Whitman's German reception can neither be separated from its broader European context nor from the center of Whitmanite activities in the United States. From the very beginning, German reception tied in closely with an international literary, artistic, and political avant-garde from which it received important ideas and to which it also contributed a good deal. The Whitman phenomenon in the German-speaking countries, therefore, proves that our understanding of reception processes may be incomplete if we dogmatically apply a bilateral and unidirectional model of cultural transfer. In Whitman's case at least, a multicultural network of relationships seems to be at work, which proves the emergence of an international literary and artistic community. By the same token, the story of Whitman's German reception would be far from complete if limited to the literary realm. Whitman's reception also covers a variety of nonliterary fields such as music, youth and proletarian cultures and subcultures, politics, and sexuality.
This brief overview attempts both to sketch out the richness of the German Whitman tradition and to characterize the selections included in this volume. These reception documents, most of which are original translations, prove that "reception," once taken out of the contemporary theoretical controversy, is still a very real and dynamic part of the evolution of world literature.
Greater than Wagner?
It is no surprise that the first German to take notice of Whitman, as well as his first translator, was a revolutionary and an exile. It took a revolutionary to appreciate Whitman's poetry and to value its socio-political implications, and it required an exile to discover Whitman in 1868. This was a time when Germany and Austria had just emerged from a nationalistic quarrel about the leadership among the German states, a time of autocratic rule and little democracy, far removed from the discussion of the issues raised by Whitman's poetry.
Ferdinand Freiligrath (1810–1876) was outsider enough to appreciate Whitman, but his ties to Germany were strong enough to enable him to act as mediator. A former friend of Marx and a revolutionary poet, he was repeatedly forced into British exile, where he worked for the London branch of a Swiss bank while keeping up his literary work and especially his literary translations. By the time he became acquainted with Whitman's poetry through William Rossetti's British edition of Leaves of Grass, he had already made a name for himself as a translator of serious poetry even in the United States, and it is no surprise that Whitman and his friends hailed Freiligrath's translations as a seminal victory for their cause.
Although Freiligrath's translation of Whitman in the weekend edition of Germany's leading daily, the Augsburger Allgemeine Zeitung, consisted of only ten poems, preceded by an introduction, it made a strong impression on the reading public. Freiligrath wanted to proceed with additional Whitman translations but was unable to do so, probably because his friends had managed to secure permission for his return to Germany at just that time. Yet his name remained connected to Whitman's. In the 1970s and 1980s Whitman editions in the German Democratic Republic still stressed the American's connection to a German revolutionary tradition starting with Freiligrath.
The English translation of Freiligrath's introductory essay in the Augsburg paper (selection 1) is historical. It was facilitated by Whitman's friends, probably under the aegis of William D. O'Connor, Whitman's chief propagandist in that period. It was O'Connor who suggested to Whitman that "I write F.F. a letter, (to go with the package) explaining things generally, and making him as far as possible a master of the situation."1 Freiligrath reports that the letter consisted of thirty-two sheets in which O'Connor outlined the "true" character of Whitman's poetry and mission. This is an example of the many attempts by Whitmanites to further their poet's overseas reception, conforming to Whitman's own dictum that it was important to him to be "admitted to and heard by the Germanic peoples."
While Freiligrath's essay broke ground for Whitman in Germany, it hardly did justice to the essential modernity of the American's works. Freiligrath's selection of poems, mainly from Whitman's Civil War poetry in Drum-Taps, reveals that he appreciated Whitman more for his political and social ideas than for his aesthetic program. What Whitman expressed was more important to Freiligrath than the mode of expression, although Whitman's poetry clearly raised aesthetic questions for him as well: "Has the age so much and such serious matter to say, that the old vessels no longer suffice for the new contents? Are we standing before a poetry of the ages to come, just as some years ago a music of the ages to come was announced to us? And is Walt Whitman greater than Richard Wagner?"
It would be twenty years after Freiligrath's essay until the first book-length German translation appeared—neither in Germany nor in Austria but in Switzerland, which in the later 1880s was a haven for German dissenters from all walks of life. One of the ideological centers of German progressive thinking of this period about which we still know too little was a publishing house in Zürich. Its owner, Jakob Schabelitz (1827–1899), a friend of Freiligrath's during his London years and himself a radical, had published first editions of works by the iconoclastic Viennese poet, critic, and dramatist Hermann Bahr, the naturalist and socialist poets representative of "Youngest Germany," Karl Henckell and Arno Holz, and the Scottish-German anarchist and lyricist John Henry Mackay.
Here, then, was a publisher ideally suited for a first edition of Leaves of Grass. The translators were an unlikely team—Thomas William Rolleston (1857–1920) was an Irish nationalist and Karl Knortz (1841–1918) was a German immigrant to the United States. Both men pursued political motivations with their translation. Knortz, an educator and cultural historian, had been working toward the democratic education of Germans throughout his life. In his view, both Germans and Americans of German extraction sorely lacked democratic traditions, and he hoped that Whitman's poetry would be more effective than political tracts in changing the minds of his people. Rolleston had his own agenda. He believed that Ireland would be freed from England only if the British Empire were confronted with a strong Germany. While he considered the German character solid enough, he insisted that Germans needed to be strengthened politically by thorough training in democracy. Both translators were in close touch with Whitman and his friends, and Whitman proudly approved of their activities.
Of the two collaborators, Rolleston had the more sophisticated program. He believed that the Germans had lost their native creativity and ingenuity in British positivistic philosophy and needed to be brought back to their own idealistic philosophical traditions. This, he insisted could only be achieved through a massive shock to the complacent German bourgeois sensibility, and he believed Whitman's poetry would provide the necessary voltage. With Whitman, Rolleston outlined an aesthetic program with political implications.
Surprisingly, the first German edition of Leaves of Grass, published in 1889 and entitled Grashalme, was received well enough. While some critics did admit that they were puzzled about the poems that looked as though they were copied from an encyclopedia, most admitted that something new had arrived on the German literary scene. The book seemed commensurate with the newness of the New World, which in the minds of most German-speaking Europeans—shaped by the American novels of James Fenimore Cooper and Charles Sealsfield—still had strong mythical dimensions.
The German Whitman Cult
One of the most avid readers of Grashalme was Johannes Schlaf, who would become the leader of the German Whitman cult. Together with Arno Holz and Gerhart Hauptmann, German literary history credits Schlaf with the introduction of "naturalist" literary principles into German literature. However, given the strong subjectivist orientation of German philosophy and literature ever since Kant and the German Romantics, this "naturalism" displayed a special quality. In his essay on Whitman (selection 2), a necrologue written in 1892, Schlaf explains how, through the example of Whitman's poetry, he had been able to escape the limitations of naturalism and discover the richness of his innermost self. He celebrates Whitman as a healer and a prophet of a new age of humanity. Deconstructing this rhetoric, however, we find that he read—and imitated—Whitman's poetry as an answer to the ills of modern existence: urbanization, alienation, and even dissociation of the self, all the issues we now consider to be critical in our judgement of modern civilization.
It is characteristic of Whitman's German reception that, while his poetry was applied as therapy to the ills of existence in a modern world, it also accelerated the development of a modernist aesthetic. Although it sometimes promised to do so, Whitman's poetry never actually led back to holistic premodernist times but rather pointed forward to the disintegration of the self. This process, from a traditionalist viewpoint, reduced humans to a bundle of nerve endings. While German readers, aghast at the rapid technological and industrial development of their society, were looking toward the American poet for assistance, the medicine they actually received was an aesthetic correlative to the newly industrialized culture from which they were attempting to escape.
Schlaf seems to have understood the danger, because he celebrated the emergence of a "new humanity" with Walt Whitman, a humanity no longer grounded in the old value system but rather responding to external stimuli. At the same time, he popularized O'Connor's version of the "good gray poet," which became Germany's favorite image of Whitman. In Schlaf's many articles on Whitman, in his translation of Henry Bryan Binns's biography and several other books, he always stressed the superhuman quality of the poet who was destined to deliver humankind. In this endeavor, he was supported by Horace Traubel, Ernest Crosby and other Whitmanites who warmly approved of his activities. His most important contribution to Whitman's popularity in the German-speaking countries was a widely circulated translation of a representative cross section of Leaves published in a cheap, popular edition. It was through this 1907 edition that Whitman's work became the collective property of practically all German-speaking readers, thereby insuring Whitman's astounding popularity.
Given Schlaf's manifold activities relating to Whitman, it comes as no surprise that he was also in contact with French-speaking devotees of the "good gray poet": Emile Vehaeren, the celebrated Belgian poet; Henri Guilbeaux, editor of a French anthology of German literature in which Whitman's name appears frequently and later a collaborator of Romain Folland's and a friend of Lenin's; and Léon Bazalgette, Whitman's French translator. Bazalgette once even suggested the foundation of a European equivalent to Traubel's Walt Whitman Fellowship International (for Hermann Hesse's disdain for such organizations, see selection 3), a plan that was never realized, probably owing to increasing nationalist tensions in Europe.
With Traubel, Schlaf shared a true partisan devotion to Whitman, which seems exaggerated and almost childish to the modern observer. Yet Schlaf and others did believe it necessary to "defend" Whitman against all negative criticisms: such critics were automatically denounced as "enemies." This echoes Whitman's own paranoia, and it became a permanent feature of the international Whitman movement. One such villain, and Schlaf's archenemy, was Eduard Bertz (1853–1931), a close friend of the British novelist George Gissing. Bertz was an unlikely candidate for Schlaf's wrath. He had come to know Whitman during an early stay in the United States and, after his return, published an article in which he praised Whitman exuberantly. Bertz sent this article, which appeared in 1889, to Whitman, along with the promise that he was going to "reveal" Whitman to the German people. After Schlaf's 1892 article, however, Bertz was forced to face the fact that Johannes Schlaf, not Eduard Bertz, was going to be Whitman's German prophet.
Bertz, originally a socialist, devoted himself to a number of causes. He wrote ethical treatises and a book outlinig a philosophy of the bicycle, and most important, he was active in the early German homosexual movement. The aim of the movement, led by Berlin physician Magnus Hirschfeld, was the legal emancipation of homosexuals. A petition to that effect, carrying the signatures of the majority of German and Austrian intellectuals and artists of the period, was submitted to the German government in 1899. Although it was denied, the petition gave the activists around Hirschfeld a chance to argue for their cause. In the same year, they began publishing a journal in which they tried to dispel scientifically the destructive myths about homosexuality. A regular series in this journal featured the contributions of homosexuals to human history. In 1905 Bertz published a long article on Whitman's homoeroticism, referring to him as a sexually inactive homosexual. In the "psychopathological" language of the day, he called him an Edelurning (literally translated, a noble homosexual). Although not intended as such, Bertz's article was perceived by Whitman's followers, especially Schlaf, as an attack on the poet. Schlaf wrote a furious pamphlet in which he accused Bertz of slandering Whitman. Bertz misunderstood and believed that Schlaf and the "terrorists" of the heterosexual world wanted to repress Whitman's homosexuality in order to thwart the movement for homosexual emancipation. With ever-increasing paranoia, Bertz wrote two books attempting to prove not only Whitman's homosexuality but also the existence of a plot by Whitmanites around the world to silence him. In fact, he went so far as to suggest there might be a homosexual conspiracy designed to "sell" Whitman's "homosexual ideas" to the world in the guise of "healthy" poetry.
While all this may not seem to make Bertz a gay liberationist, we must remember that, at the time of this quarrel in the first decade of the twentieth century, the possibilities of the gay movement were much more limited than today. Advocates of homosexual emancipation, content with legal progress, considered any aggressive position taken by homosexuals as counterproductive and destructive. The article by Bertz presented here (selection 4) is a late contribution, published in the Jahrbuch für Sexuelle Zwischenstufen, the journal of Hirschfeld's organization, in 1922. However, it reflects the arguments brought forth in the quarrel between 1905 and 1907.
Socialism, Anarchism, Erotocracy
Apart from whatever effect the debate may have had on homosexual emancipation, Schlaf's eventual "victory" was important for Whitman's continued popularity in the German-speaking countries. If Schlaf had not managed to deny Bertz's well-meant allegations, Whitman would probably not have been accepted in the German-speaking countries—the prejudices against homosexuality and homosexuals were too strong in Central Europe at that time. But since Bertz did not manage to convince the public, Whitman's progress was uninhibited. By the end of the first decade of the twentieth century, his significance for the development of German literature and German thinking was taken for granted.
The German expressionists—from Franz Werfel, Johannes R. Becher, Oskar Maria Graf, and Armin T. Wegner to Franz Kafka—reported the enthusiasm with which they welcomed Schlaf's translation of Whitman. This small booklet fit in every pocket and was carried by numerous activists: socialists, who found that Whitman supplied the much-needed spiritual dimension Marx had abolished from their creed; anarchists, who admired Whitman's refusal to follow aesthetic conventions as much as his call for disobedience and moral independence; members of an influential youth movement, the Wandervögel, who reacted enthusiastically to Whitman's call to the "Open Road"; even nudists, who took certain passages from Whitman's poetry quite literally. Essays by Landauer and Bahr (selections 5 and 6)provide examples of the ways Whitman was read between the turn of the century and Hitler's takeover in 1933.
Gustave Landauer (1870–1919), a friend of the German philosopher and theologian Martin Buber, is one of the most interesting personalities in the history of German literature and ideas. Throughout his life he attempted to combine a visionary mysticism with his version of anarchist socialism. Unlike the Marxists, Landauer abhorred power and violence as a means toward an ideal society. Whereas social democratic ideologues justified their involvement in and support of World War I by quoting Whitman the wound-dresser who, they claimed, believed that participation in war was necessary to alleviate human suffering, Landauer stressed the antimilitaristic and pacifist tendencies in Whitman's poetry. For Landauer, Whitman's democracy consisted in the free association of human beings living together on egalitarian terms and sharing their everyday work. Landauer gave much thought to questions of human alienation and spiritual impoverishment, which the Marxists then believed could be put off until after their predicted decisive revolutionary change in politics and economics had taken place. In his view, spiritual and intellectual changes had to precede a new social order; a society based on traditional thinking could never bring forth the new human relationships toward which socialism aspired.
Whitman's poetry would provide the spirit (Geist) Landauer predicted would serve as a guiding light for a new society based on small units of production, self-managed economic enterprises, and a daily routine requiring each member of society to be engaged in both intellectual and manual labor. Already within the capitalist system, small pockets with "new" human beings could develop, people committed not to nationhood but to a new way of living. When Landauer referred to Americans as a new and exemplary type of "nation," he meant they would overcome the old nationalism in a new community comprising all nations.
When Kurt Wolff, a well-known publisher and sponsor of German expressionist authors, asked Landauer in 1916 whether he would be willing to undertake a Whitman translation, Landauer enthusiastically agreed. The poems, and the edition as a whole, were to serve his pacifist politics during the war. Unfortunately, however, the war did not leave him time to complete his excellent translation, and afterward Landauer joined the short-lived Bavariana Soviet Government in Munich (November 1918–May 1919), hoping to implement his humanist ideas in practical politics. When the government fell, Landauer was arrested; shortly thereafter, soldiers killed him inside a prison. In the United States, a contributor to Max Eastman's leftist paper The Liberator and an observer of the events in Germany described Landauer: "A poet, a crusader, with the passionate dreaming soul of 1848. A sensitive man, a man whom every one loved; a devoted admirer of Walt Whitman, whose work he made known to Germany. . . . It was Walt Whitman and Tolstoy, never Marx and Lassalle, whom he hoped to realize in a new Bavaria." Landauer's Whitman translations were finally collected and published by Wolff in a slender but beautiful volume in 1922.
Hermann Bahr (1863–1934), an Austrian critic and dramatist, was a man devoted to the avant-garde. A leader of the modernist members of the "Young Vienna" group (the term "modernism" in the artistic sense is sometimes attributed to Bahr), he attempted to break ground for any new movement that would further artistic and aesthetic progress. In a 1908 essay, he welcomed a new "barbarianism" in literature which was, in his view, the only adequate answer to the challenges brought about by emerging technological realities. Arts and humanities, he believed, were firmly grounded in old nineteenth-century traditions and thus were unable to cope with these challenges. If a later generation looked to art and literature to explain and interpret his period, only one author could be said to have given expression to this new era—Whitman.
Whitman remained a constant in Bahr's life. The essay reprinted here was written on the centenary of Whitman's birth. In it Bahr still stresses the fact that Whitman sings the "modern man." But Whitman's message had by now acquired broader meaning and appeal. Both Germany and Austria had become democratic republics, and intellectuals in both countries had to find a new place in their changing societies. What is the artist's place in a democratic society? What is the nature of democratic art? The questions that had so intensely preoccupied American romantics in their struggle for national literature now came to haunt the Europeans. Related questions of nationalism preoccupied them as well. After the old monarchies fell, Central Europe presented itself as a colorful quilt of dozens of nations and nationalities. How would they relate to each other? These issues provide the background against which Bahr's essay must be read. The answers Bahr found in Whitman are original and explain, in part, Whitman's enormous popularity in the years following World War I. The artist would have to be the universal human mediator between individuals, classes, and nations, and a democracy that could solve these problems would have to become an "erotocracy."
A German Classic
Whitman, Bahr emphasized admiringly, perceived reality through his sensuality—he "philosophizes with the phallus." Hans Reisiger (1884–1968), one of the great translators of the twentieth century and to whom German readers owe the "classic" two-volume translation of Whitman's work, expressed it much the same way. Reisiger "encountered" Whitman as early as 1909 and published his first translations in the leftist journal Das Forum at the beginning of World War I. Whitman's true significance for his time, however, was not revealed to Reisiger until after the war. In the introduction to his first one-volume edition of Whitman's works, he emphasizes that only a quasierotic relationship among men and women (but especially men) could actually make German democracy work.
He shared this curious idea, along with his passion for Whitman, with his close friend Thomas Mann. Mann, who publicly welcomed the publication of Reisiger's translation, had been politically conservative. With the breakdown of the Central European monarchies, Mann had to redefine his position, and he did so with the aid of Whitman. Democracy, he now believed, could work only if what used to be a hierarchical order could be replaced by an erotic commonwealth. Eroticism and sexuality—the common denominators of all human beings—could thereby serve as a glue to keep democratic society from disintegrating. Both Reisiger and Mann were aware of Whitman's homoeroticism and discussed it in connection with his poetry, especially the "Calamus" poems. In a series of surprisingly "public" statements, Mann and Reisiger both referred to the attachment of man to man as the "heartbeat of true democracy" and as the "life nerve of communal life of the future in all states and cities" (see selection 8). It is surprising that this openness was no longer cause for indignant outcries and public protests. Fifteen to twenty years following the debate between Schlaf and Bertz, Mann's and Reisiger's interpretation of Whitman was apparently accepted—although we do not know how much of it was actually understood.
With Reisiger's attractive two-volume edition (upon its publication Mann wrote an open letter that appeared on page one of the leading German daily; see selection 7), Whitman had become a "classic." He was now a recognized part of "world literature," a household word—at least in the households of the educated, artists, and intellectuals. This, however, also meant that the reception of his work became less spontaneous and dramatic. While Whitman's passionate rhetoric was much in demand in the turbulences associated with the war (when scores of German poets, mostly "messianic expressionists," imitated Whitman), the post-expressionistic poets of the Neue Sachlichkeit (New Objectivity) had much less affinity with the vitality of the American bard.
Obviously, the Nazis had little use for Whitman's poetry. Although there were two or three attempts to enlist Whitman for the national-socialist ideology by turning him into a "Germanic bard," he stressed democracy and internationalism too often to be useful to the ideology of the Third Reich. Yet, as Nazi poet Heinrich Lersch slyly observed, if the word "democratic" is exchanged for the word "völkisch" (i.e., belonging to the German people), Whitman might be of some use yet. Lersch was part of a group of poets who were Whitman devotees in their early years and who found that some of the rhetoric they had learned from Whitman was applicable in the Nazi context. Some of Whitman's imagery of blood, soil, and even women came fairly close to the Nazis' rhetoric of the German character, the German homeland, the German earth, and the German mother. The Nazis thus preempted the possibility of a wide use of Whitman's poetry for the anti-Nazi struggle waged by German exiles, and they also prevented a true Whitman renaissance after World War II. Although several new volumes of Whitman's works appeared after 1945, including a number of new translations, Whitman's reception since World War II has hardly equaled the enthusiasm of the years between 1889 and 1925.
Whitman's reception in the Soviet-occupied zone of Germany, later the German Democratic Republic (GDR), was a special case. But even the GDR, a country professing a "messianic" ideology, did not attempt to use the powerful appeal of Whitman's rhetoric. The excellent translation by the GDR author Erich Arendt, who had come know Whitman during his exile in Latin America, is hardly reminiscent of the passion of the earlier translations. Rather, Whitman seems to have been important as a point of convergence between the interests of mostly young GDR readers and the official cultural policies of the state. Because of the interest shown in Whitman by revolutionaries such as Freiligrath, or the first Soviet commissar of culture, Anatoly Lunacharsky, or especially their own Johannes R. Becher, the soundness and usefulness of Whitman's poetry were guaranteed in the GDR, where it always remained available in cheap, attractive editions. The GDR audience, on the other hand, fascinated by America and American literature, was interested in Whitman as the representative of a foreign culture to which they had little access physically, intellectually, or artistically. In 1985 the first complete German edition of Specimen Days, translated by a GDR translator, was expertly edited by Eva Manske, a specialist in American literature from Leipzig, whose open-minded and inspiring afterword already anticipated the later developments in that country.
Talking Back to Whitman in German
Although the German-speaking literary world has acknowledged Whitman to be a classic author and even though he has become the subject of academic inquiry at German, Austrian, and Swiss universities, Whitman's poetry continues to provoke important reactions on the part of creative writers themselves. Lyrical replies to Whitman have always been a measure of his continuing vitality, and German poets have talked back to him frequently and energetically (see selections 9–20).
Christian Morgenstern (1871–1914), a poet, translator, and journalist, had a number of uses for Whitman's poetry. In Constructing the German Walt Whitman, I introduced "The Democratic Song of My Room," Morgenstern's parody of Whitman's poetry, which mocks the reception of Whitman more than it satirizes Whitman's poetry. Here I include a second "Whitman poem" which, in a much more earnest fashion, explores Whitman's internationalist theme, always a favorite among Germans. Morgenstern, with his extreme dislike of the German bourgeois life-style, obviously saw Whitman's globalist poetry and his lyrical America as antidotes to the stuffiness of German life.
Arthur Drey was born in Würzburg, Germany, and shared his birth year—1890—with many members of the expressionist generation. In 1910 he went to Berlin, where he became acquainted with Georg Heym, one of the most significant German expressionist poets. In 1911 he moved to Marburg and graduated with a doctorate in law two years later. He lived as a businessman in Frankfurt until 1938, when he was forced to emigrate to the United States. He died in New York in 1965. During Drey's short literary career, he contributed to the important expressionist journals Der Sturm and Die Aktion. His poem "Walt Whitman" demonstrates the expressionists' exaggerated adoration of Whitman as a human being, a poet, and a God-like giant. The poem not only reflects expressionist enthusiasm for Whitman but is at the same time a measure of the alienation of these poets. Quite obviously, Whitman is the receptacle of the projections designed to compensate for their imagined and real deficits as poets and human beings. Their characterizations of Whitman with terms such as "Titan" or, in the poem by Carl Albert Lange, "Giant" suggest the degree to which the human individual is dwarfed by modern technology and industrial society. The violent emotions they ascribe to Whitman, as exaggerated as comic book characterizations, are indicative of the impossibility of expressing subjectivity in a mechanized and controlled society.
The two poems by Swiss writers Gustav Gamper (1873–1948) and Hans Reinhart (1880–1963) appeared next to each other in a Swiss literary journal in 1919, along with Gamper's woodcut of Whitman. These poems are more constrained and devout, exuding a feeling of religiosity, but otherwise they are very similar to the exaggerated diction of the expressionists. Gamper, a native of Trogen, Switzerland, was a poet, musician, and painter. Whitman was the great experience of his life, a model to follow throughout his career. Gamper is best known for his work Die Brücke Europas (The Bridge of Europe), a Whitmanesque attempt to create a kind of modern national "epic" devoted to his homeland. Die Brücke Europas is prefaced by Gamper's poem to Whitman included here. Reinhart, a friend of Gamper's, was born in Winterthur, Switzerland. Descended from a wealthy family, he studied in Germany, Switzerland, and France and traveled widely. He was influenced by anthroposophy after a trip to India in 1909 and devoted his career to poetry, drama, and prose, as well as to local cultural activities in his hometown. He also translated individual poems by Whitman.
The poem by Carl Albert Lange (1892–1952) seems to be from the same expressionist school as Drey's, although Lange is not usually included with the expressionist movement. He was born in Hamburg as a son of a music teacher. In 1914 he was called to military duty and was a Russian POW from 1915 to 1919; these years in Siberia led him to literature. For the most part, he wrote poetry and prose, but he also translated from several languages. Although his work was repeatedly recognized by several prominent German critics and writers, Lange never established himself as a major twentieth-century voice in German poetry.
Not all Germans, however, were uncritical admirers of Whitman. Already one year before the appearance of Lange's poem, in 1926, Kurt Tucholsky, one of the great German satirists, wrote a parody of "Salut au Monde!" Of the three Whitman parodies he wrote—one as early as 1913—this one is the most interesting. Tucholsky frequently used "Ignaz Wrobel" as a pseudonym. The "Walt Wrobel" in the poem is Tucholsky turned into Whitman—or the other way around. Whitman's spiritualized epistemological optimism is shown to be unfounded; the wealth of all appearances could not possibly be grasped by the five senses. Paradoxically, the senses mediate mainly one thing—pain. Whitman's global panorama is here replaced by ridiculous local observations from the author's everyday life. At the very best, it is slightly humorous—something Whitman's poem is certainly not. In spite of this parody's implicit biting criticism, Tucholsky, like other writers critical of Whitman's optimism, nonetheless admired the American as a great poet. On a poetry manuscript by the young German poet Walter Bauer, he commented, "I am much more interested in your intellectual parents than in your professional aspirations. Just so there are no misunderstandings: this does not change anything, not in the least, about the value of poems. Their rhymelessness is almost a matter of course . . . and one just cannot avoid Whitman."2
The sonnet by Johannes R. Becher (1891–1958) was probably written in the early 1940s when he was in Soviet exile. In his youth and early manhood, Becher was a devout Whitmanite; later he programmatically declared his conversion from Whitman to Marx and Lenin. Yet, like many other Marxists, he continued to admire Whitman, even though the sonnet form of the poem included here suggests that the nature of this admiration had changed. Becher, first minister of culture in the GDR, was an influential, although self-serving, cultural politician, whose interest in Whitman helped to insure the poet's "survival" in the GDR.
Gabriele Eckart (born in 1954) is one of the most gifted lyricists in contemporary German literature. At the time she wrote the poem included here, she was still in high school. Her "search for metres," in the course of which she encountered Whitman, already points to the original poetry she would write in the future. By the mid-1980s, Eckart had become a dissident writer and eventually removed to the United States.
The tradition of critical answers to Whitman started by Tucholsky is taken up by the German writer Jürgen Wellbrock and the German-American writer Hans Sahl, but the criticism has become sharper and more pronounced. The poem by Wellbrock (born in 1949), a Berlin-based writer of poems, short stories, and radio plays, is explicitly critical of Whitman and Whitman's rhetoric, yet it testifies to the power of Whitman's voice and the necessity for every poet to come to terms with it. Wellbrock himself speaks of his "ambivalent" attitude toward Whitman, whose expansiveness and freedom he admires but whose rhetoric and glorification of strength and body offend him. The poem is a clever montage of Whitman quotations that have become famous in Germany; Wellbrock carefully refutes each one. No German poet has "talked back" in a more radical fashion to Whitman than Wellbrock. Sahl's "Schädelstätte Manhattan" ("Calvary Manhattan") (1962) uses biblical motifs, but its rhetoric is Whitman's. It remains unclear whether it is Whitman's belief in progress that is targeted here or whether the poem attempts to show that our plastic era does not do justice to our cultural-humanist legacy, the Bible, or Whitman; both interpretations seem possible. Sahl, born in Dresden in 1902, was one of the most prominent German exiles in the literary field. Since 1945 he has worked as a cultural correspondent for several German-language dailies. He is also a prominent translator of American dramatists (among them Williams, Miller, and Wilder). The poem is the sophisticated product of a truly bicultural mind and deserves an important place in German-American literature.
Roland Kluge is another GDR poet, born in Delitzsch, Germany, in 1944. He became a bookseller, worked as a nurse's assistant, then studied medicine in Leipzig, where he specialized in internal medicine. This part-time poet's direct address to Whitman confronts the frequent attempts to pronounce Whitman dead. Yet, to this poet writing in the "mid-age" years of tranquility and "maturity," Whitman is still as provocative as ever. Kluge writes that "for somebody who was forced to live in a walled-in country, it can be a revelation to see the upright posture of a human being: self-determined instead of other-directedness, sensuality instead of prudishness, love of truth rather than hypocrisy. . . . To me, Walt Whitman was a great help."3
In a country where walls have come down, Whitman's German reception will no doubt develop in new and unsuspected ways as a result of the radical changes in East-Central Europe. Whereas the changes in Eastern and East-Central Europe have muted Marxist voices and thus also Marxist respondents to Whitman, a new kind of response is struck by Rolf Schwendter (pseudonym of Rudolf Schesswendtner), born in 1939 in Vienna. A professor of sociology at the University of Kassel in Germany, Schwendter's academic interests include subcultures, future studies, and research into social and cultural deviancy. His poem "You I Sing, Socialism" was written for the 1990 festival of the Austrian Communist press in Vienna and targets both conservative and Marxist orthodoxies from a libertarian, independently leftist point of view. For the first time, Whitman's pluralist aesthetics have been appreciated by a leftist recipient. While it lacks Whitman's lyrical vision, Schwendter's poem is a programmatic and sophisticated piece of work, and it synthesizes the tradition of German responses to Whitman, while it opens up new modes of creative political interpretations of his poetry.
1. Ferdinand Freiligrath
Walt Whitman! Who is Walt Whitman?
The answer is, a poet! A new American poet! His admirers say, the first, the only poet America has as yet produced. The only American poet of specific character. No follower in the beaten track of the European muses, but fresh from the prairie and the new settlements, fresh from the coast and the great watercourses, fresh from the thronging humanity of seaports and cities, fresh from the battlefields of the South, and from the earthy smells in hair and beard and clothing of the soil from which he sprang. A being not yet come to fullness of existence, a person standing firmly and consciously upon his own American feet, an utterer of a gross of great things, though often odd. And his admirers go still further: Walt Whitman is to them the only poet at all, in whom the age, this struggling, eagerly seeking age, in travail with thought and longing, has found its expression; the poet par excellence.
Thus, on the one side his admirers, in whose ranks we find even an Emerson. On the other, to be sure, are the critics, those whose business it is to abase aspirants. By the side of unmeasured praise and enthusiastic recognitions of his genius are bitter and biting scorn and injurious abuse.
This, it is true, troubles not the poet. The praise he takes as his due; to the scorn he opposes scorn of his own. He believes in himself; his self-reliance is unbounded. "He is," says his English publisher, W. M. Rossetti, "to himself above all things the one man who cherishes earnest convictions, and avows that he, both now and hereafter, is the founder of a new poetical literature—a great literature—a literature such as will stand in due relation and proportion to the material grandeur and the incalculable destinies of America. He believes that the Columbus of the continent or the Washington of the States were not more truly founders and builders of this America than he himself will be in time to come. Surely a sublime conviction, and by the poet more than once expressed in stately words—none more so than the poem which begins with the line:
Are these verses? The lines are arranged like verses, to be sure, but verses they are not. No metre, no rhyme, no stanzas. Rhythmical prose, ductile verses. At first sight rugged, inflexible, formless; but yet for a more delicate ear, not devoid of euphony. The language homely, hearty, straightforward, naming everything by its true name, shrinking for nothing, sometimes obscure. The tone rhapsodical, like that of a seer, often unequal, the sublime mingled with the trivial even to the point of insipidity. He reminds us sometimes, with all the differences that exist besides, of our own Hamann. Or of Carlyle's oracular wisdom. Or of the Paroles d'un Croyant. Through all there sounds out the Bible—its language, not its creed.
And what does the poet propound to us in this form? First of all: Himself, his I, Walt Whitman. This I however is part of America, a part of the earth, a part of mankind, a part of the All. As such he is conscious of himself and revolves, knitting the greatest to the least, ever going out from America, and coming back to America ever agan (only to a free people does the future belong!) before our view, a vast and magnificent world-panorama. Through this individual Walt Whitman and his Americanism marches, we may say, a cosmical procession, such as may be suitable for reflective spirits, who, face to face with eternity, have passed solitary days on the sea-shore, solitary nights under the starry sky of the prairie. He finds himself in all things and all things in himself. He, the one man, Walt Whitman, is mankind and the world. And the world and mankind are to him one great poem. What he sees and hears, what he comes in contact with, whatever approaches him, even the meanest, the most trifling, the most every-day matter—all is to him symbolical of a higher, of a spiritual fact. Or rather, matter and spirit, the real and the ideal are to him one and the same. Thus, produced by himself, he takes his stand; thus he strides along, singing as he goes; thus he opens from his soul, a proud free man, and only a man, world-wide, social and political vistas.
A wonderful appearance. We confess that it moves us, disturbs us, will not loose its hold upon us. At the same time, however, we would remark that we are not yet ready with our judgment of it, that we are still biased by our first impression. Meanwhile we, probably the first in Germany to do so, will take at least a provisional view of the scope and tendency of this new energy. It is fitting that our poets and thinkers should have a closer look at this strange new comrade, who threatens to overturn our entire Ars Poetica and all our theories and canons on the subject of aesthetics. Indeed, when we have listened to all that is within these earnest pages, when we have grown familiar with the deep, resounding roar of those, as it were, surges of the sea in their unbroken sequence of rhapsodical verses breaking upon us, then will our ordinary verse-making, our system of forcing thought into all sorts of received forms, our playing with ring and sound, our syllable-counting and measure of quantity, our sonnet-writing and construction of strophes and stanzas, seem to us almost childish. Are we really come to the point, when life, even in poetry, calls imperatively for new forms of expression? Has the age so much and such serious matter to say, that the old vessels no longer suffice for the new contents? Are we standing before a poetry of the ages to come, just as some years ago a music of the ages to come was announced before us? And is Walt Whitman greater than Richard Wagner?
As to the person and the life of the poet, we learn that he is a man of almost fifty years. He was born on the 31st May, 1819. His birth-place, the village of West Hills, on Long Island, in the state of New York. His father, in succession, innkeeper, carpenter, and architect, a descendant of English settlers; the mother, Louisa Van Velsor, of Dutch descent. The boy received his first school teaching in Brooklyn, a suburb of New York. Compelled at an early age to rely upon his own exertions, he gained his living first as a printer, and later as a teacher, and a contributor to several New York newspapers. In the year 1849 we find him established as editor of a newspaper in New Orleans, two years later again a printer in Brooklyn. After this he worked a long time, like his father, as carpenter and architect. In the year 1862, after the breaking out of the great civil war (as an enthusiastic Unionist and anti-slavery man he stood firmly on the side of the North), he undertook, by authority from Lincoln through Emerson's mediation, the care of the wounded in the field. And to be sure, he had it expressly stipulated beforehand, that it was to be without any sort of remuneration. From the spring of 1863 onward, this nursing in the field, and in the hospitals at Washington, was his "only employment by day and by night." Over the measureless self-sacrifice, over the kindness and goodness of heart, which he evinced in this trying work, there rises the unanimous tribute of the soldiers' testimony. Every wounded man, from the North and the South alike, had the same careful and loving attendance at the hands of the poet. At the end of the war, it is said, he must have nursed with his own hands more than 100,000 sick and wounded. For six months he himself lay sick; a hospital fever, the first sickness of his life, had seized him. After the war he obtained a minor office in the Department of the Interior at Washington, but lost it in June, 1865, when the minister, Mr. Harlan, had it brought to his attention, that Whitman was the author of the book, "Leaves of Grass," the coarseness, or as it appeared to Mr. Harlan, the immorality of which filled the ministerial bosom with holy horror. But the poet found soon another post of modest salary in the bureau of the Attorney General at Washington. There he is still living. On Sunday, and sometimes in the week also, he still keeps up his visits to the hospitals.
Whitman is a plain man, a man of few needs. Poor, and, according to his own avowal, without talent for moneymaking. His strength, said he to a visitor, Mr. M. D. Conway, an American living in London, lay in "loafing and writing poems." On bread and water, he has discovered, he can live on the whole delightfully and cheerfully. Conway found him (while yet on Long Island—before the war, indeed), in a temperature of 100 degrees, lying on his back in the grass, and staring at the sun. Just like Diogenes. "With his gray clothing, his blue-gray shirt, his iron-gray hair, his swart, sunburnt face and bare neck, he lay upon the brown-and-white grass,—for the sun had burnt away its greenness,—and was so like the earth upon which he rested, that he seemed almost a part of it for one to pass by without recognition." He found it not at all too hot, and confided to Conway that this was one of his favourite places and attitudes for composing poems. His abode Conway found very plain and simple. A small room, poorly furnished, with only one window, which looked out on the sandy solitude of Long Island. Not a single book in the room. But he talked of the Bible, of Homer, and of Shakespeare as of favorite books which he owned. For reading he had two especial study-rooms: one was the top of an omni-bus, the other Coney Island, an uninhabited little sand islet far out in the Atlantic Ocean, miles from the coast.
"Well, he looks like a man!" cried Lincoln, when he first saw Whitman. At this we think of Napoleon's expression about Goethe: "Voilá un homme!"
His writings, up to this time, are the above-named "Leaves of Grass" (first edition 1855, set up and printed by the poet himself; second edition 1856; third edition 1860); then, after the war, "Drum-Taps" (1865) with a "Sequel" in which is a fine rhapsody on the death of Abraham Lincoln; and last year, a complete edition with a supplement called "Songs before Parting." A selection from this complete edition has just been published in London by W. M. Rossetti, one of Whitman's English admirers. The coarse expressions of doubtful propriety which were in the New York original edition have been left out of this; and it is the purpose of the published by means of this issue to open a path for the preparation of a complete edition and for its unprejudiced reception in England. We are indebted to Mr. Rossetti's preface to this selection of his for the sketch given above of the poet's life.
With these suggestions, we leave the subject for this time, but will soon recur to it, especially to give some translated specimens of the poet's productions. Though it is a dubious business to estimate Whitman from specimens. The principle "ex pede Herculem" is hardly quite applicable to him; if in any way a poet, he will be recognised and honored as such in his totality.
Augsburger Allgemeine Zeitung, Wochenausgabe, no. 17 (April 24, 1868): 257–259. Translation from New Eclectic Magazine 2 (July 1868): 325–329; translator unknown.
2. Johannes Schlaf
A little while ago, a few German magazines carried reports on the death of one of the most outstanding North American poets on March 26 of this year, Walt Whitman. He had died in Camden near Philadelphia in the seventy-fourth year of his life. The few data on his life and work that accompanied this report, reminiscent of the laconicism of a literary encyclopedia, were hardly designed to inspire further interest in the deceased.
To inspire such interest, however, is very desirable, because hardly anything relevant has as yet been published on Whitman in German. After all, Whitman is not only the most significant poet of North America, but he belongs to world literature, and that, we believe, with greater justification than his countryman Edgar Poe, who is, in a manner of speaking, known to the whole world. . . . Our essay does not make any pretensions. It wants to contribute its modest share to awaken the greater interest for Whitman by giving a short picture of the characteristics of the poet as far as we can gather them from the incomplete translation of his Leaves of Grass. . . .
In the introduction to their translation, one of the translators, Karl Knortz, calls Whitman an "optimist par excellence." But we have to discard the phrase because we cannot force the whole Whitman into this small box. With such a phrase, little is said about a human being who said of himself with these proudly modest words:
His "barbaric yawp" sounds "over the roofs of the world" like powerful dithyrambs of a new life and a new strength; they resound in the midst of the funeral hymns of the Old World and announce a new religion, a new art and a new meaning of life. Whitman is neither optimist nor pessimist: he is strength.
Whitman was born in 1819 on Long Island where his family owned a large farm whose fields the Whitmans tilled with their own hands. There, in the open countryside, in unspoilt nature, he spent the larger part of his youth. Later, in an American manner, he tried his hand in a variety of professions: he was a printer, teacher, carpenter, journalist, building contractor, etc. Although he was on his way to becoming successful and wealthy in a variety of trades, he eventually gave everything up and started to write poetry. In the 60s, just after the Leaves had appeared, he spent the Civil War on the battlefield and worked as a nurse in the hospitals. During that time, he earned his living as a newspaper correspondent. For his various services, he received a small job at the Ministry of the Interior which he did not keep for long. He owed his dismissal to the Secretary of the Interior, James Harlan, a former Methodist preacher, who was morally outraged over the Leaves published in 1855. His friends procured for him a new position in the office of the Attorney General which he kept until 1873. At that time, he suffered a stroke. His health was shattered as a consequence of the exertions in the war. He improved slowly without ever completely recovering. Later, he managed to make a small, very modest home for himself in Camden and this is where, without bitterness and complaint, he authored his best poetry which shows a "special religious consecration" (I am quoting Rolleston, whose introduction to the translation of the Leaves serves me as a source for this short sketch of Whitman's life), "a quiet, transfigured beauty, contrasting with the mood of the earlier poems just as the starry nocturnal heavens contrast with the sunlit earth."
Thus he created his poetry while continuously changing locations, at times in the midst of the rich colorful traffic of the American metropolis, among the boldest and most enormous achievements of modern industry, at times in the great outdoors of his continent, always in the midst of battle and tumult of a colorful life. The spirit of his art is as different from the spirit of the middle ages as the medieval spirit was itself different from classical antiquity; it grows as organically out of the middle ages as the medieval spirit grew out of that of classical antiquity.
For today, my work is done. It is growing dusky. Tired and deadened from all my writing I lean out of the window and see how the sunlight at the facade of the high building across from me gradually disappears.
And then, after all the reading and all the work, I feel how constricted our lives are, I understand and sense our misery.
The street with the jumble and the noise of traffic reaches far down, loses itself in both directions in smoke and in the confusing bustle of the side streets. Above, a narrow, scanty piece of heaven, darkened and polluted by the rising food vapors. Behind the windows on the other side, all the way down the long street, next to me, above and below me, from all sides a pressing, shoving and constriction and confusion between the gray masses of stone. And, like here, this extends in concentric circles for hours, far into the countryside. Far, far away somewhere, nature is alive with its free air of the heavens, and its free stars, with its meadows, fields and forests, with mountains, streams, lakes, and seas, far away, unreal like a legend, like a fabulous fairy tale which we read in our children's books. The countless threads through which our life, our feeling, and our perception are connected to infinite mysteries seem to be cut. We are alone, alone with ourselves, man with man, in the vibrating restlessness of this constriction and its nerve-shattering, confusing pell-mell. Our suffering, our misery and our joys, however, turn into monsters in this all too obvious crowdedness, distorted by a devilish perspective. And all the refinements of our aged culture cannot hide the great, fundamental disease which we have been trying to cure with all kinds of medicines for some time: our lack of religion or, if we want, our lack of energy, the atrophy of our perception.
Our recent ethical endeavors. So many half-hearted attempts to get to the root of our general malaise. But how can we help each other, if we have only an understanding of how we are connected with all things from close and far but not a living perception of them? If we have no "religion" from which alone originates love, self-awareness, joy, force, art, ethics, manhood and comprehension of life? How can we get to the root of the thousandfold misery of a metropolis, the distress of the poor, if we cannot even stand looking at it and if it seduces us to blasphemies against the world?
Now let's think about all the pessimism and all the decadence of our European world. Let's think about all its art, its artifice, its artificiality, its refinements, its moral hangover, all its nervous and yearning distress—and then let's listen to the "optimist par excellence," Walt Whitman.
How do we suddenly feel?—It is as if everything existing miles away in a fabulous distance all of a sudden becomes alive in its fresh beauty, everything we feel to be in contrast with our life here, which we know, yet do not understand. In free verses, it appears before us with all of its miracles. With unheard-of sounds and rhythms which seem like the fresh roaring of the wind, like the sea waves approaching with their vast rolling splendor. Unfamiliar, totally separate from the refinements from our aged and wizened art.
What a language! And when we read on, and the deeper we read into him, the more we are carried away by the power of these old primeval songs. This is the power and the energy of the old Hebrew psalmists and prophets. And yet, everything is so new, so simple and so down-to-earth. No artful devices. Not even one as primitive as that reminiscent of the parallelismus membrorum of old Hebrew poetry. This language is as earthly as one can imagine, oftentimes just stating, almost with American soberness, that which is. And yet it has as much passionate rhetoric, overwhelming and entrancing, as ever existed. An infinite rhythm, and an infinite melody. Just as the storm has a rhythm of rising and ebbing and newly rising, just as the sea waves have their rhythm, the air shimmering in the warmth of the sun, the song of the birds, the infinite movement of nature. The power and the warmth of healthy blood, freely and freshly pulsating through the body, an unprecedented energy and original intimacy of perception penetrating distance and closeness and all appearances, surrendering to the movement of its becoming and changing with powerful terror, in which vibrations of the eternally moving atoms tremble, free respiration of healthy lungs, the light power of unspoilt eyes, the haleness and elasticity of unimpaired muscles: all of this gives power to these songs, their passion with which they liberate themselves from everything that they call art and artifice, or they expand to the audacity and the power of the living nature. . . . The naivete of a child perceiving a new object and calling its name ten, twenty, a hundred times in succession without becoming tired, with equal delight over the same activity of its vocal chords and over the properties of the object thus designated. A crowded wealth of impressions, only semi-conscious thoughts, impossible to express them fully in intelligible, measured sequence. They push and hold back in a disorderly race; obscurity, mysticism next to plainness and sober clarity. And by all of this, one feels repelled and attracted, just as nature attracts and repels, surrenders itself and denies itself, transparent and mystical with the eternal rhythm of appearances, monotonous yet of infinite variety.
And what a mood! . . . [Reading Whitman] we have overcome isolation and separation which has confused us and made us afraid. Misery and happiness, poverty and wealth, all the incompressible oppositions which tortured us in our narrow life: they can no longer harm us or obscure the connectedness of all things. And yet: Everything is there, everything in its place, ordered and redeemed from all conflict through the powerful rhythm of all occurrences and appearances. Everything dissolves in one large feeling of strength and life emphasizing and enclosing all. All the connections with which the individual, the separate is infinitely connected with all that has happened since the first beginning, seemingly dissolved in the consciousness of life, here becomes apparent again in a powerful mood.
In one place of his Leaves it says:
Everything lives in him, in you, in all of us, is contained and enclosed by us: humans, stars, times, animals, plants, stones. "My lovers suffocate me . . . thick in the pores of my skin." Everything is made for his sake, for your sake, for all of our sake. Everything is us and we are everything. What, then, are beginning and end, birth and death? Everything is eternal movement.
We are everything there was and everything there will be; there is no difference between these two; everything is one. Nothing is offensive or mean. Copulation is no more offensive than death. Everything is a miracle. The body is something miraculous that must be revered. In this spirit, he transfers the attributes of his body to everything that comes in touch with him. He speaks of broad and muscular fields etc. and yet also transfers attributes of lifeless objects to his body, speaks of "the mix'd tussled hay of the head, beard, brawn" etc. He is in love with his body, with himself, with everything.
With mad, jubilant desire he throws his naked body against the waves, offers his chest to the storm. He does not utter the complaints heard everywhere in the world, that the months are only empty spaces and the ground is nothing but mud and mire. Everything is alive. Everything forces itself into him and he forces himself into everything. The ages are tormenting themselves by pointing to the best and differentiating it from the bad, but he remains silent, and while they are fighting, he goes swimming and admires himself, well-aware of the perfect state and severity of all things. Although he is surrounded with questions and doubt, they are not his true self which is standing apart from all buffeting and twitching. The days of dispute and of confusion are behind him. He needs neither sarcasm nor proofs. He is identical with what others are trying to prove. An immense feeling of strength filling all distances and depths, an intimate feeling of oneness with everything is the foundation of his being and his songs.
This foundation could indeed be called religious, and his themes originate from it: love, democracy, and religion. And his main theme is the sublimity of religion. . . . Science must be respected, to love a man and a woman in abundance is sublime, but there is something else that is truly sublime and which unifies everything, provides for everything with tireless hands: religion. Not the cult, the dogma with its imperatives, but the powerful broad awareness of life whose force comprises the cosmos with love and wonder, the religious feeling, the intimate, jubilant consciousness of belonging to everything. He sings his songs only in order "to drop in the earth the germs of a greater religion." Without religion, there is no greatness truly great, no state, no character, no life. He does not pray, does not worship, does not bow and scrape before the eternal laws and does not participate in ceremonies. His worship is the mad desire to come into contact with the atmosphere, to throw himself jubilantly into the powerful movement of life, its becoming and passing, blooming, shining, raging, growing, glowing.
Religion is the powerful feeling which makes him stand admiringly before the revolution of the stars, before the magnificence of the human and the animal body. In one song, "I Sing the Body Electric," he enumerates all parts of the human body, pages of enraptured stammering like a child naming things with a bliss beyond expression and feeling the infinite fullness of life in this continued process of naming. It is religion when he enjoys the naked bodies of bathing youths and their elastic and youthful movements. It is religion when he loves flowers and the grass tenderly. And it is religion when the movement of the solar system, the orbit of the earth reveals itself to him in powerful visions, with all its miracles and its life. Religion allows him to immerse himself in the infinitude of the microcosm, in the immeasurable miracles of the low, the scorned, the despised, and which allows him to see everywhere an identical, eternal movement of universal life, not comprehensible for a measuring, reasoning intellect. Religion allows him to admire the development and passing of human cultures. He is happy when he can touch a human body and when the electric touch communicates to him the life of what he is touching. . . .
His feeling of love or his all-encompassing feeling of strength does not ask or measure "who" or "how much" somebody is. He is drawn to the slave in the cottonfield and he presses the brotherly kiss on his cheek and swears by his soul that he would never deny him. He makes higher claims for those who work with hammer and chisel than for all deific conceptions of past and present. The young workman is closest to him, the backwoodsman, the fieldhand, they will understand him best. In all the people he sees himself, nobody is more, nobody even by a grain of barley less. He advocates the rights of those who are suppressed by others, the misshapen, the foolish, the insignificant, the simple-minded, the despised. He is the hounded slave, the firefighter with crushed chest. Young men who work with fire hoses and rope ladders are no less to him than the Gods of the old wars:
He sings social revolutions and the future of democracy, he is a lover of cities. For example in a poem wonderfully translated by Freiligrath, "Rise O Days from Your Fathomless Deeps." For long periods of time he has traveled through the prairies, has listened to the "pouring" of the Niagara, has climbed up the "towering rocks along the Pacific," "sail'd through the storm" and "seen with joy the threatening maws of the waves." Avoiding the cities he searched for certainties, craving for original strength and for the fearlessness of the cosmos, regenerating himself. It was good and he prepared himself well and now he again wanders through the cities, observing a yet greater and more powerful drama than the natural wonders of the prairies, the raging of the storm, the waterfalls and the sea:
This religious, all-encompassing feeling makes him the poet of love, of strength, of beauty and of hope. Men with beautiful, powerful limbs, blossoming in strength and health; beautiful women highly capable of procreation with well-built lively children, the gigantic beauty of a stallion are his desire. He does not grow tired to admire them. He cannot get away from them. Energy, physical and intellectual, physical exercises, gymnastics with a beautiful, elastic play of the muscles are the object of his enthusiastic love. A new, more developed culture is his most cheerful certainty, authenticated by the first beginning and by the development becoming alive in gigantic enormous visions in a poem such as "Passage to India." He finds it authenticated in the eternal movement of the world and of life with which his soul "passes to other spheres, when his soul eventually smiles toward death.
This feeling contains the ever-present compensation for all suffering and imperfection which appear when the world disintegrates as a consequence of our ruminating reasoning. In this feeling, all hopes and prophecies are fulfilled, an Other World beyond all weakness and morbid impotence. The Other World of our imagination is no other than this feeling.
In Whitman, there is not a trace of any of these morbid notions such as God, Other World and supernatural salvation. We deny such notions, fight against them, but frequently, because they are still in our blood, legacy of our ancestors, we behave as though they were something real and not mere fantasy; with a certain bitterness, we sulk in a tragicomical way as though anything at all were to be expected from them. In Whitman, there is not a trace of these notions and of the pessimism which frequently expresses itself in this sulking. A beautiful poem by Paul Verlaine comes to mind:
In Whitman we would vainly search for such an empty accusation. No greater contrast between this decadence and Whitman.
All of them, Brahma, Buddha, God, Jehova, Jesus etc. are only objects of his historical consciousness. They are valuable inasfar as behind them, in a continuous development, there is always the same relationship to the world with its strong intimacy. Now, it will emerge and blossom again with new strength and more beautiful clarity with the youth of new generations, new conditions of life and human beings:
Whitman has been judged in various ways. Not here, because we do not know him yet. But in his own country he has experienced all kinds of prudishness, all kinds of clericalism, hypocrisy, aesthetic and other forms of narrowmindedness and much misunderstanding. In Europe, a Frenchman has written about him in the Revue des deux Mondes (June 1872), Rudolf Schmidt has written an essay, a few Englishmen, and good old Lombroso, in his collection of anecdotes Genius und Wahnsinn [The Man of Genius], has recently locked him into a cell with God knows how many literary and other world-famous mental patients.
But he has also been overrated, praised excessively. For example when Emerson placed him next to Homer, Shakespeare and the psalmists. In an age such as ours, where everybody is forced to show consideration for, or rather is influenced by, our crippled age of transition, it is difficult to be like one of these greatest of men, even for a genius like Whitman. His overloud enthusiasm, the prophetic reference to his own person and the new force which will turn into a new world, is a "sign of the times." He is not securely and quietly rooted in a finished culture like these great spirits, he is only a carrier, the first finished human being of a newly emerging culture. He has no need to emphasize that the completion and implantation of this culture can be expected from poets, orators, singers and musicians yet to come and justify him. All of his songs are no more and no less than enormous dithyrambs, preludes to a coming new world, a new race, "native, athletic, continental, greater than before known." In his songs, his new world is poetically announced for the first time with roaring, brutal, sweet, mystical and raging zealousness and overzealousness. Before Homer, there may have been great dithyrambic-"Dionysiam" poets who were prophets like Whitman, prophesying a greater poet yet to come, "optimistic" in the overabundancy of their visionary intoxication and in the power of their greatly increased awareness of life, like Whitman.
Freie Bühne fü den Entwickelungskampf der Zeit 3 (1892): 977–988. Translated by Walter Grünsweig.
3. Hermann Hesse
"Walt Whitman's Leaves of Grass"
Whitman has long been known in Europe but he is not known enough in Germany. But it will not be long until they build altars for him as well, put wreaths on his picture and call his writings a gospel. Already at present, some people call him all kinds of things that he is not, for example a great philosopher and a prophet of the modern laws of life. Our age, with no culture and thoroughly without philosophy, has no longer a sense for dimensions. Enthusiastically they run after every true or false prophet. What have they made out of Nietzsche, of Emerson, even of Maeterlinck! Posterity will have a good and long laugh. And in this same vein there are already "Whitman communities," and other enterprises of aimless enthusiasm here and there.
The author of Leaves of Grass was not the most gifted writer, but he was the greatest of all poets in human terms. Actually, one would have to call him the only or at least the first "American" poet. Because he was the first who did not draw from the treasure (or the junk shop) of the old European cultures. Rather, he was grounded with all his roots in the American soil. He intoned the first hymns coming from the soul of this young people of giants, he sings and rejoices out of a feeling of immense power, he knows nothing ancient, nothing that is behind him, but one single presentient proudly moving present and an immensely happy future. He preaches health and strength, he is the orator of a young, strong people which prefers to dream of her grandchildren and great-grandchildren than her fathers. Therefore his dithyrambs are so frequently reminiscent of the voices of old people, of Moses, for example, and of Homer. But he belongs to today, therefore he preaches the Self, the free creative human being, in a way no less fiery. With the proud joy of the unbroken fully-developed human being he speaks of himself, of his deeds and voyages, of his country. He sings how he, "Well-begotten, and rais'd by a perfect mother," comes from Paumanok, how he passed through the southern savannas and lived in tents as a soldier, how he saw Niagara and the mountains in California, the primeval forests and the buffalo herds in his country. He devotes his songs thankfully and enthusiastically to the people of America, to his people, which he considers an immense, powerful unity.
Whoever reads in this book at the right moment will find something of the primeval world and something of the high mountains, the sea and the prairie in it. Much will seem flashy and grotesque, but the whole will impress him just as America impresses us—against our own will.
Gesammelte Werke (Frankfurt: Suhrkamp, 1970), 12: 303–304. Translated by Walter Grünzweig. Reprinted with permission of Suhrkamp Verlag.
4. Eduard Bertz
"A Lyrical Sex Change in the Poetry of Walt Whitman"
In the first years of his youthful virility, when he was filled with eros, Walt Whitman expressed his homosexuality, which dominated him completely, most passionately. This is proven by the "Calamus" cycle in his poetry which first appeared in 1860, when the poet was forty-one years old. But his fear of the uncomprehending prejudice of public opinion led him to regret his openness. In the later editions he eliminated the most conclusive confessions, which are still missing from the Complete Edition. However, they are not lost to us and I myself have made them available in German translation in my study "Walt Whitman: Ein Charakterbild" (Jahrbuch für Sexuelle Zwischenstufen, vol. VII, 1905).
Advanced in age, when eros had departed him, Whitman then attempted to deny the homosexual foundations of his poetry altogether, indeed to hide behind the mask of normal heterosexuality. When the Englishman John Addington Symonds, himself a homosexual, wrote him a letter in an attempt to urge him to comment on his psychosexuality, Whitman resolved to eliminate all suspicions by way of the fairy tale of his six illegitimate children. I have proven the implausibility of this invention by the senile and almost childish poet in my book Whitman-Mysterien (Berlin, 1907).
His credulous biographer Henry Bryan Binns, on the other hand, author of A Life of Walt Whitman (1905), has uncritically accepted the legend of these six children who never existed and has used them out of the fanatic heterosexual desire to hush up homosexual matters and ignored the obligation to truth on the part of scientific research. He supports his thesis by Whitman's only lyrical poem in which the poet paid homage to love with women. This is the piece "Once I Passed through a Populous City," first published in 1860. In this poem it says:
Now, finally, the prudent point of view was unexpectedly confirmed in a most curious way. Last fall, two good-sized volumes entitled The Uncollected Poetry and Prose of Walt Whitman were published, edited by Emory Holloway (New York, 1921). And this collection contains the original version of this poem which had so far remained unknown:
Incidentally, experiences such as the one mentioned in this poem were not the exception in Whitman's life, but the rule. As evidence, we may use his Diary in Canada, which is full of addresses by the same type of "rude and ignorant men" as the one mentioned in the poem, recommendations to kindred spirits which like-minded persons at home had given him for his trip. Whitman loved unsophisticated rustic-type males and found them everywhere he went. The woman, however, whom he forged into the poem, which should actually have been a part of the "Calamus" cycle, is not grounded in the reality of his life. Whitman was purely a homosexual.
Jahrbuch für Sexuelle Zwischenstufen 22 (July/October 1922): 55–58. Translated by Walter Grünzweig.
5. Gustav Landauer
The person of the poet Walt Whitman and everything he has written appears as though America, the United States, wanted to reply to Goethe's words "America, thou farest better than our old continent; thou hast no ruined castles and no basalt!" with loud words across the ocean: "Yes, yes, yes, it's true!" Often enough, Whitman himself said of the poets of the Disunited States of Europe, albeit with words of the greatest respect, that they belong to the past and to the age of feudalism—with the exception of one, Goethe, who has a special position because he is a king without a country, a poet without a nation. For Walt Whitman, America is the empire of the future, of a human community that is not yet complete but still growing together, emerging.
To argue against Whitman that such a position shows a dangerous, exaggerated arrogance would amount to dull pedantry, maybe even political jealousy. In order to understand the conception Whitman has of himself and of his people, this sort of politics must be ignored; it is located a few floors below an interpretation of culture from the height of the powerful imagination of the poet.
Although he does not express it in these words, Whitman feels that his people have made a new beginning, that they are barbarians, freshly emerged from the amalgamation of peoples, that they are introducing a new age into history. Just think how the old Germanic tribes, already at the time of Arminius . . . were frequently familiar with the important Greco-Roman culture, and how, especially after the new myth, Christianity, had come over them, they had to start with a completely new, seemingly more primitive culture. Whitman feels a great, savage nature, not refracted through any conventions, within himself. To him, Americans are a newly emerging people, barbarians, at the origin of their development: he wants to help them to create a new, strong belief, the new art which has to be a guiding light for any great nation. His self-awareness is much more a feeling for his people than for himself; one should not get confused by the mystical "Myself" of his verses. He has felt this very clearly and said that he is only a very small beginning, an early precursor of an American-Periclean age. Moreover, he has always stated that it is America's special calling to be just a few steps ahead, but that all peoples of the earth would go the same way.
Which way? He is telling us about it in his "Drum-Taps" which rang forth clearly during the war:
It is characteristic of every creative mind that all feelings and shapes contain eros. If Whitman, like Goethe's Faust, had undertaken to translate the Gospel According to John, his first sentence would probably have been: "In the beginning was the feeling." He stresses the feeling (and with it, poetry, as the beginning of all life and all human community) very consciously because he knows, from which direction Americans are threatened: "What American humanity is most in danger of," he says, "is an overwhelming prosperity, 'business' worldliness, materialism: what is most lacking . . . is a fervid and glowing Nationality and patriotism, cohering all parts into one. Who may fend that danger and fill that lack in the future, but a class of loftiest poets?" Only a great people, he believes, can have great poets; but first it must be poetry that shapes a great people, lending it "artistic character, spirituality, dignity."
The poet projected by Walt Whitman's conception of his self and his task is a priest, a prophet, a creator. It is certain that he has exerted and continues to exert an extraordinary power over his people and the intellectual ability of his people—and on those individuals who, among foreign peoples, belong to "his" people as well. How this story continues, whether his most audacious prophecy will become reality in the way fantasy and desires can be realized by helping to establish a reality which will not exactly look like the original projections, nobody can tell today. But it is certain that he is America's greatest poet and an intimately strong lyricist for us all, and that he has given our poetry a new form and an enormously large new subject matter—all realities of the physical and intellectual world.
At the age of thirty, Whitman acquired his creative power; what he wrote earlier hardly bears comparison to the work which then appeared. He was someone who matured slowly and who was overcome with vehemence suddenly [by the creative impulse]. The 1855 preface accompanying his book combines the maturity of a man who occupies his place as though he had taken root, with the ecstasy of the beginner. "The most affluent man is he that confronts all the shows he sees by equivalents out of the stronger wealth of himself." This is his first discovery. The influences from Fichte and Hegel did not come until later while, as Bertz demonstrates correctly in an otherwise intolerable book, Emerson made himself felt already at an early time: man, in his self, in his intellectuality and spirituality, contains the whole world, the world is merely an infinite wealth of microcosms, a plurality and countless "identities," of self-conscious crossing points of the currents of the world. What he brings to Americans as religion of the feeling of spirituality and universality is a new form of the eternal teachings of the philosophers and mystics from India to the Christian mystics up to the magicians of the renaissance and on to Berkeley and Fichte into our days: the so-called monism of our time, on the other hand, has only a weak semblance to this realization. Whitman's teachings are most closely related to the magical pantheism which came from Nicholas of Cusa to such renaissance minds as Paracelsus, Agrippa von Nettesheim and similar spirits, a pantheism which knows no self-denial but addresses the fullness of life. The superstition pervading much of their writings should not disturb our comparison: it was their natural "science," then just created, just as Whitman revels in our natural "science" and technology. Indeed, even in the form of these magicians of the renaissance, there are relationships with Whitman (who had hardly known them). Agrippa von Nettesheim added a powerful motto to his book Of the Vanity of Sciences, which is completely Whitmanesque in both spirit and form. I will quote it here:
But Whitman is also extremely close to the ancient poetry of India. By no means all Indian poets tied the idea that the Self is identical with the world to pessimism or escapism. In America, it was said right away that Whitman's poems were a conglomerate from the Bhagavad-Gita and the New York Herald. This was very funny but also very wrong because the Bhagavad-gita already completely contains what is referred to as the New York Herald, i.e., the catalogue-like enumeration of the concrete facts of the whole world. The items, enumerated by the Indian poem in order to express the image of infinite variety, were just as modern as the world of technology, of nature, and of culture, Whitman included in his poems.
When reading his poetry, nothing is as obvious as the feeling of immediacy, the complete and total absence of literary reminiscences or any sort of alexandrianism. Although Whitman read much, he was not an eclectic reader, he only absorbed what was already previously in him. Therefore the parting words to the reader in his Leaves of Grass are so very true:
Since his poetic feeling, his rhythmic transfiguration and his perception are always together, there is nothing in the world which Whitman does not transform into poetry. Therefore he is never forced to refer to the traditional models of literary allegories; rather, new and unusual matter is transformed into images in a truly Homeric wealth. But is this cohabitation of perception and feeling, of the mind with all objects of the world not identical with what he wants to bring out in human beings—Love? Because whoever walks without love, if only for a hundred meters, walks in a shroud in one's own burial.
Whitman's form is a highly rhythmical structure. It is just as little improvised passionate rhetoric as an impressionist picture, producing the impression of momentariness, is dashed off with a few strokes of the brush. It only recognizes the law of tempo but is not bound by any other poetic traditions. The chaotic, the projection of masses, not presented with objective restraint but, in all concreteness, always a felt experience, an effusion of subjectivity, has led to this form. Its effect is like a gigantic, sweeping verbal segment broken out of experience, more than a small, isolated human self. Rather, it seems to have taken everything that can be found externally out of its own universality.
One day, in the time when he cared for the wounded of the war, Whitman wrote in his diary: "It is curious: I am present at the most appalling scenes, deaths, operations, sickening wounds (perhaps full of maggots), I keep cool and do not give out or budge, although my sympathies are very much excited; but often, hours afterward, perhaps when I am home, or out walking alone, I feel sick, and actually tremble, when I recall the case again before." He has just jotted this down in order to record a fact; he thought of nothing that can turn this fact into a symbol. Yet, this passage reveals his whole character and the whole and special greatness of his poetic calling. It is indicative of his imagination, sometimes raised to the level of the visionary, that his experiences, once they are past, return with increased force, that his recollections assail him with the full force of an actual experience. This proves his qualities as a poet as much as his behavior in the midst of action shows his steadfast objectivity, his natural bravery, and his self-possessed love of humanity.
Originally published in the German daily Vossische Zeitung, no. 143 (1907), and republished several times. Also appeared as the introduction to Landauer's translation of Whitman published posthumously in 1921. Modern republication in Gustav Landauer, Der werdende Mensch: Aufsätze zur Literatur, ed. Gerhard Hendel (Leipzig and Weimar: Kiepenheuer, 1980), 85–97. Translated by Walter Grünzweig.
6. Hermann Bahr
On his father's side, Whitman descends from the English Quakers, on his mother's side from Holland. The sect of the Quakers does not accept any church, not even the Holy Bible. To them, truth can nowhere be found but at the bottom of one's own soul, the "inner light" must shine, therefore they like to call themselves "children of light." George Fox, their founder, had come to America in 1972 and when a child, Walt found that the memories of this very pious man were still alive everywhere among the people. In this atmosphere he grew up, himself a "child of the light."
The Whitmans were farmers or working men. Walt's father is reported to have been an immensely tall man, of the quiet kind, turned inward and peaceful, but if he ever became irritated and disturbed, he was seized with a savage, unrestrained rage. His son seems to have inherited this tendency; in his other ways, however, Walt seems to have followed more his mother, a simple woman who had difficulties with reading and writing but who had a wonderful, almost magical power over people.
In the course of growing up, little Walt was a kid hanging around in the streets, a pupil, a writer, a messenger boy with a physician, a printer's devil, later assistant teacher, immediately afterwards editor of a country journal and at the same time its distributor, then again a carpenter like his father, for a while also foreman at construction sites, worked at working men's housing; in between all these jobs, however, he liked to celebrate, loafing, roaming about on the sea shore, in the thicket of the forest or also in the much more profound solitude of the large cities. Love for work and yearning for adventures, calm reason and strong desire, continuity and mobility, diligence and laziness, passion and a certain heaviness mixed strangely in the youth who for a long time did not know himself. Possibly, a faintly admonishing presentiment of his higher mission kept him from simply becoming a busy popular orator and a successful journalist. We hear that he was an avid reader who voraciously and indiscriminately devoured everything he found in the New York libraries and also an eloquent visitor of public assemblies, a figure well-known about the city, also through his friendship with the omnibus drivers to whom he liked to recite from Homer or Julius Caesar high up on the coach with his powerful voice drowning out even the roaring public street noise. He remained very young beyond the years of his youth and even as a man kept something of the manners of a child, although he was at the same time deliberate, calm, even displayed an external and internal sluggishness. He was a slow human being, stolid, almost plump, and everything about him was so heavy that he has been compared with an elephant. Although his sensuality was great, his purity was so as well, always joyful, never lecherous; he liked to drink but never got drunk and even without drinking he always seemed slightly inebriated. Friendship with men was a necessity for him, he did not avoid women but there was a feeling that for him, women were not much different from men.
He never planned to become a poet. Actually, there is only one single poem he ever wrote: the Leaves of Grass are always one and the same poem of which parts always remained on his tongue so that he felt urged to keep writing it anew. Until the end, he was not finished writing it. It was published for the first time in 1855, typeset by himself.
In 1862, his brother was wounded. Walt came to the field hospital and took part in the war as nurse or actually more as comforter and, he once said himself, as "missionary" in his own way. Because it turned out that he had a miraculous power to help and heal through his mere presence. When the large slow man in his gray coat with the loose, soft shirt-collar which showed his broad chest, wearing his fresh shiny clothes, quietly came to the bed of a patient, his mere look, the pressure of his strong hand, the miracle of his closeness was medication. He did not even say much, at best brought some flowers and just sat there, was just there, that soothed the pain and was comforting enough. At that time, Walt discovered his true profession: to be a comrade, a comrade to humanity. The Leaves of Grass are really just a written document of this idea.
After the war he worked as a clerk in the Department of the Interior in Washington. An outbreak of moral indignation of the type occasionally instigated everywhere against lonely individuals of the quiet type drove him out of this job. Friends procured another job for him; eventually, he was completely freed from having to work in order to earn his bread. Since then he has been living by himself and, especially after his stroke in 1873, he has become an almost mythical figure. The sunset of his life already mixed with the dawn of his world fame. He was much admired and loved even though most people did not know why. Also today, one-hundred years after his birth, twenty-seven years after his death, people really still do not know. In this way, as well, he is like Goethe: he has become very famous but essentially remained unknown.
Something in him attracted people powerfully and remained unforgettable, but they could not explain it. And he himself seems to have felt no different. Day by day he inquired about himself in a surprised manner, without ever being completely satisfied with the answer. The Leaves are a diary of these questions and answers. Here, somebody started to wonder about the phenomenon of his own personality and now he spends his life in order to look at the phenomenon from all sides in order to finally get some access to the problem. Therefore he can say of the Leaves with justification: "Camerado, this is no book! Whoever touches this touches a human being!" Maybe there is no other book that remained so completely human, where no part of the human being was changed in order to be turned into a book, where this human being had cast nothing at all off his own self, not even adjusted his person a little for it. It is artless, actually it only provides the material for a work of art, this is the impression one gets time and again. No book but a live human being, this one human being, but all of this human being, and naked! And whoever reads it can sometimes not help thinking that they commit an indiscretion. The result, finally, is that this book, which is not a book but the touch of a human being, remains just as mysteriously inexplicable and closed as this magnetic human being, Walt Whitman, remained towards his environment during his entire life.
The Leaves were immediately felt to be something unique and without precedence. People were shocked over their "lack of form." For readers, form means to be reminded of something that they read once before; in this case readers were not reminded of anything that they had ever seen before. Obviously it was not a poem but rather a local news story with visions. There was a feeling of reading a newspaper whose editor was a psalmist. (It took a long time until people remembered that Homer, too, is at times a local editor and that the Edda contains passages that could be from the New York Herald. Moreover, there was the problem that the Leaves really always start at the beginning and stop nowhere. It really seemed to be formlessness turned into a constructive principle, indeed the formlessness personified in his own person. And the attraction lay in the fact that the reader could in a way listen to the preparations of the poetic process although the final product was always lacking: the poem, existing on its own and by itself, apart from the poet, assuming a shape of its own. What remained inexplicable was how such a shapeless work could exert such power: whoever has heard only a few lines from Whitman is able to recognize his poetry after hearing just one verse; his voice has an unforgettable sound. And while he is called formless for good reason, there is just as much justification to say that possibly no poet since Shakespeare has so much real form, that every sentence, indeed every word of his poem is completely penetrated by him, that he has created his own highly personal language (oftentimes from the most common material). But form in this case is no cover, no ready-made case in which everybody could put their completed thoughts or impressions. Rather, it produces itself, it grows out of his interior, together with the idea, at the same time as the feeling, its form is skin. And he could not have changed this form, as little as the color of his eyes. Often enough, one notices his own surprise over it. Basically, the Leaves are nothing but the increasing astonishment of a person over himself, who daily discovers yet another new surprise, who every day rises like the sun and then spends the whole day rejoicing over sunrise.
He always starts out with an immense ego. "One's Self I sing, a simple separate person," announces the first verses of the Leaves. He calls himself a "Chanter of personality," he is driven to communicating his own splendor. At first he is all physical: "I find no sweeter fat than sticks to my own bones." "I exist as I am, that is enough, If no other in the world be aware I sit content." Prophecy of the self, glorification of the self, gratification of the self! And he can easily rest with a feeling of satisfaction because inside of himself he is sitting in the center of the world: "To me the converging objects of the universe perpetually flow." All rays of the cosmos flow towards him, flow onto him, flow into him, until he, overflown, overflowing himself, calls out: "Walt Whitman, a kosmos!" And he immediately returns like for like: he himself radiates his own self back into the world. In this way he becomes conscious that if he wants to unfold his self, he needs something outside himself, a contrast, a non-self, from which he can differentiate himself, towards which he can present himself: this makes him creative. In order to be special, "a single separate person," there must be another who is different; the more others there are and the more different they are, the better his own pure self can emerge in comparison with them, can emerge through them: His urge to present himself to the world makes him recognize the rest of the world. Whitman, the cosmos, needs a second cosmos outside him in order to demonstrate his own, his love comes from his egotism! The miracle he feels in himself he now feels in all creatures, the glorification of his self becomes a glorification of the world. This is not a glorification of the "whole" in a monistic haze but the glorification of each individual creature, however powerful or inconspicuous it may be, grass leaf or course of the stars, far or close, friend or enemy, good or bad—all these notions shrink before his loud affirmation of the whole world, not just of the sum total of it, no, also of each of its countless individuations! "I will not have a single person slighted or left away . . . pleas'd with the native and pleas'd with the foreign, pleas'd with the new and old. . . . The insignificant is as big to me as any. . . . In all people I see my self, none more and not one a barley-corn less, and the good and bad I say of myself I say of them." But when his affirmation does not differentiate, when it recognizes even evil, when he says that to his meal, the prostitute, the freeloader and the thief are also invited, when he also calls to himself the losers, those unfit for life ("Vivat to those who have failed!"), when he actually calls himself "the poet of wickedness," this is not a desire for evil, Baudelaire's satanism. In the end, it is not a moral but an epistemological category: Even satan is included in God's creation. "All is truth" he calls a poem which concludes with the assertion "that all is truth without exception; henceforth I will go celebrate any thing I see or am, and sing and laugh and deny nothing." Everything is true, "in its place." Because everything that is in a place enables something else to stand in another place, each thing balances another thing and this balance of weight and counterweight balances the world: everything is true, because it is merely a reply, creation is continuous answering of everybody to everybody, the choir pauses, indeed wavers, if just one voice in it comes in too late! But this is no great discovery from him, none at all, because every appearance discovers it, everybody knows it just as everybody always knows what is true: "These are really the thoughts of all men in all ages and lands, they are not original with me: If they are not yours as much as mine, they are nothing, or next to nothing."
To display his ego not merely for the sake of himself but also for every other creature, not merely to "tolerate" the other in others but to enjoy the other in others out of self-interest. Even more: to demand the otherness of the other because one requires it for oneself, because one becomes what one is oneself only because the others are different, because one only reaches one's own fulfillment through others. Since the beginning of humanity, everybody has in some way experienced this, although it remains unconscious to most, and all thinkers, all poets, have somehow felt it, from the oldest times until our present time, where Beer-Hofmann has his Jaákob say to his feindliche brother: "God needs me in this way—and in a different way you! Only because you are Edom—I may be Jaákob!" But this central human experience, repeating itself over the times from people to people, now receives Whitman's very personal accent, first of all, because he experiences everything through his senses; then also, because he is not satisfied to partake in the other intellectually because he wants more, he wants to experience the other in his own person because his need for transforming his self is indigenous to his personality. Walt's perception always starts as a sensual experience, he thinks with his eyes and ears, he is one of the sensual supra-sensuous suitors who philosophize with the phallus, his caritas is preceded by eros and when he uses the strange phrase "amorous love," he betrays his ultimate secret: his love for the world is based on his love for all creatures, a sensual love; therefore he was mistaken by all those whose love remains in the area of the sensual; his sensuality always turned into immediate spirituality. And just as his senses immediately turn into the spiritual, every spirit turns sensual: he becomes whatever he thinks of, and every activity of his soul is immediately joined by his body, he is a born actor. When he sees somebody suffer, he does not only suffer with that person but he becomes, suffering along with that person, himself that person; with the suffering he assumes the person of the sufferer. "I am the man, I suffer'd, I was there. . . . I do not ask each wounded person how he feels, I myself become the wounded person,/ My hurts turn livid upon me as I lean on a cane and observe" ("Song of Myself," 33). In the end, it is nothing but the typical experience of the actor, brought down to an elementary level, back to the primitive condition of the Dionysian principle, yet intensified to a cosmic state, flooding into all creation and flooding himself with everything that is created transforming everything, in the end shaping even what is unshaped, voracious for masks until reaching the whole naked truth.
In a love first grasped by his senses, then immediately alarming the soul with all her forces, but never completely denying the sensual beginning, in this love he recognizes "the base and finalétoo for all metaphysics": he looks back to all the Sages, to all the Saints of the past and the original source of all their wisdom and all their saintliness is to him "the dear love of man for his comrade, the attraction of friend to friend." Through love, he experiences that everything, everything is as inexhaustivle a miracle as he himself: the comrade, the other, every other, every human being, and not just human beings, but every creature, animal, plant, rock, air, sea, star. And he finds that he contains every creature, the possibility of every creature, in himself. In his poems we can eavesdrop on this experience step by step: first it is purely sensual, he sees everything, hears everything, absorbs everything through his senses, but by partaking in creation with his senses, by feeling with all creation, he transforms himself into all creation, he transforms himself into the other. In such diastoles (to use Goethe's diction) he is no longer himself, nothing is left of him, he is the other, he is everything other (the long catalogues of everything he then becomes are almost comical!), he is no longer "contain'd between my hat and boots," he reaches beyond himself into the cosmos, gives himself up to everything, enters everything, lives with everything and thereby brings back the certainty that in this wealth of appearances there are no two appearances that are the same, but that each is good, each is equally good! Not just out of compassion then, but also out of shared joy, knowing that he himself is a "cosmos," but not just he, but every leaf of grass as well, and that each such cosmos, each such leaf of grass, needs the singularity and uniqueness of the others in order to be able to completely feel the miracle of its own singularity. And this his very own experience—that he can identify with everything, transform himself into everything thereby containing the whole of humanity, and also the sun, the moon and the stars, just as they, on the other hand contain him—this he considers to be something characteristically American, and characteristic for America's mission: to be ahead of others in that, and, through his example, to lead all others there as well. "All truths wain in all things," everywhere the same truth awaits you, God is looking at you from everything! But this has nothing to do with pantheism; not with the pantheism of the meadows and the woods of our monistic Gymnasium teachers, and also not with any deification of the self in which the self as well as God finally become extinct. Here, out of the exuberant feelings of one's own individuation, the sum total of all possible other individuations are affirmed as well, indeed demanded. As Friedlaender would express it, there is a counterweight for every weight, and exactly out of the "oppositional character of the world" an Other, "contrasting," World emerges; the creator can no longer be rejected. And it has also nothing to do with Buddhism because the Buddhists of all types finally reach the extinction of God with the extinction of the self. Walt does not want to overcome the created world as appearance but he wants to recognize the living truth in every appearance: the eye of God, in order to return from sight confidently into himself, to his work in earthly life. "The thoughtful merge of myself, and the outlet again" he calls it once and the secret of mystical vision could not be expressed more simply: "merge" means getting rid of the self, overcoming the difference, immersing oneself, in Friedlaender's diction, "the absolute zero on the scale of the differentiation of the world." "Outlet again" is the systolic after the diastolic, inspiration after exhalation, the return to self, to action, into the world, into the transformation, into the difference, to the split between Yes and No, the balance of which alone is meaning and instinct, suffering and desire, earnestness and play of all life. And in this return, in this return from the depth to the surface, for which those emerging feel a completely new tenderness never known before, there is something of the great human beings of the Baroque, Bernini for example, when he, every morning, went from the Holiest of the Sacraments to his workshop, returned to the lovely iridescence of the earthy dream which can only be dreamed by those who have been beyond, by the awakened.
Whitman's relationship to his time, to his people, to his country, is just as his relationship to himself. "The Modern Man I sing!" he immediately announces in his first poem, full of pride in his time, but from his time reaching out to all times, the past as well as the present with the same loving reverence. "I will not sing with reference to a day, but with reference to all days." Because just as his own self needs the contrast in the form of the other for the development of its variety, each period receives its specific character out of the character of all other periods. And when he loves his people, his country more than everything, it is just this love that then teaches him to love every other people and country with its special character. Indeed, he will desire this foreign character, because all of these characteristics only emerge together and they can only continue to exist together. He is a nationalist, but especially out of this nationalism he needs for his nation the counterweight of the other nations, whose otherness alone can reveal the meaning of his own. And in this way he becomes a cosmopolitan out of nationalism, a cosmopolitanism not of the washed-out and blurring kind but one that recognizes an identical validity for all special characteristics and their necessity for each other. "Salut au Monde!" is the title of his most powerful poem, indeed, a kiss to the whole world, with a Beethoven-like instrumentation. "Within me latitude widens, longitude lengthens," in him are zones, seas, waterfalls, forests, volcanos, masses, he hears the pulsation of the cosmos, he searches the globe with his looks, he greets all inhabitants of the earth, whoever they may be, he calls them all, one after the other, from the daughter or the son of England to the Czechs, the Hungarian, the Styrian farmer, the workman from the Rhine, the wandering Jew, the pilgrim to Mecca, Chinese, Japanese up to the farthest islands, to the wooly-haired hordes, to the scorned brute-like human being and to all, all he calls:
This is the democracy in which he feels America's mission, out of which he hopes for "the continent indissoluble," "the most splendid race the sun ever shone upon," the "divine magnetic lands," from which he watches blossoming inseparable cities with their arms about each other's necks," the democracy which he calls "ma femme!" with a half sensual, half childlike tenderness. Democracy to him is nothing other than the application of love, the "life-long manly love of comrades." It has nothing to do with external forms and institutions. "I hear it was charged against me that I sought to destroy institutions, But really I am neither for nor against institutions. . . . Only I will establish . . . the institution of the dear love of comrades." His democracy does not consist of laws, it comes out of the heart. This democracy requires a type of human being that is not very common as yet, mindful of each creature, indeed sharing in each creature, intensified up to a transformation of the self, not a moral law, not an "ideal demand," but an immediate experience, starting from the senses, permeating the whole human being with spirit and soul! His democracy passes on an age-old word of humanity which has never completely faded away but which has also never been completely revealed in actuality:
Die neue Rundschau 30 (1919): 555–567. Translated by Walt Grünzweig. Die neue Rundschau was, and still is, one of Germany's most important literary and cultural magazines.
7. Thomas Mann
Letter to Hans Reisiger
I am delighted to have your Whitman book and cannot thank you enough for this great, important, indeed holy gift; for that matter, the German public, it seems to me, can not be grateful enough either. Since I have received the two volumes, I have opened them again and again, reading here and there. I have read the biographical introduction from end to end and consider it a little masterpiece of love. It is really a great achievement on your part that after years of devotion and enthusiasm you have brought close to us this powerful spirit, this exuberant, profound new personification of humanity. We Germans who are old and immature at one and the same time can benefit from contact with this personality, symbol of the future of humanity, if we are willing to accept him. To me personally, who has been striving for so many years, in my own laborious way, after the idea of humanity, convinced that no task is more urgent for Germany than to give a new meaning to this idea—which has become a mere empty shell, a mere school phrase—to me this work of yours is a real gift from God, for I see what Walt Whitman calls "Democracy" is essentially nothing else than what we, in a more old-fashioned way, call "Humanity." I see, too, that to awaken the feelings of the new humanity has not been accomplished by Goethe alone, but that a dose of Whitman is needed; and this all the more so because these two have a good deal in common, these two ancestors of ours, especially as regards sensuality, "Calamus," and sympathy with the organic. . . . In short, your deed—this word is not too big nor too strong—can be of immeasurable influence. . . .
Frankfurter Zeitung, April 16, 1922. Translated by Horst Frenz. Mann sent this letter to Reisiger in thanks for a copy of Reisiger's translation of Whitman.
8. Hans Reisiger
"The Heartbeat of True Democracy"
Walt Whitman was one of those particularly gifted human beings who from childhood into old age remained secure in the strength and warmth of a maternal world. In the midst of all the visions and passions of a world free and multiform, seizing his lonely breast, there remained with him, at all times, the invisible smile of a child belonging to the essence out of which it had been born. Again and again he would have only had to recall this essence in order to return to it like a little child, in spite of the wrinkles on his forehead and the grey hair and beard. The genuine ardor of his spirited prophesy as to a race beautiful, proud, "athletic" and "electric"—a race chaste, tender, compassionate and "fluctuating along with nature"—in itself originates in the maternal womb out of which he had been delivered into this life: "well-born and brought up by a perfect mother." Mothers give birth to men; thus, it is the prime task of a new race to bring forth mothers of spiritual and physical perfection. The maternal womb serves as the threshold to which innumerable germs throng for new sowings. Forever and ever, birth, following after birth and re-birth, labors to achieve new essence out of the maternal spheres.
In the eyes of a mother, small things may grow important, and the large and world-wide things may become simple and as natural as a glance or a kiss. Part of this strength—strength with the help of which Whitman comprehends everything, small as well as large, in this world uniting and equalizing all with the aid of love—perhaps arises from the fortunate equipoise of all facets—thoughts and acts—of his nature in the presence of maternal love. And his rejection of all cowardice and shame in the souls of men was determined quiescently, for throughout his life, he had never felt a need to feel remorseful, timid and pale about his own emotions, reactions which are detrimental to continued growth. For in the presence of his mother's understanding and ennobling glance, everything had always been open and clearly perceptible. Although but very few of his psalm-like stanzas are addressed to his mother personally, his entire work is permeated by the concept of pure and noble motherhood to an extent which would justify its classificaton as one continuous invocation to the one "that is giving birth," to the "harmonious image of the earth, to the fulfillment beyond which philosophy never reaches nor intends to reach, to the very mother of men."
It is inherent in Walt Whitman's nature that the pale, magic translucence of childhood, the radiance of the first blissful awareness of existence, never faded altogether in him. Never, in his soul, did those portals close which take most people by surprise when one fine morning they fall shut with the jarring sound of daily routine, locking out the domain of childhood and making prisoners of them in a disenchanted world in which things shrivel under the influence of the inexorable power of habit and in which the soul rushes or creeps, dumbfounded, from moment to moment. In the midst of existence, which should make us tremble with genuine wonderment as the hours pass, this sacred power struggles forth from the abused souls only with difficulty. They will no longer be able to recapture that primal splendor in which, once upon a time, appeared to them flower and bird, wind and calmness, closeness and distance, the living cosmos surrounding them and their Ego. The power of wonderment, apex of the human soul and source of all religious activity and creation, grew unimpaired and unrestrained out of the nature of Walt Whitman's childhood into the nature of his mature age: that wonderment of the heart which denotes repose and trust in the incomprehensible as the power to which one is eternally bound.
Thus, from all sides of Walt Whitman's poetry, unrefracted rays shoot forth, back to the dim beginnings of his youth—the inexplicable tears of a child, shed in experiencing the lonely impact of the night and of the dark and boundless ocean, in listening to the half-understood lamentations of the thrush singing of love and death, sparkle like dewdrops on the songs of this man.
Profound, rich and passionate, such is the imagination of every child; and if, later in his life, it is not quenched by the consuming sterility of daily routine, it will continue to pulsate in the blood until death overcomes it. It is idle to ask the conventional question, "If even then?" or the like. If I feel able to talk eloquently about the days of my childhood, I myself have retained the child while becoming a man, one continuous, incarnate soul.
One could hardly express more convincingly and more plainly the continuous unity of the wondrous awe pervading all life than do the last lines of this song ["There Was a Child Went Forth"]. Man's vision extends beyond that of childhood, comprehends the whole earth and all the spheres in which different suns and plants revolve, and embraces infinity whose secret pervades and transports the visible. Yet the soul behind this power of vision remains unchanged, and the commonest things, the things within our closest reach, do not lose their magic but become ever more deeply immersed in the miracle of existence. The same mysterious breath which lingers over the brownish cloud banks in the clear blue sky enwraps the dead who appear to the poet in his reveries of pulsating life. It is the same breath of God which enfolds the burning bodies of man and wife uniting in the ecstasy of procreation.
Many kindred traits began to vibrate in him [Whitman] as so many unconscious, magnetic currents, traits that in his maturity and old age manifested themselves as essentials of his own nature. Later in his life, he enjoyed emphasizing the Quaker element in himself. The "inner light," spiritual intuition, became for him the guiding star in thought and action. Self-respect, and arising from it, respect for his fellow-creatures, constituted the foundation of life, the very air which he breathed. The fact that this elevation and the visionary solitude did not lead him to isolation, but to a warm-hearted, effluent community spirit, to the comradery glowing with spiritualized Eros and to the idea of true democracy—democracy as a free society of self-reliant and self-controlled individuals, of the "divine average" (a leitmotif throughout his poetry)—gives evidence of his affinity to the ancient doctrine of Quakerism, i.e., the doctrine of spiritual union and brotherhood of all those who have entered into the consciousness of God.
Even in his personal character and behavior appeared the racial communion with old "friends," for every ethos bears the features of its own race. His honesty and simplicity, his composure and discretion, his friendliness toward everybody, his indifference to established rules of social behavior—all those were true characteristics of Quakerism. After having poured the volcanic fire of his mature age into powerful songs, his genius became more and more dominated by a milder spirit. It should be pointed out here that we would commit a grave error in assuming that Whitman, even during the time of his most passionate and daring productivity, was anything like a man of violence. The most profound element of his unrestraint is calmness; yet he was able to express even the most ruthless things because in his language and voice forever vibrates the timbre of mystic tenderness denoting the soul's communion with itself. Every strong creed originates in the domain of silence and awe. Emerson's famous words which he sent to Carlyle together with a copy of the second edition of Leaves of Grass (1856): "One book . . . a nondescript monster which yet had terrible eyes and buffalo strength," point out only one element in the writing most congenial to Emerson's concern with what is fit for "good" society. Actually, even the most sweeping lines of those songs are full of that fervor that has helped to tear loose from the quiescence of a profound, tender, chaste and pious nature; in between them, again and again, a strange, leisurely smile breaks forth, the shadow of a gesture signifying the words: Why do we speak at all? What are words? Do we not hear the transcendent language of the Unspeakable pervading them?
Whitman himself, at the end of his "Song of Myself," speaks of his "barbaric yawp" sounding over the roofs of the world, and uses this poetic picture as the finale of this powerful rhapsody. At the very climax of his perception of life and death, he falls short of breath; he stands, his voice faltering, at the edge of the sunset in which the physical and the spiritual, the finite and infinite seem to dissolve in the flaky and fiery shreds of cloud. Then, in the very depth of his soul a cry rings out, lonely, sad, and yet rapturous, similar to that of the nocturnal cry of a falcon. (It reminds me of the last line of Gottfried Keller's wonderful poem: "Far off, wild and sad the falcons' voices sounded.") Whitman's relentlessness is not forced, superimposed or abrupt; it is the natural progression in the process of naming and interpreting all objects and all feelings. In particular his songs devoted to the love of both sexes and the glorification of sex—so widely and so often attacked—are radiant with loneliness, calmness and purity. By speaking out, by realizing them through the medium of a virile and chaste voice all those feelings are purified, sanctified and uplifted into the sphere of existence in which everything is natural. A fragrance is about them as fresh as that issuing forth from his mother's clothes when he touched them as a boy.
All his actions were marked by a certain lassitude, the composure that comes to those whose best qualities mature not through activity but by absorbing tranquility. Whatever attracted him and tempted him to linger, he enjoyed with the quiet repose of the growing vegetative life. The myriad tongues of metropolitan life murmured in his soul like the rush of reeds or the roaring of the sea of our soul, a choir perpetually one with all existence. In his "Democratic Vistas," he explicitly took a stand against the separation of "nature" and "city." His senses are never dulled or strained to excitement by the hubbub of the streets, but take it in with the same alacrity as they do sea, air, and woods.
The pulse beat of this ruthlessly expanding twin city [New York–Brooklyn] was not in the least a slow or peaceful one. Everything there seemed animated with an apprehension of the future. At the same time, New York had a population of 200,000 and was growing from year to year. People of different races kept moving into this most opportune of harbors, mixing with the stock of the early English immigrants. The blazing summer sun glared and the icy winter chill blew through the streets of this city full of contrasts. Broadway swarmed with thousands of vehicles, stagecoaches, buses, carriages, and horsemen, altogether more colorful and livelier than in our time. All classes of society participated in the activities that Broadway offered. As yet, the huge grey stone buildings and giant-shaped skyscrapers were not there; instead, the brick houses—looking more colorful and gayer. Even catastrophes, now and then caused by the forces opposed to man's habitation, assumed the character of sombre festivities. The fire alarm, with its tinkling of bells and blowing of bugles, summoned thousands of people to the burning scene where firemen—clad in red and entangled with the intestines of fire hoses, ladders, hooks, and ropes—did their work defying death. In December, 1835, within three days, 13 acres of old buildings burnt down completely. In more than one passage of Whitman's poetry we are aware of the ringing of the fire alarm. In the evening, theaters opened up. In the huge bowery, for instance, holding 3,000 spectators, famous English guest stars played to an audience of raving, roaring workers and craftsmen enthusiastically applauding. There played the famous Booth, whom the 15-year-old Whitman had a first chance to see as Richard III. Whitman for the first time in his life was thrilled by the impact of the artistic expression, the spoken word, the inspired gesture. In retrospect only are we able to grasp the intense emotion which was thus stirred up in the boy. We can imagine how he must have been impressed by the living word, he who, until late in his life, believed in his vocation as an orator as well as a poet, a great popular orator who with his powerful voice would lead the American people, would master them.
The more there grew in Whitman the feeling of belonging to the race of his New World and the old frontier spirit, now transformed into the psychic-human element, the feeling to discover and conquer with this race on a giant virgin continent the new country of men; to produce, out of this rich and polymorphous clay, perfect sons and daughters of this New WorldᾹand thus of the whole earth—the more he felt tempted to acquaint himself with that part of his native America so different in many ways: the southern states of the Union.
The more Whitman's capacity to marvel at all things transformed the material world around him into a symbolic world made translucent with spiritual infinity—in other words, the more profound his love for the world of phenomena grew because of their miraculous existence, the more essences and objects gained for him colorful, comprehensible, mobile, pathetic and joyous reality while enclosed in the eternal, univocal reality of the invisible—the more he was to be impressed with every step further into this world of phenomena, into that part of the earth revealing to him its treasure of lavish creative splendor, displaying new colors and fragrances, new harmonies, gestures and symbols, intense brightness and procreative power.
The southern United States presented a picture so radically different from that of the north, as countries bordering the southern Mediterranean do from the northern part of Germany, if not more so. Whitman left the still uncouth winter region to approach a most luxuriant spring.
There is no need to tell with what strange feelings a man, being used to account for geographic relations and the daily as well as annual rotation of our globe, would start out on a journey across a part of this earth he does not know. Following the Ohio River along the newly settled states of Ohio, Indiana, Kentucky and Illinois, still breathing forth and exhaling the fragrance of unexplored backwoods, he came upon the "Father of Waters," the Mississippi, seeing the whole life of this gigantic stream spread out before his eyes. This river, which together with its tributaries supplies half of the arable land of the United States, he held to be the very artery of the New World around which the innermost life of a splendid future would pulsate. This great land called forth, at first mysteriously and impellingly, a similar greatness, spiritual and poetic, something completely new, immediate and challenging; something to continue, to fulfill all older cultures, or at least something equally significant.
To say that he hated earning a living, and, in order to keep faith with poverty, stopped working as a carpenter, seems to apply—as many of his overly enthusiastic admirers do—standards of interpretation apt to glorify his case. It is true, however, that, as the years went by, he came to neglect this profitable craft for the sake of his higher interests; true also that he gave in, unconcerned with gain or loss, at all times to leisure and independent life, not always to the liking of his worried and somewhat embittered father.
This interest consisted in nothing less than the firm decision to give expression, poetically and spiritually, to the manifold ways and varied thoughts of the American people with which he had become intimately acquainted during his journey—an expression which would do justice to their peculiar and original strength, so as to constitute what one may call the Bible of a truly modern, democratic human race. With all his might he directed his powers, during the seven years prior to the publication of the Leaves of Grass, to this goal.
Each time a wooden structure had been completed, Whitman went on a vacation which often lasted for weeks. He retired to nature to roam about the island, to take a sunbath on the beach, to swim, to read and to recite. Here, against nature's background, he first tried out his songs. In them he sought to recapture a rhythm corresponding to that of the sea.
Even when working, he carried a book, a magazine or newspaper in his pocket. Throughout his life he remained an ardent reader of newspapers. They communicated to him the feeling of manifold reality, of actual events; through them he heard the sombre roaring of the masses and their interaction of which he was so fond, the "en masses" to which he devoted his life and his poetry. He read the classical authors, Aeschylus and Sophocles, Plato, Dante, Shakespeare and Ossian, Don Quixote and the Song of the Nibelungs, and whatever else he could lay his hands on. From his early youth he loved and knew well A Thousand and One Nights and Scott's ballads. He himself has told us that when he was young he was a book fiend who devoured everything.
The "Consuming Fire" of which he is possessed does not urge him to construct a philosophical system, but rather to give expression to his very being with a mystic force in which reality, the living dream of being pulsates. Within him lives the miracle of identity, the miracle of the absolute, the true self in the individual self, the miracle of the finite and the infinite intertwined; it throbs with the heartbeat of each second, sees, hears, feels, smells, thinks, rejoices, suffers with him in all his senses. The words for which he is grasping are mere suggestions for the eternal, unspoken , forever true words. Each of them he tries to steep in the essence and wonder of his own existence, in order to invoke, through them and their passionate thronging or through their tender, trembling loneliness in some whispered phrase, that power which alone enables us to understand what he really means: the power of a profoundly natural ecstasy—that ecstasy which should make every one of us hold our breath every day and every hour, whilst we perceive the fabulous wonder of our existence. Thus the indifference accompanying everyday life, the unconcerned tranquility which we display in our dubious familiarity with today and tomorrow, should be looked upon as the greatest and most extraordinary phenomenon.
This is the reason readers of Whitman are so frequently reminded of the difference between what he really is and what his readers imagine him to be. Why is it that he escapes them continually, with every single word, and yet waits for them, somewhere, calmly and leisurely? By "waiting for them" is meant precisely that natural and mystic awareness of the self which exists in the reader as well as in Whitman himself. To lead his readers to that awareness is the real and innermost purpose of his poetry. Therefore it is so difficult to make any statements about Whitman outside of the sphere which he himself has only now created, a sphere which makes perceptible his meaning. That is why his words are so transparent, why they have such exceptional appeal, a singular quality. Hence, too, the intense power of the word "love," ringing throughout all his songs. Love is but the feeling of attachment, of belonging to a living image hovering in the infinite and permeated by it, a feeling which finds its consummation in the tender intensity of comradeship. The well-known English critic John A. Symonds once said: "Whitman, indeed, is extremely baffling to criticism. I have already said in print that 'speaking about him is more like speaking about the universe.' . . . Not merely because he is large and comprehensive, but because he is intangible, elusive, at first sight self-contradictory, and in some sense formless, does Whitman resemble the universe and defy critical analysis." (Walt Whitman, page 33.) He would like best to have the reader, the lover, the friend carry his book with him in his coat pocket, to have it rest on his hip, very close to him; for it is not just a book: "Who touches this touches a man." It is not contained in time. The course of centenniums and millenniums forever rolling along is nothing in the face of the eternal tides of truth.
His penchant toward the organic—seen from a general human point of view—is not only directed to the receptive female "you" but also to the male, the camerado in "the Garden the World." With him, too, one walks hand in hand or with the arm around the shoulder. Only more "ethereal," "as bodiless," in a way experiencing one's ownself in the Adamic brother, a creation identical to oneself. Males exchanging the "token of manhood," with each other, embodied in the symbol of the calamus collected in the forest shade next to a pond, a vegetative phallic symbol (from the family of the araceae which have been considered as phallic from time immemorial). Different from the female desire to conceive and her feeling of bliss as a result of conception, the erotic dream stirs in the comrade, the comprehension of spirituality, of loneliness in spite of community, of the silent emotion of male thought eternally winding about the mystery of being.
Therefore those of Whitman's songs inscribed with the sign of Calamus blossom in a sphere marked by a most chaste loneliness. They sound as though coming from the curved lips of a Pan-like god, whispered to the bushes and to the flowers in the high glowing heat of the summer. To deny the eros of these poems would mean to sin against them. Eros vibrates through them just as the quiet air of the afternoon before the gates of Athens, where Socrates talked with Phaidrus under the tree next to the brook. And yet differently. Because here in this new "Garden the World," a man is speaking who has just celebrated procreation and woman with words of purest naturalness and directness. Out of the midst of these Calamus songs, he passionately salutes the "fast-anchor'd eternal" to women, the overwhelming desire for the "Bride" ("more resistless than I can tell, the thought of you!"). There is no pride greater for him than the "token of manhood untainted": His own songs are like "offspring of my loins": "jetting the stuff of far more arrogant republics." He has glorified the woman as mother like no one before him.
Only at this point can we feel the true meaning of these Calamus songs, when we realize that in them the singer wants to get something out of the stillness of the Pan-like forest destined to become the life nerve of the community life of the future, the heartbeat of true democracy, electrically playing between all, freeing each individual from cramped egotism, prejudice, maliciousness and dullness. As he proclaims in his Democratic Vistas: "Intense and loving comradeship, the personal and passionate attachment of man to man—which, hard to define, underlies the lessons and ideals of the profound saviours of every land and age, and which seems to promise, when thoroughly develop'd, cultivated and recognized in manners and literature, the most substantial hope and safety of the future of these States, will then be fully express'd. It is to the development, identification, and general prevalence of that fervid comradeship, (the adhesive love, at least rivaling the amative love hitherto possessing imaginative literature, if not going beyond it,) that I look for the counterbalance and offset of our materialistic and vulgar American democracy, and for the spiritualization thereof."
Introduction to Walt Whitman's Werk (Berlin: S. Fischer, 1922). Translated by Horst Frenz and Walter Grünzweig.
9. Christian Morgenstern
Die Schallmühle: Grotesken und Parodien (München: Piper, 1928), 64–65. Translated by Walter Grünzweig. Reprinted by permission of Piper Verlag.
10. Arthur Drey
Die Aktion 1 (1911): col. 907. Translation from Walt Whitman Review 20 (September 1974): 105; translated by John M. Gogol.
10. Gustav Gamper
Jahrbuch der literarischen Vereinigung Winterthur (1919): 166. Translated by Walter Grünzweig.
12. Hans Reinhart
Jahrbuch der literarischen Vereinigung Winterthur(1919): 166. Translated by Walter Grünzweig.
13. Carl Albert Lange
Weltbühne 22 (1926): 492. Translated by Walter Grünzweig.
14. Kurt Tucholsky
Theobald Tiger [pseud.], Weltbühne 35 (September 15, 1925). Excerpted and translated by Walter Grünzweig.
15. Johannes R. Becher
Aufbau 1 (1945): 286. Translated by Walt Grünweig. Reprinted by permission of Aufbau Verlag, Berlin.
16. Gabriele Eckart
Bernd Jentzsch, ed., Ich nenn euch mein Problem. Gedichte der Nachgeborenen (Wuppertal: Peter Hammer, 1971), 154–155. Translated by Walter Grünzweig. Reprinted by permission of the author.
17. Jürgen Wellbrock
Hermann Peter Piwit and Peter Rühmkorf, eds., Literaturmagazin 5. Das Vergehen von Hören und Sehen. Aspekte der Kulturvernichtung (Reinbek: Rowohlt, 1976), 136. Translated by Walter Grünzweig. Reprinted with permission of the author.
18. Hans Sahl
This version of the poem, written in 1962, is published here for the first time. A later version was published in Gerhard Friesen, ed., Nachrichten aus den Staaten: Deutsche Literatur in den USA (Zurich: Hildesheim; New York: Olms, 1983), 112–113. Translated by Walter Grünzweig.
19. Roland Kluge
Neue Deutsche Literatur 32 (May 1984): 105–106. Translated by Walter Grünzweig. Reprinted with permission of the author.
20. Rolf Schwendter
"Dich Singe Ich, Sozialismus"
Volksstimme (Vienna) (October 19, 1990). Translated by Walter Grünzweig. Reprinted by permission of the author.
Horace Traubel, With Walt Whitman in Camden (New York: D. Appleton, 1908), 2: 431–832.
2. Kurt Tucholsky to Walter Bauer, December 8, 1930, German Literary Archive, Marbach. (Back)
3. Roland Kluge, "Der oft schon totgesagte Geist Walt Whitmans," Neue Deutsche Literatur 32 (1984): 105. (Back)
"Whitman in the German-Speaking Countries," by Walter Grünzweig, first appeared in Gay Wilson Allen, ed., Walt Whitman and the World (Iowa City: University of Iowa Press, 1995), pp. 160-230.
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