I went to the woods because I wished to live deliberately, to front only the essential facts of life, to see if I could not learn what it had to teach, and not, when it came time to die, to discover that I had not lived.
-- Henry David Thoreau, Walden
Last Monday afternoon I asked you to help me name the greatest American book of all time. There've been many replies, and the (serious) suggestions include, in order, Tropic of Cancer by Henry Miller, A Movable Feast by Ernest Hemingway, The Great Gatsby by F. Scott Fitzgerald, Walden by Henry David Thoreau, An American Tragedy by Theodore Dreiser, The Adventures of Hucklebery Finn by Mark Twain, The Education of Henry Adams by Henry Adams, On The Road by Jack Kerouac, Winesburg, Ohio by Sherwood Anderson, Martian Chronicles by Ray Bradbury, Black Elk Speaks by John G. Neihardt, The Grapes of Wrath by John Steinbeck, Fear and Loathing on the Campaign Trail '72 by Hunter S. Thompson, The Naked and the Dead by Norman Mailer, Pragmatism by William James, The Sound and the Fury by William Faulkner, The Catcher in the Rye by J. D. Salinger, The World According to Garp by John Irving, Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas by Hunter S. Thompson, Madame Rosa by Romain Gary (which makes no sense since Romain Gary was French), To Kill A Mockingbird by Harper Lee, Catch-22 by Joseph Heller, Silent Spring by Rachel Carson, Look Homeward, Angel by Thomas Wolfe, The Federalist Papers, Black Like Me by John Howard Griffin, Profiles in Courage by John F. Kennedy, The Autobiography of Malcolm X, Uncle Tom's Cabin by Harriet Beecher Stowe, Baby and Child Care br Dr. Spock, The Cat in the Hat by Dr. Seuss, The Recognitions by William Gaddis and Franny and Zooey by J. D. Salinger.
I'm surprised that nobody but me mentioned Moby Dick by Herman Melville, and I also thought there'd be more support for The Book of Mormon, Leaves of Grass by Walt Whitman, Poems by Emily Dickinson, Howl and Other Poems by Allen Ginsberg, One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest by Ken Kesey and Slaughterhouse-Five by Kurt Vonnegut. But that's fine with me, because it happens that several people did mention the book I believe to be the greatest by a citizen or resident of the United States of America: Walden, or Life in the Woods, written by Henry David Thoreau and published by Ticknor and Fields in 1854.
We each have our own favorites, of course. But I'll stake a guess -- for whatever these guesses may be worth -- that future literary historians will consider this book to have the highest stature of any book published in my country so far. I can't tell you everything I want to say about Walden here today, but here are three things that I find exceptional about this book.
You may have to slow your body speed down a bit to catch Henry Thoreau's wavelength, but once you do there is no denying the pure delight found in these words. No other writer -- not even my beloved Henry James -- crafts sentences sharper than those you'll find in Walden.
Thoreau was a social reformer with a distinct philosophy, but nobody might have ever cared about his philosophy if he didn't crystallize it with such artistry and skill. A Harvard graduate and obsessive reader, he learned from the best of the brilliant "New England Transcendentalists" who were his older friends and neighbors in Concord, Massachusetts, and he eventually developed a voice richer than any of theirs, richer even than that of his more famous friend and hero Ralph Waldo Emerson. High-toned, alive to all the human senses, Thoreau's prose presents an attitude that combines humorous warmth with merciless sarcasm. Sarcasm is certainly the top note in Walden, a book designed to attack the mores of polite New England society. Here he is, for instance, on the subject of clothing:
Kings and Queens who wear a suit but once, though made by some tailor or dress-maker to their majesties, cannot know the comfort of wearing a suit that fits. They are no better than wooden horses to hang the clean clothes on. Every day our garments become more assimilated to ourselves, receiving the impress of the wearer's character, until we hesitate to lay them aside, without such delay and medical appliances and some such solemnity even as our bodies. No man ever stood the lower in my estimation for having a patch in his clothes; yet I am sure that there is greater anxiety, commonly, to have fashionable, or at least clean and unpatched clothes, than to have a sound conscience. But even if the rent is not mended, perhaps the worst vice betrayed is improvidence. I sometimes try my acquaintances by such tests as this, -- who could wear a patch, or two extra seams only, over the knee? Most behave as if they believed that their prospects for life would be ruined if they should do it. It would be easier for them to hobble to town with a broken leg than with a broken pantaloon. Often if an accident happens to a gentleman's legs, they can be mended, but if a similar accident happens to the legs of his pantaloon's, there is no help for it; for he considers, not what is respectable, but what is respected. We know but few men, a great many coats and breeches. Dress a scarecrow in your last shift, you standing shiftless by, who would not soonest salute the scarecrow? Passing a cornfield the other day, close by a hat and coat on a stake, I recognized the owner of the farm. He was only a little more weather-beaten than when I saw him last.
Thoreau's writing style is too thick and fanciful for some, but I find he has no equal. Often his imagination carries him towards connections or metaphors no other writer could possibly find. In Walden every small human transaction, such as the borrowing of an axe, is examined for meaning:
Near the end of March, 1845, I borrowed an axe and went down to the woods by Walden Pond, nearest to where I intended to build my house, and began to cut down some tall arrowy white pines, still in their youth, for timber. It is difficult to begin without borrowing, but perhaps it is the most generous course thus to permit your fellow-men to have an interest in your enterprise. The owner of the axe, as he released his hold on it, said that it was the apple of his eye, but I returned it sharper than I received it.
Other times Thoreau becomes downright poetic, or else he shouts "Simplicity! Simplicity!" His voice takes getting used to, but so does his moral message, and they are each a perfect match for each other. Not for nothing is the first chapter of Walden called "Economy".
The Audacity of the Experiment
There's a mistaken belief that Walden is a book about nature. It is incidentally so, but this does not describe the book's essential aim.
Walden takes place in a cabin in the woods, but Thoreau's goal in life was to be a social reformer, and this is a book about society. If you don't believe me, please consider the fact that Thoreau did not actually retreat from civilization to live in the woods, but rather built a cabin in the woods right in the middle of Concord, Massachusetts. In fact, Walden Pond was on the property of Ralph Waldo Emerson, one of the most popular and well-known intellectuals of 19th Century America. Emerson had constant visitors, including many important intellectuals of this age, and Thoreau's purpose in building a cabin to live in for two years on Emerson's property was to make a spectacle of himself. (It's certainly to Emerson's credit that he allowed, and even encouraged, this experiment).
Thoreau could have left civilization behind if he wanted to. He knew where to find the much deeper forests of Maine and New Hampshire, where for all we know other Harvard graduates may have disappeared into lives of true solitude and never been heard from again. Thoreau had no intention of never being heard from again. To build a cabin and live "like a savage" in the center of a celebrated and prosperous New England town is a pronouncement. It's like sitting down on the floor of a fancy party and going into a fetal position; you only do it if you want attention.
Why did Thoreau want attention? Because he had something to say:
The mass of men lead lives of quiet desperation. What is called resignation is confirmed desperation. From the desperate city you go into the desperate country, and have to console yourself with the bravery of minks and muskrats. A stereotyped but unconscious despair is concealed even under what are called the games and amusements of mankind.
This is one of the bleaker (though most well-known) passages in what is generally an optimistic book of philosophy and observation. Which brings us to the third exceptional characteristic of this book.
Like Emerson, Thoreau was fascinated with Buddhism and other eastern religions, and in fact his basic message -- "Simplicity! Simplicity!" -- is consistent with the deepest philosophies of the Buddhist religion. Thoreau believed that Americans consumed too much, worked too hard and enjoyed too little. His diatribes against the ingrained American culture of hard labor and grave responsibility make up some of the most memorable passages in this book:
I see young men, my townsmen, whose misfortune it is to have inherited farms, houses, barns, cattles and farming tools; for these are more easily acquired than got rid of. Better if they had been born in the open pasture and suckled by a wolf, that they might have seen with clearer eyes what field they were called to labor in. What made them serfs of the soil? Why should they eat their sixty acres, when man is condemned to eat only his peck of dirt?
When he was not occupying himself as a writer, a natural scientist and a critic of social mores, Henry Thoreau worked fervently for the Abolitionist cause (as, of course, most of the New England Transcendentalists did). Slavery was the hot issue of the day -- the American Civil War began seven years after Walden was published -- and Thoreau's other famous "publicity stunt" was to get thrown in jail for refusing to pay taxes, on the grounds that he chose not to support an economic system that tolerated slavery. Many decades later and halfway across the world, the writings and life story of Henry David Thoreau would inspire Mohandas Gandhi to begin a massive public campaign for self-determination among colonized peoples that remains one of the most successful social protest movements of all time. Decades later again, the same thread of civil disobedience was picked up by Martin Luther King back in Thoreau's United States of America. Now, even more decades have passed but our nation and world remain highly confused. Perhaps we all need to pick up this thread once more.
Literary judgements are subjective, but it is perhaps only because I so badly want people to read Walden that I feel compelled to name it as the greatest American book. I should also mention that I don't particularly agree with those who find Thoreau a uniquely American writer. Some critics have said that his personal individualism and love of open space make him a representative of the American soul, but I think that most Americans -- and most people in the world -- could stand to appreciate the wisdom of Thoreau a lot more than they currently do.
But Walden is essentially an optimistic book -- the last line tells us:
The sun is but a morning star.
And there is plenty of hope that someday a large number of people may read and be inspired by this wonderful book.
Here's an example of the corny: three soldiers on leave pick up two women on a rainy night, and at the end of the night the three guys are dancing in the street because they got kisses on the cheek. But even that turns out to be a great scene.
And there's plenty more. Mainly, the movie reminded me that a serious theme pervades Saroyan's poignant and lilting novel about a farm country childhood. Homer (the eager teenager played by Mickey Rooney) gets a job delivering telegrams. Sometimes they're singing telegrams, but sometimes they're Department of War death notices from the European or Pacific fronts. Frank Morgan (four years after Wizard of Oz) is a dispatch chief who's become a sad drunk because he can't stand typing these messages. Mickey Rooney is the rookie (with an older brother at the front) who has to knock on doors and deliver the news. This amounts to a big and sobering note that gives weight and feeling to this otherwise simply gorgeous and warm old movie.
I definitely recommend The Human Comedy as a new Christmas family movie, if maybe you're getting sick of watching the kid with glasses whine for the BB gun yet again. If you know what I mean.
Oh, and an older Carl Switzer ("Alfalfa") shows up as a neighborhood teenager in a funny scene stealing apples from a farmer.
2. This is probably a contrarian opinion, but I like Time Magazine's choice of "Us" (or, as they put it, "You") as the Person of the Year. I think Lev Grossman does a fine job with the explanatory essay. There's only one questionable moment in the piece, which is when Lev says "We blogged about our candidates losing." Dude, I don't know who you're voting for but my candidates won.
3. The Underrated Writers Project is back in effect! And this time I actually managed to contribute a couple of names.
4. David Lehman, an esteemed poetry critic and anthologist, is guest-blogging every day this week at the Oxford University Press Blog. Good stuff!
5. The 92nd Street Y on New York City's Upper East Side is hosting a 50th Anniversary celebration of Beat Generation literature on January 15, 2007. Guests will include Joyce Johnson, Laurie Anderson, Ann Charters, Bill Morgan and Hettie Jones. Should be an inspiring event.
6. Folks, I'm sort of winding down for Christmas vacation, which I hope to spend in relaxing surroundings (in other words, I'm flying the hell out of New York City). I've got some good stuff for the next couple of days (I think), and then I think we'll put up some poetry for a week. Hope you're all making good holiday season plans too, if you believe in holiday seasons.
Grizzly Man, a new documentary film by Werner Herzog, is an astounding study of humanity and nature. It was pasted together from videotape left behind by Timothy Treadwell, a somewhat goofy and hippy-dippy outdoorsman who spent thirteen summers in a row communing with grizzly bears in Alaska.
Treadwell was not trained or licensed to interact with these dangerous animals, and he freely admitted that he would not be able to defend himself if a bear decided to kill him for food. He worked hard to establish a relationship of mutual trust and respect with the thousand-pound carnivores that surrounded him, and this worked for many years but was doomed in the end; in October 2003 a pilot flew into the area where Treadwell and his girlfriend had been camping and found a surly older grizzly bear gnawing on their scattered rib cages and limbs. Herzog put this film together as a tribute to Treadwell's life's work.
It's amazing to see a blond mop-topped skinny man wearing no protection over his t-shirt and jeans as he cavorts with grizzly bears, touches their noses, rassles with the cubs. Sometimes the bears make threatening moves towards him, and he is careful to stand his ground, explaining to the camera that they are testing him for fear or weakness.
Treadwell knows he loves the bears more than they love him, but he can't help his obsession. The camera often finds him swooning with ecstasy, rapt in loud spontaneous joy, riffing excitedly about his flowing thoughts. He almost never appears depressed on camera, though he cries over a bumblebee that he believes dead, until he sees that the bumblebee is just sleeping. The footage feels alive and refreshing because our guide is an utter unprofessional, not a park ranger or a scientist but a manic nature freak with a videocamera.
The visuals are beautiful. Treadwell sits in the grass and caresses a wild fox the way you'd pet a cat. He basks in the sun, and in one wonderful moment he chases a bear cub who stole his hat at a high speed through the brush and suddenly arrives at the bear's den, a large hole in the ground. This definitely beats Disney.
In the film's most ominous scene, shot just before Treadwell's death, he sits alongside a stream where a large grizzly with a lean and hungry look rummages for fish. Treadwell explains that this bear is older and has a harder time finding food, which makes him more likely to attack a human than the others. The evidence shows that this is the bear that did eventually kill Treadwell and his girlfriend (whose family has opted not to be involved with this film or to seek publicity).
Treadwell was moderately famous for his bear affinity while he was alive. He wrote a book, cofounded a non-profit and appeared on the David Letterman show (the segment is included in this film; Letterman asks Treadwell whether or not a bear will eventually eat him, and the crowd laughs).
Over and over, the real-life character onscreen made me think of Henry David Thoreau, another complex man who could only find joy in the isolation of the woods. Not that I think Thoreau wouldn't have called Treadwell a fool; Thoreau lived in the wilderness but he didn't intend to die there.
The film also called to mind another literary hermit who escaped to the woods, Jack Kerouac, who spent long periods in meditation and alcoholic recovery on mountaintops in the Sierra Nevada and Cascade mountains. Treadwell is also a recovering alcoholic, and this seems to explain something about his passionate relationship with the outdoors (it is his salvation) as well, perhaps, about his reckless fatalism and need for the adrenalin of danger.
Werner Herzog's treatment of this material is respectful and artistic. A Kuro5hin article about this film mentions that the theme of this film echoes that of an earlier Herzog film, Fitzcarraldo which I haven't seen but plan to.
Aside from its fascinating human story, Grizzly Man also represents cinema verite taken to a new level of stark realism. As in the Blair Witch Project, the film is spliced together from videotape found at a murder scene. But in Blair Witch Project the actors didn't really die.
I caught this film on the Discovery Channel, and I hope they will be running it again soon.
A friend with a young son just alerted me to a new, very cute series of kid's books about a bear based on Henry David Thoreau. Well, I can think of worse things for a little kid to read. It started when D. B. Johnson wrote Henry Hikes To Fitchburg (based on an incident from Walden). In a later installment, Henry Builds A Cabin.
Speaking of literary landmarks, I also read that the gritty and sometimes dark real-life landmarks featured in Irvine Welsh's Trainspotting are now becoming a tourist attraction for the port area of Leith in Edinburgh, Scotland. The walking tours have become so popular that many wonder if they've begun to overshadow some of the city's more classic literary roots.
Many readers I respect, even including a fellow LitKicks staffer, hate this book with a passion. It probably doesn't help that the author became extremely rich by writing this interesting but aggravating and highly commercial book.
I understand why many people who take either literature or history seriously dislike this book. I know about the many historical flaws, such as the fact that the title itself is an error. The artist was known as Leonardo -- "Da" means from, Vinci was his home, and nobody called him "Da Vinci".
I am also aware that the prose style is dumbed down. There aren't many words here that haven't appeared on "Mr. Rogers Neighborhood". Brown pulls out cliches that most high school students are too good for -- I'm not sure if he actually describes somebody as "white as a ghost", but that's the kind of thing I'm talking about.
Still, I liked this book a lot. It grabbed my attention from page one, and it will grab anybody else's. The basic idea is that a Merovingian princess, and a distant relative of Jesus Christ, walks among us. A variety of bureaucrats, criminals, academics and mad monks scheme to either conceal or reveal this secret.
It's a tough premise to sell, but the book mainly works if you suspend your critical thinking and go along for the ride. Personally, I don't even care if a relative of Jesus walks among us. It wouldn't really affect my life much either way. As I turned these pages, I only cared who was going to get stabbed next, or what the latest secret code meant, or whether or not the hero was going to finally make out with Sophie Neveu.
Also, the book kept making me remember scenes from "Monty Python and the Holy Grail", which is a good thing for a book to do.
Matthew Pearl's "The Dante Club" is another recent hit book in the "Da Vinci Code" vein, although this novel has a more intellectual flavor. It's 1865 in Boston and Cambridge, and Henry Wadsworth Longfellow is presiding over a literary salon that includes James Russell Lowell and Oliver Wendell Holmes. They have all fallen in love with the works of Dante, the classic Italian poet, and are particularly obsessed by his "Inferno", a dark work that narrates the particulars of Hell in vivid detail.
The only problem is, somebody else in Boston is also apparently obsessed with Dante, because the scenes of torture and punishment described in the "Inferno" are being carried out all over town. On real people. The police are clueless, so "The Dante Club" sets out to catch the real killer.
Matthew Pearl is a better writer than Dan Brown. He knows how to make words dance, whereas Dan Brown's words seem to be doing the hokey-pokey at best. However, "The Dante Club" is distinctly weaker than "Da Vinci Code" in terms of plot and, yes, believability. As I turned the pages of "The Dante Club", I kept finding myself simply muttering ... "What?" Like, why don't the aged poets just talk to the police, for God's sake? And, how can a man be buried underground with his feet on fire and not feel somewhat uncomfortable about the fact that he is buried underground (the poor guy only seems to be upset about his feet being on fire)? Finally, why, why, why does Oliver Wendell Holmes have to leave the others and run upstairs in his underwear?
The book improves by the end. We discover why the author set the novel in 1865, because Boston is teeming with shell-shocked Civil War Veterans, and when the detective-poets realize their murderer is likely to be among these walking wounded, the book begins to recall the gritty realism of "The Alienist" by Caleb Carr or "The Tree of Life" by Hugh Nissenson.
Still, I don't think it's fair that "Da Vinci Code" gets criticized while this book gets a free ride. It's good brain food and it will teach you a few things about Dante. But, in the end, the plot doesn't pass inspection. Dan Brown obviously worked hard to think through the motivations of each of the characters in his book, so that "The Da Vinci Code" finally fits together like an intricate puzzle. As for Matthew Pearl, however, you just have to wonder what the hell kind of Scooby Doo meets Sherlock Holmes visits Encyclopedia Brown saturday morning cartoon he fell asleep in front of the morning he came up with his whole idea.
To sum it all up: I give "The Dante Code" four Scooby Snacks out of five, and "The Da Vinci Club" gets five. I'd like to know what you think about these books, if you've read either of them. If not, I'd like to hear what you think about the entire genre of imagined historical fiction.
Whitman wrote and published Leaves of Grass around a time of war as well. In 1855, the country was already on the verge of a great catastrophe. Whitman composed "Song of Myself" during the first hints that there was a Civil War looming which could tear America apart. The Beats wrote after the dropping of a bomb that all too clearly could tear the entire world apart. And so, in the midst of these questions about prosperity and warfare, it becomes almost necessary to ask those questions which have been pored over by great thinkers for ages: What is important? What is truth? What is real? In answering these questions for themselves, Whitman and the Beats came to nearly identical answers. Searching for truth in societies that seemed to teeter on the edge of a total lack of it, both found meaning in the world around them and in themselves.
Perhaps most importantly, both Whitman and the Beat writers focused on spirituality, which in their times of economic prosperity seemed unnecessary. After all, for the most part people only pray to God when they want something. However, Whitman was displeased with this dependence on the tangible. He expressed this in "Song of Myself":
I think I could turn and live awhile with the animals...they are so placid and self-contained,Here Whitman is writing about the obsession with prosperity and materialism and the religious ignorance that alarmed him in America. The "mania of owning things" he refers to as a form of dementia, as if it is a sickness. This is interesting in that it means he did not consider it innate to mankind, but something which had overtaken them and from which they could be cured. This follows Whitman's overall sense of hope for the people and overall feeling that the human being was to be celebrated, not condemned. Notice also that he looked down upon mankind "[weeping] for their sins." Although in these lines Whitman is referring to animals as those whom he admires for not falling prey to this trap, he could have as accurately been admiring the Beat generation. They too can be described by the same aversion to "[weeping] for their sins," and they were not at all demented by the "mania of owning things." In fact, very few of the Beat writers found substantial success, either financially or personally, during their lifetimes, much like Whitman himself. Whitman's sentiment about those who are guilty for their actions and "lie awake in the dark and weep for their sins," is shared by those who lived during the Beat generation, as can be seen from this excerpt from the article that first coined the term "Beat Generation."
I stand and look at them sometimes half the day long.
They do not sweat and whine about their condition,
They do not lie awake in the dark and weep for their sins,
They do not make me sick discussing their duty to God,
Not one is dissatisfied....not one is demented with the mania of owning things,
Not one kneels to another nor to his kind that lived thousands of years ago,
Not one is respectable or industrious over the whole earth.
That clean young face has been making the newspapers steadily since the war. Standing before a judge in a Bronx courthouse, being arraigned for stealing a car, it looked up into the camera with curious laughter and no guilt.With the established truths of morality and prosperity denied, where did Whitman and the Beats find truth? The answer lies in mysticism. Both found God, but they found God in less conventional terms. When Whitman spoke of God, he expressed his thoughts as such, "I hear and behold God in every object, yet I understand God not in the least." ("Song of Myself"; line 1274) To some this would seem absurd. However, to the Beats it was pure gospel. To let oneself find holiness in every moment of life was true religion. Whitman's line can be compared to the writing of Kerouac about another Beat, Neal Cassady:
("This is the Beat Generation" by John Clellon Holmes, The New York Times Magazine, November 16, 1952)
And he stood swaying in the middle of the room, eating his cake and looking at everyone with awe. He turned and looked around behind him. Everything amazed him, everything he saw....he wanted to see from all possible levels and angles...He was finally an Angel, as I always knew he would become...Kerouac's use of the word "Angel" is the real key to this passage. He uses this motif of attaining spirituality and nirvana, of becoming an "Angel," throughout the book. This displays his belief in attaining the sublime through the ordinary, through the everyday occurrence. In everything, there can be the potential for enlightenment. This was the foundation of this particular method of personal mysticism that Whitman began and the Beats continued. More on this can be found in Kerouac's poetry:
(On the Road; p. 263)
And when you showed me Brooklyn BridgeWhitman set this sort of precedent with his exhortations on the question of "what is grass?" in "Song of Myself". While some would have overlooked the young boy's question as simply youthful curiosity, Whitman realized divine potential which it contained. He wrote, "I believe a leaf of grass is no less than the journey work of the stars." ("Song of Myself"; line 662) All this in grass, which can be found everywhere! In fact, he even went so far along these lines as to say, "And I could come every afternoon of my life to look at the farmer's girl boiling her iron tea-kettle and baking shortcake." ("Song of Myself"; line 669) He worships everything, in his own way. Whitman's writings on this subject culminated in total mystic ecstasy over the overlooked towards the end of "Song of Myself":
in the morning,
And the people slipping on the ice in the street,
...That's when you taught me tears, Ah
God, in the morning.
("HYMN"; ll. 1-5, ll. 15-16)
Why should I wish to see God better than this day?The emphasis on intense joy and pain in every experience, making the whole world seem overwhelmingly spiritual, is inherent in nearly all the writing of Whitman and the Beats. Whitman worships a blade of grass and a tea-kettle. Kerouac calls out to God over what most would call the minutiae of everyday life. Both feel that, "All truths wait in all things." ("Song of Myself"; l. 646) This was the sort of faith both Whitman and Kerouac felt was missing in the American culture of the time. This fascination, adoration, and devotion to the parts of life, the spiritual moments, that are most overlooked is what sets both Whitman and the Beats apart.
I see something of God each hour of the twenty-four, and each moment then,
In the faces of men and women I see God, and in my own face in the glass;
I find letters from God dropped in the street, and every one is signed by God's name,
("Song of Myself"; ll. 1276-1279)
Whitman has often been called the democratic poet, in that he speaks for all people, not just the intellectual elite. Whitman is the writer of the downtrodden, the democratic, the "beat." This too is comparative to the writers of the Beat generation. Even though highly intellectual themselves, they did not limit their society to the university-bred of the time. Similar to Whitman, they accepted what was taboo to accept. Whitman sought out all humanity:
This is the meal pleasantly set....this is the meat and drink for natural hunger,And the Beats were friends with junkies and deviants:
It is for the wicked just the same as the righteous....I make appointments with all,
I will not have a single person slighted or left away,
The keptwoman and sponger and thief are hereby invited....the heavy-lipped slave is invited....the venerealee is invited,
There shall be no difference between them and the rest.
("Song of Myself"; ll. 372-376)
"...he fell in with a crowd of wild souls there, including fellow students Lucien Carr and Jack Kerouac and non-student friends William S. Burroughs and Neal Cassady. These delinquent young philosophers were equally obsessed with drugs, crime, sex and literature....He began consorting with Times Square junkies and thieves (mostly friends of Burroughs), experimenting with Benzedrine and marijuana, and cruising gay bars in Greenwich Village, all the time believing himself and his friends to be working towards some kind of uncertain great poetic vision, which he and Kerouac called the New Vision."This brings to light another point. Obviously Kerouac was not the only major figure in the Beat literary movement. Allen Ginsberg, now a celebrated poet, had his beginnings in this circle as well. And if Whitman the mystic was reinvented in Kerouac, Whitman the homosexual was reinvented in Ginsberg. Both expressed themselves through not only their poetry, but through their bodies as well. They freed themselves of the restraints of society by expressing their sexuality. In his poetry, Whitman proclaims, "I am for those who believe in loose delights, I share the midnight orgies of young men," (Children of Adam; from "Native Moments," l. 5) and at points describes his experiences with other men as, "We two boys together clinging,/ One the other never leaving." (Calamus, from "We Two Boys Together Clinging," ll. 1-2). This was put somewhat more explicitly by Ginsberg, "Neal Cassady was my animal; he brought me to my knees/ and taught me the love of his cock and the secrets of his mind." (Many Loves; ll. 1-2) However, one cannot define their sexuality merely as "homosexuality." Both Whitman and Ginsberg celebrated the body in all respects. Just as spirituality could be found in everyday moments, so could it be found in human flesh:
(from "Allen Ginsberg" by Levi Asher)
Holy! Holy! Holy! Holy! Holy! Holy! Holy! Holy! Holy! Holy! Holy! Holy! Holy! Holy! Holy!This love of the body was first expressed in Whitman, however:
The world is holy! The soul is holy! The skin is holy! The nose is holy! The tongue and cock and hand and asshole holy!
Everything is holy! everybody's holy! everywhere is holy! everyday is eternity! Everyman's an angel!
(Footnote to "Howl"; ll. 1-3)
Divine I am inside and out, and I make holy whatever I touch or am touched from;Both Whitman's and Ginsberg's poetry considered the human body and human physicality to be something divine. Interestingly enough, both Whitman's and Ginsberg's poetry was considered obscene at the time it was written. One can even find more parallels between the two in their writing styles, both of which take on epic proportions through long, powerful, free verse that attains a rhythmic and chant-like quality. Although Ginsberg is more similar to Whitman on the subject of the body, other Beat writers found great interest in it as well. Kerouac writes of how Neal Cassady "...took the wheel and flew the rest of the way across the state of Texas...not stopping except once when he took all his clothes off...and ran yipping and leaping naked in the sage." (On the Road; p. 161) This can be compared to Whitman's excitement to "...go to the bank by the wood and become undisguised and naked,/ I am mad for it to be in contact with me." ("Song of Myself"; ll. 11-12) The fascination and celebration of the naked body as seen here is another idea that is found in both Whitman's poetry and the writings of the Beats.
The scent of these arm-pits is aroma finer than prayer,
This head is more than churches or bibles or creeds.
("Song of Myself"; ll. 526-528)
All the reconfigurations about the meaning of spirituality and physicality can be best summed up by Whitman, who simply explained, "I am the poet of the body,/ And I am the poet of the soul." (Song of Myself; ll. 422-423) Taken all together, the final assertion is that both Walt Whitman and the Beat writers were writing from the same state of mind, from the same point of view. Both had felt it was necessary to reassess what was important in a country inundated by commercialism, threatened by war, and at a loss for truth. Kerouac wrote On the Road but first Whitman wrote "afoot and light-hearted I take to the open road." ("Song of the Open Road"; l. 1) In truth, Whitman could be called the first Beat, and the Beat writers may indeed be called the second-coming of American Transcendentalism, the second great American literary movement.
"What are they doing?" my son asked.
"Protesting," I said. "Trying to get the people in the White House to listen."
"What will the people in the White House do?" he asked.
"Probably nothing," I answered as we walked toward the protestors. Ironically, the government has learned that to fight with protestors usually just brings more attention to the cause.
They held up a hand-made sign that accused President Clinton of being "dishonest" or something, and as my wife and I had nothing against Bill Clinton, we decided not to engage in conversation with the small group, figuring that Clinton's private life was the least of all things this country had to worry about.
But the important point of this story is that the people had the freedom to stand right outside the White House and make a racket about something they believed in. This was not the last time we saw protestors in D.C.
My son said, "If we did that in Jacksonville in front of the courthouse, they would probably make us stop."
"Not really," my wife said. "There have been protest rallies in Jacksonville for various causes." Which was true, but it is also true, from my observation, that nowhere in the country can people protest like they do in D.C. because, I guess, the authorities in D.C. have the healthy attitude that the people really own the city. This was stated to me more than once both by state park guides and police officers.
It wasn't always this way. In the 1950's there was a Senator named Joe McCarthy who ruined a lot of people's careers by accusing them of being communists or communist sympathizers. Most of the time these people were not actually communists and, even if they were, that was no reason to ruin their lives.
McCarthy also banned books. According to Walter Harding in his book "The Variorum Civil Disobedience", books by Henry David Thoreau were in all the public libraries until the mid-fifties when McCarthy got them banned. McCarthy didn't like the books that featured Thoreau's essay "Civil Disobedience" which called for American citizens to disobey laws if the laws were wrong. One of the main laws that Thoreau hated was the "right" to own slaves. Thoreau saw it as outrageous that people even had to debate the issue. To him, it was obvious that slavery was evil and he once said of the governor of Massachusetts (a state that condoned commerce in slavery), "He is not MY governor."
A black man named Anthony Burns was a slave in Alexandria, Virginia in the 1850's. His so-called "owner" was a man named Charles Suttle. Anthony Burns escaped from the Virginia plantation and made his way to Boston, Massachussetts. During this time there was an ongoing nationwide debate about whether or not slavery should be abolished. In 1854 the escaped man was arrested in Boston and a trial was held. On June 2, 1854, Burns was "convicted" of being a slave and returned to Charles Suttle. Anthony Burns finally gained his freedom when a black church raised $1300.00 to purchase Burns' freedom. Then, as now, if you don't have money, the law treats you differently than if you do. I have also learned this lesson from firsthand experience, but I have no wish to go into that matter now.
Henry David Thoreau gave a speech at an anti-slavery rally in 1854. He started by saying that he had intended to give the same speech at a town meeting in Concord, but when he got there he found that none of the citizens or politicians wanted to hear it. They were there to discuss the settlement of land in Nebraska and said that his speech would be "out of order." Thoreau is deliciously sarcastic as he expresses his dismay that all these people were so interested in some far-away wilderness when there was such an injustice being done right in their own back yard, so to speak. Here's what he said:
"I LATELY ATTENDED a meeting of the citizens of Concord, expecting, as one among many, to speak on the subject of slavery in Massachusetts; but I was surprised and disappointed to find that what had called my townsmen together was the destiny of Nebraska, and not of Massachusetts, and that what I had to say would be entirely out of order. I had thought that the house was on fire, and not the prairie; but though several of the citizens of Massachusetts are now in prison for attempting to rescue a slave from her own clutches, not one of the speakers at that meeting expressed regret for it, not one even referred to it. It was only the disposition of some wild lands a thousand miles off which appeared to concern them. The inhabitants of Concord are not prepared to stand by one of their own bridges, but talk only of taking up a position on the highlands beyond the Yellowstone River ...Thoreau has such a way of speaking that I am tempted to quote him too much; I can't say it any better than he. Thoreau was once jailed to refusing to pay taxes because he didn't want to support a government that upheld slavery and also, a government involved in a war with Mexico, which he considered an immoral war. He wrote about this experience in an essay called "Resistance to Civil Government". The name of the essay was later changed to "Civil Disobedience."
They who have been bred in the school of politics fail now and always to face the facts. Their measures are half measures and makeshifts merely ...
Again it happens that the Boston Court-House is full of armed men, holding prisoner and trying a MAN, to find out if he is not really a SLAVE. Does any one think that justice or God awaits Mr. Loring's decision? For him to sit there deciding still, when this question is already decided from eternity to eternity, and the unlettered slave himself and the multitude around have long since heard and assented to the decision, is simply to make himself ridiculous. We may be tempted to ask from whom he received his commission, and who he is that received it; what novel statutes he obeys, and what precedents are to him of authority. Such an arbiter's very existence is an impertinence. We do not ask him to make up his mind, but to make up his pack.
The Governor's exploit is to review the troops on muster days. I have seen him on horseback, with his hat off, listening to a chaplain's prayer. It chances that that is all I have ever seen of a Governor. I think that I could manage to get along without one. If he is not of the least use to prevent my being kidnapped, pray of what important use is he likely to be to me?"
On his website, Richard Lenat writes:
"... Although it is seldom mentioned without references to Gandhi and King, "Civil Disobedience" has more history than many suspect. In the 1940's it was read by the Danish resistance, in the 1950's it was cherished by people who opposed McCarthyism, in the 1960's it was influential in the struggle against South African apartheid, and in the 1970's it was discovered by a new generation of anti-war activists."
In his autobiography, Martin Luther King, Jr. states:
"I became convinced that noncooperation with evil is as much a moral obligation as is cooperation with good. No other person has been more eloquent and passionate in getting this idea across than Henry David Thoreau. As a result of his writings and personal witness, we are the heirs of a legacy of creative protest."
Our world ca n seem so complex. It's hard to imagine refusal to pay taxes when they are deducted from one's paycheck every week. It's not easy to stand up for something when you don't know if others will join you. We hear of people being falsely accused of crimes and years later, proven innocent by DNA tests. Many of the freedoms we have now, we take for granted, and some of the restrictions, we also take for granted. Wouldn't this be a great world if our leaders would simply use common sense and be truly motivated, not by power or greed, but by what is good for all people?
I would like to acknowledge Richard Lenat's website as the source of some of the information in the preceding article.