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The Erotics of Youth
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As a teacher in at least eight different one-room schoolhouses on eastern Long Island between 1836 and 1841, Whitman received mixed reviews from his pupils and their parents. Some praised his gentleness and innovative methods; others considered him too self-absorbed and dreamy. “Shall I become old without tasting the sweet draught of which the young may partake,” he asked in the first of his “Sun-Down Papers from the Desk of a Schoolmaster,” which was printed in the Hempstead Inquirer on March 14, 1840. “Silently and surely are the months stealing along.—A few more revolutions of old earth will find me treading the paths of advanced manhood.—This is what I dread: for I have not enjoyed my young time. I have been cheated of the bloom and nectar of life.—Lonesome and unthought of as I am, I have no one to care for, or to care for me.” Even after we allow for the fashionable melancholia of Whitman's lonesome bachelor pose, the self-pity seems genuine, the loneliness real.

Whitman's mystic reveries served to carry him “far, far away” from

his “then and there existence.” Almost forgotten landscapes resurfaced and, as in a dream, lost companions reappeared, causing him to wonder at the apparent randomness of his waking thoughts. Comparing himself to “some expert swimmer, who has tired himself, and to rest his limbs, allows them to float drowsily and unresistingly on the bosom of the sunny river,” Whitman, already developing trance-like powers of concentration, was nevertheless afraid to yield himself fully to this condition in which “Real things lost their reality”:

Like a long forgotten dream, a day of childhood was distinct to me.—I saw every particular tree, and hill, and field, my old haunts. Then leaping off again, remembrance carried me a few years farther on the path; and I was surrounded with the intimates of more advanced youth—young companions to whom I long since gave “good bye.” It is strange how a train of thought will carry a person onward from period to period, and from object to object, until at last the subject of his cogitations bears no affinity to what he first started from.[53]

Forced to teach school because of economic hard times that severely affected the printing industry in New York City, Whitman had taken up schoolteaching in the country almost as a last resort. Like Archie Dean, he missed the excitement of the city and considered schoolteaching beneath him. Moreover, despite the impression that Whitman sometimes created of detachment and aimlessness (his enemies called him lazy), he had already conceived the desire to distinguish himself, perhaps by writing a sociological treatise, a “wonderful and ponderous book.”[54] As one of the first steps toward the realization of his dream of celebrity, he joined the Smithtown Debating Society in the fall of 1837, was promptly elected secretary, and “associated with some of the most prominent men of the town, including two judges, a congressman, a member of the New York legislature, two physicians, two justices of the peace, a dentist, several businessmen, and some prosperous farmers.”[55] In the spring of 1838, he started a newspaper, The Long Islander, in Huntington, where he lived over the print shop with his eight-year-old brother George. “I went to New York,” he explained many years later, “bought a press and types, hired some little help, but did most of the work myself, including the presswork. Everything seem'd turning out well (only my own restlessness prevented me gradually establishing a permanent property there)” (SD 919).

In May 1839, Walt's physical and mental restlessness caused him to sell the paper, along with the horse he used to deliver it; he was fond of the horse, a white mare called Nina. By August, he was back in the village

of Jamaica working for James J. Brenton, a newspaper publisher and a leader of the Queens County Democratic party. Brenton had already reprinted several of Whitman's prose pieces from the Long Islander, along with his first known poem, “Our Future Lot”—a lugubrious meditation on powerlessness with an affirmative ending along conventional religious lines:

Mortal! and can thy swelling soul
Live with the thought that all its life
Is centred in the earthly cage
Of care, and tears, and strife?
Not so; that sorrowing heart of thine
Ere long will find a house of rest;
Thy form, repurified, shall rise,
In robe of beauty drest.
The flickering taper's glow shall change
To bright and starlike majesty, Radiant with pure and piercing light
From the Eternal's eye!
(EPF 28–29)

Whitman liked the poem well enough to revise and reprint it in the 1842 New York Aurora under the title “Time to Come.” The reworked poem is more successful in evoking the vague and “unrequited cravings,” “the alternate throbs” of hope and fear that define the overly solemn speaker's “brain, and heart.” Yet despite some willingness to open up his rhymes, and despite the parodic openings provided by his humor—as, for example, in “Young Grimes,” a satire on the dullness of rural family life—throughout this early period Whitman had trouble using the conventional-looking (and-sounding) poems he was writing to express anything other than received opinions in which he himself hardly believed. Though unlike Young Grimes he was refusing to be “a chip of the old block” (UPP 1:2), and more specifically to celebrate the patriarchal family as the foundation of social order, the sense of entrapment expressed in “Our Future Lot” was genuine, but formal solutions continued to elude him. “O, Death!” he wrote in the revised version in 1842, “a black and pierceless pall / Hangs round thee, and the future state; / No eye may see, no mind may grasp / That mystery of Fate.”

This brain, which now alternate throbs
With swelling hope and gloomy fear;
This heart, with all the changing hues,
That mortal passions bear—

This curious frame of human mould,
Where unrequited cravings play,
This brain, and heart, and wondrous form
Must all alike decay.
The leaping blood will stop its flow;
The hoarse death-struggle pass; the cheek
Lay bloomless, and the liquid tongue
Will then forget to speak.
The grave will tame me; earth will close
O'er cold dull limbs and ashy face;
But where, O, Nature, where shall be
The soul's abiding place?
Will it e'en live? for though its light
Must shine till from the body torn;
Then, when the oil of life is spent,
Still shall the taper burn?
O, powerless is this struggling brain
To rend the mighty mystery; In dark, uncertain awe it waits
The common doom, to die.
(EPF 27–28)

Striving for Bryantesque sublimity and not reaching it, lapsing into McDonald Clarke melancholy and looking for a way out of it, Whitman announced in “Sun-Down Paper” number seven, published in September 1840, that he planned to survey “the nature and peculiarities of men” in his “wonderful and ponderous book” (UPP 1:37).[56] As a political philosopher, however, Whitman disclaimed all knowledge of woman because, as he explained, “it behoves a modest personage like myself not to speak upon a class of beings of whose nature, habits, notions, and ways he has not been able to gather any knowledge, either by experience or observation.” Whitman went on to ask, “Who should be a better judge of a man's talents than the man himself? I see no reason why we should let our lights shine under bushels. Yes: I would write a book! And who shall say that it might not be a very pretty book? Who knows but that I might do something very respectable?” The rest of the essay is a disquisition on the theme, “I have found out that it is a very dangerous thing to be rich.”

Though uncertainly cadenced, the “Sun-Down Papers” reflect the emerging Whitman's suspicion of the “pleasures of dollars and cents.” Serious and jeering, earnest and campy, they move nervously from subject to subject, as the speaker attempts to formulate a program for personal

and professional success. “Nobody, I hope, will accuse me of conceit in these opinions of mine own capacity for doing great things,” he wrote. “In good truth, I think the world suffers from this much-bepraised modesty” (UPP 1:37). Scorning the “cold and heartless limits of custom,” Whitman was already beginning to distinguish “the sickly sentimentality which is so favorite a theme with novelists and magazine writers” from “an affectionate tenderness, and warm-heartedness” which enables him to be “affectionate and gentle to all men.” This distinction between appropriate and inappropriate sentimentality allows him to impute social significance to “the kiss of a sister or a brother,” to “our arms clasp[ing] the form of a friend,” and to “our lips touch[ing] the cheek of a boy or girl whom we love” (UPP 1:47–48). “Sickly sentimentality” makes men vulnerable to rejection, whereas these healthier, more fully embodied affections never replicate the male-male animosity of the fractious, money-making family.

In Jamaica, in the summer and fall of 1839, Whitman boarded with the Brentons, an experience that brought him into contact with a woman who failed to appreciate his ostentatiously disengaged, loaferish point of view. According to her daughter-in-law, Orvetta Hall Brenton, whose account is long, but well worth reading,

My mother-in-law, Mrs. Brenton, was a practical, busy, New England woman, and very obviously, from her remarks about Whitman, cared very little for him and held him in scant respect. He was at that time a dreamy, impracticable youth, who did very little work and who was always “under foot” and in the way. Except that he was always in evidence physically, he lived his life very much to himself. One thing that impressed Mrs. Brenton unfavorably was his disregard of the two children of the household—two small boys—who seemed very much to annoy him when they were with him in the house.

Mrs. Brenton always emphasized, when speaking of Whitman, that he was inordinately indolent and lazy and had a very pronounced disinclination to work! During some of the time he was in the household, the apple trees in the garden were in bloom. When Whitman would come from the printing office and finish the mid-day dinner, he would go out into the garden, lie on his back under the apple tree, and forget everything about going back to work as he gazed up at the blossoms and the sky. Frequently, at such times, Mr. [Brenton] would wait for him at the office for an hour or two and then send the “printer's devil” up to the house to see what had become of him. He would invariably be found still lying on his back on the grass looking into the tree entirely oblivious of the fact that he was expected to be at work. When spoken to, he would get up reluctantly and go slowly back to the shop. At the end of such a day, Mr. Brenton would come home and say, “Walt has been of very little help to me today. I wonder what I can do to make him realize

that he must work for a living?” and Mrs. Brenton would remark, “I don't see why he doesn't catch his death of cold lying there on the ground under the apple tree!”

Whitman was such an annoyance in the household that Mrs. Brenton was overjoyed when he finally decided to leave the office of the Democrat. Mr. Brenton, however, was sorry to have him go, for, even in those early days, he showed marked ability as a writer and was of great value to the “literary” end of the newspaper work. How long he was in Jamaica, or what salary he received, I do not know. Of course, in those days, a considerable part of the salary consisted in “board and lodgings”. …

Another detail comes to mind in regard to his behavior in the house. He cared nothing at all about clothes or his personal appearance, and was actually untidy about his person. He would annoy Mrs. Brenton exceedingly by “sitting around” in his shirt sleeves, and seemed much abused when she insisted on his putting on his coat to come to the family table. While she would be setting the table for meals, Whitman was always in her way in the dining room. His favorite seat was in the dining room near the closet door where Mrs. Brenton had to pass him every time she wished to get the dishes and stumble continually over his feet. He would never think to remove his feet from the pathway until requested definitely to do so, nor would he move at all out of the way unless he was told to.

I am sorry I cannot tell you more. My impression has always been of a dreamy, quiet, morose young man, evidently not at all in tune with his surroundings and feeling, somehow, that fate had dealt hard blows to him. I never heard him spoken of as being in any way bright or cheerful. I cannot see how he could have been an interesting or successful teacher because of his apparent dislike of children at the time we knew him. I never heard a word against his [sexual] habits. He spent most of the time off duty reading by the fire in the winter or out of doors dreaming in the summer. He was a genius who lived apparently, in a world of his own. He certainly was detached enough from the Brenton household at Jamaica.[57]

Evidently, Whitman's self-proclaimed respect for women was a later phase of his development; the sexual symbolism of those provokingly outstretched feet is hard to miss. James Brenton, on the other hand, continued to wish Whitman well and to publish his poetry and prose. “May the smiles of fortune ever attend Walt in all his peregrinations,” he wrote in 1849, a year when he also included Whitman's morbid story “Tomb Blossoms” in Voices from the Press: A Collection of Sketches, Essays, and Poems honoring “practical printers” from Franklin to the then present (EPF 88–89 n).[58] (Set in a rural cemetery, “Tomb Blossoms” features a widow with a French-sounding name who tends two graves, since she cannot be sure in which grave her husband is buried. This odd behavior permits the narrator to flirt with a transgressive subplot, in which monogamous marriages are destabilized and men's bodies are thrown

together in death, if not in life.)[59] James Brenton was a family man with a business to run, but he knew that his readers enjoyed Whitman's various voices, including the anti-dollars-and-cents voice freeing bodies from the usual constraints of gender. Furthermore, Whitman and Brenton shared a common bond, Democratic party politics, from which Mrs. Brenton was mostly excluded.

The polarization of the Brentons' responses to their intrusive (to her) but useful (to him) boarder suggests that Whitman's imitation of the ethic of idleness described by Sandra Tomc in her study of literary leisure was more acceptable to men than to women. Men such as James Brenton understood the dangers of overworking outside the home and could romanticize emotional leisure, as well as the privileges of indiscriminate male bonding beyond and beneath the marketplace. But women such as his wife who were confined to their homes and isolated from other women, with children and boarders to care for, could not afford the luxury of loafing and inviting their souls. Male economic nonproductivity was threatening to her and to most American women. A coatless, man-nerless man who would not work probably caused his wife or mother or housekeeper or sister or daughter to work harder. Whether or not this is the case—Ellen Moers, for example, has suggested that women novelists romanticize wealth precisely because they have had so little experience of it—[60] on at least one count Mrs. Brenton was dead wrong. For all his social dissatisfaction and satirical self-absorption, moody young Whitman was not as friendless as she believed him to be.

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