Dostoevsky’s prose is often urgent and frenetic.

T.S. Eliot (descendant of the Puritans, America’s quintessential hedgehogs) may have been America’s chief literary hedgehog. But the system he tried to construct, involving old -fashioned reactionary politics and unintelligible Catholic-Buddhist mysticism, was too solipsistic to be seriously entertained by anyone. McCullers was quite different. Her systematic quest was the result of experience and self-knowledge, and it appealed viscerally. And regardless of any limitations she might be accused of, one always feels she is driving at something beyond ordinary literary insight.

The Heart is a Lonely Hunter (1940)

From the beginning of her first novel, The Heart is a Lonely Hunter it is obvious that McCullers had in her sights the roots of human isolation. “In the town there were two mutes, and they were always together,” is the opening sentence. The picture it produces is the paradigm of isolation. Cut off from the rest of the town not only by their disabilities but also by the social segregation the disabled suffer, they have only each other. The chapter describes, in precise, unsentimental prose, the life these two lead. One, John Singer, a tall, thin, impeccably neat and refined man; the other, Spiros Antonapoulos, short and obese, and, we soon learn, mentally challenged. The two, over the course of the decade they lived together, made a life out of their simple and unvaried routine. Antonapoulos worked for his cousin, the owner of a fruit store. Singer was a silverware engraver. They would walk together to work, arm in arm, and come home together at night, where Antonapoulos cooked the meal (food was his one joy), and Singer washed the dishes. Singer did all the communicating, often signing for great stretches of time. Antonapoulos rarely “spoke,” except before bed when he prayed to “Holy Jesus” or “Darling Mary.” Silver did not know how much his friend understood of what he signed. “But the two mutes were not lonely at all.” Until one day, when Singer was 32, Antonapoulos became ill. He was ordered on a strict diet—a great privation for him—and he blamed Singer, who enforced the doctor’s regimen. Antonapoulos became spiteful and soon began acting out by committing small misdemeanors and indecencies in public. Eventually, without consulting Singer, Antanapoulos’s cousin had him committed to the state mental institution. The loss of his friend was a devastating blow from which he struggled to recover. At first, and for a long time, Singer wandered the streets of this deep Southern town until late at night. Singer was not of this place (“more like a Northerner or a Jew,” the town’s African American doctor concluded after receiving a small kindness from him), and this made him even lonelier. After weeks of this solitude, his grief changed him: “His agitation gave way gradually to exhaustion and there was a look about him of deep calm. In his face there came to be a brooding peace that is seen most often in the faces of the very sorrowful or the very wise.” He reached that state of numbness that is the only outcome of deep heartache.

That first chapter, we realize after finishing the novel, is really an encapsulation of the entire novel, like a sonata movement in a Classical era work, whose statements would be developed in various ways by the rest of the work. But Singer’s fate is not just emblematic; it sets him on a course that would make him a central character in the lives of others. In fact his relationships with the other major characters becomes a unifying plot device as well as a central metaphor in its own right. In each of the next four chapters we meet in turn the other four main characters who would become unlikely (and unsought for) disciples of Singer and whose stories unfold as something like variations on the theme of Singer’s.

The second chapter introduces us to Bartholomew “Biff” Brannon, the owner of the town’s dinner, the New York Café. Biff was not a man of action: “[h]e usually stood in the corner by the cash register, his arm folded over his chest, quietly observing all that went on around him.” His perch on the edge of this world allows him to watch, cogitate and try to puzzle together the half-conclusions he comes to. We meet his wife, Alice, who has no respect for him, and it’s clear that there is no longer any love in this marriage. Their current point of contention is a drunk, Jake Blount, who has taken up something like permanent residency in the diner. Alice wants him out, but Biff is too passive to take action. And he finds Blount an interesting object of his contemplation. Meanwhile, as Saturday turns to Sunday, Blount passed the stage of inebriation and has become a sloppy drunk, trying to declaim radical politics to the late-night diners and drinkers, most of whom consider him an object of ridicule. As a result of the outcome of that evening Blount would become a major character in his own right.

In this second chapter, we meet the two other new major characters, Mick Kelley, a 14 year old member of a large, downwardly mobile family who operate a run-down boarding house. Mick is one of six children and is barely supervised by her overworked parents, and this explains how she is at the diner past midnight buying cigarettes. Biff finds himself strangely attracted to the tomboyish girl. In this chapter we also meet the town’s African American doctor, Doctor Benedict Mady Copeland, who in the middle of that night is brought by Blount into the diner and is enraged when he believes that he has been tricked into coming to a segregated eating establishment soley to be mocked. Even John Singer is there, having during his wanderings made arrangements with Biff to take all of his meals at the café every day. Through Mick we learn that Singer has taken up lodgings at the Kellys’ boarding house, and after Blount that night makes a scene owing to acute alcohol poisoning, Singer offers taking Blount to his room for the night. To continue the symphony analogy, this chapter is something like a scherzo, and there are three movements left.

The third chapter follows Mick’s around the next day, Sunday, and shows us her family and acquaints us with her aspirations, at the same time both unrealistic and cramped. She is obsessed by music. But her parents cannot afford any additional expenses (even if they knew her interest); almost any connection she might have with music is out of the question, so she listens outside the room of a boarder who has a radio. She discovers that the music she is particularly entranced by was written long ago by someone named “Motsart.” She dreams of someday having a piano, but for now she has tried to make a violin from a broken mandolin and wires. When she realizes it won’t work, she is disgusted with her own foolishness. She wonders why she so enthusiastically worked on a thing that was so ridiculous. ‘Maybe,” she thinks, “when people longed for a thing that bad the longing made them trust in anything that might give it to them.”

We also discover in this chapter that the black cook at the boardinghouse, Portia, is Dr. Copeland’s daughter, and while she maintains her filial regard for him, she tells Mick of his estrangement from the family. She attributes his loneliness (despite being “full of books”) to his rejection of religion,. Religion gives peace, she explains, like what she, her husband, her brother Willie (who works in the kitchen of the New York Café), and their boarder Mr. Singer. (By using the same word as the narrator, peace, to describe the current state of John Singer, Portia ironically compares the numbness of personal devastation with the grace of God.) She warns Mick that she will experience the same emptiness of her father without God. “Your heart going to beat hard enough to kill you because you don’t have love and you don’t have peace.” Mick is cut to the quick by the accusation that she hadn’t loved, but she keeps her own counsel. When she wanders off she is gripped by an indescribable agitation and wrestles with an unquenchable longing for what she knows not. While sitting on the stairs hoping a boarder will turn on her radio she became lost in thought: 

“She thought a long time and kept hitting her thighs with her fists. Her face felt like it was scattered in pieces and she could not keep it straight. The feeling was a whole lot worse than being hungry for any dinner, yet it was like that. I want—I want—I want—was all that she could think about—but just what this real want was she did not know.”

In the fourth chapter we come to understand the obsession that Blount was unable to articulate during the previous night’s binge. Having been cleaned up by Singer he goes off to look for work. In the want ads he learns of a broken down amusement show looking for a mechanic. He finds the owner and tells him of his experience in all sorts of mechanical work is hired to run the flying jinny, an aging and splintered carousel that is taken from one vacant lot to the other to provide amusement for the town’s underbelly—mill hands, children and blacks. After taking the job he walks back through the white mill workers’ part of town. The buildings and inhabitants are both dreary and hopeless. He sidles up to three workers with “mill-sallow, dead pan faces” sitting on a porch. After offering them tobacco, he begins asking about strikes and their opinions about the owners of the mill. He asks them if their exploitation makes them mad, but all he can elicit is mocking laughter. “The men laughed in the slow and easy way that three men laugh at one.” He is enraged, but returns to Singer with bottles of beer because he knows that Singer is an empathetic soul and can provide him solace. He explains how he has spent his life studying the system that chews up people for profit on capital. He tells Singer that they are two of the very few who understand and when two such find each other it is something like a miracle. Singer, who clearly does not understand, writes a question on a card: Are you a Democrat or a Republican? Blount looks into Singer’s eyes, which seem to hypnotize him. “‘You get it,’ he said in a blurred voice. ‘You know what I mean.'”

Chapter five tells the story of Dr. Copeland, a man dedicated to the liberation of his people. So certain of the righteousness of his goal, he tried to enlist his children into the fight, giving them the names Karl Marx, Hamilton, Willie and Portia. Hs book study and life experience have taught him what it will take for the Negro to reclaim his rights: discipline, hard work, dignity and exemplary behavior to emulate. He knows this to his core; spreading this word has become his “real true cause.” He saw his children as agents in this work and hoped to teach them of their special places and their own real true cause, but they wanted to fit in with their peers, to avoid the stigma of being “uppity.” Dr. Copeland’s wife did not openly resist him, but she sided with them. She allowed the children their minor vices and childish wishes, and worse, she took them to church and instilled in them “the cult of meekness.”  It was more than he could bear, and the result of the conflict was his wife moving to the farm of her father and taking the children. She died, but the children remained estranged. Only Portia occasionally visited her father, but neither she nor any of the others became the scientists, lawyers and teachers Copeland knew his people needed, and he was now bereft of his family and his dreams.

These introductions are followed by the large central part of the work, where the destinies of these characters play out. The stories are presented much like the introductions, with one chapter for each of the characters, although the stories occasionally cross paths. Each chapter has subtly different narrative language appropriate to the character whose story is told.  Words or phrases that peculiar to a particular character are inserted in a non-intrusive way, and this softens the artificiality of an omniscient narrator’s voice. But these insertions do not substitute for the characters’s internal dialogue, they merely illustrate the level of intellectual maturity and social adjustment of the character. The narrator’s tone remains the same throughout: sympathetic without pathos, exposition without any unnecessary emphasis, objective rather than like-minded, all accomplished with clear expository sentences designed to show the reader external events and the characters’ responses, suggesting some deeper meaning, but without idiosyncratic style or obvious technique. She always allows the structure of the narrative (with occasional rhetorical emphasis) to permit the reader to form conclusions of a deeper sort.

As for the key feature of the structure most critical comment has focused on the relation of Singer to the three who most avidly seek out his attention. (Biff is too busy at the café to spend much time with Singer at the boarding house and doesn’t sit with him at the diner. Besides, his interest in Singer is clinical: Unlike the other three, he sees that Singer does not understand what they offer up to him. He tries to understand why they delude themselves.) The three become more and more dependent on Singer: “Each person addressed his words mainly to the mute. Their thoughts seemed to converge in him as the spokes of a wheel lead to the center hub.” Singer does not seek this position, nor does he do much to maintain it. He barely understands what they tell him, and they interpret his smiles or nods as suits them. He is happy for the company but finds them strange. One night he has a dream where Antonapoulos was knelling atop a set of stone stairs holding something above his head and he seemed in an attitude of prayer. Below him Singer himself, also naked, was looking up at Antonapoulos. Below Singer were the four other main characters looking at him. The dream ends when the stairs crumble. Much has been made of the metaphorical implications of Singer’s relation to the others. And just as Singer’s “disciples” attribute to his reactions the meaning they wish them to have, critics have assigned as the meaning of the metaphor their own hobbyhorses. I’ll give one example: Harold Bloom, one of America’s most prolific critics, and one who often appeals to non-academic readers, sees this metaphor in terms of classic (early) psychoanalysis and refers to Freud’s “The Dynamics of Transference” (1912) to note that inability to love results from early channelling of libidinal impulses in ways that withhold it from conscious personality (etc., etc.).2 But McCullers in this novel does not addressing the expression of erotic love by this metaphor. She is not even dealing with any of he other forms of love that bear Greek names (such as agape or philos). What the “disciples” want, is not “love,” but rather affirmation of the meaning they have chosen for their lives, the meaning they have selected consciously, not as a result of innate drives. This may or may not be susceptible to psychoanalytic description, but not in the reductive way Bloom suggests.

In much the same way other academic critics have forced this work into the confines of their own specialties. Let’s put aside feminist and queer theory critics and look at earlier critics who regarded the novel as another of the Southern Gothic genre begun by Faulkner. Most of the support for that categorization stems solely from the southern location and the supposed treatment of “freaks” and “outcasts.” (The reed that often supports the claim that McCullers is obsessed with “freaks” is Biff’s statement to Alice that “I like freaks.” But when he thinks of it Blount (to whom he applied the term) is not a freak, and those he was thinking of do not appear in the novel.) That the characters were ground down by poverty, the Depression and racism does not make them freaks or otherwise bizarre. In fact, McCullers treats each of the characters with a kind of respect, and thereby gives them a dignity that is apparent even in the first glance. McCullers’s characters are overall much more articulate than Faulkner’s, her African American characters in particular are real people rather than props. Her style and narrative structure avoid any self-referential “literary” technique. Nor does she emphasize the morbid or construct elaborate but implausible plot developments. In short, there seems really very little in common between McCullers and Faulkner. But for me the most important difference and what makes McCullers unique is how she can make a novel of ideas out of people and events that remain realistic throughout. In this novel almost all the characters are living on the edge of financial disaster. Privation distorts their possibilities as well as their relations to others. And yet in addition to trying to retain their dignity, the main characters are also searching for deeper meanings to life, and it is that quest and the answers they tell themselves that are at the heart of the mystery that we feel reading her novels.

Characters searching for meaning was not a Southern, or even American, literary commonplace. Of course, there were all sorts of existentialist theories and treatments of existentialist themes and outlooks from as far back as the mid-nineteenth century. (One could even go earlier with Büchner’s Woyzeck.) But whether one could (or even should) define a meaning for one’s self was a question that would become a central issue only in the middle of the twentieth century and later. An important early step in that direction was Camus’s The Stranger, but that novel was published a year after The Heart is a Lonely Hunter. And the French work dealt only with the preliminary issue: the absurdity of our isolation (to translate it into more McCullers-friendly concepts). Camus would elaborate his concept (and its consequences) in many essays and criticisms, which gave him intellectual heft among academics. McCullers was never an accomplished essayist, possibly because she formulated her ideas in terms of stories. (In this she might be said to be Southern.) But in her first extended story she examined her existential (or absurdist, for she is more like Camus than either the atheist Sartre or the deist Kierkegaard) thesis from several different angles, not just one  (exceedingly abnormal) point of view as in The Stranger.

The Heart is a Lonely Hunter is also the only work that puts her existential thesis in the context of common religious beliefs (for the South in the late 1930s). There are only two characters (and they are secondary) who subscribe to any form of systematic religious belief. The first is Antonapoulos, whose religious rituals, as far as we can tell, are extremely childlike and rote, almost superstitious. Singer’s dream acknowledges his friend’s superiority ot him in matters spiritual (and in the same sense his superiority to his own “disciples”), but in the end the edifice collapses. Portia is the other believer (or at least practitioner) in the work. She believes that membership in her denomination and moderate practice of ritual (not too “sanctified” she insists) results in peace and the ability to love.  It is true that she is the only character who demonstrates something close to selfless concern for others, even those outside her own insular race (for she expresses concern for the Kelly children). Her behavior, however, seems more in keeping with the cult of meekness (as Dr. Copeland calls it), the kind which reinforces conventional social and ethical rules without any appeal to heightened consciousness (the kind, in short, that William James seems to prefer in The Variety of Religious Experiences), and nothing she says shows it gives any meaning to her life. It certainly is not a motivation to seek social justice. The other characters dismiss religion outright. Mick believes no more in God than in Santa Claus, she says, but her early indoctrination bubbles up in snatches of scripture at an oddly inappropriate moment. Blount is plagued by a street preacher out to convert him, but Blount’s response is mere mockery. He regards it all as a lie, unlike the gospel of worker liberation which he preaches and for which he himself is mocked. Biff is also reminded of religion. His wife teaches Sunday School and at the beginning of the novel, he hears her preparing a lesson involving the verse from Mark, to the effect that all men seek for Him. The talk only effects nostalgia in Biff, who remembers the days before he gave it all up. When each reach their own crisis, none considers religion as a sensible recourse.

Even the one central teaching of conventional Christianity, altruistic love (Christ-like in its self-abnegation) does not give us permanent relief from the isolation the characters experience, because it depends on the existence of the object of our devotion. When Singer loses Antanapoulos, his reason for living disappears, and with that, he takes away the affirmation he was supplying to the others. The short denouement part of the novel concludes their stories in reverse order of the characters’ introductions. Copeland, having met his wall, the realization that his life work of self-actualizing into a respectable, dignified man was no match for the entrenched institutionalized forces of racism, gives up. He is carted off (literally) to the farm of his father-in-law, whose meekness and religiosity Copeland spent his lifetime opposing. It is perhaps the fact that the farm is away from the town, itself isolated from the arena that Copeland had tried to contend in, that makes it any refuge at all. Blount, having not convinced any person of the idea he found so simple, and indeed becomes the reason that the oppressed end up attacking each other, has to leave town, to escape questions and possibly to find converts elsewhere. Biff gives him a little help, but without Singer, Blount has not reason to stay. Mick made a decision, forced by circumstances that effectually compelled it, which for all practical purposes will end her dream of pursuing music. Barely on the edge of adulthood she can expect a future as dreary of her father’s, but evidently because we cannot live without meaning, however illusory, she thinks she can save $2 out of $10 weekly salary to some day buy a piano. These thoughts console her while she drinks a beer and has a chocolate sundae at the café at the same time realizing that she is angry all the time. Only there is no on to be angry at. Biff suffers no great trouble, because he had no meaning he would commit to. He realized he would no longer love again, and he never understood the mystery of Singer. But suddenly in the middle of the night, as he tends the customer-free café, he comes to a transcendent realization. “For in a swift radiance of illumination he saw a glimpse of human struggle and of valor. Of the endless fluid passage of humanity through endless time. And of those who labor and of those who—one word—love. His soul expanded.” But the exhilaration of the vision soon turns to terror. What he was looking at was the past; the future, however, holds “blackness, error, and ruin.” It was necessary to wash his face with a wet handkerchief and to actively impose self discipline to dispel the terror. He was, after all, a “sensible man.” And so he composed himself “soberly to await the morning sun.”

There are two influences that I think profoundly influence the organization and approach of this novel, and both are Russian.3 The first is the mature work of Dostoevsky. In the first place, the techniques of Dostoevsky’s first effort to mesh more than one story into a single work, Crime and Punishment, are evident. Long stretches of independent stories, occasionally crossing with the other story, are allowed to develop under their own logic, almost independent of the design of the others. What gives The Heart is a Lonely Hunter such expansiveness is the careful construction of the separate stories, not as accessories to each other, but almost in their own right. The parallels are not overstated, and the details allow us to consider the psychological makeup of each character. A particular point of comparison is the introduction of Blount in McCullers’s book and the introduction of Marmeladov in Crime and Punishment (in both cases in the second chapters of the respective novels). Like Blount, Marmeladov is quite drunk and attempts to tell his story. Like the customers in the New York Café, those in Dostoevsky’s bar treat the drunk with ridicule. But out of the encounter a relationship is formed between the two drunks and the two central characters in the novels. A second characteristic of Dostoevsky that McCullers also uses is the sudden shocking moment that drastically changes the relationships of the characters and their possible future courses of action. This is probably best seen in Demons (The Possessed) and The Idiot. Finally, Dostoevsky also dwell on the human need to express out inner thoughts to others. This is what in Crime and Punishment undoes Raskolnikov legally (although we are led to believe at the end, it formed the basis for his spiritual renewal). It is also evident, more perversely, in the character of Stavrogin in Demons. What McCullers does not take from Dostoevsky, however, is his tendency to descend into the maudlin. For her restrained tone and objective recounting of narrative, she more closely resembles Chekhov.  Both of these two Russian influences also  can be seen in the next two novels.

With her first novel McCullers staked out a territory that became her own over the next two decades—the mystery of human isolation and its consequence. Dostoevsky likewise spent his career exploring the spiritual dimensions of human suffering. Although neither fully answered the questions they posed, they both came near an answer by the final novel. In the next post I’ll discuss how McCullers came to almost know that “one big thing.”

Notes

1“The Hedgehog and the Fox” in Russian Thinkers (London: Hogarth Press, 1978), reprinted in Isaiah Berlin, The Proper Study of Mankind: An Anthology of Essays ed. by Henry Hardy and Roger Hausheer (New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux. [Return to text.]

2Harold Bloom, “Introduction,” Carson McCullers (Modern Critical Views) ed. by Harold Bloom (New York: Chelsea House Publishers, 1986), pp. 1–2. [Return to text.]

3McCullers wrote an essay in 1941 entitled “Russian Realists and Southern Writers” in which she compared the Russian aristocracy to the Southern social order: “The Southerner and the Russian are both ’types,’ in that they have certain recognizable and national psychological traits. Hedonistic, imaginative, lazy, and emotional—there is surely a cousinly resemblance.” It is not for this reason, however, or at least not for this reason alone, that I think she owes a debt to the Russians. [Return to text.]

American Illustration as Art

The Best of the Illustrations
in the Collection of the New Britain Museum of American Art

1. Emily supplemented her husband's meager income by getting herself modeling jobs by Austin Briggs. Oil on board. 1948. New Britain Museum of American Art, New Britain, Connecticut. Illustration to Nancy Rutledge, "Murder for Millions," Saturday Evening Post (November 20, 1848), p. 17.

1. Emily supplemented her husband’s meager income by getting herself modeling jobs by Austin Briggs. Oil on board. 1948. New Britain Museum of American Art, New Britain, Connecticut “NBMAA”). Illustration to Nancy Rutledge, “Murder for Millions,” Saturday Evening Post (November 20, 1948), p. 17.

The New Britain Museum of American Art, the first museum dedicated exclusively to American art and owner of a significant and comprehensive collection from early New England through post-contemporary, also was the first museum to begin collecting (in 1964) the work of American illustrators. Taking advantage of the large number of magazine, book and advertising illustrators who lived in Westport, Connecticut and the surrounding areas  accessible by train to New York City and using the expertise of a committee of prominent illustrators and art teachers, which has since met semi-annually to formulate the museum’s acquisition policies, the museum has amassed (mainly through gifts) a collection of over 1,800 works from the mid-nineteenth century onward, possibly the largest and most significant collection of American illustrations in existence. Last month the museum opened a “best of” exhibition, Masterpieces of The Sanford B.D. Low 
Illustration Collection which runs through October 2, 2016. The event gives us a chance to see some of the best examples of American illustration over the course of its history and also to see how we can react to examples of illustration art standing on their own.

2. Snap the Whip by Winslow Homer. Wood engraving by Edward LaGarde. Print at NBMAA. Illustration for Harper’s Weekly, September 20, 1873, pp. 824-25.

Just to start with a working definition (there is no agreed on one) illustration as used here means visual works intended for reproduction (usually in large numbers) and specifically conceived to comment on, explain or attract attention to a text or group of texts. This highlights the two features that differentiate illustration from other art forms. First, illustrators must concern themselves with the technology of reproduction. (This consideration was more important when means of reproduction were less sophisticated than today but it still prevails.) Second, the illustrator must take into consideration the demands of the author (usually) and the publisher (almost always). This second consideration makes illustration more “commercial” than, say, fine arts painting. A painter who disregards the market will simply not make money; an illustrator who does the same does not get work. With regard to advertisement illustrations the second consideratin is paramount, but the New Britain show only has one example of an illustration intended for advertisement, and that is a 1920s study by Joseph Christian Layendecker for a male clothing line by the House of Kuppenheimer, and is mainly an example of how illustrators mock up their pictures.

3. Two versions of Snap the Whip by Winslow Homer. Oil on canvas. Both were painted in 1872. The top painting is in the collection of the Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York; the bottom work is owned by the Butler Institute of American Art, Youngstown, Ohio. (Neither of these canvases is part of the New Britain exhibition.)

3. Two versions of Snap the Whip by Winslow Homer. Oil on canvas. Both were painted in 1872. The top painting is in the collection of the Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York; the bottom work is owned by the Butler Institute of American Art, Youngstown, Ohio. (Neither of these canvases is part of the New Britain exhibition.)

Illustration, unlike other forms of the visual arts, is tied to a text. Stand-alone art (for lack of a better descriptor) can tell a story or a scene, even one contained in a specific text. But illustrations are intended to be subordinate to the text and indeed produced with it. Moreover, the object that the artist produces is usually not what the consumer sees; the artist usually makes a master in some medium and then it is mechanically or photographically reproduced (usually by someone else) for printing together with the text. The “originals” from which the illustrations are produced until recently were not valued by their publishers (which generally owned them) and were often stored under suboptimal conditions. The New Britain Museum (under director, painter and illustrator Sanford B.D. Low) saw the opportunity to acquire work while simultaneously raising awareness and appreciation of illustrations. Many publishers saw this as a way to relieve themselves of storage problems. Prominent illustrators, grateful of the museum’s effort, assisted in selecting and recommending works and donated pieces from their own collections. We’ll return to how the “market” influenced American illustration outside of advertising illustrations.

The Beginning of American Illustration

4. Scene by Felix O.C. Darley. Wood cut. 1948. From Illustrations of Rip Van Winkle Designed and Etched By Felix O C Darley for the Members of the American Art-Union (New York: Leavitt, Trow & Company and George P. Putnam, 1848).

4. Scene by Felix O.C. Darley. Wood cut. 1948. From Illustrations of Rip Van Winkle Designed and Etched By Felix O C Darley for the Members of the American Art-Union (New York: Leavitt, Trow & Company and George P. Putnam, 1848).

At first American illustration was done exclusively by woodcuts.1 By this process an artist would draw lines on a wood block, and either he or (more usually) an engraver would cut away the area between the lines leaving only the raised lines to apply ink. Needless to say this was a tedious process and required the skills both in drawing and carving. Competence in these skills did not appear in America until the mid-nineteenth century, when illustrators began providing visual journalism as well as editorial comment in the form of caricatures and cartoons. Winslow Homer, for example, began his art career as an illustrator for Harper’s Weekly. That magazine also contained the political cartoons of Thomas Nash (three of his anti-Lincoln caricatures are at the bottom of this post). Homer covered the inauguration of Abraham Lincoln, and his drawing printed in Harper’s Weekly became the visual record of the event seen by the vast majority, even though there was a photograph of the event. (Both Homer’s print and the photograph are shown in this post.) When the war commenced Homer became a visual journalist by means of his drawings. In fact, as he moved towards oils, he occasionally painted versions of drawings he made for the magazine. (See, for example, the Sharpshooter that was printed in the November 15, 1862 issue and only later turned into the painting shown in this post.) When Homer turned to painting full time, he often had his pictures engraved by others for printing. The sensibilities and compositional techniques he acquired as a magazine illustrator seemed to inform his early paintings. His work Snap the Whip, which he painted in two versions (#3) and had engraved for Harper’s Weekly (#4), is an example. Sensing a national mood (at least in the North which wished to put behind the violence and destruction of the war) yearning for peaceful domestic scenes, ones emphasizing cooperation and nostalgic depictions of the serene joy of childhood, Homer created Snap the Whip, which captured all three of these sentiments.

5. Two woodcut illustrations from 1870. Top: Illustration to "The Cave of Bellmar" by F.F. Cavada, Harper's New Monthly Magazine, November 1870, p. 826. Bottom: Illustration to "Jeremy Train--His Drive" by An Old Fellow, Scribner's Monthly, November 1870, p. 4. (Neither item in NBMAA show.)

5. Two woodcut illustrations from 1870. Top: Illustration to “The Cave of Bellmar” by F.F. Cavada, Harper’s New Monthly Magazine, November 1870, p. 826. Bottom: Illustration to “Jeremy Train—His Drive” by An Old Fellow, Scribner’s Monthly, November 1870, p. 4. (Neither item in NBMAA show.)

Well conceived, technically competent illustrations had began appearing in American books in the 1840s. Before then, according to nineteenth century art critic Frank L. White (p. 33), the few decorations and “vignettes” in books “were, as a rule, wretchedly drawn and engraved.” It was in the mid-1840s that 21 year old Felix O.C. Darley first showed illustrations which were warmly received. In 1847 he presented to the New York Art Union his outline drawings for “Rip Van Winkle” (see #4). The performance would launch his career as an illustrator and also significantly influence the course of the field by showing the possibility for wood engraving and by elevating the standards that the public would expect. He would go on to illustrate other Irving works (including, famously, Diedrich Knickerbocker’s History of New-York), Hawthorne’s Scarlet Letter, the works of Cooper, Dickens, Longfellow, among other books. The iconography that Darley is best known for today is his visualization of Santa Claus from his illustrations of A Visit from Saint Nicholas (New York: J. G. Gregory, c1862), a work that would prove wildly popular. Illustrated books published in America were few and far between, however, because production was expensive and also American booksellers believed that American consumers preferred illustrated books from abroad, where there was a longer history. As one sellers said: “what smells of English ink sells best to American tastes” (“American Proficiency,” p. 155).

Illustrations for periodicals began in the 1850s, and Harper’s New Monthly Magazine had competent illustrations from the beginning. Its first issue (June 1850) not only contained illustrations of pieces on three contemporary intellectuals (Archibald Alison, Thomas Babington Macaulay and William H. Prescott), it also had an illustrated section on women’s fashions, something that would be repeated in following issues and would eventually lead to America’s first fashion magazine, Harper’s Bazar, a weekly first published on November 2, 1867 (without the later affectation of spelling its title “Bazaar”). The Harper brothers also launched a weekly political journal, Harper’s Weekly, the first issue of which (January 3, 1857) illustrated a first person story of a police officer’s cross-country search to arrest a bank forger. The Harper brothers had also published an extensively illustrated biography of Napoleon in 1855 with illustrations by Carl Emil Doepler, whose cartoons ran several times in the mid-1850s in Harper’s Monthly.

6. New-York—Bird's Eye View from Union Square." Woodcut. Illustration for "New-York Daguerreotped," Vol. 1, No. 2 (February 1853), between pp. 122-123. (not in NBMAA show.)

6. New-York–Bird’s Eye View from Union Square Woodcut. Illustration for “New-York Daguerreotped,” Putnam’s Monthly Magazine of American Literature, Science and Art Vol. 1, No. 2 (February 1853), between pp. 122-123. (Not in NBMAA show.)

George Palmer Putnam competed with the Harpers’ firm for America’s best engravers. Although Harpers had been publishing books longer, it was the Putnam firm that published Darley’s Rip Van Winkle drawings and in the 1850s bought five other works of Irving illustrations by Darley and employed America’s best engravers on them, including Henry W. Herrick, J.W. Orr (and his firm), J.S. Harley, J.H. Richardson and others. Putnam began its own periodical two and a half years after the Harpers began theirs, but by the second issue (February 1853) it was illustrating Putnam’s Magazine with a series intending to show the architecture and cityscapes of major American cities beginning with New York (see #6). Putnam’s Monthly suspended publication in 1858 but resumed in 1868. Until the Gilded Age, the Harper brothers and Putnam published the only national general interest magazines that promoted illustrations.2

7. Group of Gods from the East Frieze of the Parthenon. Illustration to Lucy M. Mitchell, "The Phidian Age of Sculpture," The Century Vol. 23, No. 4 (February 1882), pp. 542-59 at 554. (This low resolution scan of the image does not do justice to the quality of the image.)

7. Group of Gods from the East Frieze of the Parthenon. Illustration to Lucy M. Mitchell, “The Phidian Age of Sculpture,” The Century Vol. 23, No. 4 (February 1882), pp. 542-59 at 554. (Not in the NBMAA show.)

The 1870s saw the beginnings of a number of national journals which attempted to capitalize on the greater wealth and leisure time of the upper middle class.3 The periodicals aimed at a decidedly more middle brow taste and while they tried to attract subscribers with illustrations, the new ventures could not compete with Harpers’ publications or Putnam’s book business for competent illustrators or engravers. Perhaps the new journals did not pay enough or established illustrators and engravers were under contract to other firms. Whatever the reason, the quality of illustrations in the new magazines were markedly inferior. (Compare the illustration from Scribner’s Monthly‘s inaugural issue with one from Harper’s Montly of the same month, #5). The situation improved as technological innovations in engraving (graphotype, zincography, etc.) leading to the photoengraving process made possible more detailed reproductions. The Century, for example, was able in 1881-82 to publish a series of essays on ancient sculpture (Central American, Mesopotamian, archaic and classical Greek) with good illustrations of the works discussed (e.g., #7). The introduction of the halftone reproduction technique allowed for the simulation of a smooth gradient of tints (by using dots instead of lines), which became commonplace in magazines in the 1890s, when the first flowering of American illustration took place. Later, using four halftone plates (one for black, the other three for the primary colors), which applied ink successively, color illustrations became possible.

The “Golden Age” of American Illustration: 1890-1920.

8. Hosea and the Parson by Howard Pyle. Oil on canvas. 1904. New Britain Museum of American Art. Illustration for the story “The Biglow Papers” in The Poetical Works of James Russell Lowell Vol. 11 (Cambridge, Massachusetts: Riverside Press, 1904).

Howard Pyle was the first to take advantage of the possibilities that the new technologies offered. Pyle used a variety of styles from pen and ink to oil on canvas (as in #8). But what made him in demand was his ability to distill down a narrative scene to a visually interesting essence, true to the story and at the same time adding scenic and psychological details that enhance it. The muted tones of Hosea and the Parson, surprisingly, are not off-putting, but rather they invite the viewer into the scene. On the museum wall, one among many works hanging at the same height, it was the one I gravitated toward. It is clear from the rendering that the visitor (Hosea) is acting deferentially to the Parson, who is reviewing documents of some importance to Hosea. The latter waits expectantly, erect, not sitting back in his chair, and holding his hat somewhat awkwardly. The composition creates the sense of tension but to understand the relation of the characters and the meaning of the scene, one must go to the text.

9. “… Tom heard the sound of another blow, and then a groan …” by Howard Pyle. Ink on paper. ca. 1891. NBMAA. Illustration for Howard Pyle, “Tom Chist and the Treasure Box,” Harper’s Round Table, March 24, 1896. Reprinted in the anthology Merle Johnson (comp.), Howard Pyle’s Book of Pirates (New York: Harper Brothers, 1821), p. 111.

Pyle’s sense for the essence of a drama came from a life-long interest in the theater, which began as a child. Pyle also wrote his own adventure stories and had a specialty illustrating stories for boys. As an author and an illustrator Pyle so absorbed the elements of the story that it seems he not only is watching first hand but is seeing it with the eyes of his audience. The line drawing for “Tom Chist and the Treasure Box” where Tom secretly watches a murder take place (in the illustration, #9, he hides behind a sand dune) has a fully composed construction with the four characters arranged in an undulating line (from front to back) which mirrors the undulating beach line and the tops of the dunes (as well as the blood from the chest of the dead man). And the scene captures the breathless, adolescent sense of seeing a murder, almost antiseptic except for the thrill (one wonders if the fact the victim was black contributed to this sense at the time). The scene expresses exactly what the prose (written by Pyle himself for an adolescent boys’ magazine) delivers.4

9. Abraham Lincoln's Last Day by Howard Pyle. Oil on canvas. ca. 1907. Present location unknown. (Not part of NBMAA show.)

9. Abraham Lincoln’s Last Day by Howard Pyle. Oil on canvas. ca. 1907. Present location unknown. Illustration to William H. Crook, “The Last Day of Abraham Lincoln,” Harper’s Monthly, September 1907, p. 496 (Not part of NBMAA show.)

Pyle’s pirate illustrations demonstrate another of Pyle’s characteristics—his authenticity. Pyle believed that historical accuracy was essential to the visual sense of immediacy and therefore spent considerable time and effort researching the costumes (down to the buttons), equipment and behavior of historical pirates. As a result his portrayals (especially the monochrome and full color paintings of his Book of Pirates) became the emblematic version of pirates in the public mind. Likewise, his interest in American history and Americana generally was deeply researched in order to portray authenticity in the service of the dramatic moment. His illustrations of the American Revolution and Civil War are found in a number of books, including Woodrow Wilson’s History of the American People (New York: Harper & Brothers, 1902) and History of the United States by James Truslow Adams (New York: Scribner’s, 1933).

Perhaps more important than his example (and popularity) to the course of Aermican illustration was his role as teacher and mentor. Unlike other artists who became illustrators in the early years, Pyle did not go to Europe for his education (he studied in Philadelphia and then the Art Students League in New York City), and after his success, he aimed to establish American instruction opportunities for would-be American illustrators. In 1894 he joined the Drexel Institute in Philadelphia to teach the first course for illustrators in America. He lectured at the Art Students League and eventually set up master classes in his home town of Wilmington, Delaware and in the summers at Chadd’s Ford, Pennsylvania. He built studios at his own expense, did not charge for his instruction and used his own contacts to introduce his gifted students to publishers. A generation of illustrators learned from Pyle.

10. This Maid of Forty Years Ago by Anna Whelan Betts. Oil on canvas. ca 1903. NBMAA. Illustration for poem "The Maiden with the Valentine" by Katharine Young Glen in The Century Illustrated Monthly (February 1903), p. 592.

10. This Maid of Forty Years Ago by Anna Whelan Betts. Oil on canvas. ca 1903. NBMAA. Illustration for poem “The Maiden with the Valentine” by Katharine Young Glen in The Century Illustrated Monthly (February 1903), p. 592.

Anna Whelan Betts was a student of Pyle’s, one who took to heart his concern with period accuracy and one whom Pyle promoted. The illustration for the poem “The Maiden with the Valentine” (#10) shows everything she learned from Pyle. The picture captures a moment of quiet drama (which brought, in the words of the poem, “the dream-light to her face”). There is meticulous attention to costume and surroundings (the poem lists “the paneled-wall / The picture and the silhouette, / The whispering roses and the shawl”). Every part of the canvas is used to tell the story, including the bottom where we see the envelope, suggesting it was dropped by the maiden in her excitement to read the valentine. The color palette is only white, black and red, and the red is used sparingly to highlight her lips, the letter, the seal on the envelop and the trimming of her hooped skirt. Unfortunately, the print as seen in the magazine (which is hosted by Hathi Trust; scrolling to the next page shows the full poem) is only monochrome so the red cannot be seen by the readers. The illustration of Betts for upscale magazines (and Century had become the most important of illustrated magazines, seeking out the best illustrators and engravers and experimenting with reproduction techniques) generally documented the lives of well-to-do ladies in elegant dresses and sumptuous surroundings for magazines like Ladies Home JournalMcClure’s and Collier’s. But she was not entirely pigeon-holed. Together with Pyle and others of his students, she was chosen to illustrate the twenty-two volumes of The Complete Writings of Nathaniel Hawthorne (Boston: Houghton, Mifflin & Co., 1900). (She illustrated Twice Told Tales.)

11. “One More Step, Mr. Hands, ” said I, “and I’ll Blow Your Brains Out.” by N.C. Wyeth. Oil on canvas. 1911. NBMAA. Book (and jacket) illustration for Robert Louis Stevenson, Treasure Island (New York: Scribner’s Classics, 1911).

The New Britain exhibition contains works of other students of Pyle, but none were more important than N.C. Wyeth. Wyeth’s illustrations for Scribner’s reprint of Treasure Island clearly bear the influence of Pyle. The jacket illustration (#11), which is the one owned by the New Britain Museum (most of the rest are owned by the Brandywine River Museum in Chadds Ford, Pennsylvania) captures a moment of high tension as the mutineer and the captain face down each other. The point of view, from the level of the mutineer looking up to the captain higher up in the rigging heightens the drama. As in both the first Pyle and the Betts paintings above, the entire canvas is filled with information to describe the scene. But the staging is the most important. He completely absorbed Pyle’s sense of dramatic timing which Pyle once explained: “The moment of violent action is not so good a point to be chosen as the preceding or following instant.” (Quoted in Barr, p. 176.) And Wyeth also embraced Pyle’s themes and subject matter; he would paint pirates and Americana (and knights, another favorite of Pyle’s) throughout his career. Wyeth was so devoted to Pyle that he used the payment from his Treasure Island series to purchase a place in Chadds Ford on the Bradywine River, from which the style created by Pyle and his students would take its name, the Brandywine School of American Illustration, a style that would long influence mainstream American illustration.

12. The lady of his heart was his partner in the dance by Arthur Ignatius Keller. Ink, watercolor and graphite on paper. ca. 1906. New Britain Museum of American Art, New Britain, Connecticut. Illustration for Washington Irving, The Legend of Sleepy Hollow (Indianapolis, Indiana: Bobbs-Merrill Co., 1906), p. 63.

Arthur Ignatius Keller represented a contemporary style outside the Brandywine School. Son of an engraver, he was steeped in the tradition that emphasized the line, yet he developed into a skilled painter in demand by both the illustrated magazines but also by book publishers. The 1906 publication of The Legend of Sleepy Hollow was one of several books he illustrated of the works of Irving, Longfellow, Doyle, Lowell, Harte and others. The drawing of Icabod Crane dancing (#12) focuses on a moment in the story when the odd, awkward and delusional school teacher achieves his goal—dancing with the girl of his dreams, Katrina van Tassel. Icabod Crane is not only out of his league as a matter of social class, but also his self-conception is completely at odds with what people around him see. Keller shows Crane dancing in a totally inappropriate way but lost in his self-absorption; Crane is completely unaware. The beautiful daughter of the local patroon is bemused but not unkind, yet clearly she does not see herself matched with the story’s hero. All of this is captured by the composition, mostly by means of the by-then old fashioned method of line drawing as a template for the engraver. But the scene has a more modern touch with the spotlighted couple as one of a roomful of couples each engrossed in their own stories and concerns.

Keller’s ability to home in on the emotional center of a scene can be seen in another work in the exhibition, a charcoal drawing which was one of a dozen illustrations for a serialized novel publsihed by Century in 1909-10. The picutre shows a man watching his wife sleep, while contemplating the state of their marriage, as she has been separating from him and their infant in order to meet the demands of her writing career. All aspects of the composition, including the grey charcoal gulf between the two figures, contribute to the sense of separation which registers on teh husband’s concerned face.

Among the others from the “golden age” included in the show are James Montgomery Flagg, Harvey Thomas Dunn, Mary Hollock Foote,  Frederick Remington, Louis Loeb, Arthur William Brown, Walter Appleton Clark and Maxfield Parrish.

The Mainstreaming of American Illustraiton: 1920-1945.

After the War, continued technological progress made color illustrations easier and cheaper, and illustrated magazines grew their audiences. But the primacy of the illustrator declined in two ways. First, before the rise of movies the illustrator provided the only visual medium for the masses and often achieved a celebrity status in his own right, sometimes greater than the author whose work he ws illustrating. That status declined with the rise of film and with the appearance of the new art editors who no longer deferred to illustrators in matters of composition (see Arthur William Brown’s take in Reed, p. 43).  The post-war era saw the rise of another major influence on American illustration, this one also reduced the independence  and individuality of the artist—advertising. Norman Rockwell, no less, testified to the pernicious effect of the large budget advertising agencies: “Its influence was a mixed blessing. To many illustrators, including myself, I feel that it was a corrupting one. The temptation of their big budgets took away the kind of integrity that earlier artists like Howard Pyle brought to their work.” Rockwell, however, thought that advertising agencies provided a “school” for young illustrators. Of course a school whose mission was to create illustrators who could sell products is not quite the same as the Art Students League.

12. Clancy made her way south across Washington Square by Dean Cornwell. Oil on canvas. 1920. NBMAA. Illustration for Arthur Somers Roche, “Find the Woman: A Novel of Youth and Mystery,” Cosmopolitan (December 1920), pp. 58-59.

The economic influences did not make themselves felt at first. In fact, Howard Pyle’s influence was still predominant in the 1920, even though he had died in 1911. Dean Cornwell, who was president of the Society of Illustrators from 1922 to 1926 and teacher at Pratt Instituted and then the Art Students League, absorbed the Pyle tradition from his own teacher, Harvey Dunn, a student of Pyle’s. Cornwell’s work was more modern, not just in moving away from adventure stories and Americana, but also in his more sophisticate color palette, a more subtle compositional sense and his attention to atmospheric perspective. His 1920 illustrations for Cosmopolitan (e.g., #12) strikes one as more painterly than the work of Pyle and Wyeth, more concerned with visual rather than narrative impact. Rockwell considered Cornwell’s addition to the tradition a “monumental style almost rococco in manner” (Reed, p. 82), but there is no unnecessary decoration or complicated design (perhaps Rockwell meant baroque). In fact, Cornwell’s work seems to me to be firmly rooted in American romanticism with occasional techniques borrowed from American Impressionism and Tonalism. After his success as an illustrator, Cornwell would study mural painting in England and go on the paint murals for the Los Angeles Public Library, the Lincoln Memorial in Redlands, California, the Tennessee State Office Building, the Warwick Hotel and Rockefeller Center in New York City.

13. Of the two, it was he who clung, she who sustained by Walter Biggs. Watercolor and gouache on illustration board. 1932. NBMAA. Illustration for DuBose Heyward, "Peter Ashley," Woman's Home Companion (December 1932), p. 26.

13. Of the two, it was he who clung, she who sustained by Walter Biggs. Watercolor and gouache on illustration board. 1932. NBMAA. Illustration for DuBose Heyward, “Peter Ashley,” Woman’s Home Companion (December 1932), p. 26.

Two pictures from the exhibition showed that the 1920 and 30s were not entirely devoid of individual approaches. An ink and gouache drawing by John Held, Jr.  is one of his Arch and Magy cartoons depicting the exuberance of the Jazz Age. It is mostly outline drawngs with occasional solid fills of alternating foreground and background objects. An ink and wash painting by Henry Beckhoff, The Hillbillies (1934) for Collier’s, portrays the confrontation between backwoods farmers, fearful that their moonshining operation had been discovered, and a professor who was attempting to assist the government to bring them a more secure water source and better land. The elongated forms and the exaggerated expressions emphasize the humor in the situation.

In the 1920s and 30s American illustration in general, and illustration for the popular magazines in particular, gravitated to the then staple of popular culture (especially in magazines aimed at women), the melodramatic romance story. The illustration of Walter Biggs (#13) in the exhibition is a typical early example, Biggs was a successful illustrator but seemed more interested in his fine arts career for which he was elected to the National Academy of Design but obtained no lasting fame. As an illustrator Biggs often painted scenes of Southern romantic myth (the unreality of which is revealed by Ernest Watson’s statement (p. 37), evidently delivered without irony,  that “[n]o one, of course, can portray the colored folk with greater understanding.” Perhaps because his version of the Southern myth involved chivalry and ardent courtships, he was in great demand at Woman’s Home Companion (whose stories often told of strong-minded women and their passionate suitors). In any event, he sold almost all his illustrations to that magazine, and he always painted from models, never from photographs (Watson, p. 37).

14. [Love Scene] by Pruett Alexander Carter. Oil on canvas. ca. early 1940s. NBMAA. Unknown purpose.

By the 1940s more and more illustrators were being influenced by not only still photographs but also, and more importantly, motion pictures, which would become the the essential medium of popular culture.5 Carter’s unnamed love scene (#14) is composed much like what might be called a low angle two shot in movies. Carter’s first break was in New York where he illustrated Hearst papers. He returned to Los Angeles, where he was raised, around 1930 when he was nearly 40, although his chief occupation was still to provide illustrations for family and women’s magazines based on the East. The influence of Hollywood movies can be observed not only in the point of view but also in the lighting (which is #14 is vaguely from below the characters) and dramatic poses. Over time, however, his pictures became more more simplified, flat and often superficial, a characteristic he blamed on the inferior paper used by magazines in the 1940s (Hoppin, p. 41).

The influence of movies was felt in another way as well—the scenes were less “innocent” and less concerned with the well-to-do. Of course this had to do with the nature of stories that were selected for illustration, but the effect on illustration is noticeable. By 1942, however, the war would dominate all forms of popular culture.

15. The worst part was telling her father. "Who is the Man?" he asked. "I don't know," Lily said. by Ray Prohaska. Ink and oil on canvas. 1942. NBMAA. Illustration for Viña Delmar, "Lily Hunter and the U.S.A.," Good Housekeeping (April 1942), pp. 32-33.

15. The worst part was telling her father. “Who is the Man?” he asked. “I don’t know,” Lily said. by Ray Prohaska. Ink and oil on canvas. 1942. NBMAA. Illustration for Viña Delmar, “Lily Hunter and the U.S.A.,” Good Housekeeping (April 1942), pp. 32-33.

The Prohaska illustration above (#15) is from a story written by novelist Viña Delmar, a writer who specialized in shocking or scandalous stories of women, one of which Bad Girl (New York: Harcourt, Brace & Co, c1928), became an immense best-seller and opened a career as a screenwriter in Hollywood for her. The story “Lily Hunter and the U.S.A.” begins with her heroine’s reflection on her own son, conceived out of wedlock during the last war by a soldier she met on Coney Island, a man she never saw again once he was mobilized. Her son is now a soldier in this second world war, and the story proceeds through her reflections and teaches her (and the readers) that the country, U.S.A., is in fact the father and husband of all women. Prohaska’s illustration is of the moment she tells her father of her pregnancy. He is tracing the troop movements on a map on the table, when she tells him she does not know who the father is. In the story there follows tense moments of silence. The scene, in which the father and daughter are separated by a table  on which the affairs of the world are traced, matters of little concern to Lily then, is explained with dialog selected to grab the reader’s attention and is spread across two pages at the beginning of the story.

16. One of the photos taken by Prohaska to use as a basis for painting #15. (Watson, p. 234.)

Prohaska had developed many of the skills used in movie-making to make such illustrations. He himself was adept at costume design (especially for women) and even could style hair. In this case he purchased vintage furniture dated in the 1910s from second hand stores and personally arranged the woman model’s hair. He staged the scene in a theatrical manner and then took 30 to 40 photos with his Contax or Rolleiflex cameras. Using the photographs he outlined his composition in ink, then laid in the light and dark areas with white and brown tempura, then painted the rest in transparent glazes and impasto colors. The technique was designed to give as the illustration as close to a cinematic feel as possible. It was precisely the opposite intention of a Golden Age illustrator like Walter Biggs who shunned photographs and insisted that only by painting from models could an illustrator fully translate his own art to the canvas. The economic and competitive pressures, as well as the branding of magazines, however, would put ever more pressure on the illustrator to see his job as part of an enterprise rather than an individualistic artistic endeavor.

One work on display at the New Britain exhibition, Smitty’s Diner by Warren W. Baumgartner (1943) struck me as to how interrelated cinema had become to all arts in America by the 1940s. In Baumgartner’s watercolor two men are seated at a diner counter, while the cook operating the grill is turned listening to one of the men. The painting evoked in me memories of Edward Hopper’s Nighthawks, painted the year before. Although the mood is different and the characters are not seen from the outside of the diner, the subject matter and the manner of illustrating them seems to owe a debt to Hopper, especially because it seems to give off a hardboiled feel to it. What makes this an interesting example of the intersection of cinema with American arts is that Hopper’s oil was based on Hemingway’s short story “The Killers,” which itself was turned into a movie directed by Robert Siodmak, which in turn relied on the sensibilities of the Hopper painting in several of the scenes in the diner.

Conformity and Departures: 1945-1960s and beyond

If illustrations are any evidence, then after the second global war America (at least the broad middle that consumed national magazines and print advertisements) was ready to inward and concern itself with mass entertainment and private concerns. Illustrated stories for women remained a mainstay for magazines, but women had gone through four years of dramatic change of circumstances and their status in society changed accordingly. Women were no longer characters who the fates acted on but became actors in their own right. Marriages were no longer seen as inviolable, even in Middle America. the excitement of such new freedom was reflected in the stories and illustrations found in even such conservative magazines as Saturday Evening Post. Austin Briggs plays with the sense of a woman’s new found freedom with his relatively emotionally static picture (#1), which depicts a model being posed for a photo shoot. The picture only becomes suggestive when paired with the title of Nancy Rutledge’s serialized novel, Murder for Millions. With the title and caption to the picture in mind, there are elements of the composition that become suggestive. Everywhere there are legs: on the camera, the tripod holding the fan, the ladder, the stepladder, and the legs of both figures. All, except the model’s, are splayed into a V pointing upward toward the model. What all this signifies can only be learned by reading the story, because, as Henry Pitz wrote (p. 24)the purpose of illustration is that customers are “stopping, reading, examining—buying.”

17. "Restrain," Regan cried. "I'm tired of restraint. There's more to love than waiting, Bill." by M Coburn Whitmore. Tempera on canvas. 1946. NBMAA. Illustration Christine Weston, "The Dark Wood," Ladies' Home Journal (April 1946), pp. 46-47.

17. “Restrain,” Regan cried. “I’m tired of restraint. There’s more to love than waiting, Bill.” by M. Coburn Whitmore. Tempera on canvas. 1946. NBMAA. Illustration to Christine Weston, “The Dark Wood,” Ladies’ Home Journal (April 1946), pp. 46-47.

Whitmore’s illustration for Christine Weston’s serialized novel concentrates on a woman, Regan, who has much more assurance and considerably more willingness to act on it than any of the women in the other illustrations we have encountered. Regan is married to an army veteran who has returned from the war wounded. While he was away, Regan fell in love with Bill, and in the picture, the two are consulting a lawyer (out of sight, to whom Regan is looking at) and Regan is pushing for decisive action. Bill, however, is embarrassed by Regan’s directness and possibly also her loudness (we can barely see on the right another restaurant patron listening in). Bill is covering his face with his hand while he is listening to his lover. He holds her hand (although her’s is on top) to signify his support, but she is making her case to the lawyer not to Bill. The illustration thus provides the information necessary to attract the kind of reader who might read the novel. It was this talent, rather than any desire to forward the art of visual representation, that earned Whitmore repeated opportunities at the highest paying magazines and a five-year contract to do covers for Cosmopolitan.

By the 1950s a new phenomenon arose in the field of magazine illustration—an immediatel;y recognizable visual style associated with one publication. The magazine of course was Saturday Evening Post, and the illustrator who created the look was of course Norman Rockwell. The magazine and the illustrator were a perfect fit. The magazine had a long history dating to the nineteenth century but it was only in the mid twentieth century that it hit upon its formula for success: combine illustrated serialized stories that did not threaten middle class tastes with non-satirical single frame cartoons, add a political content that was decidedly conservative but not particularly analytical and package it all with comforting, nostalgia-laden pictures of pretty much the same sort (white children found in “cute” activities or poses, non-urban white adults, usually from the heartland, engaged in activities that hearkened to longstanding traditions or habits). Norman Rockwell came aboard in 1916 and was the pioneer of the Saturday Evening Post‘s style, which in its full-blown  manifestation in the 1950s might be called “American Sur-romanticism,” a capitalist counterpart to Soviet Realism. In Rockwell’s works, figures are infantilized, juvenile features emphasized and retained long into adulthood. For example, noses are generally shorter, snub, unless a figure is portrayed as quirky or humorous. (See for example the painting Rockwell made, entitled Weighing In, for the June 28, 1958 cover of the Saturday Evening Post, which is part of the New Britain exhibition.) Figures often seem excessively rounded compared to a relatively flat background. But most important the scenes depicted are ones designed to elicit a warm feeling of nostalgia and comfort.

Rockwell’s Saturday Evening Post illustrations are so familiar that it’s not necessary to discuss those shown in the New Britain museum.  In any event, just over 60 miles from the New Britain Museum is the largest collection of Rockwell work, in a museum dedicated to his work. But Rockwell’s pieces are quintessential illustrations, designed to prompt impulse buys, not study, because they are, quite frankly, eminently cloying. What is interesting, however, is how this style of illustration was taken up by others who provided covers for the magazine. It became an officially endorsed style, policed by the promise of future commissions. John Philip Falter became acquainted with Rockwell when he opened a studio in New Rochelle, New York, where Rockwell himself worked. Falter painted his first cover for Saturday Evening Post during World War II and he became a staple of the magazine after the war. His Boys and Kites, possibly his most famous cover (published in March 18, 1960 issue), the original of which is in the New Britain show, has all the hallmarks of Rockwell, except that it adds a midwestern background to it. Stevan Dohanos is the illustrator most represented in the New Britain exhibition, and he also followed the general Post style closely. His Fourth of July, Bridgeport (1947: cover illustration, July 5, 1947) shows an elderly wife fixing the color of the dress uniform of her World War I veteran husband (who is carrying a rolled flag and baton) while a World War II veteran waits indulgently; both are about to participate in a patriot parade. His Rained in Vacationers (1948: cover illustration, July 31, 1948) shows an extended family trying to amuse themselves on the porch of an old building (with an upstairs rental for vacationers?) while heavy rain falls around them. Like many of the Post covers, this one contains the ever reliable family pet. And yet there is one canvas of Dohanos which uses many of the visual tropes of the Post style to create the exact opposite message: Sometimes childhood is not a time of joyous exploration and some things learned were best not learned.

18. Everything that was good and safe and beautiful quit the earth and left him with nothing to hold onto (Heart Broken) by Stevan Dohanos. Tempera on board. ca. 1944. NBMAA. Illustration for Beatrice J. Chute, "Come of Age," Saturday Evening Post (September 30, 1944), pp. 12-13.

18. Everything that was good and safe and beautiful quit the earth and left him with nothing to hold onto (Heart Broken) by Stevan Dohanos. Tempera on board. ca. 1944. NBMAA. Illustration for Beatrice J. Chute, “Come of Age,” Saturday Evening Post (September 30, 1944), pp. 12-13.

As with the others of the Post-style illustration, Dohanos’s Heart Broken treats the non-human elements with a practiced simplicity, almost as if the grains of the wood and the blades of grass were design elements. The boy is dressed as one would expect a middle American middle class child to be and carries a large pen in his side pocket, a handkerchief half out of his back pocket and a death’s head amulet on a keychain. His left stocking has a hole just below h is knee pants. He is face down. We do not see his face, and as far as we can tell he might be playing hide-and-seek. But when we read the caption, we realize he is grieving. His arms cradle his head so that he can weep with abandon and block out all the world. The incongruity of the scene with the manner of illustrating it is the hook to lure the reader into the story, where we find that he has just learned on his way home that his brother has died in the war. This is perhaps the darkest use ever made of the Post style, and it is noteworthy that it was used for a story illustration and not a cover, because the subject violates all the marketing principles used by the Saturday Evening Post. Nevertheless, old fashioned as the technique is and related to a conservative philosophy that wasn’t even true when it was being extolled, the painting draws in the viewer, which is the purpose of illustration and even has elements that are worth considering, which is not often the case with illustration.*

19. Rules kept her from her husband. They couldn't keep her visitor out. (Two Girls with Still Life.) by Joe De Mers. Oil, crayon and graphite on board. ca. 1963. Illustration for Dorothy Baker, "No Visitors Till Noon," Saturday Evening Post (March 9, 1963), pp. 46-47.

19. Rules kept her from her husband. They couldn’t keep her visitor out. (Two Girls with Still Life.) by Joe De Mers. Oil, crayon and graphite on board. ca. 1963. Illustration for Dorothy Baker, “No Visitors Till Noon,” Saturday Evening Post (March 9, 1963), pp. 46-47.

The 1960s (which may have begun before that decade officially began) would do in the Saturday Evening Post, not because of the libel suit it lost, but because its view of American life was no longer interested in the sugar-coated conservatism of the early 1950s. De Mers’s illustration (#19) shows as well as any how illustration entered the Mad Man eara. Even before we consider the relation of the women, we see a scene where everything is up-to-date, “modern” according to the taste-makers of the day—advertisers. In the foreground is a table with sixties-style decanter and glasses as well as the ornaments of upper middle class ostentation. These items almost squeeze out the two figures of the story. The more central character wears capri pants and a yellow blouse with a collar that covers her neck. Her blonde hair completes the amber look of the woman who is backed by the yellowish wall. The other woman, who we see against the other, brownish wall is dressed in a short one-piece all black dress. with elbow length gloves, a black hat and dark glasses. The two women represented two poles in what passed for sixties chic. And that piece of information is enough to introduce us to the story in which the women become adversaries. All of this can be absorbed in a quick glance.

Of course the sixties would begin a process of experimentation that has not yet ended. Illustration, as much as most other art forms, became intertwined with domestic decoration, product design, technological necessity and consumer demand. Some arts were able to retreat into academic protection to maintain a freedom from commerce. Illustration, which depends on commerce, could not. So, at least based on the evidence from the New Britain exhibition, illustration remained representational, even though it borrowed techniques from contemporary fine arts. But all of that is beyond this post. You can judge for yourself at the exhibition.

So based on all of the foregoing, is there a way to evaluate illustration in a formal manner? Try as I might, I personally could not draw any larger conclusions except that each piece was subservient to the text or product it was promoting. Of course some art forms can support others: poetry, for example, can provide the basis of oratorios or lieder. On the other hand nothing associated with advertisement, whether music, illustration or film, really can rise above the product. But the New Britain exhibition demonstrates that several generations of very talented American artists lent their talents to lesser forms of creativity. The masterworks selected by the staff are each arresting in themselves. And when considered chronologically may in fact be genuine artifacts describing American cultural mores of a particular time. Is this art? Only the consumer can tell, now that we have become solipsists. The New Britain show at very least allows viewers to make up their own minds.

And there is an added benefit. The museum itself is a remarkable tour of American art. There is no place like it for a concentrated dose of the history of American visual art. And with that background, one is better equipped to decide how to appreciate American illustration.

Notes

1Steel engraving had existed since 1792 but was never used in printmaking, although it had specialized uses, such as for reproductions of art work or to produce illustrations on bank notes and securities. [Return to text.]

2In addition to Harper’s Monthly and Putnam’s Monthly, there existed another national arts and culture journal The Atlantic Monthly. The Boston brahmins affirmatively declined illustrating their articles and held out throughout the nineteenth century, although they printed illustrated advertisements after the Civil War. The illustrations for advertisements became so lavish by the early twentieth century that the policy against even tasteful illustration of the reading material seemed perverse. [Return to text.]

3Scribner’s Monthly launched its inaugural November 1870 issue calling itself “an illustrated magazine for the people.” A series of ownership changes and management crises after the death of Charles Scribner in 1871 eventually led to the sale of the magazine (and its publishing company) to new owners whose editorial direction was more upscale and cultural. The new magazine was called The Century Magazine. A 5-year non-compete agreement as part of the sale prevented the Scribner heirs from founding a magazine until 2886, when they commenced a monthly journal called Scribner’s Magazine. Collier’s Once a Week began in 1888 and by 1895 called itself Collier’s Weekly: An Illustrated Journal. McClure’s Magazine, an illustrated political and literary monthly began in 1893. The Gilded Age also saw the appearance of national magazines directly aimed at women. Women’s Home Companion started in 1873 and began including illustrations in the 1880s. Ladies Home Journal started in 1883. The two competed for what turned out to be a very large market through the mid twentieth century. [Return to text.]

4This is how the scene reads:

Suddenly, almost unexpectedly, the three figures reappeared from behind the sand hill, the pirate captain leading the way, and the negro and white man following close behind him. They had gone about halfway across the white, sandy level between the hill and the hummock behind which Tom Chist lay, when the white man stopped and bent over as though to tie his shoe.

This brought the negro a few steps in front of his companion.

That which then followed happened so suddenly, so unexpectedly, so swiftly, that Tom Chist had hardly time to realize what it all meant before it was over. As the negro passed him the white man arose suddenly and silently erect, and Tom Chist saw the white moonlight glint upon the blade of a great dirk knife which he now held in his hand. He took one, two silent, catlike steps behind the unsuspecting negro. Then there was a sweeping flash of the blade in the pallid light, and a blow, the thump of which Tom could distinctly hear even from where he lay stretched out upon the sand. There was an instant echoing yell from the black man, who ran stumbling forward, who stopped, who regained his footing, and then stood for an instant as though rooted to the spot.

Tom had distinctly seen the knife enter his back, and even thought that he had seen the glint of the point as it came out from the breast.

Meantime the pirate captain had stopped, and now stood with his hand resting upon his cane looking impassively on.

It continues in this manner. Howard Pyle’s Book of Pirates, pp. 110-11. [Return to text.]

5While the influence of motion pictures on illustration was first shown in illustrations such as Carter’s (#14) it was not long before reference to the framing by movies was explicitly recommended to illustrators. Henry Pitz’s 1947 primer for aspiring illustrators makes this point of movie techniques:

[The] ability to swing the camera (which is the beholder’s viewpoint) through every possible arc of vision, has opened up a whole new world of pictorial possibilities. It has released picture-making frm the normal eye-level viewpoint and stimulated the search for newer rhythms. Best of all, the American public, insatiable consumer of the films that it is, has become accustomed to the new viewpoints and craves the same things in its magazines. So diagonal thrusts, angular and eccentric rhythms, and bird’s-ey viewpoints have become commonplace in the new compositional vocabulary.

[Return to text.]

Sources

Anthony, A.V.S., Timothy Cole and Elbridge Kingsley, Wood Engraving: Three Essays with a List of American Books Illustrated with Woodcuts (New York: The Grolier Club, 1916).

Barr, Pamela (ed.), New Britain Museum of American Art: Highlights of the Collection, Vol. III: The Sanford B.D. Low Memorial Illustration Collection (New Britain, Connecticut: New Britain Museum of American Art, c2016).

Congton, Charles T., “Over-Illustration,”  The North American Review, Vol. 139, No. 336 (Nov., 1884), pp. 480-491.

Goodman, Helen, “Women Illustrators of the Golden Age of American Illustration,” Woman’s Art Journal, Vol. 8, No. 1 (Spring—Summer, 1987), pp. 13-22

Hoppin, Martha J., Love Story: Selections from the Sanford B.D. Low Memorial Illustration Collection, New Britain Museum of American Art, February 14-March 31, 2002 (New Britain, Connecticut: New Britain Museum of American Art, 2002).

Pitz, Henry C., The Practice of Illustration (New York: Watson-Guptill Publications, Inc., 1947).

Reed, Walt (ed,), The Illustrator in America: 1900-196o (New York: Reinhold Publishing Co., c1966).

Watson. Ernest W., Forty Illustrators and How They Work (New York: Watson-Guptill Publications, Inc., c1946).

White, Frank L., “American Book-Illustration,” The Connoisseur, Vol. 2, No. 1 (October 1887), pp. 33-35.

“American Proficiency in Illustration,” Cosmopolitan Art Journal, Vol. 3, No. 4 (September, 1859), pp. 154-157.

In addition I browsed through files of the following magazines: Atlantic Monthly, Century Illustrated MonthlyCollier’s WeeklyHarper’s New Monthly Magazine, Harper’s WeeklyLadies Home Journal, Liberty, McClure’s MagazinePictorial ReviewPutnam’s Monthly, Saturday Evening Post, Scribner’s Monthly and Woman’s Home Companion.

The Atlantic Launches a Bohemian’s Career: Whitman’s Sea-Mysteries in “Bardic Symbols”

[For the July 4 holiday: A slightly modified re-post from the early days.]

Whitman at 37 in July 1854. Steel engraving by Samuel Hollyer of a daguerreotype by Gabriel Harrison (original lost). From the frontispiece to the 1855 edition of Leaves of Grass. (Wikipedia.) Click to enlarge.

At the beginning of 1860 Walt Whitman was a poet of some renown. Two editions of Leaves of Grass had been published; the first (Brooklyn: 1855) contained 12 poems; the second (Brooklyn: 1856) 32. His hope of receiving a critical stamp of approval from the foremost American intellectual, Ralph Waldo Emerson, was more than gratified when Emerson responded (Concord, July 21, 1855) to his unsolicited letter enclosing the first edition of the book: “I find it the most extraordinary piece of wit and wisdom that America has yet contributed.” Emerson’s praise did not stop there; he went on: “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.” And to make this response the more remarkable, Emerson said he had a “wish to see my benefactor, and have felt much like striking my tasks, and visiting New York to pay you my respects.”

Such a review from such a source is not something that every novice poet receives. Whitman did not hide his candle under a bushel. He had the letter printed in the October 10, 1855 issue of the New York Tribune which had previously faulted the collection. The paper prefaced the letter by saying: “We some time since had occasion to call the attention of our readers to this original and striking collection of poems, by Mr. Whitman of Brooklyn. In so doing we could not avoid noticing certain faults which seemed to us to be prominent in the work. The following opinion, from a distinguished source, views the matter from a more positive and less critical stand-point.” Not satisfied in using the letter to settle a score with the Tribune Whitman had the letter printed as an appendix to the second edition of the collection. (Over the years Whitman has taken some heat for his brazen promotional use of the letter. The letter itself, however, looks like it was designed for such use; in any event it didn’t seem to have offended Emerson.) Emerson in fact visited Whitman in Manhattan that year. The next year another representative from Concord would visit him, this time venturing into Brooklyn. Bronson Alcott, turgid writer and iconoclastic educator, began a lifelong friendship with Whitman with his October 1856 visit. (His daughter Louisa May had published her first work, a collection of fantasies, 7 years earlier. In 1860 she would have a story published, “Love and Self-Love,” in the Atlantic Magazine one month before Whitman’s poem appeared. Like Whitman she would spend some of the war in hospitals.) Bronson a month later brought to Brooklyn to see Whitman another representative from the seat of American high culture, Henry David Thoreau. Whitman would also during these years become acquainted with the artistic talents that Manhattan produced.

But even in those days, when people actually read new poetry, poet was not an occupation. In fact, Whitman was still scurrying about trying to make ends meet. It did not help that he stayed around Brooklyn and Manhattan, then as now more interested in commercial than intellectual matters. Although he had tried teaching on a couple of occasions, he was either not good at it or not interested in it. He also seemed to lack the discipline or inspiration to write fiction or extended prose. (He had written a temperance novel in 1842, Franklin Evans; or, the Inebriate.  He later called it “damned rot”—an opinion you can quickly confirm here.) His poetry by the standards of the day (and even now) was sui generis. And so he was required to take menial labor jobs in the printing business. In 1857 he became an editor of a Brooklyn paper but by 1859 lost that job.  According to William Dean Howells Whitman also pursued the dollar in a way many current struggling Manhattan artists do—he drove hack.

Debauchery at the Vault at Pabst in an early 1860s depiction by the New York Illustrated News. There must have been protests because shortly thereafter the Illustrated News printed a “corrected” illustration with sober gentlement at a table discussion literature. (Lehigh University Digital Library.) Click to enlarge.

During this time Whitman became an habitué of Pfaff’s beer hall. Pfaff’s was one of those places that fly under the radar of notice of polite society (and usually history) but provide a meeting place for nonconformists of all stripes. Pfaff’s brought together a remarkable assortment of serious modern literary novices, sexual nonconformists, actors, future critics and biographers and the like. The cellar provided a meeting place for serious literary discussions, sexual hook-ups, hedonism, and alcohol-fueled carousing. It  became the epicenter of Bohemian culture, whose members made the recently deceased New Yorker Edgar Allan Poe, a notorious alcoholic and occasional blackout drunk, their patron saint. Among the remarkable array of patrons were future literary lion William Dean Howells (who went once and endured the Bohemianism in order to make the contacts that would jump start his career), the future great American landscape painter and water colorist Winslow Homer (who would soon begin his career with war illustrations), political cartoonist Thomas Nast, future poet, novelist and Atlantic contributor Elizabeth Barstow Stoddard as well as her husband, critic and poet Richard Henry Stoddard (who later denied he had ever set foot in the place), future Atlantic editor Thomas Aldrich, “Hashesh Eater” Fitz Hugh Ludlow, and popular essayist and poet for Vanity Fair, Harper’s and Atlantic Monthly George Arnold.  The future French premier Georges Clemenceau, writing for a French paper in New York City at the time, claimed to have had a reserved table at Pfaff’s.  (Clemenceau was a patron after Whitman had gone off to observe the war.) Sexually liberated women frequented Pfaff’s. Ada Clare, who famously bore a child out of wedlock to pianist and once popular composer Louis Moreau Gottschalk, became known as the “Queen of Bohemia.” Pfaff’s was also the center of the “man-man” love group known as the Fred Gay Association.  At the time Whitman appeared to have had an affair with group memember Frederick Vaughan, a fellow hack driver, who greatly supported Whitman through the publication of the 1860 edition of Leaves of Grass, who was probably the inspiration for Whitman’s Calamus poems, which celebrated the “manly love of comrades,” and who later deserted Whitman, got married and had 4 children, and rarely had contact with Whitman again.

Whitman’s great champion Henry Clapp, Jr. (Lehigh Digital Library.)

The literary organ of Bohemia was the New York Saturday Press, a lively literary weekly with poems, fiction, criticism and other comment, edited by Henry Clapp Jr., who after tasting the wine of Parisian leftist thought and café high culture, returned to New York to found an avant-garde coterie who would contribute to an honest intellectual production.  The newspaper noted that it proudly (and perhaps uniquely) refused payment for favorable reviews.  It provided a regular forum for Ada Clare’s views on women and other things.  It tirelessly promoted Leaves of Grass.  William Dean Howells would much later—at a time when he no longer flirted with Bohemianism (in an article entitled “First Impressions of Literary New York” for Harper’s New Monthly Magazine, June 1895, p63)—describe the New York Saturday Press as the literary production which

“really embodied the new literary life of the city. It was clever, and full of the wit that tries its teeth upon everything. It attacked all literary shams but its own, and it made itself felt and feared. The young writers throughout the country were ambitious to be seen in it, and they gave their best to it; they gave literally, for the Saturday Press never paid in anything but hopes of paying, vaguer even than promises. It is not too much to say that it was very nearly as well for one to be accepted by the Press as to be accepted by the Atlantic, and for the time there was no other literary comparison. To be in it was to be in the company of Fitz James O’Brien, Fitzhugh Ludlow, Mr. Aldrich, Mr. Stedman, and whoever else was liveliest in prose or loveliest in verse at that day in New York. It was a power, and although it is true that, as Henry Giles said of it, ‘Man cannot live by snapping turtle alone,’ the Press was very good snapping-turtle.”

One of the key characteristics of the group who ran and clustered about the place was their virulent hatred of the literary capital of America (“First Impressions,” p64):

“I had found there a bitterness against Boston as great as the bitterness against respectability, and as Boston was then rapidly becoming my second country, I could not join in the scorn thought of her and said of her by the Bohemians. I fancied a conspiracy among them to shock the literary pilgrim, and to minify the precious emotions he had experienced in visiting other shrines; but I found no harm in that, for I knew just how much to be shocked, and I thought I knew better how to value certain things of the soul than they. Yet when their chief asked me how I got on with Hawthorne, and I began to say that he was very shy and I was rather shy, and the king of Bohemia took his pipe out to break in upon me with “Oh, a couple of shysters!” and the rest laughed, I was abashed all they could have wished, and was not restored to myself till one of them said that the thought of Boston made him as ugly as sin: then I began to hope again that men who took themselves so seriously as that need not be taken very seriously by me.”

(An extensive history of New York’s Bohemia, including digitalized images of The New York Saturday Press can be found at the very valuable site The Vault at Pfaff’s, maintained by Lehigh University.)

Having been ogled at by the Boston literati and accepted by the New York Bohemians must have been bracing for Whitman.  Since 1856 he had produced nearly 100 more poems for Leaves of Grass (for which he was searching for another publisher).  Howells reflected that it was the embrace of Bohemia that saved Whitman (“First Impressions,” p65):

“who, when the Saturday Press took it up, had as hopeless a case with the critics on either side of the ocean as any man could have.  It was not till long afterward that his English admirers began to discover him, and to make his countrymen some noisy reproaches for ignoring him; they were wholly in the dark concerning him when the Saturday Press, which first stood his friend and the young men whom the Press gathered about it, made him their cult.  No doubt he was more valued because he was so offensive in some ways than he would have been if he had been in no way offensive, but it remains a fact that they celebrated him quite as much as was good for them.” (To see an illustration of Howells meeting Whitman at Pfaff’s, see “First Impressions” at p67.)

Nevertheless, 1860 found Whitman still retailing poems and, more remarkable given the precipice facing the country, writing poems about the oneness of America. On Christman eve 1859, the New York Saturday Press published his “A Child’s Reminiscence.” Clapp offered it as a Christmas gift to his readers. True to his publishing honesty, Clapp published on the following January 7 a review from the Cincinnati Commercial.  It began:

“The author of Leaves of Grass has perpetrated another ‘poem.’ The N. Y. Saturday Press, in whose columns, we regret to say, it appears, calls it ‘a curious warble.’ Curious, it may be; but warble it is not, in any sense of that mellifluous word. It is a shade less heavy and vulgar than the Leaves of Grass, whose unmitigated badness seemed to cap the climax of poetic nuisances. But the present performance has all the emptiness, without half the grossness, of the author’s former efforts.”

The anonymous author used the occasion to unleash a broadside against Whitman:

“Perhaps our readers are blissfully ignorant of the history and achievements of Mr. Walt Whitman. Be it known, then, that he is a native and resident of Brooklyn, Long Island, born and bred in an obscurity from which it were well that he never had emerged. A person of coarse nature, and strong, rude passions, he has passed his life in cultivating, not the amenities, but the rudeness of character; and instead of tempering his native ferocity with the delicate influences of art and refined literature, he has studied to exaggerate his deformities, and to thrust into his composition all the brute force he could muster from a capacity not naturally sterile in the elements of strength. He has undertaken to be an artist, without learning the first principle of art, and has presumed to put forth ‘poems,’ without possessing a spark of the poetic faculty. He affects swagger and independence, and blurts out his vulgar impertinence under a full assurance of ‘originality.'”

January 7 found Whitman trying to hawk his “A Chant of National Feuillage” to Harpers Magazine.  The magazine rejected it. The 16th found him trying to sell “Thoughts” to the New York Saturday Courier. On January 20 Whitman found out that James Russell Lowell of the Atlantic Magazine accepted “Bardic Symbols” for publication. Ultra Bostonian Lowell was squeemish about two lines (after line 3 in stanza XVIII) which he proposed cutting:

(See from my dead lips the ooze exuding at last!
See the prismatic colors glistening and rolling!)

Whitman said that the lines intended “an effect in the piece which I clearly feel, but cannot as clearly define.”  He nevertheless agreed to their omission. (They were put back in when he published it in the third edition of Leaves of Grass, where the poem was included as untitled “Leaves of Grass” number 1, at pp195-99. The lines are in Stanza 16 at p199.)

Personal note to Whitman from William W. Thayer on back of letter (August 17, 1860) discussing the possible purchase of Clapp’s New-York Saturday Press. (The Walt Whitman Archive.) Click to enlarge.

And then, in February, Whitman got the best news of all.  A new publishing firm in Boston wrote offering to publish the new edition of Leaves of Grass. The firm of two young men, William Wilde Thayer and Charles W. Eldridge offered to either “buy the stereotype plates of Leaves of Grass, or pay you for the use of them” in addition to the regular royalties (which would be 10%).  More importantly perhaps the publishers gratified his feelings as well as promised to promote the book vigorously:

“Now we want to be known as the publishers of Walt. Whitman’s books, and put our name as such under his, on title pages.—If you will allow it we can and will put your books into good form, and style attractive to the eye; we can and will sell a large number of copies; we have great facilities by and through numberless Agents in selling. We can dispose of more books than most publishing houses (we do not “puff” here but speak truth).”

The deal was good enough to have soon have Whitman in Boston to supervise production and there meet again Emerson and others of the transcendental persuasion. Fred Vaughan wrote to Whitman there offering to introduce him to stage driver friends of his: “If you want to form the acquaintance of any Boston Stage men, get on one of those stages running to Charlestown Bridge, or Chelsea Ferry, & enquire for Charley Hollis or Ed Morgan, mention my name, and introduce yourself as my friend.”

As for “Bardic Symbols,” it met with the same hostile newspaper critics as rejected the earlier Leaves of Grass editions. Henry Clapp wrote him that “[t]he papers all over the land have noticed your poem in the Atlantic and have generally pitched into it strong; which I take to be good for you and your new publishers, who if they move rapidly and concentrate their forces will make a Napoleonic thing of it.”

William Dean Howells in 1855. Click to enlarge.

But Howells, writing for the Daily Ohio State Journal (where his father first had his poems published when Howells was 15 and where Howells had been working for two years), gave a judicious review. The work, after all, was among the least daring of Whitman’s poems and would not even be controversial once the third edition of the collection was published with its Calamus poems. It had none of the self-promoting bravura that shocked conventional readers of the first collection. In fact, Whitman whistfully contemplates his own insignificance against the sea.

“I, too, am but a trail of drift and debris,—
I, too, leave little wrecks upon you, you fished-shaped island!”

(This is certainly less falsely modest than T.S. Eliot in the “What the Thunder Said” section of The Waste Land.) It has a sustained symbol throughout, unlike many of his poems and the symbol has many levels of meaning.  In Stanzas XIII and XIV he calls the sea “Father” and requests a kiss. It is a startling apostrophe and perhaps suggestive of his homoerotic longings.  These Stanzas are followed up with:

“Sea-raff! Torn leaves!
Oh, I sing, some day, what you have certainly said to me!”

In the 1860 Leaves of Grass version of the poem the verses are revised:

“Sea-raff! Crook-tongued waves!
O, I will yet sing, some day, what you have said to me.”

Is it too much to see another influence on Eliot?  Recall the ending of the Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock:

“I shall wear white flannel trousers, and walk upon the beach.
I have heard the mermaids singing, each to each.

I do not think that they will sing to me.

I have seen them riding seaward on the waves
Combing the white hair of the waves blown back
When the wind blows the water white and black.

We have lingered in the chambers of the sea
By sea-girls wreathed with seaweed red and brown
Till human voices wake us, and we drown.”

(I will no belabor the comparison by pointing out the story from the Inferno in the Epigraph of Prufrock.)

In any event, Howells writes:

“No one, even after the fourth or fifth reading, can pretend to say what the ‘Bardic Symbols’ symbolize. The poet walks by the sea, and addressing the drift, the foam, the billows and the wind, attempts to force from them, by his frantic outcry, the … true solution of the mystery of Existence, always most heavily and darkly felt in the august ocean presence. All is confusion, waste and sound. It is in vain that you attempt to gather the poet’s full meaning from what he says or what he hints. You can only take refuge in occasional passages like this, in which he wildly laments the feebleness and inefficiency of that art which above all others seeks to make the soul visible and audible:

O, baffled, lost,
Bent to the very earth, here preceding what follows,
Terrified with myself that I have dared to open my mouth,
Aware now, that amid all the blab, whose echoes recoil
upon me, I have not once had the least idea who or
what I am,
But that before all my insolent poems the real one still stands untouched, untold, altogether unreached,
Withdrawn far, mocking me with mock-congratulatory
signs and bows,
With peals of distant ironical laughter at every word I
have written or shall write,
Striking me with insults till I fall helpless upon the sand.”

Howells compares this section with Tennyson’s poem “Break, break, break”:

“Break, break, break,
On thy cold gray stones, O sea!
And I would that my tongue could utter
The thoughts that arise in me!

An aspiration of mute words without relevancy, without absolute signification, and full of ‘divine despair.’

Howells was at the beginning of his career as well and would have no way of knowing that Whitman was to have much more in common with what would follow long after than what had just gone before.

Bardic Symbols

from Atlantic Monthly (April 1860)

by Walt Whitman

I.

ELEMENTAL drifts!
Oh, I wish I could impress others as you and the waves have just been impressing me!

II.

As I ebbed with an ebb of the ocean of life,
As I wended the shores I know,
As I walked where the sea-ripples wash you, Paumanok,
Where they rustle up, hoarse and sibilant,
Where the fierce old mother endlessly cries for her castaways,
I, musing, late in the autumn day, gazing off southward,
Alone, held by the eternal self of me that threatens to get the better of me and stifle me,
Was seized by the spirit that trails in the lines underfoot,
In the ruin, the sediment, that stands for all the water and all the land of the globe.

III.

Fascinated, my eyes, reverting from the south, dropped, to follow those slender windrows,
Chaff, straw, splinters of wood, weeds, and the sea-gluten,
Scum, scales from shining rocks, leaves of salt-lettuce, left by the tide.

IV.

Miles walking, the sound of breaking waves the other side of me,
Paumanok, there and then as I thought the old thought of likenesses,
These you presented to me, you fish-shaped island,
As I wended the shores I know,
As I walked with that eternal self of me, seeking types.

V.

As I wend the shores I know not,
As I listen to the dirge, the voices of men and women wrecked,
As I inhale the impalpable breezes that set in upon me,
As the ocean so mysterious rolls toward me closer and closer,
At once I find, the least thing that belongs to me, or that I see or touch, I know not;
I, too, but signify a little washed-up drift,—a few sands and dead leaves to gather,
Gather, and merge myself as part of the leaves and drift.

VI.

Oh, baffled, lost,
Bent to the very earth, here preceding what follows,
Terrified with myself that I have dared to open my mouth,
Aware now, that, amid all the blab whose echoes recoil upon me, I have not once had the least idea who or what I am,
But that before all my insolent poems the real me still stands untouched, untold, altogether unreached,
Withdrawn far, mocking me with mock-congratulatory signs and bows,
With peals of distant ironical laughter at every word I have written or shall write,
Striking me with insults, till I fall helpless upon the sand!

VII.

Oh, I think I have not understood anything,—not a single object,—and that no man ever can!

VIII.

I think Nature here, in sight of the sea, is taking advantage of me to oppress me,
Because I was assuming so much,
And because I have dared to open my mouth to sing at all.

IX.

You oceans both! You tangible land! Nature!
Be not too stern with me,—I submit,—I close with you,—
These little shreds shall, indeed, stand for all.

X.

You friable shore, with trails of debris!
You fish-shaped island! I take what is underfoot:
What is yours is mine, my father!

XI.

I, too, Paumanok,
I, too, have bubbled up, floated the measureless float, and been washed on your shores.

XII.

I, too, am but a trail of drift and debris,—
I, too, leave little wrecks upon you, you fished-shaped island!

XIII.

I throw myself upon your breast, my father!
I cling to you so that you cannot unloose me,—
I hold you so firm, till you answer me something.

XIV.

Kiss me, my father!
Touch me with your lips, as I touch those I love!
Breathe to me, while I hold you close, the secret of the wondrous murmuring I envy!
For I fear I shall become crazed, if I cannot emulate it, and utter myself as well as it.

XV.

Sea-raff! Torn leaves!
Oh, I sing, some day, what you have certainly said to me!

XVI.

Ebb, ocean of life! (the flow will return,)—
Cease not your moaning, you fierce old mother!
Endlessly cry for your castaways! Yet fear not, deny not me,—
Rustle not up so hoarse and angry against my feet, as I touch you,or gather from you.

XVII.

I mean tenderly by you,—
I gather for myself, and for this phantom, looking down where we lead, and following me and mine.

XVIII.

Me and mine!
We, loose windrows, little corpses,
Froth, snowy white, and bubbles,
Tufts of straw, sands, fragments,
Buoyed hither from many moods, one contradicting another,
From the storm, the long calm, the darkness, the swell,
Musing, pondering, a breath, a briny tear, a dab of liquid or soil,
Up just as much out of fathomless workings fermented and thrown,
A limp blossom or two, torn, just as much over waves floating, drifted at random,
Just as much for us that sobbing dirge of Nature,
Just as much, whence we come, that blare of the cloud-trumpets,—
We, capricious, brought hither, we know not whence, spread out before you,—you, up there, walking or sitting,
Whoever you are, we, too, lie in drifts at your feet.

A Bewitching of Christmas Past (III)

[Part I and Part II precede this post.]

It doesn’t take forensic analysis of the records to notice that one or the other (or even many at the same time) of the Putnams had a hand in (and were generally the instigators of) every recorded dispute in Salem Farms since long before the village broke off from the Town of Salem. At first it began with land, but as the village began having things other than land it became about money and power. Charles W. Upham traced the disputes that arose from the original land grants onward in wearying detail. (The first of the two volumes of his Salem Witchcraft With an Account of Salem Village and A History of Opinions on Witchcraft and Kindred Subjects (Boston: Wiggin & Lunt: 1867) dealt with the village from the very first land grants. His account is meticulous and mostly fair, if excessively deferential to the Putnams, who even when he lived in the area made up a significant portion of the population that first constituted his parish and then elected him to local, state and federal office.)

House of Francis Nurse, after Nurse purchased the lot (originally the Townsend Bishop grant) from Rev. James Allen. His 71 year old wife would be arrested on a warrant signed by Deacon Edward Putnam and John Putnam in 1692. “What sin hath God found out in me unrepented of, that He should lay such an affliction on me in my old age?” she would ask.

The litigation which taught the Putnams the important lessons on how power was exercised—lessons that they would not forget through all the troubles of the witching times—involved a land grant to Townsend Bishop. Bishop was one of the first members of the Salem church, a local judge and Deputy of the General Court. His value to the community was apparently the justification of the land grant (which is marked as the plot XX in the map at the foot of this post) made by the Town of Salem in 1636. Nine years later he was discovered not to have presented his new-born son for baptism. He was accused of the dangerous heresy of the Baptists and issued a reprimand by the church. Although still a judge, he sold his property and disappeared from Salem. His real estate grant would soon land into the pocket of James Allen, powerful Puritan who dominated the pulpit of First Church in Boston as well as proprietor of a printing press.

In 1636 Salem also saw fit to grant land north of the Bishop grant to Elias Stileman (plot XVII on the map below)—the part just above the Bishop grant now being in the hands of Nathaniel Putnam. The problem was that between the Stileman grant to the north and the “Governor’s Plain” granted by Salem to the South to Governor Endecott and the General Court’s grant to Endecott called Orchard Farm, both now owned by Zerubbabel Endicott (and shown in the map below), there was not enough room to fit the acreage granted by Salem to Bishop, which Rev. Allen was supposed to now own. Someone had to lose. Would it be Allen, Putnam or Zerubbabel Endecott?

At first glance the equities all favored Endecott—he derived his title from an earlier grant and from the General Court, not the Town (merely a corporation created by the General Court). And if Puritans had any sentimental attachments whatsoever, they would have argued for Zerubbabel too, for he was the son of the beloved (by Puritans) governor John Endecott, and his wife was the daughter of governor John Winthrop the Younger of Connecticut, but more importantly, the grand-daughter of founding Massachusetts Bay governor John Winthrop, the man who first saw the “City upon a Hill.” But of course Puritans have no sentimental attachments, so after trials there would be appeals to the General Court, who sent the matter out to committees, whose reports they would adopt. The committees, managed effectively by Rev. Allen and the indefatigable Putnam, invariably found against Endecott, and each time taking a bit more of his land away. The expense, the injustice, the unfairness of litigation through a committee broke Endecott. The Putnams would learn from this that it is always wise to have connections with the General Court and that no final decree is actually binding if you are willing to keep pressing on.

As constable of Salem, Thomas Putnam attended to public whippings. He was paid 2 s. 6 p. each. (From Sidney Perley’s The History of Salem Massachusetts, 1924.)

And press on they did in everything. The founder of the American Putnam dynasty, John, brought with him three sons, Thomas (b. 1616), Nathaniel (of the land claim fame) (b. 1620) and John (b. 1628). Nathaniel and John both became deputies in the General Court, and they became adept at land acquisition. Thomas became a constable of Salem and the first clerk when Salem Village broke off from the Town. Thomas, who was given double the land legacies of his brothers, spent less time acquiring land. He participated in local rather than colony-wide government, being a constable in Salem and then the first clerk of Salem Village. Thomas had three children: Thomas, who became a sergeant in the village militia, we met in the last post as the husband of Ann Sr. and the father of Ann Jr.; Edward Putnam, who would become one of the original deacons of Salem Village Church (and grandfather of revolutionary war general Rufus Putnam); and Joseph Putnam (father of revolutionary war general Israel Putnam), who married the granddaughter of William Hathorne and niece of Judge John Hathorne, the magistrate who viewed it as his duty to prosecute witches, who we met in our last. John’s concept of the ideal magistrate—sanctimonious, self-righteous, insufferable, close-minded and insidiously cruel, undoubtedly came from his father William, who his descendant, Nathaniel Hawthorne, despised for those very reasons:

“The adjudication of crime, particularly fornication, was Hathorne’s forte; heresy, his genius. He pursued Quakers with the inventive zeal of the true paranoid, hunting them ‘like a blood-hound,’ or so it was alleged. He ordered Ann Coleman dragged half naked through town while being lashed with a whip of knotted cords, and under his watch, another poor blasphemer was flogged until his back turned to jelly. For his own pains, William Hathorne received several more grants of land, 240 acres in 1648, 400 in 1654, 640 in 1675. ‘Let us thank God for having given us such ancestors,’ his descendant Nathaniel wryly observed, ‘and let each successive generation thank him, not less fervently, for being one step further from them in the march of ages.’” (Brenda Wineapple, Hawthorne: A Life (NY: Knopf: 2003), p 15.)

Thus the Putnams came honestly, or at least naturally, by their ability to demonize others. After all, there is a bit of heterodoxy in the rest of us. And if a pious Puritan can add to his own fortune from the property of the damned, so much the better for God’s plan to set up an earthly paradise for the Saints.

In 1672 the General Court granted Salem Farm’s request to have its own parish set off from the church of Salem Town. The farms, Salem Village, would have to pay for its own services. The second generation of Putnams, the brothers Nathaniel, Thomas and John, were by far the wealthiest villagers. The first rate-list contained in the parish record book is for 1681. (Other records were undoubtedly used before then but are presumably now lost.) The total amount assessed for the entire village was £200. Rates were assessed on 94 persons, but those on the Putnams were much higher than the rest: Thomas was assessed £10. 6s. 3d.; Nathaniel, £9. 10d.; John, £8. No one else was assessed even £4. (1 Upham 158.)

The Putnams were not in the business of charity, of course. And like most others who believe their fortune is owing to their closeness to God, they determined to let others have as little as possible. The largest expense of the parish, of course, was the pastor. And while having their own pastor was ostensibly the reason the people of Salem Farms wanted independence from Salem, the Putnams were not keen on paying for one. And so the Putnams were always waging some sort of guerrilla campaign or another against each minister seriatim. The first was James Bayley, who came to Salem Village its very first year. Harvard ’69, Bayley had preached in Newbury. And while he was supported by the majority in the village, he aroused the opposition of the powerful; namely, the Putnams. There ensued, as in all Putnam-instigated crises, great divisions in the village. Bayley never settled in. He was given one yearly contract after another. Eventually strife reached such a point that the opposing parties petitioned the mother church in Salem for resolution. (Part of the condition the General Court imposed on setting up Salem Farms separate from the Town was that the mother church generally supervised matters ecclesiastical.) Nathaniel Putnam was in the opposition, and the mother church, which found no fault with Bayley, decided nevertheless not to resolve the dispute, even despite the fact that the opponents were in the minority. So the matter went to the General Court, which ruled firmly in favor of Bayley and even named a committee to make the rates. The Putnams again refused to pay. So Bayley decided to retreat from the field and give up his pretensions to the pulpit. (1 Upham 245-250.)

Next came George Burroughs. He made the mistake of following the suggestion in the Sermon on the Mount that “if any man will sue thee at the law, and take away thy coat, let him have thy cloke also.” (Matthew 5:40.) But the Putnams outsmarted him; they knew how to smite the other cheek if anyone was foolish enough to turn it to them. Burroughs came to the village in 1680 from that part of Massachusetts which is now Maine, where he was well-regarded by his parishioners. Although the village duly voted to pay his salary and expenses: £93. 6s. 8d. per annum for three years, and £60 per annum afterwards, the rates were not collected. Burroughs decided to not stir up a controversy, but in Salem Village one could not avoid a controversy. When his wife died the first year, he borrowed money to pay for the funeral. But he never received his own pay, so he simply left rather than petition for redress. The villagers, who did not pay him, sued him to return, and the Court ordered him to do so and also ordered the village to settle up with him. The villagers were to meet and “reckon” their accounts. Burroughs arranged the meeting. A stunning thing took place. When Burroughs arrived, a marshal came in and arrested Reverend Burroughs for his debt to John Putnam! Putnam agreed that he owed money to Burroughs with the rest, but it didn’t matter, he had already started a litigation to recover his sole debt. Deacon Ingersoll later testified about the scene:

“We further testify and say, that, May the second, 1683, Mr. Burroughs and the inhabitants met at the meeting-house to make up accounts in public, according to their agreement the meeting before; and, just as the said Burroughs began to give in his accounts, the marshal came in, and, after a while, went up to John Putnam, Sr., and whispered to him, and said Putnam said to him, ‘You know what you have to do: do your office.’ Then the marshal came to Mr. Burroughs, and said, ‘Sir, I have a writing to read to you.’ Then he read the attachment, and demanded goods. Mr. Burroughs answered, ‘that he had no goods to show, and that he was now reckoning with the inhabitants, for we know not yet who is in debt, but there was his body.’ As we were ready to go out of the meeting-house, Mr. Burroughs said, ‘Well, what will you do with me?’ Then the marshal went to John Putnam, Sr., and said to him, ‘What shall I do?’ The said Putnam replied, ‘You know your business.’ And then the said Putnam went to his brother, Thomas Putnam, and pulled him by the coat; and they went out of the house together, and presently came in again. Then said John Putnam, ‘Marshal, take your prisoner, and have him up to the ordinary,—that is a public house,—and secure him till the morning.'” (1 Upham 259.)

The amount being sued for was a small portion of what the town owned, and John Putnam knew that. He knew it because John Putnam was the chairman of the committee that was supposed to raise the salary for Burroughs. And he knew that Burroughs agreed that the debt should be repaid out of the money the committee (that is, John Putnam) was to raise among the inhabitants. Yet, Putnam had Burroughs arrested at the meeting, ordered by the General Court, convened to settle all of the accounts. The outrageousness of John Putnam’s behavior shocked even Upham:

“Mr. Burroughs had presented a bill, of the amount just mentioned, to John Putnam, who, as chairman of the committee the preceding year, represented the inhabitants; and it was deliberately and formally agreed, that the sum borrowed of Putnam by Burroughs should ‘go for part of it.’ The records of the parish show, that, on the 24th of May,—three weeks after this meeting ‘for reckoning,’—a vote was passed to raise, by a rate, ‘fifteen pounds for Mr. Burroughs for the last quarter of a year he preached with us.’ At a meeting in December of the same year, a rate was ordered, to pay the debts of the parish, amounting to £52. 1s. 1d. On the 22d of the ensuing February, the parish voted to raise ‘fifteen pounds for Mr. Burroughs.’ The record of a meeting in April, 1684, contains an order, left on the book, with Mr. Burroughs’s proper signature, authorizing Lieutenant Thomas Putnam to receive of the committee ‘what is due to me from the inhabitants of Salem Farms.’ Thus it is evident, that, at the very day when the ruthless proceedings above described took place, a considerable balance was due to Mr. Burroughs, after all claims from all quarters had been ‘reckoned.'” (1 Upham 261-62.)

In the brutal theocratic society that New Jerusalem had become one generation after the settlement, it was expected that humiliating physical punishment and social ostracism would justly fall on perpetrators of the slightest breaches of orthodoxy or the prevailing sexual or social codes. But the power play by John Putnam—to have the pastor arrested for a debt, an amount less than John Putnam’s own unpaid (but nonetheless due) rate for two years, was an arrogant exercise of needless cruelty, seemingly done, solely because it could be. It was so outrageous that even Deacon Ingersoll, who ordinarily threw his lot in with the powers that be, stood bail for Burroughs.

After Burroughs was released some arrangement was made whereby John Putnam dropped his suit and Burroughs left Salem. Burroughs would go back to the wilds of Maine to face Indian attacks prompted by the French against the British settlements. His conduct was so exemplary in those times that the General Court granted him 150 acres of land (including where Portland, Maine, now stands). But when asked by the town to give them part of the land to accommodate a growing population, he gave it all up, not even accepting an equivalence he was offered. “Mr. Burroughs said they were welcome to it; that he freely gave it back, ‘not desiring any land anywhere else, nor any thing else in consideration thereof.” (1 Upham 256.) Burroughs clearly was not one of the Saints, at least as the Saints themselves thought of themselves. He had too much charity, too little regard for mammon, too much willingness to give up his life for his neighbor. But even on the frontier it was too dangerous to follow one’s own interpretation of the sayings of Jesus of Nazareth rather than fall in line with the insufferable, small-minded orthodoxy that was coming from Boston, particularly from North Church where Cotton Mather was populating his own world with invisible demons. The Putnams would pull Burroughs back to Salem, and Mather would justify a proceeding even more breath-taking in its injustice than the little coup engineered by John Putnam. That will be taken up soon. But first, the Saints of New-England feel the same defeat as the Saints in England when anti-Puritan Charles II is restored and turns his attention to Massachusetts Bay, in the next in this story. [Part IV is found here.]

Salem, 1692 from Upham’s Salem Witchcraft, With an Account of Salem Village and a History of Opinions on Witchcraft and Kindred Spirits (1867). Click to enlarge.

Plymouth: Thanksgiving and slaughter in one lifetime

Photograph of Cape Cod taken by crew member of Expedition 16 of the International Space Station, November 7, 2007

The Pilgrims, as we now call them, arrived in North America on November 11, 1620 (os: November 21, 1620 under the modern Gregorian calendar). They anchored off what is now Provincetown, near the end of Cape Cod where the cape curls back on itself. The Mayflower had missed its destination. It was destined for the mouth of the Hudson, where the colonists had a patent purchased from the London Company. (The London Company had been granted by James I the right to found settlements between Cape Fear (North Carolina) to the coast at Long Island (New York). (North of that they were permitted to make arrangements with the Plymouth Company. )

The settlers were afraid to make landfall because they had no legal right to settle the area. It was decided to draw up a contract to govern the settlement. Although the document, the Mayflower Compact, was based on no authority in granting settlement rights, it provided for the government of the settlers and evidently satisfied the uncertainty in the minds of some of the passengers. Necessity, in the form of imminent winter, probably eliminated any further doubt.

The passengers spent that day and the following, Sabbath, on board. Thereafter various scouting expeditions were sent out under Myles Standish (one of the secular settlers that the venture capitalists put on board to protect their investment). The parties discovered a cache of corn (or maize as the English would later call it) stored by the indigenous settlers. The temptation proved too great and on the last expedition the English settlers stole the corn. Fear of reprisals for the theft together with a skirmish with the Wampanoag (the first shootings on natives in New England) decided them on moving out of the area.

While in harbor at Provincetown, however, the first Englishman born in North America arrived. Peregrine White was born on the Mayflower and given a name meaning “pilgrim.” His father died that winter but in a society governed by necessity he did not go long without a father. His mother remarried that spring. The records of the colony recount his career in the militia and his run-ins with the law in a closely governed society. They also show the practicality of the Puritans, who suffer to this day from the caricature of Nathaniel Hawthorne.  When he was 28, he and his wife Sara were presented to the General Court under the charge of fornication before marriage. Because they were now married, they were “cleared” by the payment of a fine. They would go on to have nine children.

The Mayflower sailed across Cape Cod Bay and set anchor on December 21 (os) at what they called Plimouth, after the major port in southern England. The NASA page from which the above photograph was taken notes that none of the settlers recorded any mention of a rock. It also notes that Plymouth Rock itself is what is called a “glacial erratic.”

A map of Plymouth Colony from Wikipedia

The First Winter was as brutal an experience as humans can endure. Inadequate shelter, unrelenting Massachusetts weather, insufficient food and tense relations with the local inhabitants all beat down on the poorly prepared group. Myles Standish was elected military leader to protect against attacks. Many from sickness or necessity stayed on board the Mayflower for the entire winter. Forty-five of the 102 settlers died before spring.

It was not until March 16, 1621 (os) that the first friendly encounter took place, when Samoset, member of the Abenaki (Alnôbak) tribe from Maine, entered the English camp and greeted them in English, requesting a beer of all things. His English was probably quite limited. He learned what he knew from the original Plymouth Company settlers, the abandoned Popham Colony at Kennebec River in Maine. The stragglers of that settlement had since died out from smallpox. The Englishmen fed him, and he stayed the night.

The next day he returned with Squanto, who had much better command of English. Squanto, called Tisquantum (meaning Divine Wrath) was fully familiar with Europeans, having been twice kidnapped by them—once in 1611 in Maine, then again in 1614 from Patuxet (Plymouth), from which place he was sent to be sold in Spain. From the latter place he again made his way to England, where he sought an opportunity to return home, which he found in Thomas Dermer, explorer associate of Captain John Smith (who had explored and named New England after his adventures in Jamestown with the Powhatans) and Ferdinando Gorges, the guiding spirit behind commercial settlement of English North America. Squanto having been taught English, with Gorges’s approval was brought along by Decker on his 1619 voyage, to act as interpreter  and perhaps as a token of good faith to mollify indigenous inhabitants of the good faith of the settlers sponsored by the English companies—persuasion being made necessary by the kidnapping activities of previous English explorers. When they arrived, however, they they discovered the effects of the devastating disease which wiped out the English settlement in Maine and large numbers of the native peoples.

Squanto arranged for the English settlers to meet Massasoit, the sachem of the Wampanoag (Wôpanâak) people and head of the confederacy of tribes that the Wampanoag dominated. A peace treaty soon followed. According to Governor William Bradford, it was with Squanto’s assistance that the remaining Mayflower settlers were able to plant, tend and harvest that first crop which produced the harvest feast that following fall that became part of the American classical myth. Only 53 of the original 102 settlers were alive to celebrate that feast. Squanto and Massasoit remainder allies of the English settlers, but intrigued flared up between them, and Squanto’s death may have been by poison from Massasoit.

President Lincoln in 1863 in the midst of another calamity of breath-taking proportions established the last day of November as a day of national thanksgiving. (FDR would later fix it as the fourth Thursday in November.) His proclamation establishing the date gave the rationale: It was to acknowledge our great gifts, despite our own unworthiness. The proclamation showed the kind of humility that Lincoln regularly displayed, and one that we have not seen among our own politicians (especially the ones who believe they are closest to god) for a very long time:

“Population has steadily increased notwithstanding the waste that has been made in the camp, the siege, and the battlefield, and the country, rejoicing in the consciousness of augmented strength and vigor, is permitted to expect continuance of years with large increase of freedom. No human counsel hath devised nor hath any mortal hand worked out these great things. They are the gracious gifts of the Most High God, who, while dealing with us in anger for our sins, hath nevertheless remembered mercy.”

The Plymouth Colony of course grew and prospered. And with prosperity came tensions with the natives whose help they celebrated during that first harvest. The natives watched as the Englishmen transformed the land and grew rapidly in population. The practical, law-fearing combination of religious pilgrims and commercial venturers turned into a colony dominated by the inflexible Puritanism represented by Increase Mather, who with his son Cotton Mather would go on to infamy in that awful warning how religious learning and political intolerance can lead to stunningly inhuman consequences: the Salem witch trials. Before then he was involved in justifying the first great massacres by European North Americans. King Philip’s War took place between 1675-1678. Peregrine White was still alive at the time (although he was no longer a soldier). It was as bloody and as unscrupulous an encounter as any between two ethnic groups determined to eliminate the other. There were no civilians in this war, nor were war crimes prohibited. Given the sizes of the populations then, the casualties make it arguably the deadliest war ever engaged in by Americans.

Some will suggest that a war with the natives some 50 years later has nothing to do with the First Thanksgiving, and it doesn’t belong in any of our historical reminiscences and self-congratulations that will take place this week. And I will not take the time now to describe this conflict.  It is perhaps proper to remember, however, especially at a time when we are trying to determine the destinies of two other nations, that we have not experienced since the First Thanksgiving a straight trajectory and unobstructed ascent to perfection, no matter what our romantic and unreflecting political and historical guardians try to peddle.

Here is one more map of Plymouth Colony. This is from William Hubbard, The History of the Indian Wars in New England (London and Boston: 1677 and reprinted (ed. Samuel G. Drake) in 1865). Perhaps fittingly this woodcut was printed with the colony upside down.

Nora Perry: What outlasts summer’s decay

First, an overly defensive explanation.

Not all poetry has to accommodate itself to the rules laid down by the Aesthetes (who in any event, as we’ve seen, run the gamut from the those who, like Samuel Johnson, require a carefully controlled system of emotional rather than intellectual poses stuffed into a strictly constructed metrical pattern to one like Ezra Pound, who also has very strict standards of “musical” rendering but who is almost incapable of explaining those standards in prose beyond giving of recommended readings (see ABC of Reading (c1934)).

Sometimes the value of poetry is simply in the record it leaves (in heightened language perhaps) of how a people of a particular time viewed things (or were capable of viewing things). Or perhaps a poem is worth reading because the poet himself was an influence on other writers or thinkers. Or even because the writer was otherwise notable as a statesman or critic or even a wit. I thought a little along these lines after I cited John Hay’s letter to poet Nora Perry in a different context. And I concluded that maybe we should take a look at a minor poet in the late nineteenth century New England—a time when people generally felt that all contributions to literature were something to be celebrated. So I will postpone Hölderlin for another time.

Nora Perry was not notable to any great degree for any of the three alternatives I offered as a reason to preserve poetry. But she did provide encouragement to other writers. She was a great friend to many, notably Whittier and Wendell Phillips. She considered her poem on Phillips’ death (in New Songs and Ballads (Boston: 1887), at 76) one of her best. She was known as an engaging personality, a favorite party guest, and something of an independent wit in New England society at the time. “They had one great bond of union” she once said of a couple, “they disliked the same people.” She believed in Art and Literature (she quoted in her notebook: “It was the supremely practical Napoleon Bonaparte who placed literature above science as containing above all things the essence of human intellect.”) and Inspiration (“[T]he things we know best of all are precisely the things which no one has told us.”) But she was neither a sufficient wag nor a prolific enough aphorist to gain renown in those ways.

She was, in addition, a widely read author, most notably of girls’ literature, but a popular poet as well. In her day there certainly was a lot of popular, sentimental dreck passing as poetry. And it was unfortunate that her initial popularity arose from the poem “Tying her Bonnet under her Chin” (in After the Ball, pp119ff (Boston: 1875)) with its six stanzas of cloying rhyming couplets and forced meter, which began:

She tied her raven ringlets in;
But not alone in the silken snare
Did she catch her lovely floating hair,
For, tying her bonnet under her chin,
She tied a young man’s heart within.

She grew to hate being associated with the poem, which the public never failed to associate with her. But a woman, even in New England, could hardly expect to become read without offering something “charming” as an introduction. So she never saw a reason to rail at the system whether for its commercialism or for its patronizing of women. “I don’t quite understand Mrs. Cooke’s experience with ‘fraud and oppression’ of publishers,” she wrote about a friend whose sketches of New England could never find a publisher. “I don’t know, but it seems to me that magazines and publishers pay for what they want regardless of sex.”

“Eminent Women 1884.” Lithograph by Eugene L’Africain. Perry is standing middle right in the light dress. The other women: Mary A. Livermore, Sara Jewett, Grace A. Oliver, Helen Hunt, Lucy Larcom, Frances Hodgson Burnett, Elizabeth Stuart Phelps, Louise Chandler Moulton, Louisa M. Alcott, Harriet Beecher Stowe and Julia Ward Howe.

The world of New England poets was not the world of French poets. New England intellectuals did not have the luxury of examining ennui. They had spent a generation fighting a war. It was a revolution of the industrial middle class over a slavocracy with its odd form of aristocratic privileges and its grasping politics. The French intellectuals tried to fight such a revolution twice but lost both times. New England Brahmin won, or so they thought. And so New England literature concerned itself with man’s proper relations to men and nature and the universe, subjects no longer the province of French intellectuals. John Greenleaf Whittier, for example, would never have understood Baudelaire. Whittier spent his quiet Quaker life returning the abuse he received for his abolitionist beliefs with kindness. Baudelaire was something quite different. When New England worshipped Art it was not thinking of flowers of evil. Nora Perry, of course, was not Whittier, but she provided him some relief and received some of his wisdom:

“Her friendship with Whittier may be particularly emphasized, for she possessed his love and confidence to a rare degree, and the bond of intimacy, which extended over many years, was a very strong one. The serious poet thoroughly enjoyed her sparkling wit, which awakened his own lighter vein of thought. He told her stories, exchanged jests with her, and delighted in the gay and audacious speeches which she alone among his friends would have dared venture. It is doubtful if any of Whittier’s friends were vouchsafed quite the same ingenuous good-comradeship as that bestowed upon the flippant ‘Nora,’ beneath whose flippancy he discerned the same directness and sincerity which characterized his own mental standpoint.” Caroline Ticknor, “A New England Singer,” 26 The Lamp 363, 370 (June 1903).

Despite her popularity not much more than 100 years ago, one would be hard pressed today to find any evidence in most libraries that Nora Perry existed, much less her actual work. Not too long after her death Thomas William Herringshaw’s National Library of American Biography (Chicago: 1914), summarized that work (vol 4, p436):

Perry, Nora, author, poet, was born in 1841, in Massachusetts. Her poems include After the Ball, and Other Poems; Her Lover’s Friend, and Other Poems; New Songs and Ballads; and Legends and Lyrics. She was the author of The Tragedy of the Unexpected, and Other Stories; For a Woman, a novel; The Youngest Miss Lorton, and Other Stories; A Book of Love Stories; A Rosebud Garden of Girls; A Flock of Girls and Their Friends; A Flock of Girls and Boys; Another Flock of Girls; Three Little Daughters of the Revolution; and Hope Benham. She died in 1896, in Massachusetts.” (Hyperinks to digitalized versions of the complete books on Google Book.) [Note: The actual title of the 1891 book of poems is Lyrics and Legends.]

It would be surprising if one could find any of these volumes in any public library outside of Massachusetts. (The Boston Public Library has many, but not all of the above.) And unless you were in the strongest of academic research libraries, you are unlikely to find more than one or two of these volumes in any typical university library.

Caroline Ticknor was a granddaughter of Hawthorne’s publisher and close friend, William Ticknor.  His Boston publishing house, Ticknor & Fields, owned and printed Atlantic Monthly and North American Review and published a veritable Who’s Who of American authors. The name changed with the succession of partners but it would eventually become Houghton Mifflin. When William Ticknor died in 1864 Caroline’s uncle Howard M. Ticknor until 1868 and then her father Benjamin Holt Ticknor became partners. That firm published Perry, and Caroline Ticknor knew her from childhood: “Nora Perry spent many weeks at the home of her publisher; she was a vivid and intense personality, absolutely frank and uncompromising, loyal to her friends, sharp and satiric toward her enemies.” Ticknor, Glimpses of Authors, 62 (Houghton Mifflin: 1922). Caroline Ticknor was the only person who acknowledged her passing, although it was seven years after her death that the article in The Lamp, “A New England Singer,” cited above, first appeared; it is from this article that almost everything we know about Perry comes. Perry’s fame suffered as a result of Perry outliving her associates.

Perry was born in Dudley, Massachusetts in 1841 but was early moved to Providence, Rhode Island. It was there that she became one of the literary circle of Sarah Helen Whitman. Whitman was nearly 40 years older than Perry and had an entire lifetime before they met. Whitman was widowed in 1833 from the publisher of a minor women’s magazine, in which some of Whitman’s poems appeared. She developed a taste for the occult, practiced séances and wore a coffin “charm” around her neck. She became devoted to the writing of Edgar Allen Poe, and he chanced to see her when walking the streets of Providence at midnight after his poetry recital at the Lyceum. Over the next three years the sort of relationship that one would expect between Poe and a woman who wore a coffin around her neck developed. It involved sending poems to each other, a suicide attempt (by Poe, he tried to overdose of laudanum), the tragic mismatching of friends, engagement and vows by Poe to remain sober which were broken on the day before the wedding in such a way to require police intervention. Her home remained a center of literary gatherings thereafter, owing to her interest in then-fashionable spiritualism (even Horace Greeley consulted her on it), her ageless beauty, but mostly to her free spirit. Her friend, Sarah S. Jacobs, described it:

“As she came flitting into the room and gave you her small, nervous hand, you saw a slight figure, a pale, eager face of fine spiritual expression and irregular features, the dreamy look of deep-set eyes that gazed over and beyond, but never at you. Her movements were very rapid, and she seemed to flutter like a bird, so that her friends asserted that she was in the process of transformation either to or from the condition of a lapwing.

“Her spell was on you from the moment she appeared (and she generally kept you waiting a little), but when she spoke, her empire was assured. She was wise, she was witty, she was interested in the things which we call ‘the topics of the day,’ making them fresh and fair.

“But it was not her imagination that chiefly bound her friends to this brilliant woman. Her qualities of heart were as engaging as her intellectual gifts were impressive. No one could be long with her without being aware of her quick, generous sympathy, her sweet unworldly nature, her ready recognition of whatever feeble talent, or inferior worth another possessed.” Caroline Ticknor, Poe’s Helen, p5 (NY: 1916).

John Hay fell under Whitman’s spell when he attended Brown from 1855 to 1858. Nora Perry was then part of the group. What she thought of Brown’s 1858 class poet can be inferred from the fact that the letters Hay wrote to her from Illinois after he left Brown were kept by her in “a little packet tied with blue ribbon” until her death. Glimpses of Authors, at 63. Caroline Ticknor published the letters in A Poet in Exile: Early Letters of John Hay (Houghton Mifflin: 1910). Hay was truly smitten by Sarah Helen Whitman, was deeply mournful of his lot of leaving the Providence world of letters to return to the money-grasping world of the unlettered midwest, and was duly subservient to the poetic superiority of Perry, who was only three years older than he was. Perry kept up the correspondence, giving him encouragement, asking for his poems and giving copies of hers. The letters ended when he set off to study law with his uncle Milton Hay, whose law office was next door to Abraham Lincoln’s.

Perry’s life thereafter followed the uneventful course of an unmarried woman writer of the day. Her public face was shown principally at social gatherings, where she developed something of a mask. She repeatedly railed against “reformers” in general (notwithstanding her friendship with Phillips who laughingly agreed that many reformers were stiff bores). She always maintained that those of her own class deserved as much charity as those in the “slum.” She tried to fulfill what she considered that duty by consolations that otherwise would seem insignificant. Stephenson Browne, the Boston literary correspondent for the New York Times showed, however, that her kindnesses were not always limited to her “own kind” and believed the following worth remembering after her death (June 20, 1903, Saturday Review of Books and Art section, p12):

“Here is one little instance of kindness shown to a woman who came as near personal insignificance as is possible for mortal woman, being poor, plain, and undistinguished except by being extremely ill-dressed. Upon her, whensoever they happened to meet, did Miss Perry beam with, ‘Now, how did you match that silk with that ribbon?’ ‘What a pretty fold that is!’ Women who praise other women’s ugly clothes are common enough, thanks to Miss Rhoda Broughton and Mrs. Helen Mathers and ‘The Duchess’ and other teachers of bad manners but Miss Perry’s swift glance detected the pretty feature about which her friend had constructed some miracle of ugliness, her nimble apprehension found the precise word for it, and sent the poor thing away smiling and self-complacent. And after she had gone Miss Perry never thought it necessary to explain, as an Edgeworthian person might. ‘I wish,’ said the object of her kindness, the Winter after her death, ‘that Nora could have seen this ribbon! I thought of her when I bought it, and I almost cried right there in the store. Nobody else seemed to care what I wore.’”

Sometimes an act of kindness is itself poetry.

And so now it remains only to consider whether Nora Perry’s poetry itself is worth remembering. And for that purpose I offer up the following (and not just for its timeliness):

Summer’s Decay

from Harper’s New Monthly Magazine, November 1885
(collected in Nora Perry, New Songs and Ballads (Boston: Ticknor & Co: 1887))

by Nora Perry

When my first roses shed
Their petals, and lay dead,
I knew my foe Decay
Had struck at my sweet day
Of summer breath and bloom.
I heard my knell of doom
In the soft sighing breeze
That scattered their dead leaves.

And then and there I seemed
To see as one who dreamed
A long procession pass
Across the springing grass—
Sweet ghosts of the dead flowers
That bloomed in last year’s hours.
And stately at the head,
All clad in white and red,

Shedding their dewy scent,
My fair June darlings went;
And following after stept
My lilies, who had kept
Their garments white as snow,
While their warm hearts did glow
With all the golden fire
That summer suns inspire.

All blooms and blossoms fair
Followed and followed there,
Until I did behold,
White as the stars, and cold,
My pale chrysanthemums pass;
And then I knew, alas!
The end had come; and knew,
While still the warm winds blew,

My darlings of to-day
Like this were on their way
To join the ghostly throng;
Like this would move along,
Pale visions, dead and dear,
To haunt another year.
Shuddering, I moaned and wept,
And in that moment crept

Shadows of storm and night
Across my summer light.
“What is my summer pride?”
Moaning, I wept and cried,
“Why do I hold my way,
If only to decay?”
Then suddenly I heard
Amid my boughs a bird

Lifting a heavenly voice.
“Rejoice, and yet rejoice,”
He sang; and sang again:
“Out of this earth-bound pain,
Out of this dread decay;
I lift my heavenly lay.”
Higher and higher still,
Sweet with a sweeter thrill,

Lifted that heavenly song.
Borne on its wings along,
I saw the bloom and birth
Of the new heaven and earth,
And all my flowery host;
Each sweet departing ghost,
Seemed in my ears to sing,
“No fair and beauteous thing,
Nothing of precious cost,
Nothing we love, is lost.”

[A brief textual note: In the version collected for the book the two final lines of the first stanza read: “Sung by the sighing trees / With every wandering breeze.” There are other minor punctuation differences of no consequence.]

Periodic Poetry: Whitman

Bardic Symbols

from Atlantic Monthly (April 1860)

by Walt Whitman

I.

ELEMENTAL drifts!
Oh, I wish I could impress others as you and the waves have just been impressing me!

II.

As I ebbed with an ebb of the ocean of life,
As I wended the shores I know,
As I walked where the sea-ripples wash you, Paumanok,
Where they rustle up, hoarse and sibilant,
Where the fierce old mother endlessly cries for her castaways,
I, musing, late in the autumn day, gazing off southward,
Alone, held by the eternal self of me that threatens to get the better of me and stifle me,
Was seized by the spirit that trails in the lines underfoot,
In the ruin, the sediment, that stands for all the water and all the land of the globe.

III.

Fascinated, my eyes, reverting from the south, dropped, to follow those slender windrows,
Chaff, straw, splinters of wood, weeds, and the sea-gluten,
Scum, scales from shining rocks, leaves of salt-lettuce, left by the tide.

IV.

Miles walking, the sound of breaking waves the other side of me,
Paumanok, there and then as I thought the old thought of likenesses,
These you presented to me, you fish-shaped island,
As I wended the shores I know,
As I walked with that eternal self of me, seeking types.

V.

As I wend the shores I know not,
As I listen to the dirge, the voices of men and women wrecked,
As I inhale the impalpable breezes that set in upon me,
As the ocean so mysterious rolls toward me closer and closer,
At once I find, the least thing that belongs to me, or that I see or touch, I know not;
I, too, but signify a little washed-up drift,—a few sands and dead leaves to gather,
Gather, and merge myself as part of the leaves and drift.

VI.

Oh, baffled, lost,
Bent to the very earth, here preceding what follows,
Terrified with myself that I have dared to open my mouth,
Aware now, that, amid all the blab whose echoes recoil upon me, I have not once had the least idea who or what I am,
But that before all my insolent poems the real me still stands untouched, untold, altogether unreached,
Withdrawn far, mocking me with mock-congratulatory signs and bows,
With peals of distant ironical laughter at every word I have written or shall write,
Striking me with insults, till I fall helpless upon the sand!

VII.

Oh, I think I have not understood anything,—not a single object,—and that no man ever can!

VIII.

I think Nature here, in sight of the sea, is taking advantage of me to oppress me,
Because I was assuming so much,
And because I have dared to open my mouth to sing at all.

IX.

You oceans both! You tangible land! Nature!
Be not too stern with me,—I submit,—I close with you,—
These little shreds shall, indeed, stand for all.

X.

You friable shore, with trails of debris!
You fish-shaped island! I take what is underfoot:
What is yours is mine, my father!

XI.

I, too, Paumanok,
I, too, have bubbled up, floated the measureless float, and been washed on your shores.

XII.

I, too, am but a trail of drift and debris,—
I, too, leave little wrecks upon you, you fished-shaped island!

XIII.

I throw myself upon your breast, my father!
I cling to you so that you cannot unloose me,—
I hold you so firm, till you answer me something.

XIV.

Kiss me, my father!
Touch me with your lips, as I touch those I love!
Breathe to me, while I hold you close, the secret of the wondrous murmuring I envy!
For I fear I shall become crazed, if I cannot emulate it, and utter myself as well as it.

XV.

Sea-raff! Torn leaves!
Oh, I sing, some day, what you have certainly said to me!

XVI.

Ebb, ocean of life! (the flow will return,)—
Cease not your moaning, you fierce old mother!
Endlessly cry for your castaways! Yet fear not, deny not me,—
Rustle not up so hoarse and angry against my feet, as I touch you,or gather from you.

XVII.

I mean tenderly by you,—
I gather for myself, and for this phantom, looking down where we lead, and following me and mine.

XVIII.

Me and mine!
We, loose windrows, little corpses,
Froth, snowy white, and bubbles,
Tufts of straw, sands, fragments,
Buoyed hither from many moods, one contradicting another,
From the storm, the long calm, the darkness, the swell,
Musing, pondering, a breath, a briny tear, a dab of liquid or soil,
Up just as much out of fathomless workings fermented and thrown,
A limp blossom or two, torn, just as much over waves floating, drifted at random,
Just as much for us that sobbing dirge of Nature,
Just as much, whence we come, that blare of the cloud-trumpets,—
We, capricious, brought hither, we know not whence, spread out before you,—you, up there, walking or sitting,
Whoever you are,—we, too, lie in drifts at your feet.

At the beginning of 1860 Walt Whitman was a poet of some renown. Two editions of Leaves of Grass had been published; the first (Brooklyn: 1855) contained 12 poems; the second (Brooklyn: 1856) 32. His hope of receiving a critical stamp of approval from the foremost American intellectual, Ralph Waldo Emerson, was more than gratified when Emerson responded (Concord, July 21, 1855) to his unsolicited letter enclosing the first edition of the book: “I find it the most extraordinary piece of wit and wisdom that America has yet contributed.” Emerson’s praise did not stop there; he went on: “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.” And to make this response the more remarkable, Emerson said he had a “wish to see my benefactor, and have felt much like striking my tasks, and visiting New York to pay you my respects.”

Such a review from such a source is not something that every novice poet receives. Whitman did not hide his candle under a bushel. He had the letter printed in the October 10, 1855 issue of the New York Tribune which had previously faulted the collection. The paper prefaced the letter by saying: “We some time since had occasion to call the attention of our readers to this original and striking collection of poems, by Mr. Whitman of Brooklyn. In so doing we could not avoid noticing certain faults which seemed to us to be prominent in the work. The following opinion, from a distinguished source, views the matter from a more positive and less critical stand-point.” Not satisfied in using the letter to settle a score with the Tribune Whitman had the letter printed as an appendix to the second edition of the collection. (Over the years Whitman has taken some heat for his brazen promotional use of the letter. The letter itself, however, looks like it was designed for such use; in any event it didn’t seem to have offended Emerson.) Emerson in fact visited Whitman in Manhattan that year. The next year another representative from Concord would visit him, this time venturing into Brooklyn. Bronson Alcott, turgid writer and iconoclastic educator began a lifelong friendship with Whitman with his October 1856 visit. (His daughter Louisa May had published her first work, a collection of fantasies, 7 years earlier. In 1860 she would have a story published, “Love and Self-Love,” in the Atlantic Magazine one month before Whitman’s poem appeared. Like Whitman she would spend some of the war in hospitals.) Bronson a month later brought to Brooklyn another representative from the seat of American high culture, Henry David Thoreau, to see Whitman. Whitman would also during these years become acquainted with the artistic talents that Manhattan produced.

But even in those days, when people actually read new poetry, poet was not an occupation. In fact, Whitman was still scurrying about trying to make ends meet. It didn’t help that he stayed around Brooklyn and Manhattan, then as now more interested in commercial than intellectual matters. Although he had tried teaching on a couple of occasions, he was either not good at it or not interested in it. He also didn’t seem to have the discipline or inspiration to write fiction or extended prose. (He had written a temperance novel in 1842, Franklin Evans; or, the Inebriate.  He later called it “damned rot” — an opinion you can quickly confirm here.) His poetry by the standards of the day (and even now) was sui generis. And so he was required to take menial labor jobs in the printing business. In 1857 he became an editor of a Brooklyn paper but by 1859 lost that job.  According to William Dean Howells Whitman also pursued the dollar in a way many current struggling Manhattan artists do — he drove hack.

During this time Whitman became an habitué of Pfaff’s beer hall. Pfaff’s was one of those places that fly under the radar of notice of polite society (and usually history) but provide a meeting place for nonconformists of all stripes. Pfaff’s brought together a remarkable assortment of serious modern literary novices, sexual nonconformists, actors, future critics and biographers and the like. The cellar provided a meeting place for serious literary discussions, sexual hook-ups, hedonism, and alcohol-fueled carousing. It  became the epicenter of Bohemian culture, whose members made the recently deceased New Yorker Edgar Allan Poe their patron saint. Among the remarkable array of patrons were future literary lion William Dean Howells (who went once and endured the Bohemianism in order to make the contacts that would jump start his career), the future great American landscape painter and water colorist Winslow Homer (who would soon begin his career with war illustrations), political cartoonist Thomas Nast, future poet, novelist and Atlantic contributor Elizabeth Barstow Stoddard as well as her husband, critic and poet Richard Henry Stoddard (who later denied he had ever set foot in the place), future Atlantic editor Thomas Aldrich, “Hashesh Eater” Fitz Hugh Ludlow, and popular essayist and poet for Vanity Fair, Harper’s and Atlantic Monthly George Arnold.  The future French premier Georges Clemenceau, writing for a French paper in New York City at the time, claimed to have had a reserved table at Pfaff’s.  (Clemenceau was a patron after Whitman had gone off to observe the war.) Sexually liberated women frequented Pfaff’s. Ada Clare, who famously bore a child out of wedlock to pianist and once popular composer Louis Moreau Gottschalk, became known as the “Queen of Bohemia.” Pfaff’s was also the center of the “man-man” love group known as the Fred Gay Association.  At the time Whitman appeared to have had an affair with group memember Frederick Vaughan, a fellow hack driver, who greatly supported Whitman through the publication of the 1860 edition of Leaves of Grass, who was probably the inspiration for Whitman’s Calamus poems, which celebrated the “manly love of comrades,” and who later deserted Whitman, got married and had 4 children, and rarely had contact with Whitman again.

The literary organ of Bohemia was the New York Saturday Press, a lively literary weekly with poems, fiction, criticism and other comment, edited by Henry Clapp Jr., who after tasting the wine of Parisian leftist thought and café high culture, returned to New York to found an avant-garde coterie who would contribute to an honest intellectual production.  The newspaper noted that it proudly (and perhaps uniquely) refused payment for favorable reviews.  It provided a regular forum for Ada Clare’s views on women and other things.  It tirelessly promoted Leaves of Grass.  William Dean Howells would much later — at a time when he no longer flirted with Bohemianism (in an article entitled “First Impressions of Literary New York” for Harper’s New Monthly Magazine, June 1895, p63) — describe the New York Saturday Press as the literary production which

“really embodied the new literary life of the city. It was clever, and full of the wit that tries its teeth upon everything. It attacked all literary shams but its own, and it made itself felt and feared. The young writers throughout the country were ambitious to be seen in it, and they gave their best to it; they gave literally, for the Saturday Press never paid in anything but hopes of paying, vaguer even than promises. It is not too much to say that it was very nearly as well for one to be accepted by the Press as to be accepted by the Atlantic, and for the time there was no other literary comparison. To be in it was to be in the company of Fitz James O’Brien, Fitzhugh Ludlow, Mr. Aldrich, Mr. Stedman, and whoever else was liveliest in prose or loveliest in verse at that day in New York. It was a power, and although it is true that, as Henry Giles said of it, ‘Man cannot live by snapping turtle alone,’ the Press was very good snapping-turtle.”

One of the key characteristics of the group who ran and clustered about the place was their virulent hatred of the literary capital of America (“First Impressions,” p64):

“I had found there a bitterness against Boston as great as the bitterness against respectability, and as Boston was then rapidly becoming my second country, I could not join in the scorn thought of her and said of her by the Bohemians. I fancied a conspiracy among them to shock the literary pilgrim, and to minify the precious emotions he had experienced in visiting other shrines; but I found no harm in that, for I knew just how much to be shocked, and I thought I knew better how to value certain things of the soul than they. Yet when their chief asked me how I got on with Hawthorne, and I began to say that he was very shy and I was rather shy, and the king of Bohemia took his pipe out to break in upon me with “Oh, a couple of shysters l” and the rest laughed, I was abashed all they could have wished, and was not restored to myself till one of them said that the thought of Boston made him as ugly as sin: then I began to hope again that men who took themselves so seriously as that need not be taken very seriously by me.”

(An extensive history of New York’s Bohemia, including digitalized images of The New York Saturday Press can be found at the very valuable site The Vault at Pfaff’s, maintained by Lehigh University.)

Having been ogled at by the Boston literati and accepted by the New York Bohemians must have been bracing for Whitman.  Since 1856 he had produced nearly 100 more poems for Leaves of Grass (for which he was searching for another publisher).  Howells reflected that it was the embrace of Bohemia that saved Whitman (“First Impressions,” p65):

“who, when the Saturday Press took it up, had as hopeless a case with the critics on either side of the ocean as any man could have.  It was not till long afterward that his English admirers began to discover him, and to make his countrymen some noisy reproaches for ignoring him; they were wholly in the dark concerning him when the Saturday Press, which first stood his friend and the young men whom the Press gathered about it, made him their cult.  No doubt he was more valued because he was so offensive in some ways than he would have been if he had been in no way offensive, but it remains a fact that they celebrated him quite as much as was good for them.” (To see an illustration of Howells meeting Whitman at Pfaff’s, see “First Impressions” at p67.)

Nevertheless, 1860 found Whitman still retailing poems and, more remarkable given the precipice facing the country, writing poems about the oneness of America. On Christman eve 1859, the New York Saturday Press published his “A Child’s Reminiscence.” Clapp offered it as a Christmas gift to his readers. True to his publishing honesty, Clapp published on the following January 7 a review from the Cincinnati Commercial.  It began:

“The author of Leaves of Grass has perpetrated another ‘poem.’ The N. Y. Saturday Press, in whose columns, we regret to say, it appears, calls it ‘a curious warble.’ Curious, it may be; but warble it is not, in any sense of that mellifluous word. It is a shade less heavy and vulgar than the Leaves of Grass, whose unmitigated badness seemed to cap the climax of poetic nuisances. But the present performance has all the emptiness, without half the grossness, of the author’s former efforts.”

The anonymous author used the occasion to unleash a broadside against Whitman:

“Perhaps our readers are blissfully ignorant of the history and achievements of Mr. Walt Whitman. Be it known, then, that he is a native and resident of Brooklyn, Long Island, born and bred in an obscurity from which it were well that he never had emerged. A person of coarse nature, and strong, rude passions, he has passed his life in cultivating, not the amenities, but the rudeness of character; and instead of tempering his native ferocity with the delicate influences of art and refined literature, he has studied to exaggerate his deformities, and to thrust into his composition all the brute force he could muster from a capacity not naturally sterile in the elements of strength. He has undertaken to be an artist, without learning the first principle of art, and has presumed to put forth ‘poems,’ without possessing a spark of the poetic faculty. He affects swagger and independence, and blurts out his vulgar impertinence under a full assurance of ‘originality.'”

January 7 found Whitman trying to hawk his “A Chant of National Feuillage” to Harpers Magazine.  The magazine rejected it. The 16th found him trying to sell “Thoughts” to the New York Saturday Courier. On January 20 Whitman found out that James Russell Lowell of the Atlantic Magazine accepted “Bardic Symbols” for publication. Ultra Bostonian Lowell was squeemish about two lines (after line 3 in stanza XVIII) which he proposed cutting:

(See from my dead lips the ooze exuding at last!
See the prismatic colors glistening and rolling!)

Whitman said that the lines intended “an effect in the piece which I clearly feel, but cannot as clearly define.”  He nevertheless agreed to their omission. (They were put back in when he published it in the third edition of Leaves of Grass, where the poem was included as untitled “Leaves of Grass” number 1, at pp195-99. The lines are in Stanza 16 at p199.)

And then, in February, Whitman got the best news of all.  A new publishing firm in Boston wrote offering to publish the new edition of Leaves of Grass. The firm of two young men, William Wilde Thayer and Charles W. Eldridge offered to either “buy the stereotype plates of Leaves of Grass, or pay you for the use of them” in addition to the regular royalties (which would be 10%).  More importantly perhaps the publishers gratified his feelings as well as promised to promote the book vigorously:

“Now we want to be known as the publishers of Walt. Whitman’s books, and put our name as such under his, on title pages.—If you will allow it we can and will put your books into good form, and style attractive to the eye; we can and will sell a large number of copies; we have great facilities by and through numberless Agents in selling. We can dispose of more books than most publishing houses (we do not “puff” here but speak truth).”

The deal was good enough to have soon have Whitman in Boston to supervise production and there meet again Emerson and others of the transcendental persuasion. Fred Vaughan wrote to Whitman there offering to introduce him to stage driver friends of his: “If you want to form the acquaintance of any Boston Stage men, get on one of those stages running to Charlestown Bridge, or Chelsea Ferry, & enquire for Charley Hollis or Ed Morgan, mention my name, and introduce yourself as my friend.”

As for “Bardic Symbols,” it met with the same hostile newspaper critics as rejected the earlier Leaves of Grass editions. Henry Clapp wrote him that “[t]he papers all over the land have noticed your poem in the Atlantic and have generally pitched into it strong; which I take to be good for you and your new publishers, who if they move rapidly and concentrate their forces will make a Napoleonic thing of it.”

But Howells, writing for the Daily Ohio State Journal (where his father first had his poems published when Howells was 15 and where Howells had been working for 2 years), gave a judicious review. The work, after all, was among the least daring of Whitman’s works and would not even be controversial once the third edition of the collection was published with its Calamus poems. It had none of the self-promoting bravura that shocked conventional readers of the first collection. In fact, Whitman whistfully contemplates his own insignificance against the sea.

“I, too, am but a trail of drift and debris,—
I, too, leave little wrecks upon you, you fished-shaped island!”

(This is certainly less falsely modest than T.S. Eliot in the “What the Thunder Said” section of The Waste Land.) It has a sustained symbol throughout, unlike many of his poems and the symbol has many levels of meaning.  In Stanzas XIII and XIV he calls the sea “Father” and requests a kiss. It is a startling apostrophe and perhaps suggestive of his homoerotic longings.  These Stanzas are followed up with:

“Sea-raff! Torn leaves!
Oh, I sing, some day, what you have certainly said to me!”

In the 1860 Leaves of Grass version of the poem the verses are revised:

“Sea-raff! Crook-tongued waves!
O, I will yet sing, some day, what you have said to me.”

Is it too much to see another influence on Eliot?  Recall the ending of the Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock:

“I shall wear white flannel trousers, and walk upon the beach.
I have heard the mermaids singing, each to each.

I do not think that they will sing to me.

I have seen them riding seaward on the waves
Combing the white hair of the waves blown back
When the wind blows the water white and black.

We have lingered in the chambers of the sea
By sea-girls wreathed with seaweed red and brown
Till human voices wake us, and we drown.”

(I will no belabor the comparison by pointing out the story from the Inferno in the Epigraph of Prufrock.)

In any event, Howells writes:

“No one, even after the fourth or fifth reading, can pretend to say what the ‘Bardic Symbols’ symbolize. The poet walks by the sea, and addressing the drift, the foam, the billows and the wind, attempts to force from them, by his frantic outcry, the … true solution of the mystery of Existence, always most heavily and darkly felt in the august ocean presence. All is confusion, waste and sound. It is in vain that you attempt to gather the poet’s full meaning from what he says or what he hints. You can only take refuge in occasional passages like this, in which he wildly laments the feebleness and inefficiency of that art which above all others seeks to make the soul visible and audible:

O, baffled, lost,
Bent to the very earth, here preceding what follows,
Terrified with myself that I have dared to open my mouth,
Aware now, that amid all the blab, whose echoes recoil
upon me, I have not once had the least idea who or
what I am,
But that before all my insolent poems the real one still stands untouched, untold, altogether unreached,
Withdrawn far, mocking me with mock-congratulatory
signs and bows,
With peals of distant ironical laughter at every word I
have written or shall write,
Striking me with insults till I fall helpless upon the sand.”

Howells compares this section with Tennyson’s poem “Break, break, break”:

“Break, break, break,
On thy cold gray stones, O sea!
And I would that my tongue could utter
The thoughts that arise in me!

An aspiration of mute words without relevancy, without absolute signification, and full of ‘divine despair.’

Howells was at the beginning of his career as well and would have no way of knowing that Whitman was to have much more in common with what would follow long after than what had just gone before.