BOOKS

Of self-made gods and men-two kinds of artist

Innovation in literature is not without its drawbacks

BARBARA AMIEL January 12 1981
BOOKS

Of self-made gods and men-two kinds of artist

Innovation in literature is not without its drawbacks

BARBARA AMIEL January 12 1981

Of self-made gods and men-two kinds of artist

Innovation in literature is not without its drawbacks

BOOKS

WALT WHITMAN: A LIFE

Justin Kaplan (Musson, $19.95)

JOHN DOS PASSOS: A TWENTIETH CENTURY ODYSSEY

by Townsend Ludington (Clarke Irwin, $27)

It helps if a poet looks like an Old Testament god. Walt Whitman always had the appearance to go with his poetic image. Even at the end of his life he was described as a “beautiful old man” sitting in his bedroom, beard white and thinned, high forehead over mild and receptive grey-blue eyes, skin soft and rosy, a bowl of flowers next to him. But then Whitman always sang as much of the flesh as of the spirit, celebrating American earthiness with a gusto unequalled before or since. Though what today would be called his sexual orientation was uncertain—he remained a bachelor to the end—his poetry was the very opposite of repressed. He celebrated in ringing phrases, even to the point of bombast.

In contrast, John Dos Passos, born four years after Whitman died in 1896, was a quiet and reticent man, soon bald, who found the macho antics of friends like Hemingway faintly ridiculous and distasteful. “I found myself, I don’t know how, at a lot of bullfights in Pamplona,” he remarked to a friend. A “love child” himself, he remained conservative in his own courtships, always turning the double room reservations the more liberated Hemingway made for him and his fiancée Crystal Ross into chaste separate chambers.

The recent publication of biographies of Whitman and Dos Passos underscores the differences between these two major figures of American literature. Though ultimately it is only their writing that matters, their participation in history (Whitman in the American Civil War, Dos Passos in the Spanish) gives their lives a literary significance of their own. Justin Kaplan’s biography of Whitman is worthy of its subject in style as well as original scholarship. In purely stylistic terms it is more elegant than Townsend Ludington’s account of Dos Passos, which is afflicted by a touch of high academic prose. Still it is Ludington’s book that grips the reader more, partly because so little has been written about Dos Passos’ life and partly because of the intrinsic fascination of his times—and their pertinence to ours.

Not that Whitman’s times offer no parallels. His was an America threatened by secession and civil war over the issue of slavery. Some, like Daniel Webster, were so horrified by what they saw as the continuation of the European error of separate states locked in war that they would have preferred to compromise even on slavery for the sake of unity and peace. Whitman held with those for whom no such compromise was possible. His romantic vision of classic liberalism, akin to a religious faith, helped to create the climate for those ideals of freedom and equality we take for granted today.

Ideals notwithstanding, the poet of Leaves of Grass (his major work that he kept expanding and revising all his life) had a talent for dubious self-puffery equalling his real talent as a poet. If positive reviews of his work were lacking, he wrote and distributed them himself. A private letter of praise from Ralph Waldo Emerson turned up on the front pages of the New York Tribune as well as becoming the introduction to the second edition of Leaves. During his tenure as a clerk at the department of Indian affairs, Whitman had the endearing habit of introducing himself to visiting Cheyenne, Navajo and Apache as “the poet-chief.” If Whitman’s personal style seems unworthy of his stature at times, so do the strength, logic and consistency of his ideas. In this of course he is no different from many other major poets. Great poetry makes its impact through fusion rather than fission; through synthesis rather than analysis.

Too keen an intellect may not even be an unequivocal blessing for a novelist. Dos Passos, the southern gentleman, cum laude Harvard, 1916, was an innovator both as a stylist and a thinker. His literary experiments in Manhattan Transfer and the trilogy U.S.A. broke ground for many of the stylistic components of the modern novel, such as journalistic collages and “faction,” the weaving of actualities into the fabric of fiction. But innovation in literature, as in technology, is not without its drawbacks. Early examples of new music or literature, like early cars, often break down and are greeted with shouts of “get a horse!” As Ludington implies, writers like Dos Passos, who cannot appeal to a wide audience over the heads of the critics and editors of the literary community, remain much more reliant for their reputation on the continued goodwill of their peers. In Dos Passos’ case, this goodwill was severely jeopardized by his disillusionment with militant Marxism too early. Already in the ’30s, when the American literary establishment was still almost entirely in the grip of a fascination with communism, Dos Passos unwisely picked fights with Edmund Wilson, Malcolm Cowley, Lillian Heilman, Hemingway, The New Republic and its coterie. Points earned by his support of Sacco and Vanzetti and other solid left-wing causes became points lost by his refusal to close his eyes over such incidents as the murder of loyal socialists by the Communists in Spain. He never recovered.

Dos Passos died in 1970, alienated and largely forgotten by a new generation of critics and readers. Posterity will decide on the ultimate value of his work. But Ludington’s biography makes it more difficult for posterity to pass by without a second glance at a writer whose life bears shattering testimony to the times which were his, and are now our own.

BARBARA AMIEL