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Give back the poems

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Paul_Noth_Shakespeare_cartoon.pngEach fresh assertion that so-and-so-other-than-Shakespeare wrote the plays (and sonnets) provokes mild eye rolling from me.  I can't think of a bigger waste of time than pondering that question, much less writing a magazine article or - heavens! - a book on the subject.  James Shapiro and Michael Posner obviously disagree with me, the latter actually arguing that a Jewish woman, Amelia Bassano Lanier, wrote Shakespeare's works (I hardly know whether to kvell or cry at that theory).

If one is so maddeningly insistent on uncovering literary fraud, however, Walt Whitman strikes me as a vastly superior target to Shakespeare.  As Christopher Benfey writes in his recent piece in The New York Review of Books, "Well into his thirties, Whitman was a non-poet in every way, with no mark of special talent or temperament."

Benfey makes this comment in the course of reviewing two books, Three American Poets: Walt Whitman, Emily Dickinson, and Herman Melville, by William C. Spengemann, and On Whitman, by C.K. Williams, both of which argue strenuously that Leaves of Grass sprang as unexpectedly and unbelievably from Whitman's head as Athena did from Zeus's.

Here's Spengemann:

[N]o amount of information regarding such matters [as upbringing, early experiences, habits, sexual inclination, and the like] will account for the unforegrounded appearance of Leaves in 1855, the form those poems take, or the appeal they have held for poets and readers of other times, other places.
(second alteration in original).  Williams is even more baroque:

It's as though [Whitman's] actual physical brain went through some incredible mutation, as though - a little science fiction, why not? - aliens had transported him up to their spaceship and put him down again with a new mind, a new poetry aparatus.  It is really that crazy.
My first thought on reading these perspectives was, Occam's razor: the simplest explanation is usually correct: and the simplest explanation is not that Walt Whitman's brain was replaced by aliens, but that somebody else wrote the poems.

My suspicions grew as Benfey quoted from Williams's observations about the waning of Whitman's talent.  Shortly after Whitman published his unprecedented Leaves of Grass, he "lost the connection to his music," Williams claims, a condition that lead Whitman to ever-more-desperate attempts at "sounding like himself" in his later poetry.  

Sounding like himself?  Isn't this a case for finding out who really wrote Leaves of Grass?  More probable by far is the likelihood that Whitman had a falling out with the true author of Leaves and no longer had access to poems he could pass off as his own . . . right?  Whitman himself apparently endorsed the theory that Shakespeare didn't write the works attributed to him - an attempt by Whitman to distract attention from his own literary plagiarism, no?  And what about the fact that Whitman claims to have fathered six children without ever getting married?  Shouldn't Whitman scholars be devoting more effort to researching whether one of Whitman's loved-and-left baby mamas was actually the author of Leaves of Grass?  One doesn't have to troll very far through nineteenth century verse to find a weirdo woman poet with a mysterious relationship to an unidentified "master," a poetess who had withdrawn from the world for unexplained reasons (the trauma of out-of-wedlock birth perhaps): I speak, of course, of Emily Dickinson.

When the book arguing that Leaves of Grass is actually the work of Emily Dickinson, and that the cause of her seclusion was her seduction and abandonment by feckless Walter Whitman, I promise I won't roll my eyes.  I expect a cut of the royalties.

(Cartoon punchline is "In fact, the work's been so good that we question whether it's Will's own"; from The New Yorker, June 14 and 21, 2010 issue)

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This page is an archive of recent entries in the Whitman, Walt category.

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