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  • You must include at least one positive keyword with 3 characters or more.
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Open Book by Philip Marchand: Walt Whitman's Secret, by George Fetherling


Open Book by Philip Marchand
In the months following the end of the First World War an old man named Horace Traubel remembers a shabby neighbourhood in Camden, N.J., and the house in the neighbourhood that once sheltered a dying man.
Thirty-one years ago Traubel was in the habit of paying daily visits to this man, the great Walt Whitman, author of Leaves of Grass. He was then a 30-year-old typesetter, the son of German-Jewish immigrants. His mission was to help Whitman publish the final edition of his collected prose and poetry, to keep the poet alive as long as possible through the medicinal powers of conversation, and to gather first-hand material for what would turn out to be Traubel’s nine-volume biography of Whitman.
This is all fact. Traubel’s nine-volume biography exists. What is fiction, in George Fetherling’s novel, Walt Whitman’s Secret, is Traubel’s decision, in the twilight of his own life, to write a memoir of his relationship to Walt Whitman in Camden more candid and more intimate than anything yet published, including his own biography. Whitman, for all his supposed openness and fearlessness, especially in his love poetry, turns out to have had rather a secretive nature. Traubel’s memoir will expose that secretiveness.
In telling this story from the perspective, largely, of Horace Traubel, Fetherling follows a tradition of the historical novel chiefly represented by Gore Vidal, in which peripheral spectators — secretaries, journalists and so on — bear witness to great historical figures. It is part of Fetherling’s triumph in this novel to make the witness as interesting as the great man. A self-proclaimed socialist, an unabashed admirer of Whitman’s verse, the lover and eventually husband of one Anne Montgomerie, daughter of an affluent Philadelphia businessman, Traubel seems a straightforward character. Yet the reader senses, in the cramped and wary rhythms of his voice — Traubel is writing the memoir in the form of a letter to a Canadian spiritualist and feminist named Flora MacDonald — the presence of a tormented soul.
Whitman, though suffering from pains in his chest, groin and left leg, from difficulties with respiration and circulation, seems admirably self-possessed. Traubel is eager to claim Whitman for the socialist cause. “Whenever I would read the immortal Leaves, I saw the soul of a Socialist,” he recalls in this memoir, but Whitman is maddeningly evasive on the question, and his few nods to socialism seem calculated more to placate Traubel than to indicate his own leanings.
Anyone who has read Leaves of Grass dispassionately will realize that Whitman was not an adherent of any party, but Traubel is not dispassionate. Like many young socialists, he is a bit of a prig, solemnly expressing sympathy for the wrongs of the Irish, for example, while declaring, in moments of pique, that they are fit only for operating distilleries. He prides himself on his “rational nature.”
No one ever claimed this was Whitman’s strong suit. The democratic joys of picking up sweaty workmen lie behind much of his most eloquent verse, and it is a streetcar conductor who becomes one of the great loves of his life, despite the former’s having served in the Confederate army. The shadow of Doyle, another real life character, lies heavily over Traubel’s narrative.
If there is a central pillar of Whitman’s politics, it is his veneration of Abraham Lincoln, and if there is one turning point in his life, it is his nursing of wounded soldiers during the Civil War. The experience destroyed something in Whitman, some element of the blithe. Partly as a result of Whitman’s involvement in the war, a deep bass note of tragedy sounds throughout the novel.
Traubel is a bit tone deaf to it, but not Fetherling. The note adds gravity to the already complicated and disingenuous personality of Whitman portrayed in the novel, a man, according to one commentator, with an “obsessive pride in his own humility.”
Again, Fetherling’s method is to suggest rather than to state, so that the reader is free to infer desperation in Traubel’s language of nervous, respectful devotion to his wife Anne — something is amiss in their relationship — as well as Traubel’s need to fill a vast emptiness within by appropriating the mind and heart of Whitman. To assist the reader in evaluating Traubel’s narrative, Fetherling alternates chapters of Traubel’s first-person memoir with chapters narrated in the third person, in the present tense. These chapters afford another point of view, and provide a welcome balance to the sometimes stilted prose of Traubel. They confirm a reader’s suspicion for one thing that there may be more than one “secret” belonging to Whitman.
Yes, there is a deathbed revelation in the novel. But there are also more mundane revelations such as Whitman’s “talent for personal diplomacy,” aped by Traubel, a facility for knowing just the right thing to say to believers. Call that a “secret” of Whitman’s success.
What the novel leaves the reader is not a sense of puzzles solved, or mysteries dispelled, but an evocation of late-19th-America. It is a period when the great democratic promise of the republic, a promise that filled the young Whitman with such hope and vigour and inspired his greatest poetry, has already received a mortal blow, partly because of the Civil War. (It is no coincidence that Traubel writes his memoir at a time when the Woodrow Wilson administration in the United States is pursuing a vicious crackdown against dissenters.) The novel also captures the sadness of cults formed around charismatic individuals, the underground, unresolved tensions between these individuals, living or dead, and their devotees.
Walt Whitman’s Secret is an extraordinary achievement, a novel cannily constructed, with judicious amounts of suspense, stripped to the bone, a dark, brooding but not depressing meditation on, among other things, art and artistic discipleship.

"To be able to write a play a man must be sensitive, imaginative, naive, gullible, passionate; he must be something of an imbecile, something of a poet, something of a liar, something of a damn fool."
Robert E. Sherwood

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Fast fact about writing

Ancient writing (at first pictographic in nature) is best known from clay and stone inscriptions, but the use of perishable materials, mainly palm leaf, papyrus, and paper, began in ancient times.