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When Whitman Met Wilde…..

 

 

wildewhitman

Oscar Wilde and Walt Whitman once spent an afternoon together. They drank elderberry wine and talked about being famous. From The New Republic.

By

On January 31, 1882, a partially paralyzed man living with his brother and sister-in-law in a row house in Camden, New Jersey, wrote to a friend to tell him of a recent visitor to that home. “He is a fine large handsome youngster,” the man wrote of that guest. And “he had the good sense to take a great fancy to me.”

Thus Walt Whitman described the day he spent with Oscar Wilde. This meeting between the self-described “old rough” who revolutionized American poetry with his masterpiece Leaves of Grass and the self-anointed “Professor of Aesthetics” who was touring America with a lecture praising sconces and embroidered pillows, has been examined often in the intervening years, usually through the lens of what is now called queer history, or as an interesting, if not particularly consequential, moment in the history of literature.

But neither approach takes the true measure of the meeting’s importance. For Wilde didn’t travel to Camden to talk about gender roles or belles lettres. The writer was still years away from becoming the author whose peerlessly witty plays are still staged today. What drew him to Whitman’s home was the opportunity to discuss fame. He wanted to listen to the singer of “Song of Myself”an older man (Whitman was 62, Wilde 27) with inexhaustible energy, despite his infirmity, for self-promotion. Whitman was an international icon who exploited the fuzzy line between acclaim and notoriety and a media-savvy poet who understood the crucial role of image in the making of a literary career. Wilde didn’t travel to Camden to learn how to be a famous writer. That, he was certain, he would later teach himself. He went to learn how to be a famous person. It would be hard to imagine a more apt pairing of teacher and student.

Wilde had been sent to America by Richard D’Oyly Carte, the business manager for Gilbert & Sullivan, whose latest operetta, Patience, had recently opened in the English capital to rave reviews and huge ticket sales. Carte had dispatched his clients’ previous hits to America, where they were well-received. He planned to do the same with Patience, but he was nervous. Patience was a satire of the British aesthetic movement, a movement united behind the slogan “art for art’s sake.”1

Aesthetes championed the use of decorative ornamentation in the making of furniture, ceramics, textiles, and so on, and proclaimed the superiority of handmade goods to mass-produced ones. Its poetic credo was summed up by Keats: “Beauty is truth, truth beauty,that is all ye know on earth, and all ye need to know.”

To W.S. Gilbert, however, the movement was a nirvana for useless narcissists and a way for self-adoring dandies to natter away in public about their exquisite taste, a conviction he verbalized to great comic effect in Patience. The principal male roles in the operetta, Bunthorne and Grosvenor, two poets competing for the hand of a lass named Patience, were composites modeled on several leading aesthetes, among them: the painters Dante Gabriel Rossetti and James McNeill Whistler, the poet Algernon Swinburne, and the recent Oxford graduate Oscar Wildewho claimed, with no justification, to be the leader of the movement. Wilde had just self-published his first book of poetry to some withering reviews, sarcastic cartoons in humor magazines such as Punch, and negligible sales.

What had made Carte nervous was that the aesthete was not a native species in the United States. Would American audiences get the jokes? A solution was put forth by the manager of Carte’s New York office: send over a “real” aesthete (maybe Oscar Wilde?) and have him present a series of lectures in America (“On Beauty,” perhaps?), delivered in the same “aesthetic” costume (satin breeches, shiny patent-leather pumps, form-fitting velvet jacket, and so on), worn by Bunthorne in Patience. A telegram was sent from New York to Wilde in London that claimed (falsely) that fifty American lecture agents were ready to book him, if he were available to speak. Wilde was nearly broke, so he answered, “Yes, if offer good.” It was: fifty percent of the box-office take, less expenses.

Wilde arrived on January 3, 1882, and, six days later, presented his first lecture, titled “The English Renaissance of Art,” to a sold-out house at Chickering Hall (seating capacity: 1,250) on lower Fifth Avenue. That a man virtually unknown to most Americans could achieve that commercial triumph was, in large part, the result of the nearly nonstop coverage in the New York press of Wilde’s preening at parties in the nights before his lecture by leading figures in Manhattan society. “I stand [in] the reception rooms when I go out, and for two hours they defile past for introduction,” Wilde wrote of his socializing in New York to a friend in London. “I bow graciously and sometimes honour them with a royal observation.”

A reporter from Philadelphia interviewed Wilde as they took a train to that city, the second stop on his tour. “What poet do you most admire in America?” the reporter asked Wilde, who had won the prestigious Newdigate Prize for poetry, at Oxford.2

“I think Walt Whitman and [Ralph Waldo] Emerson have given the world more than anyone else,” he answered. “I do so hope to meet Mr. Whitman,” (Perhaps Wilde’s press agent had informed him that the poet lived nearby.) “I admire him intensely,” Wilde continued. “Dante Rossetti, [Algernon] Swinburne, William Morris and I often discuss him.” In reality, Swinburne and Wilde were mere acquaintances and had not often discussed anything. But that didn’t stop Wilde from adding, as if he were repeating something from their “frequent” discussions: “There is something so Greek and sane about [Whitman’s] poetry; it is so universal, so comprehensive.” After these words were published in the Philadelphia Press, Wilde got the response he was likely hoping for. Whitman sent this note to his hotel: “Walt Whitman will be in from 2 till 3 ½ this afternoon & will be most happy to see Mr. Wilde.”

“I come as a poet to call upon a poet,” Wilde said, when Whitman opened his door. Whitman, who adored being adored as few others ever have, was delighted to hear this. He went to the cupboard and removed a bottle of his sister-in-law Louisa’s homemade elderberry wine. The two men began to empty it.

They were unlikely drinking companions. Wilde had a double “first” from one of the most prestigious universities in the world; Whitman left school at age eleven. Wilde was a polished talker and epigrammist; Whitman spoke in short, occasionally ungrammatical bursts. Wilde was a snob; Whitman (in his own words) “talk[ed] readily with niggers.” Despite these differences, the two men enjoyed each other’s company. “I will call you Oscar,” Whitman said. “I like that so much,” Wilde replied. He was thrilled to be in such close proximity to the man who, as Wilde had hoped to do for himself, had launched his career with a self-published book of poems.

So Wilde accepted Whitman’s invitation to accompany him to his den on the third floor, where, as Whitman said, they could be on “thee and thou terms.” Wilde was shocked by the tiny room where Whitman wrote his verse. Dust was everywhere, and the only place for Wilde to sit, a low stool near Whitman’s desk, was covered by a messy pile of newspapers Whitman had saved because he was mentioned in them.

The American told his guest he admired the work of Britain’s poet laureate, Alfred, Lord Tennyson, yet noted that it was often “perfumed … to an extreme of sweetness.” He then asked: “Are not you young fellows going to shove the established idols aside, Tennyson and the rest?”

“Tennyson’s rank is too well fixed,” Wilde said, “and we love him too much. But he has not allowed himself to be a part of the living world…. We, on the other hand, move in the very heart of today.” That “we” was the aesthetic movement. “You are young and ardent,” Whitman said, “and the field is wide, and if you want my advice, [I say] go ahead.”

The real subject of Whitman’s conversation wasn’t literary form; it was how to build a career in public, with all the display that self-glorifying achievement requires. We can deduce that with confidence because the first thing Whitman did when he reached his den was to give his guest a photograph of himself. Whitman had pioneered the idea that a writer in search of fame should fashion himself as a literary artifact. When Leaves of Grass was self-published in 1855 it did not have Whitman’s name on the title page; instead, it had his portrait on the preceding page, showing the author standing tall in workman’s garb, his collar open, his left hand in one pocket of his slacks, his right resting on his hip, his bearded head topped by a hat set at a cocky angle, and his eyes meeting the reader with a stare simultaneously casual and challenging. No writer had ever presented himself to the public this way, let alone so intentionally. (Or with a visible button fly.) This frontispiece is now considered, the scholars Ed Folsom and Charles M. Price write, “the most famous in literary history.”

The portrait Whitman gave Wilde in 1882 appeared on his next book, Specimen Days & Collect, an assemblage of travel diaries, nature writing, and Civil War reminiscences. (Whitman had spent the war years in Washington, working as a government clerk and volunteering as a hospital visitor.) He is in profile in the photograph, sitting in a wicker chair wearing a wide-brimmed hat, an open-necked shirt, and a cardigan. A butterfly is perched on his index finger, held in front of his face. “I’ve always had the knack of attracting birds and butterflies,” Whitman once told a friend. Years later Whitman’s “butterfly” was found in the Library of Congress. It was made of cardboard; it had been tied to his finger with string.

By handing Wilde that photo Whitman was teaching him that fame as a writer is only partly about literature. It is also about committing oneself to a performance. Such role-playing isn’t the act of a phony; in Whitman’s mind every pose he struck was authentic. This type of authenticitythe fashioning of an image one would be faithful to in publicWilde had experienced on a small scale playing the aesthete on the campus of Oxford’s Magdalen College and at parties in London. It was instructive to have its truth verified by a literary star who had proved its efficacy on an international scale. Wilde had always believed there was nothing inglorious about seeking glory. By handing Wilde his portrait, Whitman was confirming that instinct.

Days before he met Whitman, Wilde sat for the photographer Napoleon Sarony in New York, posing himself as an aesthetic Adonis in satin breeches. Following Whitman’s lead, he used these portraits as his “logo” as he crossed America delivering his lectures. He would present more than 140 of them and remain in the States for a year, becoming the second-most-recognized Briton in America, behind only Queen Victoria. (Not bad for a writer who’d hardly written anything.)

“God bless you, Oscar,” Whitman said, when Wilde left. A Philadelphian joked that it must have been hard for Wilde to swallow the homemade wine Whitman had offered. For once Wilde rejected an invitation to snobbery. “If it had been vinegar, I should have drunk it all the same,” he said. “I have an admiration for that man which I can hardly express.”


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Has the Internet Killed Text?

Reading Insecurity

Has the Internet killed thoughtful, prolonged engagement with a text—or are we nostalgic for a reading Eden that never existed?

By Katy Waldman katy

Reprinted from Slate : an online magazine. Katy Waldman is a Slate staff writer.

It is becoming a cliché of conversations between twentysomethings (especially to the right of 25) that if you talk about books or articles or strung-together words long enough, someone will eventually wail plaintively: “I just can’t reeeeeaaad anymore.” The person will explain that the Internet has shot her attention span. She will tell you about how, when she was small, she could lose herself in a novel for hours, and now, all she can do is watch the tweets swim by like glittery fish in the river of time-she-will-never-get-back. You will begin to chafe at what sounds like a humblebrag—I was precocious and remain an intellectual at heart or I feel oppressed by my active participation in the cultural conversation—but then you will realize, with an ache of recognition, that you are in the same predicament. “Yes,” you will gush, overcome by possibly invented memories of afternoons whiled away under a tree with Robertson Davies. “What happened to me? How do I fight it? Where did my concentration—oooh, cheese.”

Reading insecurity. It is the subjective experience of thinking that you’re not getting as much from reading as you used to. It is setting aside an hour for that new book about mass hysteria in a high school and spending it instead on Facebook (scrolling dumbly through photos of people you barely remember from your high school). It is deploring your attention span and missing the flow, the trance, of entering a narrative world without bringing the real one along. It is realizing that if Virginia Woolf was correct to call heaven “one continuous unexhausted reading,” then goodbye, you have been kicked out of paradise.

bookworm

And reading insecurity is everywhere, from the many colleagues who told me they have the condition (“My power to concentrate and absorb is atrophied. And that’s reading a short novel like Cat’s Cradle, which I’ve been reading for a year now”) to the desperate call-to-arms among twentysomething friends that rarely leads anywhere: “Let’s form a book club!” (Yeah, right.) An assortment of new reading apps advance the idea that we must reimagine reading if we’re going to salvage it, their fizzy positivism—Reading 1.0 is “inefficient” and “frustrating.” Reading 2.0 is great!—masking the same why isn’t-this-working anxiety. As a curative we have the unplugging movement. Books and articles probe the Way We Read Now: Teachers deplore it, kids seem unfazed by it, and millennials/late Gen Y-ers wonder whether to embrace or resist it. It is that last group—the ambivalent ones, who came of age just as the Internet was beginning to envelop society and can faintly remember glimmers of a prelapsarian past—that seems most susceptible to reading insecurity. Our nostalgia for print shades into nostalgia for childhood itself. We’ve landed in a different world from the one we started out in, but unlike our parents, we can’t retreat from it; we have to inherit it. We worry we’re not up to the task.

Science inflames this self-doubt, or at least reinforces the sense that something big has changed. A long train of studies suggests that people read the Internet differently than they read print. We skim and scan for the information we want, rather than starting at the beginning and plowing through to the end. Our eyes jump around, magnetized to links—they imply authority and importance—and short lines cocooned in white space. We’ll scroll if we have to, but we’d prefer not to. (Does the weightless descent invite a momentary disorientation, a lightheadedness? Or are we just lazy?) We read faster. “People tend not to read online in the traditional sense but rather to skim read, hop from one source to another, and ‘power browse,’ ” wrote psychologists Val Hooper and Channa Herath in June.

And it is not just the choreography of reading that changes when ink gives way to pixels. It is the way we experience, integrate, and remember the content. In her insightful (online) review of online and print-based reading styles for The New Yorker, Maria Konnikova describes a study by the Norwegian scientist Anne Mangen, who asked students to digest a short story either as a Kindle e-book or as a paperback. Despite the two texts’ physical resemblance—“Kindle e-ink is designed to mimic the printed page,” Konnikova notes—the students who read from the paperback volume could better reconstruct the story’s plot. Likewise, when volunteers were asked to write an essay on a narrative they’d consumed either online or on paper, those who had received tangible books crafted superior responses.

So maybe we’re right to be worried about our e-reading. Maybe we’ve sensed that we rely on physical cues to ground ourselves in complex arguments, and that we get more of those from books than from flickering screens. Online, the fugitive flow of pixels makes the ideas themselves seem airy and ephemeral. Are those wisps then less likely to lodge in memory?

The notion that language might absorb the evanescent or permanent properties of its medium was a big deal in the Middle Ages, as written records began to supplant spoken traditions. Chaucer linked oral expression to flux and deceit: In a poem that partially serves as a cautionary tale about rumor, he connects the transience of love to the vanishing sound of a lover’s voice professing it. (One character, for example, asks why guys lie so much when they pledge their faith out loud: “O have ye men swich goodlihede/ in speche, and never a deel of trouthe?”) Even earlier, the Roman poet Catullus sarcastically urged women to write their promises in wind and running water—media appropriate to the fickleness of their words.* Of St. Augustine, lifted to heaven by the concrete reality and inarguable verity of ink on codex (he converted after opening a Bible), Andrew Piper writes: “It was above all else the graspability of the book, its being ‘at hand,’ that allowed it to play such a pivotal role. …. The book’s graspability, in a material as well as a spiritual sense, is what endowed it with such immense power to radically alter our lives.”

Maybe this all seems somewhat egg-headed and wooly as an explanation for why Internet reading freaks us out, but I can’t help thinking that the hoary debate around “orality and literacy”—the slippery nature of one versus the stable authority of the other—is back, sort of. This time we’ve cast the new technology as the unreliable flibbertigibbet and the relic-like printed book as the trusty source. And after centuries of vaunting the solidity of written language, there’s a kind of whiplash in signing on and watching our literary output swoosh by.

girl reading

Plus, and more prosaically, it is just much harder to concentrate when you read online. Email, IM, social media, and spiral-arms of infinite, alluring content are a click away. Once you pick a page, ads and hyperlinks beckon. In their 2014 paper, Hooper and Herath suggested that people’s comprehension suffered when they read the Internet because the barrage of extraneous stimuli interrupted the transfer of information from sensory to working memory, and from working to long-term memory. Experts have posited the extinction of the “deep reading brain” if we do not learn to tune out the Web’s distractions. (This is the kind of pronouncement that will make you sick with reading insecurity.) Some of my friends and colleagues say that they can feel their deep reading brains rallying if they boycott the Internet for a while, which at least implies that the syndrome is reversible. Yet most of our jobs in the information economy require a daily mind-meld with Dr. Google. Reading insecurity has a way of reminding you just how e-dependent you are.

For me, floating behind all the talk of our frazzled attention is a veil of guilt and blame: It’s your fault! You could sit down and do this if you wanted to. You could savor stuff on a screen—didn’t you just binge watch the entirety of High Maintenance last night? Yet the profusion of the Internet also changes the calculus of how long I’m willing to spend on a given story. I’m not alone: People report more impatience when they read from their computers. In reading as with everything else, we’re haunted by FOMO and the search for novelty: “We are sponges and we live in a world where the fire hose is always on,” wrote David Carr in the New York Times. Jakob Nielsen, who studies the mechanics of Internet perusal, put it more bluntly: “Users are selfish, lazy, and ruthless.”

So maybe the answer is just to close the laptop and read more books. Books! Hallelujah. Except that it sometimes feels as though we are Typhoid Marys, transferring our diseased Web habits back to print. A colleague around my age told me she now thinks of books as tabs: flitting distractedly between them, she is often forced to retrace her steps. I feel selfish, lazy, and ruthless even when met by the generosity of a sunny afternoon and a novel; sometimes I wonder whether a portal has permanently closed.

Yet the Web giveth, even as it taketh away. The good news is that, insecure or not, we are all reading more. Thanks to the Internet, words are everywhere; e-readers are light, slim, and cost-effective; our faster reading pace means we can range more widely. And yes, there are wonderful advantages to the onscreen reading experience, including searchable keywords, toolbars, the ability to look up anything. A different colleague, working on a historical project, raved to me about the obscure diaries he was able to unearth online—without the Web, he would have needed to travel to an archive in another state to find them, and would have had to scarf them down before the building closed at 5. The accessibility of the documents on the Internet, he explained, allowed for deep and prolonged engagement. And of course this was in addition to the breadth of knowledge afforded: You can’t overstate the vast contextualizing power of more than 1 billion websites.

The good news is that, insecure or not, we are all reading more.

I also realize, typing this confession of pathological distractibility, that I may be pining for an Eden of immersive focus that never existed. Did I ever really spend six hours with my face in a book? Was my imagination truly so unfettered from the concerns of everyday life—and, if so, isn’t that a childhood thing, not a technology thing? Twelve-year-old me never had a Google alert wrench her out of Francie’s Brooklyn so that she could write her roommate a check for the rent. She definitely wasn’t expected to know what was going on in Syria.

Still, the dissatisfaction lingers. In his 1988 study of ludic (or pleasure) reading, Victor Nell found that we read slower when we like a text. Our brains enter a state of arousal that resembles hypnosis. There is trance and transportation—which might explain why, 30 years later, adults prefer to encounter Darcy and Dracula offline, where they are less conditioned to skim, jump around, and be generally restless. In a recent survey of several hundred men and women over the age of 18, most respondents said they enjoyed print books more than e-books, though they were content to gather information from either format. The researchers suggested that pleasure reading requires a deeper engagement with the text, one facilitated by the kind of sustained, linear attention (and ability to annotate) that print books promote. In other words, when we bemoan that we don’t reeeeeaaad any more, we are mourning a specific kind of reading—and it is precisely this kind that seems to shimmer beyond our reach online.