Saturday, August 8, 2009

A Thought on Walt Whitman

I've always been a reader, but mostly of non-fiction. I enjoy literature when I get the chance, but it doesn't happen very often. When I do get the chance, I'm picky: I like to know in advance that what I'm reading will be worth my time.

That's how it happened, some years ago, that I was browsing in a book store, and chanced upon the poetry of Walt Whitman. The cover of the book reminded me of 10th-grade English, where we were taught a little about Whitman's work. Mostly, I remembered that I didn't care for it. On a whim I thumbed through the book, and noticed a page worth skimming. Surprised by what I skimmed, my skimming turned into reading. "Wait," I thought, "this isn't what I remember from 10th grade." I read more. "Wait a minute, this is actually good," I thought, "there's art and depth and emotion in this, a grasp of of the human psyche." I bought the book and read it. I was amazed.

I'm glad I rediscovered Walt Whitman for myself, even if belatedly. But I find myself resenting the school boards and curriculum committees who had managed, controlled, and limited my 10th-grade view. Their censorship was subtle, more self-imposed than overt, but it was censorship nonetheless. It had been a century since Whitman's poetry was branded "obscene" by the New England Society for the Suppression of Vice and by various government officials. By today's standards, that's a quaint bit of history, yet that nineteenth century controversy still hangs as a pall over Whitman's work.

So the boards and committees wanted to play it safe. They weren't consciously thinking of censorship so much as planning to avoid possible controversy. So they made one of those compromises-by-committee that satisfies no one but at least equally irritates everyone. Whitman is too important to ignore but too controversial to explore, and that's exactly how the curriculum was configured. So the English teacher (poor fellow!) got to claim that Whitman was one of the most important of American writers, but couldn't give the evidence of that to the students. As one of those students, I was exposed to only the tiniest fraction of Whitman's work, and only the least controversial, most insipid and uninspired of his verse.

As a student who passed through that censored form of education, let me testify as an eye-witness to what I learned. First, I concluded that Whitman was rubbish. People said his work was important literature, but the examples didn't support that. They were silly. Secondly, I concluded that lovers of English literature were poseurs who didn't know what they were talking about, since they mistook fluffy nonsense for art. These conclusions were validly drawn from the information given to me, and they were as wrong as that information was incomplete.

Sad, really. School didn't introduce me to the rich experience of literature. In fact, it closed my mind to the possibilities by showing me only the pablum. No doubt many of the refinements of English literature are easily lost on a 15-year-old, but that's beside the point. The literature never had a chance. An important window on the wider world was closed to me.

I guess some would say I was being protected from something, but I'm not sure what. They didn't protect me from any real danger, just from knowledge.

This is one of the reasons I resist the various forms of censorship that still crop up today. The older I get, the more important it seems to me. As an adult now evaluating the "guidance" I received in 10th-grade English, I would say I was harmed more than helped. I seriously doubt that my personal experience is in any way unusual.

Bookstores carry many editions of Whitman's prose and poetry, including the Penguin Classics edition of The Complete Poems. His complete works can be read online at several sites, incluing the Walt Whitman Archive,