Â Â Â Â Today I am going to consider Whitmanâ€™s troubles maintaining close friendships, and how that may reflect on his relationship to his readers. Throughout our readings for this week, Whitmanâ€™s relationship with William Douglas Oâ€™Conner is repeatedly mentioned. Whitmanâ€™s relationship with Oâ€™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 couldnâ€™t be separated. However, following an especially heated argument, they would not exchange words for years. This did not prevent Oâ€™Conner from coming to Whitmanâ€™s aid against a law suit though.
Â Â Â Â As we have seen in his relationships generally regarded as â€śmore than just friendly,â€ť Whitman expected an incredible amount of emotional energy from those he was close to. For a time, the passionate Oâ€™Conner seems to have fulfilled those expectations. According to the account of Oâ€™Connerâ€™s wife, Ellen Calder, he was never reluctant to challenge Whitmanâ€™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. Whitmanâ€™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 Oâ€™Conner. However, when it came to his allegedly more intimate friendships, Whitman did not tend to gravitate towards personalities like Oâ€™Conner.
Â Â Â Â 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 Whitmanâ€™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 Doyleâ€™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 manâ€™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.
Â Â Â Â How does all this reflect Whitmanâ€™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 Whitmanâ€™s passions shine through. So, if the readerâ€™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