- Worshipping Walt: The Whitman Disciples
“I say at the core of democracy, finally,” Walt Whitman wrote, “is the religious element.” Michael Robertson’s Worshipping Walt takes up this statement’s implicit challenge. How did Whitman and his most enthusiastic readers understand politics and religion as intertwined, and what is the legacy of that understanding today? Robertson observes that scholars have tended to read Whitman from within the “secularization thesis,” only recently asking how “modernity led to different forms of religious expression” like Leaves of Grass (9). Worshipping Walt illuminates the centrality of spirituality to the establishment of Whitman’s reputation and the way it has persisted to this day.
Worshipping Walt weaves a rich, largely chronological account of the poet’s nineteenth-century followers. His early supporters were crucial; in the process of defending Whitman against accusations of prurience, his friend William O’Connor coined the influential phrase “the good gray poet,” while Leaves of Grass lurked throughout the naturalist John Burroughs’s enormous oeuvre. Given the ecstatic terms in which Burroughs and another influential disciple, the Canadian psychiatrist Richard Maurice Bucke, described their attachment to Whitman, it comes as little surprise that Whitman helped them write their biographies of him. For Edward Carpenter and James Wallace, Whitman’s atomic spirituality was the foundation of a new politics—a catalyst for socialist renovation. If for all of these men Whitman’s poetry offered new configurations of the spiritual and political world, for Anne Gilchrist, Robertson observes, religious and sexual inspiration were difficult to disentangle. The chapter on Gilchrist is elegantly dramatic, unfolding from the moment at which Gilchrist moved her family to America in hopes of setting up housekeeping with Whitman. Several disciples moved through the orbit of Gilchrist’s Philadelphia home while Whitman was a (probably platonic) guest.
Robertson’s account of why Gilchrist did not realize that Whitman was more interested in intimate relations with men than with women exemplifies one of the strengths of his book: its account of the differences among disciples. “Later disciples would portray Whitman as a cultural radical who figuratively blessed their socialist politics and bohemian lifestyles,” Robertson writes, while “O’Connor’s Whitman . . . was a thoroughly Victorian hero capable of restoring the (national) family” (36). The chapter on Whitman’s gay English followers—Carpenter, John Addington Symonds, and Oscar Wilde—carefully distinguishes strains of both personal and contextual attitudes about homoeroticism, from Symonds’s reluctance to accept his yearnings for men as natural to Wilde’s unexpected support of the poet. The latter relationship exemplifies Robertson’s ability to read the complex give-and-take of Whitman [End Page 771] worship. It may be that gay souls recognized each other in the two long meetings between Whitman and Wilde, but their unlikely friendship had other justifications given their public personas: “Oscar gave Walt class,” Robertson writes; “Walt gave him manliness” (191).
Worshipping Walt is, formally, a fascinating hybrid. It is a group biography of Whitman’s followers, but it is simultaneously a critical biography of Whitman. Robertson shows that the writings of, in particular, Carpenter, Burroughs, and Bucke guided more readers to Whitman than did the poet’s own promotional efforts. These accounts were often unorthodox in form, inspired by Whitman’s challenge to write “the new life of the new forms.” At the same time, stories about Whitman were shaped by contextual politics and personal visions that, while inaccurate, have in some cases shaped understandings of the poet even to our time. Worshipping Walt itself takes a lesson from this; it does not end up deifying Walt. We see the poet’s racism, his “love of applause,” his stubbornness, as vividly as we see his suspicions of hagiographic depictions of his life (82). And though it praises Walt’s cosmic vision over those derived from his poetry by the disciples, Robertson’s study is not worship, but a call for interpretations of Whitman’s work “that can be as powerful and potentially transformative in our moment” as it was in his own (296).
That stance, artfully...