A Supermarket in Kanada? Whitman Among
the Beautiful Losers Okanagan
College, British Coulmbia
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
the fictional representation, how accurate an account of
Whitman’s image in
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
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
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
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:
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
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
after the second world war, American influence became more
visible in Canadian writing as in the influence of the
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
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:
The repeated first-person clauses and the direct address to the reader here recollect the concluding lines of “Song of Myself”:
think Cohen adopts Whitmanian cadences to highlight a New
World aesthetic that would allow
gesture here could only happen in Kanada with a K, Whitman’s
Cappon, James. Bliss Carman
and the Literary Currents and Influences of his Time.
---. Roberts and the Influences
of his Time.
Cederstrom, Lorelei. “Whitman’s Reception in
Cohen, Leonard. Beautiful Losers. 1966.
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.
Whitman, Walt. Leaves of Grass and Other Writings. Ed. Michael Moon.