WHITMAN by Newton Arvin, October 1938, Macmillan, $2,75,312 pages.
Just how terrible a time the Old Woman Who Lived in a Shoe had with her children can be vividly illustrated by the statement that she had as many struggling brats as Walt Whitman had unruly ideas. The analogy becomes quite compelling after one has read this discussion of the politico-social ideas of Walt Whitman, in which Mr. Arvin makes it quite clear that the poet's mind was filled by the most numerous and most contradictory feelings on almost every conceivable subject. Mr. Arvin, who graduated from Harvard in 1921, although he does display an admirable understanding of Whitman's social ideology, makes a confused subject even more bewildering by applying the test-writing technique to his illustrations of Whitman's philosophies; that is, bringing in carloads of quotations by contemporaries and barrels of erudite anecdotes concerning every figure, literary or otherwise, which supposedly aid the reader to comprehend Whitman's attitude.
This vital and fundamental struggle between the traditional conservatism and the, to Whitman, mystical desire for social reform in the mind of the editor-poet is sharply, forcefully described by Mr. Arvin, who makes of him a dual personality. One part of Whitman is the government clerk, the traditionalist and the conventionalist; the other is the poet who instinctively fears for the future of democracy in an age of money-chasing, corrupt politicians, of oppressed industrial workers. On practically every social and political question, Whitman tends to diverge within himself. He writes paeans on the equality of all human beings, calls spiritedly to the chained negro slave:
"You dim-descended, black, divine-souled African, large, fine-headed, nobly-formed, superbly-destined, on equal terms with me!"
Then in a poem called "Pictures," he describes a Southern slave-gang:
". . . . see, how clumsy, hideous, black, panting, grinning, sly, besotted, sensual, shameless.
Such startlingly opposite attitudes can hardly be believed to have been conceived in the same mind, from the perceptions of identical eyes.
Mr. Arvin avoids doing what many biographers have done to their subjects. He does not go too far in evaluating the contemporary comment and criticism voiced by the socialists of Whitman's period in an attempt to illuminate the attitudes of Whitman himself. He does not make of Whitman an intellectually unified individual at the expense of verity, he does not even make him an intellectual in the restricted sense of the term. For once a biographer has finished his work without creating a god or devil out of the subject. Whitman was neither a radical nor a reactionary; he was a little of each with much else mixed in, and the complexity of his views and, more important, his intuitions, provides an engrossing subject for the reader who wants to become acquainted with a mind which remained alive to the needs of humanity in an era of social irresponsibility.