Sam Krieg for October 20

     Today I am going to consider Whitman’s troubles maintaining close friendships, and how that may reflect on his relationship to his readers. Throughout our readings for this week, Whitman’s relationship with William Douglas O’Conner is repeatedly mentioned. Whitman’s relationship with O’Conner interests me because it seems very reminiscent of what most of the students in our class have gone through this semester: at times, his ideas and personality have drawn us in, and at other times they have driven us away. The friendship of the two men reads something like a modern-day celebrity story; initially, the two published writers walked all around town together and couldn’t be separated. However, following an especially heated argument, they would not exchange words for years. This did not prevent O’Conner from coming to Whitman’s aid against a law suit though.

     As we have seen in his relationships generally regarded as “more than just friendly,” Whitman expected an incredible amount of emotional energy from those he was close to. For a time, the passionate O’Conner seems to have fulfilled those expectations. According to the account of O’Conner’s wife, Ellen Calder, he was never reluctant to challenge Whitman’s ideas and, perhaps, would even intentionally provoke the poet. Interestingly, it was because of an issue that Whitman was more ambivalent about that the two men went their separate ways: slavery. Whitman’s more middle-of-the-road stance, which saw him as reluctant for society to set former slaves on the same level as those of European descent, did not match the abolitionist sentiments of O’Conner. However, when it came to his allegedly more intimate friendships, Whitman did not tend to gravitate towards personalities like O’Conner.

     Instead of intellectuals, Whitman tended to become romantically attached to younger men of the working class. Some of the letters assigned for this week center around Peter Doyle, a former soldier who apparently did not think very highly of Leaves of Grass. It is intriguing that Whitman was attracted to someone that disregarded such a large part of his life, namely his pre-war poetry. Doyle was perhaps symbolic of Whitman’s ideal person, but seems to have been unaware of the message that Whitman sought to communicate in his early poetry. Perhaps it is through Doyle’s dislike of Leaves that we can explain his eventual separation from Whitman. When one ignores poems like Song of Myself, the passion of the poet behind the words is also missed. However, why did Whitman still expect so much of Doyle, even though he was obviously not ignorant of the man’s opinions? Through his demands, Whitman became like the father whom he had heard about so many times from young soldiers: the man that had driven his son away because he asked too much of him.

     How does all this reflect Whitman’s relationship with his readers? Well, in his early work, Whitman demands of his readers that they acknowledge and reciprocate his passion for life and people. It is most appreciated when the reader questions and challenges it, as our class has found. This does not apply as much to the more somber tone of Drum Taps though, which appears simpler at face value. It must be seen in light of the earlier work as well though, and so Whitman’s passions shine through. So, if the reader’s wits are kept about him, Whitman becomes an infinitely-interesting companion. However, he can quickly become too much for those that do not at least have some idea of his full scope.

October 18 2009 08:46 pm | Uncategorized

2 Responses to “Sam Krieg for October 20”

  1. Courtney Says:

    Sam- I think that investigating the idea of Whitman’s relationships, both with his acquaintances and readers, has proved really interesting. Whitman was such a strong personality, but it doesn’t really surprise me that he was drawn to younger, more vulnerable individuals in his relationships. It seems almost the same with his readers, he assumes such an all-encompassing role, putting himself in a position above the reader so that they have to listen.

  2. bcbottle Says:

    I’m glad you wrote about this. I’ve been considering this for a while now, ever since the first Reynolds article. Reynolds talked a lot about how much Whitman loved marriage, and how he encouraged his friends to marry, yet he never formed a long-term relationship. I have to wonder whether his sexual orientation played a role or whether it was his just his nature that prevented him from forming these relationships. I hadn’t really considered how this would affect his relationship with his readers.Thank you for bringing it up.

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