WALT WHITMAN

The Correspondence, Volume VII

Edited by Ted Genoways. Univ. of Iowa. 192 pp. $44.95 "The public is a thick-skinned beast," said Walt Whitman, "and you have to keep whacking away on its hide to let it know you are there." So this month we are getting a fresh whack on the collective behind with another supplemental volume of The Correspondence.

We could use the heads-up: Whitman has become a fixed icon rather than a real, living breathing, poetic presence. Like jovial, bespectacled Ben Franklin steering his kite in the rainstorm, or statesmanlike Lincoln gazing at the circumference of our penny, Walt is packaged according to a rather misleading stereotype: the genial man of the people, a straw hanging from his lips, his hat tilted at a jaunty angle. (You'd never guess that the cosmopolitan Whitman read 10 newspapers a day and loved New York opera.) He would not have been displeased by this misleading image -- in fact, he cultivated it -- but he could not have guessed its implications. Though he trumpeted a messianic political and social role for America, he himself has dwindled to caricature. What has time done to Walt Whitman?

Whitman's current disfavor is partly a question of style. His rotund, oratorical, occasionally blowsy verse has more in common with the Psalms than with fashionable haiku. In an era embarrassed by grandiose swaggering in U.S. foreign policy, Genial Walt's oracular generalizations about the American destiny and character are unsettling. We have a smaller, more personal worldview that favors obsessive "I" poems. Always bigger than life, Whitman sits oddly with our minimalist era, which prefers cryptic, enigmatic Emily Dickinson, the other pole in the world of American poetry.

It's curious, then, that we owe Whitman so much: He's the American granddaddy of free verse, after all, our first great national iconoclast. Even D.H. Lawrence, who jeered fiercely at him, finally conceded that our "strange, modern American Moses" was "a great moralist . . . a great leader." With a passion that matched his derision, Lawrence called him "Whitman, the one man breaking a way ahead. Whitman, the one pioneer. And only Whitman."

Well, Whitman has always attracted enthusiasm. He hasn't always attracted scholarship. Or at least not enough of it to get his complete oeuvre in print, even a century or so after his death. This slim, bright-red hardcover, with the interlaced initials "WW" on the cover, is among the more modest success stories of this season. It's quietly labeled Volume VII, part of the Iowa Whitman Series.

Edited by Ted Genoways, this is the posthumous offspring of The Collected Writings of Walt Whitman, the first volume of which appeared in 1961. Posthumous, because the general editors and all members of the advisory editorial board for the project are now dead. No new members were ever appointed. Scholars continue to prepare new volumes, though their fate is uncertain. According to the foreword written by Ed Folsom, our foremost Whitman scholar, the project is now "hopelessly scattered, fragmented, and incomplete."

Undeterred, scholars continue to make important new discoveries: A cache of early letters to Abraham Paul Leech of Jamaica is among the more important additions included here. They throw new light on Whitman's Civil War years, his friendships, his family relations, his opinions on such matters as how Spanish heritage will help shape American identity.

Style is not the only reason for the comparative neglect of Whitman's oeuvre -- his personal habits were an obstacle to any kind of organizational system. A visitor toward the end of Whitman's life described his messy abode at 328 Mickle Street in Camden, N.J.: "I found Whitman calmly sitting in the midst of such utter and appalling literary confusion, I wondered for a moment how he breathed -- vast heaps of everything piled about him. It seemed as though an earthquake had thrown all the life and literature of the hour, everything, in fact, into ruins, but the old god."

Odd letters, articles and manuscripts keep cropping up in the most unexpected places, as well as the usual ones -- auctions, attics, library special collections and, increasingly, the World Wide Web, with its online catalogs of libraries and auctions, its databases for manuscript collections. Surprisingly, 20 of the "new" letters turned up on www.whitmanarchive.org, the most familiar source of Whitman manuscripts.

Taken individually, the letters in this volume have a sort of random, letter-in-a-bottle feel. Among the dozens of brief notes to publishers, compositors, newspaper editors and fans we have a hitherto unknown 1862 letter to Ralph Waldo Emerson, begging for work in Washington. The fulsome letters to Leech, about the only ones that form a kind of ongoing narrative, uncover the pre-Leaves of Grass Whitman, the poet before he envisioned a generous, all-embracing new world. They are full of invective, wiseacring, posturing; he loathes the rural communities where he is employed as a teacher -- he hates the food, the people, the life:

"I am sick of wearing away by inches, and spending the fairest portion of my little span of life, here in this nest of bears, this forsaken of all God's creation; among clowns and country bumpkins, flat-heads, and coarse brown-faced girls, dirty, ill-favoured young brats, with squalling throats and crude manners, and bog-trotters, with all the disgusting conceit, of ignorance and vulgarity," he gripes in 1840, desperately appealing to Leech to "send me something funny."

This is a far cry from the open, benevolent proletarian who was to make a splashy debut 15 years later with the first edition of Leaves of Grass. The difference bowls one over. Something big happened to Whitman in the intervening years.

Which brings us to a third, less obvious reason for Whitman's comparative neglect: Among his disciples -- and "disciples" is by no means too strong a word -- he was considered not only a great poet but a prophet and sage. To them, Leaves of Grass was more than a book of poetry; it was a new religion. Somehow this veneration has made him shady, a bit of a quack. It has served to demean rather than exalt him. ("Do you suppose a thousand years from now people will be celebrating the birth of Walt Whitman as they are now the birth of Christ?" asked an eminent Whitman pal in 1890.) Indeed, Whitman considered himself an American avatar. Speaking to sidekick Horace Traubel, he said, "The public has no notion of me as a spiritualistic being. Apart from a few . . . no one understands that I have my connections -- that they are deep-rooted -- that they penetrate shows, phenomena, do not pause with these."

The groundbreaking Canadian psychiatrist Richard Maurice Bucke wrote about one man who reported that Whitman spoke to him only about a hundred words altogether, "and these quite ordinary and commonplace." Nevertheless, soon afterward "a state of mental exaltation set in, which [the man] could only describe by comparing to slight intoxication with champagne, or to falling in love, and this exaltation, he said, lasted at least six weeks in a clearly marked degree, so that, for at least that length of time, he was plainly different from his ordinary self."

Bucke adds that "this person's whole life has been changed by that contact -- his temper, character, entire spiritual being, outer life, conversation, etc., elevated and purified in an extraordinary degree." Nor is this an isolated, oddball account: Traubel described similar altered states.

There's little hint of this in the letters. A typical one reads: "will sell you the above-described at three dollars ($3) each copy -- $150 cash for the 50." Abbreviations and dashes abound; he was saving his best energies for his poems. Most of the letters cluster toward the end of his life -- by page 38, he is already complaining about the illnesses that foreshadow his slow, agonizing death; by page 46, he is already settled in the familiar environs of Camden, N.J.

The long bumpy ride of his reputation as poet and sage began soon after his death in 1892, following long years of strokes and related complications (pneumonia provided the coup de grace). In 1936, the Dictionary of American Biography stated: "It is now difficult, if not impossible, to believe that he came into the world to save it, or that he will save it. The world in general pays little attention to his name; he has never been a popular poet . . . . But as his isolation grows more apparent it grows more impressive. . . . The claims originally made for him as man and moralist are made less often, and promise to disappear. "

Clearly, it's time to think again. Kudos to the University of Iowa Press -- and to Folsom, Genoways and others -- for championing an admirable crusade against the tide of the times. *

Cynthia L. Haven writes for the San Francisco Chronicle, the Los Angeles Times and the Times Literary Supplement.

Walt Whitman