Mickle Street Review Issue 17/18: Walt Whitman and Place

A Supermarket in Kanada?  Whitman Among the Beautiful Losers
Paul Milton Okanagan College, British Coulmbia

            In arriving here at Camden from Canada, I am reversing a journey that Whitman himself made in 1880 when he made the northward trek to London, Ontario, the town I grew up in, to visit Maurice Bucke who was then the superintendent of the Asylum for the Insane.  It is a well documented trip; Whitman himself maintained a set of diary notes providing us with his thoughts on his experiences in London and the subsequent trip through southern Ontario and Quebec.  The visit to London was dramatized in John Kent Harrison’s 1990 film Beautiful Dreamers starring Rip Torn as the Good Gray Poet.  But apart from its focus on the friendship and mutual admiration of Bucke and Whitman, the film also makes one point quite clear:  among the good burghers of late nineteenth-century London, Whitman would have been a strange fish indeed.  It is this collision that I want to explore in two different locations today:  the poet of America in a land that was organized expressly to be not-America, a country whose Confederation was formed to protect the northern half of the continent from Yankee rapaciousness, a country whose elite takes pride in tracing its genealogy back to a generation of post-revolutionary refugees from your republic.  Suffice it to say that Whitman would raise a few eyebrows as he did in the film among the cricket-playing tea-drinking high church Anglicans.

            But beyond the fictional representation, how accurate an account of Whitman’s image in Canada is this?  To address that question, I wish to look at two specific Canadian texts that I would suggest describe two distinct attitudes towards Whitman’s Canadian image.  The first is a direct response to Whitman’s work and his influence on Canadian poets:  in his 1930 monograph on the poetry of Bliss Carman, James Cappon devotes two substantial chapters (almost 80 pages of a 333-page book) to an analysis of the tradition of Emerson and Whitman, though his focus is clearly on Whitman.  The second is a much less direct response, Leonard Cohen’s 1966 novel Beautiful Losers in which Whitman does not appear directly, but acts in some ways as a kind of absent presence haunting its allegory of Canadian national identity.  Just as Sam Slick represented for Thomas Chandler Haliburton both the excesses and the positive energies of Yankee ingenuity in contrast to Bluenose stodginess, so does Whitman represent a subversive energy that Canadians regard with ambivalent concern.  To the Tory nationalist view of Cappon, Whitman’s democratic enthusiasms represent a New World threat to the interests of empire in the northern dominion, while to the postmodern sensibilities of Cohen, Whitman’s promise of inclusiveness offers a means of transcending the polarities of the bicultural model of Canadian society.

            James Cappon is a significant figure in the history of Canadian academic criticism.  Scottish born and educated, Cappon was the first professor of English at a Canadian university when he was appointed to a chair at Queen’s University at Kingston, Ontario, in 1888.  He was also one of the founders of the Queen’s Quarterly, a journal of general criticism, and an influential voice on its editorial policy from its inception in 1893 until his retirement in 1919.  As a literary critic, he produced the first monograph on the work of a Canadian writer, his Charles G.D. Roberts and the Influences of his Time published in 1905.  He was also the mentor of Lorne Pierce, a prominent publisher and promoter of Canadian books in the early part of the twentieth century.

            On the face of things, Cappon would appear to be an important voice in the promotion of Canadian literature.  Yet his appointment was moderately controversial in nationalistic terms.  Cappon was appointed ahead of two prominent Canadian literary figures, Archibald MacMechan who would take up a similar post at Dalhousie University in Halifax a year later, and Charles G.D. Roberts, who had published two well-received volumes of poetry.  It has become a standing joke in Canadian literary circles that Cappon was hired ahead of Roberts only to make his own literary career on the basis of two books about Roberts and one about his cousin Bliss Carman.

            But there was no doubt at Queen’s University that the right choice had been made.  Indeed it was a policy at Queen’s to favour British scholars in general, and Scottish scholars in particular.  In his letters of the period, Roberts alluded to Cappon somewhat disdainfully: “The Glaskie Man hath got ahead of the Canadian to the Canadian’s great disgust.” Cappon’s hiring was seen to be something of a coup as the smaller independent Presbyterian institution appointed its first professor of English one year prior to the provincially administered University of Toronto.  Cappon clearly understood his cultural role:  throughout his career, he was a champion of the imperial tie that was seen as the bulwark of Canadian Tory nationalism in the period.

It might not surprise us to discover then, on reading Cappon’s first criticisms of Roberts, that the emphasis falls on Roberts’ shortcomings in relation to the influences of his time:  he is a lesser Keats, “with airs from Herrick in him as well as from Tennyson” (30).  But for all that, he is a minor poet with a true singing quality, “but the want of ethical centre and grasp . . . which the years may mend.”  The tone of Cappon’s remarks indicate an attempt to dampen what he perceived to be unwarranted enthusiasm over the new generation of Canadian poets, the so-called group of ’60, all born around 1860 in Canada, and the first generation of poets to come of age in the new Confederation and the first uniquely Canadian lyricists.  Despite his reservations about Cappon’s views on Canadian literature, Lorne Pierce sought his assistance in promoting Canadian poetry; after Cappon’s retirement in 1919, Pierce encouraged him to revise and update his views on Roberts in a new book for the Ryerson Press’ series on Canadian writers in 1925.  Pierce then asked Cappon to develop another book, this time on the work of Bliss Carman.  Cappon obliged, but devoted a quarter of the book’s space to the expression of his views on the influence of Walt Whitman on contemporary poetry.

            As he considered Roberts a lesser Keats, so too does Cappon view Whitman in terms of the masters he fails to fully emulate.  Cappon’s view of Whitman can be reduced conveniently to three themes:  he lacks the philosophical rigour of his intellectual influences, he is a better prose stylist than a poet, and he writes as at least three distinct personae which makes it difficult to ascertain who he really is.  Overall, Whitman lacks the gravitas to match his ambitions and his enthusiasms.

            Firstly, Cappon begins by praising Emerson for merging Romantic inspiration with spiritual and intellectual asceticism; Emerson frees his people from the overformal and oversystematized literary culture of the eighteenth century with his doctrines of free ecstatic expression.  In other words, Emerson’s revolutionary moves respond to the needs of the time; Americans needed to be freed to explore the dictates of the soul.  However, by the time Whitman arrives on the scene, the point has been made, and his continued pursuit of it could only seem to the decent American people who require the naturalistic liberation he offers “little else than an attempt to idealize the crude instincts of the Cave man.  To the foolish, it would be the consecration of their folly” (285).    The caveman suggests to Cappon’s Arnoldian sense a kind of atavistic rejection of the best that is known and thought in the world, and indeed such an invocation of anarchy reflects the Tory rectitude of Cappon’s imperial intent.  Emerson’s positive call for American independence of thought “became in Whitman a fanatical contempt of the best that other nations had produced in the past as unsuitable for the intelligence of a free democratic people” (269).  But if there is something to redeem Whitman’s boorishness and his licentious naturalism, then it is his capacity for offending the sensibilities of American social conventionality:  “The British matron of Victorian memory was an easy going creature compared with her American sister of today, who is an imperious Juno dragging a meek but highly ironic little Zeus in her wake.  It is only the younger Eve that can beat her off the field when it is a question of short skirts or unchaperoned drives  (284).

            Even in stylistic matters, Cappon finds Whitman’s verse lacking in Emerson’s reserve.  Cappon’s aesthetic, built on an appreciation of Tennyson and Wordsworth in particular, seems attached to a conception of poetic coherence that perhaps ill suits him to the appreciation of the prophetic verse style of Whitman.  He finds rare lines of merit throughout, but we may not be surprised then to find that he identifies “O Captain! My Captain!” as “the one little song . . . which really reached the heart of his people” and in which “he returns frankly to a traditional form of verse, one of the oldest and simplest rhythms of English poetry, and an entirely normal style of poetic phrase and structure.  Devotees even pretend to look down on it for that, but for once a strong personal emotion had brought beauty and truth together in his verse” (275).  The subtle reference to Keats in the final statement seems as telling as anything else.

Cappon’s admiration for Emerson is well demonstrated, not only in this chapter, but also in the fact that Emerson was the one North American writer worthy of mention in Cappon’s inaugural address delivered on his installation as Professor of English Language and Literature at Queen’s in 1889.  Indeed, he feels that Whitman slights Emerson uncharitably in his later writings, writings that Cappon feels show a lack of consistency in Whitman’s views over his career.  Indeed, it is Whitman’s apparent disregard for history and tradition that weakens his spiritual vision:  “[Human progress] appears to him as a straight line in which each point of light in the long series is practically extinguished on the appearance of the next, as a new mechanical invention or a new business method extinguishes its predecessor.  He cannot see the Reason, the Logos in humanity as a living whole which is continually inspiring and controlling the new effort of man to understand and express himself” (290).  The failure of Whitman’s historical vision compromises the objectivity of his claims for American letters which is nothing more than mere flattery of the pride of his countrymen:

The American supremacy may realize itself sometime, but there are few signs yet that material prosperity and business energy are creating in America the atmosphere in which great art rises naturally into life.  And perhaps Whitman’s influence in relaxing the standards of literary form has co-operated with the overdevelopment of market and business interests to postpone the migration of the Muse.  (293)

Indeed, it is only his “patriotic faith” in the destiny of his nation that allows Whitman to harmonize the contradictory elements in his writing.  Cappon finds all there is of value in Whitman’s vision in the earliest editions of the Leaves of Grass.  The later editions weaken that initial vision, and the prose writings, notably Democratic Vistas, weaken it further with their attempt to contextualize, explain and counteract his earlier pronouncements although Cappon acknowledges that the later prose writings reflect a more mature attitude towards the literary products of Europe.  But the existence of three Walt Whitmans (the Whitman of the original editions of Leaves, the Whitman of the later revisions and expansion, and the Whitman of the prose writings) prevent him from being a consistent representation of whatever America might achieve:

The three together constitute such a mass of divergent, differently shaded and contradictory views that in the end it would be difficult to say what Whitman stood for in the way of doctrine or opinion that had anything novel about it.  The only thing left him would be his conviction that America, as Sandburg says, means something and is going somewhere and will get there sometime. For further information await the 30th century.  (299)

The snide and uncharitable tone of his remarks here seem consistent with his responses to the work of Charles G.D. Roberts; they reflect a kindly appreciation of the efforts of a lesser poet, but at the same time warn against any enthusiastic elevation of the New World artist beyond his station.

            Cappon’s view is an anachronistic holdover from the turn of the century, and the appearance of this work of criticism in 1930 obscures the state of Canadian literature at the time.  But he represents in extremis a strand of tory nationalism that informs our understanding of the nationalist fervour of the 1960s when our nation prepared to celebrate the centenary of Confederation in 1967.  Against this backdrop of national excitement, which was accompanied by a great flowering of interest in Canadian cultural products supported by the governmental impetuses that followed the 1951 report of Vincent Massey’s royal commission on the development of arts, letters and sciences, Leonard Cohen emerged as a young poet, songwriter, and novelist whose dark romantic visions of human relationships found a ready audience in the baby boom generation stretching its cultural legs in the sixties.

            As Lorelei Cederstrom has noted, Whitman’s influence on Canadian letters, particularly prior to the second world war, has been limited.  His influence on Bucke’s writing is well noted, and he was significantly lionized by a group of mystics and artists associated with feminist writer Flora MacDonald Denison and Group of Seven painter Lawren Harris, the so-called Bon Echo group (Cederstrom 102).  Prior to the second world war, Canadian poetry took its lead from British antecedents.  But after the second world war, American influence became more visible in Canadian writing as in the influence of the San Francisco poets and the Black Mountain Group on the Vancouver-based TISH group, or the relationships between Louis Dudek and Ezra Pound or Irving Layton and Robert Creeley.

            As part of the postwar, post-Massey generation, Leonard Cohen emerged as a star in both the Canadian literary scene and the international popular music scene.  Cohen’s 1966 novel Beautiful Losers presents a national allegory for an era in which great nationalist enthusiasm in English Canada was shadowed by an increasingly violent presence among Quebecois separatist nationalists.  Indeed, Frank Davey has called it a “cynical political comment on Canada’s repetitive francophone Quebec question” (Davey 23).  Davey finds the novel’s fantastic gestures towards the transcendence of time, history and identity politics to be a glib response to the complex political question that it addresses.  Without attempting to outline what is a complex and surreal narrative, let me simply enumerate the three main characters--the first-person narrator of the novel’s first book who is known simply as “I,” his wife Edith who is one of the few remaining representatives of a vanishing native tribe, and his long-time friend and sometime homosexual lover “F,” a separatist politician and terrorist.  Each represents a major historical claimant to national dominance:  Anglophone, Francophone and First Nations.  “I” is a chronically constipated anthropologist who suffers from writer’s block because he can’t verify beyond doubt the facts of his chosen subject of research.  He narrates his various anxieties in the first book of the novel which is entitled “A History of Them All,” a title which parallels in ironic fashion “Song of Myself.”  I is, after all, a kind of anti-Whitman--constipated, uptight, blocked, jealously defensive of his own personal borders, personal borders that are challenged by his wife and friend.  Where Whitman freely produces his “Song,” “I” struggles to find an irretrievable history; where Whitman confidently asserts and celebrates an integrative self, “I” deflects attention to a differentiated “them all”; where Whitman assumes the experience of all he meets and proclaims “I contain multitudes,” “I” recoils from Edith’s playful suggestion “Let’s be other people” (15).   Cohen further signals his parodic gesture by structuring “I”’s narrative in 52 sections like the later versions of “Song of Myself.” 

In the course of “The History of Them All,” I grows increasingly neurotic and paranoid to the point where he suffers a complete breakdown.  The novel then moves to its second book which consists of a posthumous letter written by F., outlining his attempts to educate and reinvent “I.”  Before his life comes to a violent end, F. enjoins “I” to appropriate his style and “go beyond my style” (161).  Book three presents an omniscient third-person narrator who relates the story of a bearded old man whom we see trying to lure a boy into a treehouse.  As we follow the lonely old grubber through a series of surreal adventures, we realize that he is a composite figure in whom is embodied physical and personal traits of both I and F.  I has learned the lessons of F. and Edith and absorbed them both in order to become a synthetic representative man.  Having apparently resolved the antinomies of the Two Solitudes of Canadian identity (or more accurately here three solitudes), the character undergoes one further transmutation:  he dissolves into a film projector beam projecting an image of Ray Charles singing “Ol’ Man River” onto the night sky, the apotheosis of the beautiful loser who has become the image of a black, drug-addicted rhythm and blues singer.

This composite figure is the book’s beautiful loser, the saint who has achieved a “remote human possibility” (101) by submitting to the vertigo of chaos.  “I”’s anxiety derives from his failed attempts to dissolve the chaos by imposing rational narrative form on history.  He has learned to embrace the chaos by absorbing the style of F.  Indeed, as some critics have noted, “I” and F. have combined to form “IF,” that remote human possibility.  The achievement of that possibility seems to carry the force of historical necessity.  Those who have won in the past will become losers in the future as F. reads history:  “The English did to us what we did to the Indians, and the Americans did to the English what the English did to us” (199).  The beautiful loser escapes this cycle by transcending the polarities.

Davey may well be right to say that Cohen’s allegory oversimplifies a complex historical situation, but it certainly represents a desire to mitigate the friction created by nationalist thinking.  Cohen borrows Whitmanian motifs and style in constructing his own image of the beautiful loser in the concluding lines of the novel:

Poor men, poor men, such as we, they’ve gone and fled.  I will plead from electrical tower.  I will plead from turret of plane. He will uncover His face.  He will not leave me alone. I will spread His name in Parliament.  I will welcome His silence in pain.  I have come through the fire of family and love.  I smoke with my darling, I sleep with my friend.  We talk of the poor men, broken and fled.  Alone with my radio I lift up my hands.  Welcome to you who read me today.  Welcome to you who put my heart down.  Welcome to you, darling and friend, who miss me forever in your trip to the end. (259-60)

The repeated first-person clauses and the direct address to the reader here recollect the concluding lines of “Song of Myself”:         

I depart as air, I shake my white locks at the runaway sun,
I effuse my flesh in eddies, and drift it in lacy jags.

 I bequeath myself to the dirt to grow from the grass I love,
If you want me again look for me under your boot-soles.

You will hardly know who I am or what I mean,
But I shall be good health to you nevertheless,
And filter and fibre your blood.

Failing to fetch me at first keep encouraged,
Missing me one place search another,
I stop somewhere waiting for you.  (52.1337-46)

I think Cohen adopts Whitmanian cadences to highlight a New World aesthetic that would allow Canada to distance itself from distinctions rooted in European imperialism while embracing a McLuhanite global vision.

            But Cohen’s gesture here could only happen in Kanada with a K, Whitman’s imagined northern territory yet to be annexed.  It would certainly be wrong of me to install Cappon in any sense as a kind of broad representative of English-Canadian views of Whitman.  After all, the occasion of his rant on Whitman was a book on Bliss Carman, the New Brunswick born poet who embraced the influence of Whitman, particularly in the Songs of Vagabondia co-authored with Richard Hovey, and embraced a Bohemian persona with which he sought to shock the Canadian literary scene on his return from America.  What I have tried to tease out here is an element of Cappon’s Tory anxiety about the potential influence of Whitman on a country where the imperial link was eroding, and Cohen’s representation of that anxiety through a figure that borrows from Whitman.  To remind you of the historical context, Cohen’s novel appears in the midst of a terrorist bombing campaign in the streets of Montreal, and Cohen writes here out of an anxiety about the future of a country dominated by an English Canada seemingly incapable of reaching out to the diversities that constitute the nation.  I think what I’m trying to say is that the figure of Whitman comes to represent in both these locations a source of anxiety for these two Canadian writers.  But where, in Cappon, the presence and influence of Whitman constitutes the threat to Canadian culture, for Cohen, the reluctance to attend to the Whitmanian message portends the greater failure.

Works cited

Cappon, James.  Bliss Carman and the Literary Currents and Influences of his Time.  Toronto:  Ryerson Press, 1930.

---.  Roberts and the Influences of his Time.  Toronto:  William Briggs, 1905.

Cederstrom, Lorelei.  “Whitman’s Reception in Canada.”  Walt Whitman:  An Encyclopedia.  Eds.  J.R. LeMaster and Donald D. Kummings.  New York:  Garland, 1998.

Cohen, Leonard.  Beautiful Losers.  1966.  Toronto:  McClelland, 1989.

Davey, Frank.  Beautiful Losers:  Leonard Cohen’s Postcolonial Novel.”  Essays on Canadian Writing 69 (1999):  12-23.

Roberts, Charles G.D.  The Collected Letters of Charles G.D. Roberts.  Ed. Laurel Boone.  Fredericton NB:  Goose Lane Editions, 1989.

Whitman, Walt.  Leaves of Grass and Other Writings.  Ed. Michael Moon.  New York:  Norton, 2002.

Mickle Street Review Issue 17/18: Walt Whitman and Place