Gertrude Stein’s definitive skewering of Ezra Pound—“He was a village explainer, excellent if you were a village, but if you were not, not”—applies to an earlier American epic poet as well. The Walt Whitman of this novel (Pound would claim imaginative kinship with him in 1916) was trafficking in the same line of goods—the egotistical sublime—a few decades earlier. Not satisfied with having written an epic-length poem entitled “Song of Myself,” as well as many another poems on the same inexhaustibly interesting subject, Whitman spent his last years burnishing his image. Enfeebled by strokes, yet continuing to write, Whitman found a number of admirers (among them Richard M. Bucke of the asylum in London, Ontario), both in the United States and elsewhere, who happily made the pilgrimage to his small residence in Camden, New Jersey. The most diligent and inexhaustible was Horace Traubel, a man with an endless capacity for listening to and recording his hero’s abundant outpourings. His character forms the principal narrator of Fetherling’s novel.
During his prime years, Whitman fused his personal focus with his direct, encyclopedic cataloguing of the America of his time. Later, his was a leading genius in defining the Civil War as a moral crusade giving birth to a new America in which that “new birth of freedom” that Lincoln spoke of would be forever evolving. He found in Abraham Lincoln a figure who fulfilled his democratic ideal (and a martyr as well). Whitman, in those last years, perfected an annual performance ritual in which he re-enacted a personal drama featuring an idealized relationship between himself and his idol, whom he had only glimpsed from afar. Their closeness increased with every successive re-enactment, attracting wide and celebrity-laden audiences until Whitman’s death.
Walt Whitman’s Secret deals with its subject’s final phase, a period when the poet’s growing self-obsession could be matched only by the attention devoted to him by such acolytes as Bucke and Traubel. Bravely, Fetherling has tied his own hands. How can a novelist dramatize a period when a life has shrunk into the solipsistic?
When Oscar Wilde (a Whitman admirer) observed that “to fall in love with oneself is the beginning of a lifelong romance,” he was not only defining in passing the subject matter of Whitman’s lifelong poem. He was also implying that such a romance may not prove as gripping to others as to oneself. How many toasts to “My Good Health” can an audience endure from a banquet speaker?
Fetherling wrings what he can from the devotions of the acolytes whom I have mentioned. Their attentions were untiring to the point of hero worship. Thus Bucke placed the poet at the centre of what he called “cosmic consciousness,” within a pantheon including Buddha, Jesus, Paul, Plotinus, Muhammad, Dante, Francis Bacon and William Blake. Even though the four evangelists considered a volume apiece adequate space for summing up the character and mission of Jesus, Traubel filled nine volumes with his rapt recordings of his subject’s thoughts on absolutely everything. Excellent if you were a cultist, but if you were not, not.
How, a reader asks, can narrative vigour be pumped into such material? Something more must feed a reader’s interest. This Fetherling supplies through the character of Peter Doyle, the streetcar conductor and the one among Whitman’s lovers about whom we know the most. Drama and irony enter this novel when the author glues Doyle to the fringes of the Booth conspiracy against Abraham Lincoln.
Our present-day fluid sense of genre boundaries means that historical fiction can easily swerve into fantasy, as is the case here. Even a reader at ease with this swerve, however, needs to know more about the Peter Doyle who surfaces and plays such a role in a novel called Walt Whitman’s Secret. Doyle was a working-class Irish-American of his time and place. Was he what the Irish call a bit of a boyo? Did he have his problems with booze? When did he out himself? Was Whitman his first male lover? What was Doyle’s relationship with that brooding, inescapable, all-seeing Irish God whose most abundant gift to his followers is bottles of guilt? You don’t have to be Eugene O’Neill to make up a rip-roaring history for this man, and doing so would have markedly spiced this novel.
Besides, present-day readers acquainted with the 9/11 “truthers” would relish a fictional account of the Booth conspiracy, which demonstrates that a very successful terrorist strike can be cobbled together with the inept, the insane and misfits in general. The ironies, inconsistencies and logical gaps in the Booth conspiracy—and the vengeance exacted upon those swept along by it—instruct us that you do not need a vaster, even more improbable, hypothetical conspiracy in order to explain the working model that actually exists before you. Certainly the streetcar worker needs sure and detailed placement among a crowd whose convener broke his leg because he was more intent on uttering a florid, theatrical apostrophe than upon landing properly from a broad jump. In an incident where a neck brace worn by the actual secretary of state was the only thing saving him from a slit throat, the novelist has a lot of room in which to heighten our sense of the context in which a major character found himself. And the anguish that a fact so monstrous as a lover’s participation in a modern-day crucifixion might be expected to provoke in a sensitive figure like Whitman never quite comes alive in these pages.
My own secret about Walt Whitman is that his personal appeal does not need to be rescued from dry-as-dust historical chroniclers. Such historical monographs as Robert Roper’s Now the Drum of War and Roy Morris Jr.’s The Better Angel are two of a number of books that have relocated Whitman within the passion and pathos of the Civil War. They outline a tortured personality far more raunchy, riven and desperate than the myth-making monologist occupying Walt Whitman’s Secret. The jacket photograph of Whitman shows the Good Gray Poet of Whitman’s (self-constructed) legend. Better and livelier would be that rude frontiersman who surfaces quite by chance in a Harper’s Magazine artist’s depiction of a field-kitchen lineup after the battle of Chancellorsville. (Whitman had journeyed there to nurse his wounded brother.) Pity that the novelist chose to focus upon the aged monologist, ignoring an earlier, dialogical Whitman torn apart by the war. Whitman would later sculpt that war—the real one that he claimed would never get into the books—into a vehicle for his own sentimental self-heroicizing. That act became Whitman’s very open secret.