November 16, 2013

James reviews Whitman: a melancholy task

"It has been a melancholy task to read this book; and it is a still more melancholy one to write about it." Thus opens the review of Walt Whitman's book Drum-Taps written by critic Henry James. The review, published in the November 16, 1865 issue of the Nation, lamented how difficult it was to read Whitman's poetry and James blames it on the poet being too much of "a prosaic mind." In fact, he writes, if not for the capital letters at the beginning of each line, one might not know it was poetry. "But if Mr. Whitman does not write verse," James says, "he does not write ordinary prose" as even prosaically the book is not impressive.

Worse, says the critically-minded James, Whitman, like too many others, assumes that the patriotic sympathy with the recent Civil War is enough to justify poetic inspiration in anyone. No, says James, though we as Americans feel the need to express our strong feelings ("Of course the tumult of a battle is grand, the results of a battle tragic, and the untimely deaths of young men a theme for elegies"), but such a sweeping overview as Whitman offers can only be made after the dust has settled. James also can't help but note that the book seems equally about Whitman's own pretentious grandstanding ("Mr. Whitman is very fond of blowing his own trumpet").

The form of the poetry is a particular concern to the then 22-year old James as it does not rhyme or follow any conceivable pattern. Various simplistic verses on the war have become popular and memorable, even when artless. In the case of Whitman, James concludes his writing is "an offense against art," lacking common sense, and insult to intelligence. Nevertheless, James notes, there are positive aspects to Drum-Taps. The sentiment expressed, even if expressed oddly, is sincere:

Mr. Whitman prides himself especially on the substance—the life—of his poetry. It may be rough, it may be grim, it may be clumsy—such we take to be the author's argument—but it is sincere, it is sublime, it appeals to the soul of man, it is the voice of a people.

But, James warns, this is not enough. "To become adopted as a national poet, it is not enough... to discharge the undigested contents of your blotting-book into the lap of the public," he writes. "You must respect the public which you address; for it has taste, if you have not." Whitman had made note in the book, however, that the life of the poem was more important than the form. As James himself quoted, Whitman had written:

Shut not your doors to me, proud libraries,
For that which was lacking among you all, yet needed most, I bring;
A book I have made for your dear sake, O soldiers,
And for you, O soul of man, and you, love of comrades;
The words of my book nothing, the life of it everything;
A book separate, not link'd with the rest, nor felt by the intellect;
But you will feel every word, O Libertad! arm'd Libertad!
It shall pass by the intellect to swim the sea, the air,
With joy with you, O soul of man.


  1. Heaven only knows how threatened James must have felt both by Whitman's sexuality and by his direct involvement with the war.

  2. "Threatened"? I don't know... but James's review seems very angry about the form much more than the content of Whitman's writing. As far as the man behind the words, I don't know how much James would have known about Whitman's personal life or experiences.