Posts Tagged ‘Walt Whitman’

Walt Whitman and the fake butterfly

Sunday, June 17th, 2012

“Yes – that was an actual moth,” Walt Whitman told his sidekick and chronicler, Horace Traubel; “the picture is substantially literal: we were good friends: I had quite the in-and-out of taming, or fraternizing with, some of the insects, animals.”

This was his myth he told of himself.  He confessed to historian William Roscoe Thayer, “I’ve always had the knack of attracting birds and butterflies and other wild critters.”

The 1883 photo from the Miami Herald was his favorite photo of himself – and, like Lincoln, he relentlessly documented himself in photos.  But the man who anonymously (and very enthusiastically) reviewed his own books was not one to balk at a fact.

And fact was, he was a devoted opera-goer, a man who, until the end of his life, read ten newspapers a day.  He was no hayseed, but a city slicker – a Long Island born journalist and government clerk.  So why the St. Francis of Assisi shtick?

It remains one of America’s great literary mysteries. One thing is clear: the gift for self-reinvention is the great seal upon the American psyche. Think Whitman. Think Lincoln. Think Gatsby.  Think Obama.

Here’s another fun fact:  the alleged moth was “a gaudy cardboard butterfly produced in large quantities as part of an Easter celebration.”  How do we know?  In 1942, the Library of Congress shipped its most precious holdings inland.  A crate with ten of Whitman’s notebooks went to Ohio.   When the crate came back in 1944, the notebooks were gone.  Fifty years later, in 1994, a young man showed up at Sotheby’s with four of the notebooks from his father’s estate.  Thank you, sir, wherever you are:  when he learned of their history, he returned them, without trying to get a penny of the estimated half-a-million dollars the cache was worth.

But here’s the big surprise:  among the materials was the cardboard butterfly you see at right. The words are from  John Mason Neale’s Easter hymn which began to appear in hymnbooks in the 1850s.  Yup, it’s the insect from the photo.

John Lienhard of the University of Houston explains away Whitman’s gaffe this way:

So Whitman used the new cameras to make himself part of the poem. His own image became a dimension of his self-expression. He didn’t put his name on the title page of Leaves of Grass, he put his photo there – standing in rough clothes, the image of action, the image of the America he was writing about.

We all do that, of course. We offer a face to the world — strong, caring, reckless, intellectual, sinister. We all try to do what Whitman succeeded in doing. In the end, that fake butterfly doesn’t tarnish the poet at all; it explains him.

Whitman’s poetry was visual art. It was theater. Poetry was a process where he struggled to be one-and-the-same with the face he showed to the world. That’s surely the hardest thing any of us ever does. We try to decide whether we’re gentle or tough, while the real butterflies circle – always outside our reach.

Man of action? We think not.

Which is a fancy way of saying he lied, lied, lied.  But this goes some way towards redeeming him, also describing the contents of the crate:  “Here were draft portions of his epic poem, Leaves of Grass. Young Whitman described his work as a nurse in a Civil War hospital. That part gives us a very human picture of Whitman. He wrote letters for men who couldn’t write, and he recorded their deaths. He talked about requests from the wounded and dying – for an orange – even for a piece of horehound candy.”

But butterflies wafting to his finger?  A PR stunt, at best. He would have given James Frey and Greg  Mortenson a run for their money.

(Fun piece on the whole matter from a Leonard Cohen fan, at 1heckofaguy, over here.)

Frankenstein and Walt Whitman’s brain: “This is a grewsome story!”

Wednesday, June 13th, 2012

Whitman and fraudulent butterfly

In the 1931 movie Frankenstein, the doctor’s hunchback assistant Franz raids the medical school’s lab to retrieve a brain for the monster.  Whoops!  He drops the jar that has the good brain and takes the bad brain instead – the brain of a demented murderer.  (Video below.)

Who would have guessed that there is some factual basis for this set piece? Walt Whitman’s brain may have been on the back of someone’s mind as the scenario was written, though it cannot be proved for certain.

You see, Walt Whitman’s postmortem brain was put into some sort of a jam jar, and somebody dropped it, and it shattered.  The brain, not the jar … or rather, probably, both.  Or neither. Actually, it’s not certain the brain ever made it into a jar, or was dropped while it was in a sort of a rubber sack.

When I posted about  “The Curious and Complicated History of Lenin’s Brain” two years ago, little did I know I would be writing a grisly sequel so soon.  But scholar Brian Burrell has written an absolutely riveting account of Walt Whitman’s brain.  I just discovered it (thanks to Twitter and Lapham’s Quarterly) in a back issue of the Walt Whitman Quarterly Review, the preeminent journal on America’s bard, but one not usually given to sensational revelation.  (The 27-page article, “The Strange Fate of Whitman’s Brain,” is downloadable here.)

According to our scholar Burrell:

“When Mary Shelley wrote Frankenstein she made no mention of brains.  To anyone who comes to the legend via the 1931 film instead of the 1818 novel, this might seem odd. But then the legend of Frankenstein has changed considerably since Shelley’s time in order to keep in step with the science that inspired it. If there are no brains in jars in Frankenstein the novel, it is because at the time she conceived the book, there were no brains in jars at all, and there would not be any for some time to come.  The modern preoccupation with the human brain, it turns out, is a relatively recent phenomenon.  Before Shelley’s time, very few people gave it much thought.”

Whitman wrote in 1855:  “I have said that the soul is no more than the body. And I say that the body is not more than the soul.” But did he expect anyone should take this thought quite so much at face value?

Eight years after Lord Byron suggested that Mary Shelley write a horror story, the Romantic poet died, and his brain was removed at autopsy and weighed.  That was the beginning.  Others joined the party: Daniel Webster, Gaetano Donizetti, Ivan Turgenev, and many others had their brains removed, autopsied, and weighed, with a religious solicitude and ritual exactitude not shown since the days of the pharaohs. Great men, it was reasoned, would have magnificent and extraordinary brains.  And by studying these brains, we could anatomize genius.  A number of famous men felt they would be fit objects for such a study, and pledged their brains to science.  Unfortunately, the weight of many of their brains fell short of expectations.

Could things get sillier?  They could.  And where else but France?  In 1876, a French group formed the first brain donation society:

“They named it, rather eerily, the Société Mutuelle d’Autopsie (the Society of Mutual Autopsy). In their revolutionary fervor, they sealed their compact with a pledge that had the portentous ring of a fraternal oath: ‘Free thinker, loyal to scientific materialism and the radical Republic, I intend to die without the interference of any priest or church. I bequeath to the School of Anthropology my head, face, skull, and brain, and more if it is necessary. What remains of me will be incinerated.’”

Whitman showed an early interest in phrenology, a means to measure the internal qualities of a man by the bumps of his head.  But he eventually outgrew this enthusiasm,  citing Oliver Wendell Holmes’s remark that “you might as easily tell how much money is in a safe feeling the knob on the door as tell how much brain a man has by feeling bumps on his head.”  However, in a moment of illness, the old faith returned.  At least enough so that he, too, succumbed and signed away his brain. He owed it to science.

The denouement was revealed years later by the renowned  anatomist, Dr. Edward Spitzka in 1907. A throwaway comment in the doctor’s magnum opus admitted that the brain was “said to have been dropped” by “a careless attendant in the laboratory.”  Investigations by Whitman’s friends revealed the dismaying facts:  the brain “was destroyed either during the autopsy or while being conveyed to the jar, or in the jar before the hardening process by formaldehyde had been completed” … “the records state quite definitely that the brain was accidentally broken to bits during the pickling process.”  Whitman’s devoted friend William Sloane Kennedy scribbled, “This is a grewsome story!”

Time has not been kind to this particular scientific endeavor, and it’s hard to believe anyone ever took it seriously.  Burrell wrote:  “The founders of the Brain Society had acted on the enthusiasm of a moment of history of science that turned out to be a passing phase.  Had someone not dropped Whitman’s brain, they would hardly be remembered at all.”

Spitzka, later the editor of two editions of Gray’s Anatomy, never recovered from the professional fiasco.  Still in his twenties, he took to the bottle, and not the pickling kind.  He began to imagine that ex-convicts were stalking him, seeking revenge for his brain snatchings at the prisons in his salad days.  He had a nervous breakdown.  He died at 46, and donated his brain – but there were no true believers left to study it.  Brains had accumulated faster than any interest in them.  Even the smart ones.

Spitzka was one of the last eminent men to be painted by Thomas Eakins, who was in his last days and could barely hold a brush.  It would remain unfinished,

“except for the depiction of a plaster brain cast which Spitzka cradles in his right hand.  (It was painted in by Eakins’s wife.) As Eakins left the work, Spitzka stands in ghostly outline, unrecognizable, still waiting to be immortalized. In the 1930s, the canvas was cut down from a full length portrait to make it more marketable, and the image of the brain was discarded, leaving nothing more than the indistinct outlines of a presumably great man. The painting now resides, out of sight, in a storage room of Washington’s Hirshhorn Gallery.”

A reminder of how speedily tragedy descends into farce and back to tragedy again.  It’s also a reminder of the tomfoolery of hubris – scientific or otherwise.  How could anyone expect that the unique concoction of an individual’s energy, will, spirit, character, élan vital, whatever, might be so easily reducible to scale measurements and creases on the brain?

After all, today we all know the real answer to the mysteries of genius and destiny lies in our DNA. That’s what the important scientists tell us.

Postscript on 6/27:  Big Think has some thoughts on Whitman’s link with Dracula – and discusses the Book Haven and this column, too. It’s over here.


Robinson Jeffers gets his due.

Thursday, December 8th, 2011

My friend and sometime-editor Terry Hummer triumphantly posted on Facebook that he had managed to buy four Robinson Jeffers stamps on ebay, after the first sale was cancelled because the seller was “out of stock.”

Perhaps it’s a good sign that there’s a demand for Jeffers – even if only in stamp form. Few American poets have undergone quite so much disparagement and neglect (I wrote about that here).  Like Walt Whitman, however, Jeffers always had his fans.  As I wrote a few years ago:

“Unlike most contemporary American poetry, his legacy has been kept alive by individuals who love his work, not by academia’s class-assignment sales. Such luminaries as Stanford’s late Yvor Winters, who in 1947 declared Jeffers’s work ‘unmastered and self-inflicted hysteria,’ effectively banned him from the curriculum.”

Thoughts of Jeffers and the U.S. postal service turned me weighty tome that arrived in my mailbox a few days ago – the 1,100 page second volume of Jeffers’ letters (covering 1931 to 1939), and newly published by Stanford University Press.

I wrote about the earlier volume of letters here, which included the years of his courtship and marriage to Una Kuster.

“I’ll say he’s the most important poet of the 20th century, but nobody’s buying that yet,” said James Karman, editor of the projected 3-volume series. “No one in the 20th century came near to what he was trying to do. The sheer scope of his endeavor is unrivaled. There’s nothing like it in American literature in the 20th century.”

According to Tim Hunt, editor of Stanford University Press’ five-volume Collected Poetry, Jeffers is “the least understood of the major American poets from the first half of the 20th century.”

The volumes include a substantial number of letters from Una Jeffers, as well as her husband. You can get a good feel for both the Jeffers in even their most casual notes.  Here’s her Christmas thank-you to Bennett Cerf in January 1938:

Now thanks very much for the two Christmas {books} I’ve just finished the Iceland book [that is, W.H. Auden and Louis MacNeice‘s Letters from Iceland] tonight & O but its clever! & its packed full of information too   I never expected to like Auden as well as I do this very moment!  As for the New Yorker – I must confess I stand alone almost in not being its enthusiastic reader. It is funny – but so all alike & always taking people down is so easy & in the end so humiliating to every human. & bathtubs & fat ladies bulging out of their lacey lingerie, & over-fed dogs & betrayed & betraying businessmen husbands are tiring to keep one’s mind on.

But I suspect that I make myself disliked by carping at the New Yorker.

Here’s his 1933 letter to a Mr. Pumphrey from the Jeffers’ legendary home, Tor House in Carmel (definitely worth a visit if you haven’t been there):

Thank you sincerely for your letter; but I have not time to copy the verses. You lose nothing by that, for my handwriting – you see – is neither beautiful nor easy to read.

And I am sorry not to be able to answer your question. One can say that Mount Everest is higher than Mont Blanc, but there is no way to measure poetry. I cannot even tell whom I prefer to read – sometimes Yeats, sometimes some other.

The publisher’s website promises “a full account of the 1938 crisis at Mabel Dodge Luhan‘s home in Taos, New Mexico that nearly destroyed their marriage.”  A crisis that has not disturbed my sleep to date.  Can’t wait.

Postscript:  I  had thought the Jeffers stamp was a new issue.  Silly me.  Terry corrected me quickly.  It came out in the 1970s.  The new ones for 2012 are described here.

Postscript on 12/9:  I got a note from David Rothman, president of the Robinson Jeffers Association: “I don’t know if you’ve seen our website, at – it’s quite thorough and you might enjoy it. Also, I wrote a review of the first volume of the Letters that you can see here, if you’re curious:”

By the by, if you live in the area and haven’t been to see Jeffers’s Tor House in Carmel … well, you must.  You really must.  The poet learned stonecutting so he could build it himself.  It is a peculiar kind of Pacific perfection.