Therese Stanton: “Is That You, Walt Whitman?”

12/08/2011 § Leave a comment

Originally published in A Public Space 14, 2011.

I feel as if I’ve read stories like this before, but if I have, I’ve surely put them out of my mind, as I’ll soon do about this one. Stanton’s opening — an introduction to a depressed Walt Whitman in Brooklyn, 1855, who has struggled with the genius of being a writer who is nonetheless stuck in a boardinghouse, having grown disgusted with teaching and is grinding out day after tedious day as a typesetter — is solid. A poetic image (“At first he thought the men were naked. Then he realized that the street was drenched in moonlight that made the hoarfrost covering their winter coats look like supple, glistening skin”) sets the tone (and hints at Whitman’s possibly suppressed sexuality), and his familiar insecurities provide an easy connection: “Sometimes, far too infrequently, he thought he was a genius, but then he wrote pages and pages of slothful, tone-deaf words and he knew that he is writing would never soar the way he wanted it to…. He would always be a mediocre carpenter, a failed teacher, a fair printer, a walker who sneaked into brothels to watch men with their women. He would always be a restless, simmering fraud.” Instead of following this troubled and realistic version of Whitman, Stanton skips into the man’s vivid dream, in which he is visited by a series of visions that will bring him, disingenuously (considering how long he worked on it) to the point of completing Leaves of Grass. His muse turns out to be his readers from the future, cryptic arms flung wide:

Then the lamas and dogs tucked their feet under their knees and levitated. Clusters of children flew up close to Whitman. Their faces seemed like lifeboats. “We know what writing means. Do you, Walt Whitman? Yes or no? Why don’t you rub against us? Dote on us? Why don’t you explain yourself? Let’s breed.”

Among other things, they suggest he visit places like the Guggenheim and the Empire State Building, and occasionally drop a line or two of his own poetry: “I celebrate myself. Ha! Ha! Ha! Ha! Ha! Ha! Ha! Do you get it? See what you can do with that, Walt Whitman.” I understand the urge to write about the creative process, and that one might need to filter ones own feelings through that of a historic figure, but the result here feels slight and nonsensical, although that’s perhaps because I know so little of Whitman. (Still, wouldn’t this story have worked just as well for, say, Allen Ginsburg? Better, perhaps?) That’s all there is, too: after the dream, Stanton describes the feverish way in which Whitman sets about writing, and although she throws in the dictionary’s definition of “hyper” as both “implying excess or exaggeration” as well as “excitable” and “spooky,” she achieves, really, only the the cartoonish emptiness of the exaggerated.

It’s not that there’s not the occasional nice thought: “Words could only do so much, they mattered and they did not. One can only try, he thought, to get words to pin down a bit of unreality here and there before they take off again.” It’s just that it’s all so fake and artificial a construction, so insubstantial and whimsical a characterization — what one might call wiki-deep — that the story comes across as capitalizing on Whitman’s celebrity. It’s bad enough that this fiction doesn’t really describe him, but could it survive without him? That’s the litmus test I’d recommend to writers taking this route in the future; Ann Beattie succeeds in “Mrs. Nixon” by putting the struggle to pretend to be or know another right up front: she does more. This is a celebration only of its own shallow self. Wallow.

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