• On Great Literary Loves and the Joyous, Complicated Brilliance of Walt Whitman

    “The first experience of literary love tends, like the first experience of erotic love, to come in youth.”

    What does it mean to love a book? In particular, what does it mean to love a work of literature—a novel, poem, or play? Does literary love differ markedly from love for an object in the world, a commodity, as Marx taught us to call them? And what, if anything, does it have in common with love for another person? If you set out as a teacher of literature to teach what you love, and I do, then surely you should know something about what literary love means.

    Article continues below

    The first experience of literary love tends, like the first experience of erotic love, to come in youth. The impulse behind it is usually a sudden feeling of connection. I’m not alone in the world! You realize that others have had thoughts akin to yours, and feelings that mirror much that you’ve felt. How many young people have opened up a book like Catcher in the Rye and after a few pages, half believed that they had in some uncanny sense written it themselves?

    Yes—that’s me. I’ve had just those thoughts, but never had the words to express them. The ancient critic Longinus talks about the feeling of having created what you have merely heard, and taking joy in it. That’s the first form of literary love, I think: literary infatuation with an image of self, a self that is perhaps bolder, more subtle, and more articulate than you currently are. The self may be a character in a book, or the author, or perhaps both.

    Some of us are delighted to hear our own inchoate thoughts put into words. We feel gratitude to the writer and want to do what Holden Caulfield longs to do when he reads a book he admires: call the author up on the phone and hear more and more. The writer, or this fantasy version of the writer, would be creating your own mind. He’d be giving you words, and maybe as important as words, intonations, level of irony, to fit the facts of your life.

    There are others readers who are not so happy with this sort of experience, not at all. They do not say, I’ve found myself, and thank you—and how can I get a few more of your books? No, this second sort of reader feels admiration, but of a grudging, even a resentful sort. It’s not, Thank you for saying so. Rather it’s, Why didn’t I say so? I knew it all the time. This is the experience that Emerson describes at the beginning of “Self-Reliance,” where he refers to some verses by a painter (a painter!) that are “original and not conventional.”

    Article continues below

    The heart, Emerson says, always feels an admonition in such experiences. One is admonished to get to business and begin writing oneself, or else time after time one will be forced to take one’s own truth from another. “In every work of genius,” Emerson says, “we recognize our own rejected thoughts: they come back to us with a certain alienated majesty.” To the person who aspires to be a writer, this is a painful state. To the devoted reader, whose ambitions end at the border of reading and does not aspire to write, this is the sheerest intellectual pleasure.

    I was for a long time just such a reader. My feeling of gratitude to the wonderful writers I encountered when I was 17 years old had no boundaries. I loved Hunter Thompson and Ken Kesey and Malcolm X and Susan Sontag and many more. All I wanted to do was to read. I recall skipping school and sitting at a desk in the Medford Public Library with two books open in front of me so as to get all I could right now, right now. I do not recommend this practice. You end up reading not two books, but no book, and get up with a headache to boot. In time, I settled down and began to read books one at a time. What worlds opened up to me.

    The first experience of literary love tends, like the first experience of erotic love, to come in youth.

    The idea of my writing a book, or writing anything of consequence wasn’t really available to me. I looked at authors with awe. How could they manage it? How could they string their thoughts together? They had the right words in the right order as Coleridge says. My chances for doing that were surely close to nil. I didn’t bother my head much about it. My reading was never combative, never resistant. I was assimilative and grateful, wildly grateful.

    “What we have loved others will love and we will teach them how”: that’s Wordsworth addressing Coleridge on their program for poetry and for conducting literary life. A teacher now, I do all I can to follow it.

    It would probably be fair to call my love for Catcher in the Rye a case of puppy love. I looked into the mirror of that book and saw an image of myself as Holden, a person who was to me more sensitive, observant, and articulate (yes, articulate, even with all the goddams and verbal placeholders) than I could imagine being. The book got me going. Let the young person read whatever he likes, says Doctor Johnson: he’ll get better books in time. Nothing against Holden Caulfield or Salinger, but my immersion in that book was too easy, too smooth. There were no rough edges. I found nothing to argue with, resist, protest. When I learned that there were criticisms of the book out there in the world, I was appalled. This was sacrilege. I made it a point never to read them.

    Article continues below

    Psychologists might have described what I was doing as finding a narcissistic self-image. It set a certain kind of standard—for candor, for independence, for self-acceptance—that I wanted to embrace, and wholly. Anything that divagated from the standard was suspect. Did I go around talking like Holden? No, the neighborhood would have risen up against me and smacked me down. (It was that kind of neighborhood—working class, aggressively, sometimes anxiously realistic). But I thought in the Caulfield idiom, or tried. What Would Holden Do: What Would He Say? Never mind that his way of thinking and doing did not lead him to any kind of promised land, I was drawn to the journey.

    Was there too much sugar in the brew? Sure there was. I think my students find something similar in the Harry Potter books, where the adults stand back (mere Muggles), and the young, magic powers achieved, set out to save the world.

    Puppy love can be a wonderful state. But one must grow to maturity, finding in books, as in mature love in life, what Robert Frost called “counter love, original response.” We can’t afford to have the people or the books we love simply echo us, the way the environment does Frost’s speaker in his wonderful poem, “The Most of It.” Frost’s speaker “would cry out on life, that what it wants / Is not its own love back in copy speech / But counter-love, original response.”

    From mature love, we need more than slavish echoes, copy speech. Frost’s speaker knows that echoes, even ideal echoes are not enough. We want some resistance—a being that doesn’t automatically corroborate or foreshadow all our perceptions, one capable of telling us that it simply isn’t that way. All honor to the books that reflect an ideal self—all honor to you, Randall Patrick McMurphy from One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest—but to grow by reading, we want the going to be tougher.

    As a teacher, I’m happy to see students reading books that flatter them a bit. But the books that I love, and that I want them in time to love, offer challenges. Love at its best, we learn later in life, is not serene and resolved. It is complex, joyously difficult, occasionally ambivalent. I love Walt Whitman’s Song of Myself, but I am conscious of the fact that it makes demands on me and my students that are hard to fulfill.

    Article continues below

    Maybe they are impossible, even for the poet himself. Particularly on matters of race, Whitman the man did not always live up to the standard of equality set by Whitman the inspired poet. But the deeper you move into Song of Myself, the more radical you see that it is. Whitman simply will not abide inequality. Everyone must be on the same level—we’re all leaves of grass. And he spends the length of the great poem showing us how to shrug off dominating, alluring figures like the sun, and embrace the common and the everyday—epitomized by the grass.

    Is there room for greatness in Walt’s vision? Yes, there is, including the greatness that Whitman on some level knew he had achieved with the poem. But greatness in a democracy requires great humility, like the humility that Whitman saw in Lincoln. Whitman embodied this radical egalitarianism when, after having published what Emerson called the “the most extraordinary piece of wit and wisdom that America has yet contributed” he went off to the Civil War hospitals in Washington, DC. There for two arduous years, he was a willing servant to the wounded and dying troops. He read to them, wrote letters home for them, brought them food, tobacco, books—and held their hands and stroked their brows while they were dying.

    Could I, or much of anyone else, ever reach this standard of democratic humility? Walt wrote the greatest American poem, and then, probably in part to temper his pride, he went off and became one of the most humble of the humble. He and Lincoln passed each other in the streets some days, and Whitman took special note of the president’s calm, modest demeanor, for Lincoln had apparently read Leaves of Grass. (Reportedly he had to rescue it from Mary Todd who was going to cast it in the flames for its purported indecency.) To love Whitman, as I do, is to ask whether anyone could possibly follow in his path, or if ultimately that path is worth following. The great poem is a constant source of delight to me, but also a perpetual goad and questioning.

    Could I, or much of anyone else, ever reach this standard of democratic humility?

    Is this so different from having a spouse whom you adore for a dozen reasons, but who challenges you in ways that you may never be equal to? Why be married to someone who agrees with you all the time? It matters far more to be lovingly challenged than it does to be flattered and reflexively concurred with. Long-term lovers call each other out. They keep each other honest. The dialogue I’m compelled to have with Walt about aspirations and actualities is a dialogue based in affection and respect. Will I ever resolve it? Probably not, but it is surely worth continuing on. This is, I hope, a sort of grown-up commitment to a work of imagination. The relationship is based on what the critic Angus Fletcher refers to as “difficult pleasure.” It will, I hope, last a long time.

    It’s the sort of engagement with literature that I encourage in students. I want them to pass beyond that first phase of reading—valuable as it may be—and move to the point where the books they read affirm their powers and give them pleasure, but also challenge them, the way a beloved friend does. Such books won’t let you readily off the hook, but they will bring you joy and warmth nonetheless. Such books read you just as much, and maybe more than you read them.

    Article continues below

    When I was a boy, I used to claim that I liked medicine. I took a lot of it then, for a variety of ailments. In order to crank myself up for a spoonful of brown goo, I would proclaim my love for the substance to all and sundry, charge toward the tablespoon and snap my mouth over it with gusto.

    Of course I hated that medicine—I was lying. Maybe it was necessary, maybe not. (I suspect the latter.) But I was talking myself into a taste. Too many of us, I fear, want to administer medicine to our students. We want them to chug down draughts of the right kind of salutary stuff. And we see it as our duty sometimes to hold our own noses as we dispense it. For in truth, we often do not love it any more than the students do. When I hear a teacher say “I want to make my students see that… ” (fill in the blank with the bromide of the day), I know that I’m hearing a voice from the infirmary. Dispensing medicine is a little like dispensing sugary concoctions after our students have passed the point of needing them. No more sugar, when they grow up; but no wormwood and bile, either.

    Perhaps there is another stage of reading, a late stage, beyond the narcissistic and beyond the passionately engaged, or dialogical one. I had dinner once with a well-known and prolific critic who lived for the reading of poetry. I asked her how she felt about Robert Frost, about whom she had never written—having written and written well about nearly every other modern poet. I like Frost, she said, I really do. But I’m never inclined to recite his poetry to myself during the dark night of the soul. Dark night of the soul: she said this without irony, and I was moved by it.

    What kind of poetry do you recite to yourself in that dark night? I would say that it is the kind of poetry you have earned. You have known it for a long time, you have measured it and you have measured yourself against it. You have found out where and how, for you, it illuminates the world and where it does not. You have achieved peace with it—and though it is still a difficult pleasure you have made it almost fully yours. You have made of the poet a brother or a sister and a friend. You are on the same side, fighting the same fight. And though the terms and values may differ, you are allies to the end. You are compatriots now, equals in the fight to go on living and go on working.

    Harold Bloom, close to the end of his life, used commonly to chant to himself some famous lines from Tennyson’s “Ulysses.”

    Though much is taken, much abides; and though
    We are not now that strength which in old days
    Moved earth and heaven, that which we are, we are,
    One equal temper of heroic hearts,
    Made weak by time and fate, but strong in will
    To strive, to seek, to find, and not to yield.

    Bloom surely doubted a good deal of what Tennyson’s poetry affirmed overall. But here he found an ally in the struggle to keep going, to continue the work of teaching and learning that is never done.


    Song of Ourselves

    Song of Ourselves: Walt Whitman and the Fight for Democracy is available from Harvard University Press. Copyright © 2021 by the President and Fellows of Harvard College.

    Mark Edmundson
    Mark Edmundson
    Mark Edmundson is University Professor at the University of Virginia. He teaches courses in Romantic and Modern Poetry, Shakespeare, and Nineteenth Century Philosophy. He has published eight books, including Teacher; Literature against Philosophy, Plato to Derrida; The Death of Sigmund Freud and The Fine Wisdom and Perfect Teachings of the Kings of Rock and Roll. His essays have appeared in many publications including The New York Times, The New Republic, The Nation, Raritan, The Yale Review, New Literary History, American Literary History and The London Review of Books. He has held fellowships from the Guggenheim Foundation, the National Endowment for the Humanities, and the Commonwealth Center for Literary and Cultural Change. He has been awarded the Daniels Family Distinguished Teaching Professorship at the University of Virginia, for excellence in undergraduate teaching.

    More Story
    How to Raise Your Children on the History of Protest The following is from Save It for Later: Promises, Parenthood, and the Urgency of Protest by Nate Powell. __________________________________ From...
  • Become a Lit Hub Supporting Member: Because Books Matter

    For the past decade, Literary Hub has brought you the best of the book world for free—no paywall. But our future relies on you. In return for a donation, you’ll get an ad-free reading experience, exclusive editors’ picks, book giveaways, and our coveted Joan Didion Lit Hub tote bag. Most importantly, you’ll keep independent book coverage alive and thriving on the internet.