Sizing Up Walt Whitman & Friends

It’s about this time that I’m usually wrapping up my teaching of American Romanticism. We’ve made it through Edgar Allan Poe, Nathaniel Hawthorne, Walt Whitman, Emily Dickinson, Ralph Waldo Emerson, and we’re just about done with my favorite, Henry David Thoreau. Over the years, I’ve made deletions and additions to the scope and sequence, hoping to keep the material fresh for me and my students. I’m always sizing up the material and my time. And sometimes things are placed aside for a while, like Herman Melville’s “Bartleby, the Scrivener,” which I haven’t assigned to my students to read this year.

I’m always discovering something new about these writers, too, as I dig further into their biographies. For instance, I recently learned that Henry David Thoreau and I were about the same height, 5 feet and 7 inches, which struck me as strange because I always imagined him as a tall, brooding man—Lincolnesque so to speak. But not so, which makes sense. His little house on Walden Pond measured only 10 x 15 feet, and I’d probably feel comfortable there, writing and posting my blog.

Walt Whitman, one of the biggest personalities of the time period, measured four inches taller than Thoreau. 5’ 11”. Not enormous, but a little larger, and perhaps that extra height made him a little bolder, choosing to break the rules by writing in free verse about taboo subjects that labeled him indecent by many of his contemporaries. Over the course of the past year, I’ve been reading Walt Whitman: A Life by Justin Kaplan, and I learned that Whitman was fired from a government clerk position while living in Washington, D.C., because his superior discovered a manuscript version of Leaves of Grass while rooting through his desk. Not to be daunted, Whitman always stood tall against critics and naysayers, despite repeated requests to tone down the language in the book.

And like his writing, his actions were bold, too. As I teach my students, and as many people familiar with his biography may already know, Whitman hoped to stake out some territory in the literary world by publishing a private correspondence from Ralph Waldo Emerson, which lauded great praise upon Whitman’s poetry, in his second edition of Leaves of Grass. To put this into context, I often tell my students to think of Emerson as the Oprah Winfrey of the time, and with that kind of reputation and renown, you can’t just appropriate his words for your profit without permission. Indeed, much has been made about this episode in Whitman’s biography.

The proportions of Emerson’s anger are not to be underestimated. Kaplan writes, “Friends who visited Emerson when the blazoned second edition [of Leaves of Grass] arrived in the mail claimed that until that moment they had never seen him truly angry.” It wasn’t until I read that sentence and the account in Kaplan’s book that I really appreciated the kind of rage Emerson must have felt after discovering his words had been snatched away from him. Surely, Whitman must have known that his actions were unethical, realizing that something like this could stain his reputation, but Whitman never shied away from taking chances with his poetry. If he needed positive reviews for his book, he often wrote them, published them anonymously, or asked someone else to sign their name.

Nevertheless, Emerson’s interest in Whitman waned over time. Kaplan writes about Emerson visiting him in New York on more than one occasion, despite his anger about publishing the private letter, but years later, Emerson seems to have regarded Whitman more as a curiosity rather than the great American poet, which Whitman aspired to become. In fact, I read that Emerson edited a definitive collection of poetry near the end of his life, but Whitman doesn’t have a single poem included there. He felt spurned, even recanting some of his earlier love for the man he so revered, but perhaps, Emerson was still feeling some of that anger about the unauthorized use of his words. Whatever the case, years after Leaves of Grass came on the scene, Whitman was still working to validate his poetry, even among the greatest intellectuals of America.

From what I can find, Ralph Waldo Emerson measured 6 feet tall—only an inch taller than Whitman, but he was a giant compared with Whitman at the end of his life. Well-respected and comfortably snug as “The Sage of Concord,” he suffered a long decline until his eventual death and burial among the other famous writers in Sleepy Hollow Cemetery. Whitman, too, suffered in his later years, having survived two strokes and living in near poverty. It’s certainly not the ending I imagined. In my mind, I’d like to think of the two sharing pleasant conversation while the sun sets over a distant horizon, maybe at Walden Pond, both of them secure in their success, having risen to such a height that neither would be forgotten in American literature.

Another Bartleby Surprise

Last year around this time, I launched The White Whale with a post not about Herman Melville’s Moby-Dick, but rather his short story, “Bartleby, the Scrivener.” It’s such a curious story, and when I had written about it before, I had been obsessing about John Jacob Astor, a name mentioned by the narrator at the beginning of the story, which to my surprise, I had spotted on the façade of New York’s Public Library on a trip about a year ago now. As my family knows, I have a habit of repeating words or phrases that sound interesting to me, and just like the narrator in “Bartleby, the Scrivener,” I found myself compelled to reiterate that name, John Jacob Astor, many times to the irritation of my wife and children. Much of Bartleby was out my system, however, by this December, when another surprise fell into my lap.

As a high school teacher, I don’t receive many Christmas gifts from students, the routine usually having been dropped by the time I see them. This year, however, one of my students gifted me the graphic novel Crown of Horns from the Bone series by Jeff Smith. Seemed rather unusual, at first, but I realized her thoughtfulness since I had steered her toward graphic novels to help meet her requirement for independent reading. When I thanked her, I told her I’d make sure to read it over break so I could talk to her about it when we returned to school. As it turned out, it was the first book I read in the new year.

Here’s the surprise, which I would never have encountered, if it weren’t for the circumstances and the kindness of my student: I found another character named Bartleby. Yes sir! Bartleby! Bartleby! Bartleby! The name rolls off the tongue just like John Jacob Astor, and this new Bartleby is just as much a vagary as Melville’s Bartleby.

From what I can tell, Bartleby is a baby “rat creature” who Fone Bone, one of the main characters in the Bone series, has adopted. The rat creatures are monsters who attack the protagonists, but for whatever reason, this baby ran away from the others and joined the Bones. He’s also unusual, because as I’ve learned, rat creatures usually have their tails and ears cropped at some point, and although Bartleby lost his tail, he still has his big, fluffy ears. He’s rather cute, although baby rat creature doesn’t seem like a very attractive classification.

Picture of Bartleby from Crown of Horns
Bartleby, a defiant little rat creature from Jeff Smith’s book, Crown of Horns

More importantly, he’s a nonconformist, perhaps the reason for his name. Melville’s Bartleby is considered by many to be literature’s ultimate nonconformist, who instead of doing as he’s told, simply states again and again, “I would prefer not to.” Along with the opening of Moby-Dick, this is probably Melville’s most famous line. It’s also the thing that marks Bartleby as a symbol for breaking the rules, which obviously relates to Jeff Smith’s Bartleby. Not only has he broken away from all the other monsters, leaving the great herd behind, but he looks different from them. It’s a great name to emphasize his nonconformity. It’s interesting to note, too, that Bartleby was a name invented by Melville, at least according to some sources I’ve read. I don’t know if that’s been verified by scholars, but it does add even more individuality to the character by having a name that’s never been heard before. And undoubtedly, when I came across the name in this graphic novel, the allusion to Melville’s Bartleby was instantaneous.

Of course, now I wanted to know more about the author, Jeff Smith. Turns out, he’s a graduate of the Ohio State University just like me. He started writing comic strips while attending Ohio State, having published pieces with some of the same characters from the Bone series in the school’s newspaper. In fact, he cites Moby-Dick as his favorite book, according to his Wikipedia page, which presents even more evidence for Smith choosing the name Bartleby with Melville’s story in mind. I’ve read that Bone also has many references to Moby-Dick, something I would have never imagined.

Besides just another great example of serendipity, which always intrigues me, this experience serves as a great reminder to keep an open mind about the world. There’s little chance I would have ever picked up the Bone series on my own. Sure, I’ve read a few graphic novels. I’ve enjoyed them, but if it weren’t for the thoughtfulness, and kindness, of one of my students, I would have never found this book. And maybe that’s the ultimate takeaway, that I should always try to lean into new things, because who knows what may come. It’s not a bad lesson to take with me into a new year and a new decade.

Poetry About Small Town Life in Pennsylvania

Back at the end of October, my friend, Edward Luecke, began putting together a video to promote my collection of poetry about Montrose, Pennsylvania, called Public Avenue. On a Wednesday night at The Susquehanna County Historical Society, we shot about an hour of video with a series of questions that explained the project and my writing process. Ultimately, we both knew the video would only be about five minutes, and from that footage, we decided to focus on my decision to write about Montrose as well as the subject matter of some of the specific poems.

About a week and half ago, I posted the finished video on my blog’s Facebook page. The response has been tremendous, the video having been shared over fifty times and reaching a greater audience than any of my previous posts over the past year. It’s a great way to bring this year’s writing to a close.

Indeed, I have learned so much over the past year while bringing this project to completion, not only about my own writing process but also about the history of my hometown, assembling and hand-binding books, and promoting my work. I’m so grateful to those involved, and although I already acknowledged some of the people who helped along the way, I’d like to thank them again and include some of the many others for whom I’m grateful.

So many thanks to my wife, Brenda, for being a great first reader and always challenging me to do better with my writing; Edward Luecke, for his camera work, editing, and patience; Tracey Gass Ranze, for providing such great detailed feedback, kind words at the right time, and inspiration to publish; Michael Czarnecki, whose little book of poems, Drinking Wine, Chanting Poems, fell into my lap so many years and provided a template for constructing my book; Lisa Gruver from The Susquehanna County Historical Society, for scanning the cover image from an old postcard in their collections; also Louise Sammon and Betty Smith, from the Historical Society for their kindness and expertise over the past few months while I completed research, and especially Betty, for allowing us to film after hours for much longer than I ever imagined; Betty Bryden and Alice Mischke at The Butternut Gallery & Second Story Books, for my inclusion in the exhibit The Making of Books: Illustrations, Installations, and Words and for their continued support of my book and poetry; Ellen Stone, the first poet in the family, for providing feedback on the poems and more inspiration; Diana Lombardi, for fielding lots of questions as I explored possibilities for the cover artwork and for taking the time to teach my creative writing class how to create and bind books; George Barbolish, for providing more feedback on the cover artwork; Lydia, my daughter, for letting me raid her brush pens that made such a great difference in the many versions of the hand-drawn and painted covers of the book; for Beverly DeGroat and Mark Terry, for sending me the photos of Jim Olin’s barber shop; and Ann Stone, my mother-in-law, for trusting me with your books and clippings about Montrose, which provided such a wealth of information about our small town. So many, many thanks for your help with this project.