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The Erotics of Youth
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Unlike Mrs. Brenton, Whitman's Jamaica friend Abraham Paul Leech appreciated his style. He managed to save the nine letters Whitman wrote him beginning in the summer of 1840, most of them from Woodbury, where Whitman was again teaching school. They are primarily diatribes against the stupidity, rough manners, and execrable taste of the local people with whom Whitman was forced to associate and with whom he boarded, along the following lines:

I believe when the Lord created the world, he used up all the good stuff, and was forced to form Woodbury and its denizens, out of the fag ends, the scraps and refuse: for a more unsophisticated race than lives hereabouts you will seldom meet with in your travels.—They get up in the morning, and toil through the day, with no interregnum of joy or leisure, except breakfast and dinner.—they live on salt pork and cucumbers; and for a

delicacy they sometimes treat company to rye-cake and buttermilk.—Is not this enough to send them to perdition “uncancelled, unanointed, unannealed?”—If Chesterfield were forced to live here ten hours he would fret himself to death: I have heard the words “thank you,” but once since my sojourn in this earthly purgatory.

Starved for intelligent companionship, Whitman kept up an unremitting litany of complaints. “Send me something funny,” he implored in the same letter of July 1840, “for I am getting to be a miserable kind of a dog”:

I am sick of wearing away by inches, and spending the fairest portion of my little span of life, here in this nest of bears, this forsaken of all God's creation; among clowns and country bumpkins, flat-heads, and coarse brown-faced girls, dirty, ill-favoured young brats, with squalling throats and crude manners, and bog-trotters, with all the disgusting conceit, of ignorance and vulgarity.—It is enough to make the fountains of goodwill dry up in our hearts, to wither all gentle and loving dispositions, when we are forced to descend and be as one among the grossest, the most low-minded of the human race.—Life is a dreary road, at the best; and I am just at this time in one of the most stony, rough, desert, hilly, and heart-sickening parts of the journey.—[61]

Several weeks later, the future celebrant of the democratic open road was complaining of sunburn after a “huckleberry frolick” with the “ladies and gentlemen of this truly refined place.” Dating his letter “Devil's den, Tuesday, Aug. 11,” Whitman inveighed against “these contemptible ninnies, with whom I have to do, and among whom I have to live.” Additionally, he was angry with Leech for having disappointed him. “Why the dickins didn't you come out to the whig meeting at the court house, last Saturday week?” the letter opens. “I went there, with the hope of seeing you and one or two others, as much as for any thing else.” Describing himself as “an evil spirit” wandering “over hills and dales, and through woods, fields, and swamps,” he exclaimed,

O, damnation, damnation! thy other name is school-teaching and thy residence Woodbury.—Time, put spurs to thy leaden wings, and bring on the period when my allotted time of torment here shall be fulfilled.—Speed, ye airy hours, lift me from this earthly purgatory; nor do I care how soon ye lay these pudding-brained bog-trotters, amid their kindred earth.—I do not believe a refined or generous idea was ever born in this place; the whole concern, with all its indwellers, ought to be sunk, as Mosher says, “to chaos.” Never before have I entertained so low an idea of the beauty and perfection of man's nature, never have I seen humanity in so degraded a shape, as here.—Ignorance, vulgarity, rudeness, conceit, and dulness are the reigning gods of this deuced sink of despair.—The brutes go barefoot, shave once

in three weeks, call “brown cow” “bre own ke-ow;” live on sour milk, rye bread, and strong pork; believe L. I. sound and the south bay to be the ne plus ultra of creation; and the “gals” wear white frocks with red or yellow waist-ribands.—

Think, my friend, think on all this; and pray nightly for my deliverance from this dungeon where grace or good-breeding never were seen, and from whence happiness fled shrieking twenty years ago.—Farewell—and may the blessings of hope and peace, the sunshine of a joyous heart, never be absent from you.—May the bloom of health glow on your features, the tide of joy swell in your heart, and care and grief be strangers to your dwelling.[62]

A week or so later, things were no better, as Whitman continued his diatribe against the disgusting material and mental culture he associated with Woodbury and its inhabitants. Leech, a genial and lighthearted correspondent, teased Whitman about his dire fantasies and urged him to return to Jamaica, where they both belonged to a debating society that argued such questions as “Are the British justified in blockading the Chinese ports?” and “Would the establishment of manual labor schools be desirable?” In addition to their mutual acquaintances, the two friends shared a substantial and combative interest in politics: Leech was a Whig, Whitman a Locofoco, or radical Democrat. Mainly, however, Whitman would not be deflected from his sexual and economic critique of “Woodbury,” which he expressed most forcefully in gastronomical terms. Food forms the focal point of many of these letters to Leech. In his letter headed “Purgatory Fields, Wednesday Aug 19,” for example, Whitman wrote,

I have eaten my dinner since the last line over leaf was written; but I don't know that I felt any the better as to good-humour.—What do you think I had for dinner?—Guess, now.—Beef?—no.—Mutton?—No.—Pot-pie?—No.—Salad and iced champagne?—No, no, no.—I'll tell you in the order that it was put up, or rather put down.—Firstly, two cold potatoes, with the skins on, one of said potatoes, considerably nibbled in a manner which left me in doubt whether it had been done by the teeth of a mouse or the bill of a chicken; secondly three boiled clams, that had evidently seen their best days;—thirdly a chunk of molasses cake made of buckwheat flour;—fourthly, a handful of old mouldy pot-cheese, with a smell strong enough to knock down an ox;—fifthly, and lastly, two oblong slats of a mysterious substance, which I concluded, after considerable reflection, must have been intended for bread;—this last would undoubtedly [have] been very interesting either to a Grahamite, or to one fond of analyzing and studying out the nature of the mineral kingdom.—Was n't this a feast for an Epicure?—Think, O thou banquetter on good things, think of such an infernal meal as that I describe, and bless the stars that thy lot is as it is.—Think, moreover that this diabolical compound was wrapped up in

[a] huge piece of brown paper, and squeezed into a little tin pail, which said pail, being minus in the matter of a handle or bail, had to be carried by a tow string instead!—Imagine to yourself, now, that you see me toting along with such an article as I [have] been describing.—Don't I cut a pretty figure? O, ye gods, press me not too far—pour not my cup too full—or I know what I shall do.—Dim and dreadful thoughts have lately been floating through my brain.—The next you hear of me, I may possibly be arraigned for murder, or highway robbery, or assault and battery, at the least.—I am getting savage.—There seems to be no relief.—Fate is doing her worst.—The devil is tempting me in every nook and corner, and unless you send me a letter, and Brenton remits me an armful of news, there is no telling but what I shall poison the whole village, or set fire to this old school-house, and run away by the light of it.—[63]

Cutting a pretty “figure,” Whitman now resisted metaphor, as if to show that Woodbury, with its disastrous matter of fact, inhibited unusual connections. When Henry James came to review Whitman's posthumously published letters to Peter Doyle in 1898, he observed that

There is not even by accident a line with a hint of style—it is all flat, familiar, affectionate, illiterate colloquy. If the absolute natural be, when the writer is interesting, the supreme merit of letters, these, accordingly, should stand high on the list (I am taking for granted, of course, the interest of Whitman.) The beauty of the natural is, here, the beauty of the particular nature, the man's own overflow in the deadly dry setting, the personal passion, the love of life plucked like a flower in a desert of innocent, unconscious ugliness. … Whitman wrote to his friend of what they both saw and touched, enormities of the common, sordid occupations, dreary amusements, undesirable food. …[64]

Whitman's letters to Leech are more self-consciously literary than his later letters to Doyle, but James's remarkable analysis reminds us of the ways in which men can be stranded together, bound by narratives that pivot on the threat or the reality of “undesirable food.” In the early letters, we see the beginnings of a symbolic language and a private code, and the “Purgatory Fields” letter concludes with a plea, “for pity's sake,” for “something or other … in the shape of mental food” from his friend. But it is a code that cannot quite believe in its own powers of association. The setting is still too powerful, the man too full of fury.

In what he called his next “epistolary gem,” however, Whitman equates food with affection and affection with language. “Dearly beloved,” the letter begins, an opening that Arthur Golden describes as an “ironic play on … the marriage ceremony from the Book of Common Prayer.”[65] “You must by this time have become accustomed to the semi-weekly receipt of these invaluable morsels; and therefore to deprive you

of the usual gift, would be somewhat similar to sending a hungry man to bed without his supper.” Extending the banal metaphor, Whitman added a coarse anatomical flourish: “Besides, conscience spurs me to a full confession; which generally operates on me like a good dose of calomel on one who has been stuffing immoderately, making a clear stomach and comfortable feelings to take the place of overburdened paunch and rumbling intestines.—Excuse the naturality of my metaphor.” The formalities over, Whitman launched into another smear campaign against the rural Long Island domestic scene: “families of fourteen or fifteen, in these parts, have but one head amongst them.”[66] And so on. In fact, Whitman associated bad food with middle-class family life.[67]

Apart from Whitman's two brief letters to his family during his trip to New Orleans in 1848, Leech is Whitman's only known personal correspondent before 1857.[68] And in addition to saving Whitman's letters, Leech saved several drafts of his side of the correspondence. As a book-keeper, he must have had some formal education, and he seems to have sensed the possibility of a book in the making.[69] “A most miraculous production,” he wrote, “a clever piece of intellectual fabric inwrought with blooming flowers from the productive garden of your fruitful imagination.” For his part, Leech was seeking to convert Whitman to Whig politics, though not to the hard cider with which the Harrison campaign was associated. He reminded Whitman to “be a good boy,” and cast him as the more impulsive of the two friends. “Fie upon you boy,” Leech's draft of a letter to Whitman reads. “You are out of your senses. Much learning (no, not learning but wine) hath made you mad. But I do not intend to preach a temp [temperance] discourse on the occasion.” Evidently, Leech saw a freer side to the Whitman who had recently explained in print, “The excessive use of tea and coffee, too, is a species of intemperance much to be condemned.”[70]

Whatever Leech's reservations about Whitman's politics, his emotional stability, or his drinking habits, he urged him to return to Jamaica so that they might again enjoy their moonlit walks.[71] From darkest Woodbury, the histrionic Whitman created the impression that his life was a battle (as undoubtedly it was). From sunnier Jamaica, Leech observed with some degree of satisfaction, “In our part of the country we have no huckleberry frolicks, no bussing matches, no fights terminating in scratched faces and broken combs. As we were when you was here so are we still—a peaceable amicable friendly, loving affectionate kind of people.”

In the fall of 1840, Whitman was rescued from classroom drudgery

by the Democrats of Queens County, who employed him as a propagandist in the presidential campaign. His spirits improved. In the winter and spring of 1841, he was again teaching, happily for the last time. By March 25, in another letter to Leech—their correspondence having been interrupted by Whitman's return to Jamaica during the campaign—Whitman was again harping on the deprivations of his former life, albeit in a comparatively good humored, self-parodic way. “You no doubt remember those precious missives that sprang almost diurnally from my teeming hand at Purgatory Place,” he wrote from his new locale, Whitestone,

But that Place! O, it makes my nerves quiver as I think of it.—Yes, anathema! anathema, curse, curse, upon thee thou fag end of all earthly localities, infernal Woodbury! But I fear I am getting warm.—Let me push the subject no farther.—The fact is, the most distant mention of that diabolical region, that country of buckwheat doughnuts, and pot-cheese, and rye sweet-cake, always makes me fall a swearing.—Faugh!

Though Whitestone was far from perfect—Whitman disliked the “money making spirit” of its leading citizens and hinted broadly at their adulteries—he declared himself “quite happy here,” and refused to succumb to the “splenetic, fault-finding current, on which those Woodbury documents were set afloat.”

Of course, I build now and then my castles in the air.—I plan out my little schemes for the future; and cogitate fancies; and occasionally there float forth like wreaths of smoke, and about as substantial, my day dreams.—But, take it all in all, I have reason to bless the breeze that wafted me to Whitestone.

After an enthusiastic description of the shipping traffic and “fortification under weigh” on Long Island Sound, Whitman introduced an apparently casual erotic fantasy:

My quarters are quite satisfactory too as regards boarding.—One of the windows of my room commands a pleasant view of the sound.—Another looks to the east and the great round face of the sun; he comes along in the morning, almost seems to kiss me with a loving kiss.—I am generally dressed and ready to receive him at this first appearance.—This said room of mine is something that I much value.—It is my sanctum sanctorum, which profane foot invadeth not.—Its hallowed precincts are forbidden ground to every she in the house, except for absolutely necessary entrances, which concern the vital well-being of its lord.—

I hope this will find you enjoying health and peace.—O that I were Napoleon that I might load the heads of my friends with golden coronets.—

My best wishes I waft to you, wrapped up and sealed with a wafer,—May your shadow never be less.—Adieu

Walter Whitman[72]

A room with a view. A room without women. A relationship with the sun, who “almost seems to kiss me with a loving kiss.” A vision of political and military might as generosity, as shared wealth. Himself as Napoleon, so that he might “load the heads of my friends with golden coronets.” Adequately nourished by surroundings in which fantasy could triumph over reality, Whitman wound down his correspondence with Leech. There were several more letters and some further meetings. The letters were perfunctory. Perhaps the meetings were too. In Whitestone, Whitman may have found a new friend. “We are close on the sound,” Whitman wrote. “We hear the busy clink of the hammers at morn and night, across the water; and sometimes take a sail over to inspect the works, for you know it belongs to the U.S.” (emphasis added). The editorial We? Or Whitman and his new companion? Whether or not such a person actually existed, by the end of the school term in the spring, New York beckoned. Whoever “we” was, it was time for the confused, idealistic, and angry young exile in the provinces to move on.

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The Erotics of Youth
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