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Jacket 16 — March 2002   |   # 16  Contents   |   Homepage   |    

George Evans

A Working Boy’s Whitman

This piece is 9,400 words or about twenty printed pages long.

ONE SPRING DAY in the early 1960s, the dust of a final play swirling on the diamond, I exited a Pittsburgh Pirates’ baseball game via the same break in the outfield wall at Forbes Field through which I entered. There were ways in the middle of that century to watch a game from the outside if you lacked ticket money (hanging from poles or trees, peering through gaps in the fence), and if you really wanted, with good timing you could sneak through various breaks in the patchwork walls and get a bleacher seat. The teams were not millionaire-boys’ clubs then, Americans were less mean-spirited in general, money was not the game’s Holy Grail, and guards were more interested in what was happening on the field than in gate crashing kids.
    A bronze statue of Honus Wagner, frozen in the afterswat of whacking a ball into eternity outside the left field fence, seemed to me the ultimate in modern art. But that was unmatched by the nearby bronze confection of favorite son Stephen Foster, which featured, as described in a local newspaper for its unveiling in 1900, “The poet seated, notebook in hand, catching the inspiration for his melodies from the fingers of an old darkie reclining at his feet strumming negro airs upon an old banjo.” If it’s true that Foster was no fan of minstrelsy and blackface, it’s not something he would be proud of, regardless of the strained Southern black dialect in his lyrics. It was, and is, a double-figured statue with strong racist undertones, which if proposed at this moment in history would cause brain lesions. Close by, there also stood a statue of be-knickered plough-boy poet Bobby Burns in a tam-o’-shanter, holding a mountain daisy like a potato chip.
    I didn’t realize then that public art with few exceptions is doomed to fail because art and consensus mix as poorly as the well-intentioned who raise money to erect such monuments mix socially with the rich who dole it out, or with the agenda-ridden municipalities and landlords who provide the space. Popular lore has it that the Stephen Foster bronze was funded with pennies raised by schoolchildren, but my understanding of world history tells me that in those days only children of the wealthy would have had time to raise money for a statue, and it would not have been pennies they raised. The children of the poor (which many Pittsburghers either were or were becoming) would, on the other hand, have been working hard for their pennies, handing them over to parents who counted every copper drop as if it was a loaf of bread in famine.
    As for Foster, although his songs were immensely popular, including the likes of “Oh! Susanna,” after adding almost 300 works to America’s songbook, he died alone and broken in 1864, a family man descended into alcoholism. In that era before recording and radio, there was no music industry to speak of, no legal system to protect musicians or songwriters, and he had signed away the rights to his music for next to nothing, a survival technique that would plague popular musicians far into the twentieth century. In his final days, he could have used some of those pennies collected for his statue. He had only thirty eight of them in his pocket, one for each of his years on earth, when he mortally injured himself in what must have been a drunken fall at a twenty-five cent per day hotel (reportedly and ironically the American Hotel) in New York’s Bowery District in 1864. He fell so hard he broke a washbasin with his head, cut his throat on it, then died the next day of blood loss in the charity ward at Bellvue Hospital, occupation listed as laborer.
    My paternal grandfather, an actual laborer and steel worker on bridges and smokestacks, grew up in the same cold world, and lost his legs in an industrial accident for which he was never compensated. Born in Virginia after the Civil War, he migrated north, more than likely for work, married a working class Pittsburgh girl, and settled in the neighborhood where I grew up. She died first, in the great influenza epidemic of 1920 at forty one, and he died a few years later in his mid-50s from the strain of having to continue working, even with his disability, to raise his four sons alone. They worked too, of course, but the oldest, my father, was only fifteen when they were orphaned, and though he’d dropped out of school years before to work full time (not uncommon in that world), he was forced to redouble his efforts so they could survive. He never talked much about what he went through in those years, because the working poor are more than willing to forget the horrors they survive, but he never stopped cursing and fighting the system that let it happen.
    I was raised by parents without illusions, whose aspirations were limited to what they could earn to get through a week. My father was a Teamster who delivered ice and coal, and my mother a cleaning lady when she could squeeze in outside work between raising five children and keeping her own house. Her past was working class Boston, also orphaned, a life no more glamorous than my father’s, but what they had in common held them together all of their lives, not always happily, but always.
    That makes me a son of the fabled American working class, the one of mythic labor struggles and idealized social progress, a universe made up of wishful stories about heroic workers fighting the system and winning, a world that faded in relevance after World War II, and seemed to disappear completely during my youth. It was a brutal reality, and no amount of organizing, idealism, nostalgia or social proselytizing could save anyone in it from the backbreaking demands of daily life. Everyone worked, and I had some sort of job from the moment I could walk and think at the same time. But I was a dreamer. To me all statues were beautiful, no matter what they represented, regardless of the fact that none of them depicted anyone from our working class world or history.

Buhl statue
The Earth, Sidney Waugh, 1939; Indiana limestone relief, Buhl Planetarium, opposite Allegheny Carnegie Library, Pittsburgh (Library clock tower to right). One of four art deco relief sculptures created by artist Sidney Waugh (1904–63), on the facades of Buhl Planetarium. The other three, which are also remarkable, are The Heavens, Night, and Day.

    It didn’t matter. What I was admiring in my innocence was not exactly art, but eponymous commemorative knickknacks I thought were art. That was before I eventually wandered into nearby Carnegie Museum to discover the extraordinary collections of plundered and otherwise amassed treasures from around the world, booty scooped up on the run by the moguls who built the city.
    In my neighborhood it was widely believed, when thought of at all, that Pittsburgh’s museums contained only surplus examples (and not necessarily the best) of that which would not fit on the walls of the rich or in their safes. They were mediocre things displayed for the edification of working people, a peek into a world we could not be part of but were encouraged to appreciate in order to “improve ourselves,” as it was phrased in public school. Improve ourselves for what we were not told in school, but our parents told us, explaining it was to improve our obedience to that which was so far above us even god himself looked up to it. They said such things with funny accents, index fingers raising their noses into the air.
    Scion of a labor intensive, union driven world that existed in the belly of steel hogs and lace curtain Irish, as the rich were called, I was never led to believe that the art collections in those great museums were anything more than window dressing, candy for the masses, cynical displays of power and waste. My teeth were sharpened on the adage that all great fortunes hide great crimes, which perspective colored my view of all public attempts to lift the working class (made up of the only two available races in Pittsburgh at the time, blacks and whites) out of its sweaty morass, into a more cultured form of suffering. My father and his buddies would have choked on their boilermakers to hear it put that way, but would have appreciated the smartass tone.
    Still, beauty has a way of surviving both sides of any argument. On occasion, those condescending displays of power and wealth had the unexpected result of igniting the imagination of a boy like me, who worked in coal yards, on trucks, on loading docks, and didn’t go to school when he was supposed to, but instead went fishing, bridge climbing, train hopping, swimming in the rivers, and sometimes to museums, searching for amazement and relief from exhausting, boring labor.
    At first, I spent most of my time in the great museums of Pittsburgh while playing hooky from school, mixing in with hordes of field trip students to hang around the dinosaur bone collection in continuous awe. I wondered what it would be like to have them fleshed out and walking the streets, same as the Godzilla I admired, not knowing even he (or she) was a political statement, the Japanese embodiment in celluloid of our country and its reptilian insensitivity to human life. But then again, I didn’t so much care that I even lived in a country. I lived in Pittsburgh. What I was told about democracy, flags, history, and national pride, mostly went through my ears like water through a straw. I knew we were in a place called America, but didn’t really care. All I could see was Pittsburgh, which I found fascinating, and that’s what was important. Convincing me otherwise would have been like showing small children X-rays, trying to convince them, as they look back and forth through the light of the negatives to the glowing flesh of their bodies, that bones are what hold them together.
    After I found the art in those museums (paintings and shocking nude sculptures, some with anatomically puzzling body parts), the importance of dinosaurs to my world changed forever. The fascination would remain, but in another context. It was a passage of sorts, like when a boy’s voice begins to crack then deepens permanently. The collections may indeed have been surplus, whatever that actually meant, but for a boy raised without television, seeing a Van Gogh painting for the first time was akin to being hit in the head with a baseball bat and watching the stars turn into a dream, then a window into another world, then climbing through that window and getting lost.
    That was it. I was going to be an artist. I couldn’t afford paints or any other materials, so I started drawing on napkins, then on paper from a neighborhood printer’s scraps left over when he trimmed his jobs, which he would sometimes, with amusement, bind into little notebooks. When my father found out what I was doing, he nearly disowned me. No son of his was going to make trinkets for the rich, and if I thought that drivel in the museums could afford anybody an honest living, I should just go get a gun and start robbing honest people outright like those sonsofbitches who built the museums. But my mother, who I then found out once held a job painting illustrations on greeting cards in Boston during her orphaned youth, confessed that she too had once wanted to be an artist, and encouraged me, somehow managing to settle my father’s anger. Still, in the end, it did not go well because my father could not remember to be patient, and could not subdue his hatred of the rich, which my drawing in his house brought horribly to life at unexpected moments, so I quit trying to be an artist, to pursue instead something I could almost do in private and in secret, read and write.
    We lived in Manchester, a neighborhood in a slummed out section of Pittsburgh originally known as Allegheny City, a town unto itself until gerrymandered by rigged elections into the great Steel City across the river early in the century, after which it was simply called the North Side. Gertrude Stein, on the front steps of whose nativity house I often sat with my droogies smoking cigarettes, playing with knives and singing doowop (her vestibule and the porch next door being perfect echo chambers), insisted she was born in Allegheny City, not Pittsburgh, though boosters of Pittsburgh culture have always insisted otherwise, claiming not only Stein for their own, but my other 19th century-born, long gone Allegheny neighbors, Robinson Jeffers, Martha Graham, Mary Cassatt, and the transplant Willa Cather, who in 1901 became an English teacher at the school I eventually dropped out of — Allegheny High.
    None of these celebrated individuals were much remembered or acknowledged on the North Side during my time. They were overshadowed by the likes of our resident rock & roll group, The Marcels of “Blue Moon” fame, the vocal bass refrain of which song, transcribed, would have been considered great literature by all who loitered at Gertrude’s stoop: “Bom bababom ba bom ba bombom baba bom baba bom ba danga dang dang da dinga dong ding blue moon, moon moon blue moon, dip dadip dadip . . .”

Carnegie Library

    But we had a marvelous library, the Allegheny Carnegie Library. Built in 1889, it was an island of calm in the center of urban disaster (snoring day residents notwithstanding), and the first free library Andrew Carnegie built in the US, close to Slabtown where he worked as a bobbin boy in a textile mill after arriving from Scotland in 1848. Meant to be a “working boys’” library, it was the culmination of his dream to honor his mentor Colonel James Anderson, a pioneer iron manufacturer. Pittsburgh, famous as the Steel City, was actually once known as the “Iron City,” due to the industry of Anderson and his fellow ironmongers, but that moniker now exists only as the name of a popular local beer.
    In the mid-nineteenth century, Anderson opened the doors of his private library (a then staggering 400 volumes) to the working boys of Allegheny City so they could better themselves in the world. Carnegie always said Anderson had opened “the temple of knowledge” to him, changing his life forever, and it was that act that inspired his Carnegie Free Library system.
    It must be noted, I was one of the only boys who hung out in that boys’ library. At least ninety-nine percent of the patrons were girls. Those same girls, some of whom would eventually teach me to love, laugh, cry, would break my heart (sometimes my head), and one who destroyed a large part of my 45 record collection by hurling them out a window at me one by one, angry at some act of emotional idiocy on my part, taught me how to use that library long before they taught me how to dance. Hanging around the girls did not endear me to other boys at first, but neither did reading books, so I adapted to fighting my way back and forth through the streets, learning the various methods of using books as lethal weapons as I went. I had to maintain my image as one of the many North Side gang members for whom shooting pool, stealing cars for joy rides, rioting at Friday night dances, and waiting our turns to go to war (with each other or for the government), was the meaning of life.
    Statue of Labor Our library occupied the northeast corner of a busy intersection which, when it was built, marked the center of Allegheny City. In front stood a monument to Anderson designed by Daniel Chester French: a raised plaza with granite exedra, and at the zenith of the exedra curve sat a giant bronze statue of Labor, work shirt off, sledge hammer leaned next to him, reading a gigantic book upon which I used to sit in the sun. A bronze bust of Anderson rested solidly on a pedestal above Labor. It was a useful public space for soap box politicians and pre-airwave evangelists, but in local terms it was no more than a monument to a monument.
    In my neighborhood, libraries fared no better than museums. It was understood (and resented) that Carnegie (photo, below) had spent a minuscule amount of what he gained exploiting working people in order to give them a gift they would eventually be taxed for the upkeep of, thereby creating a perpetual monument to himself to be swept and maintained by the very people who despised him most. To my parents’ generation of working class North Siders (sons, daughters and grandchildren of those who felt most exploited by Carnegie), the monument and library served only to remind them of the long arm of an oppressive and impoverishing 19th century.

Andrew Carnegie

Andrew Carnegie

As a matter of fact, and most likely because of this well-known but unpublicized criticism of Carnegie by the poor he was supposed to have uplifted, it is widely and erroneously assumed in Pittsburgh that the actual first US Carnegie Library is the one located in the wealthier neighborhood of Oakland, near the University of Pittsburgh. That bit of mythology is simply the result of PR by those who wished to deny Carnegie would build his first library in a shithole neighborhood populated by ungrateful ineducabilia. When those same city fathers renovated North Side in the mid-1960s, they decided to dismantle the Anderson monument and destroy the exedra, wiping away the evidence, and the residents did not stop them. Poignantly, the bronze of Labor remains nearby.

Editor's note: Many years later, Ann P. Wardrop, a Life Trustee of The Carnegie Library, led an effort to restore the monument. The reconstruction, using the same kind of pink granite Henry Bacon used in 1904, cost over $300,000. The memorial was rededicated May 15, 1988.

In our neighborhood saloon, behind and above the revolving lamp of a boy urinating into a river with an ever increasing arch, was a sign painted in gold letters:

“A man who dies rich dies disgraced.”
      A. Carnegie — Liar, Philanthropist, Thief

Under it in red:

“You can’t eat books.”
               A. Worker — Robbed & Cheated

But I didn’t really care about any of that. I admired Carnegie for his nickname “King of the Vulcans,” as well as for his rise from the factories. I went to the library every day to pore over the books, and took many home to read under blankets with a flashlight, concealing my interest from my father, only barely more tolerant of books than he was of art.
    I found Walt Whitman’s Leaves of Grass on a shelf sagging with the 19th Century American poetical tonnage of (to name an illustrious few) Edgar Fawcett, Richard Watson Gilder, Charles Fenno Hoffman, Emma Lazarus, Sidney Lanier, Celia Thaxter, and Cincinnatus Hiner Miller (better known as Joaquin Miller, a Whitman impersonator), Parnassian giants all, for the sake of whose yodeling countless acres of virgin forest had been pulped. Whitman was held upright by dog-eared volumes of Elizabeth Stuart Phelps Ward (renowned), and John Greenleaf Whittier (a voice humanely silenced “by the breeze, moaning through the graveyard trees” of his productions).

Cover of Leaves of Grass

There were other editions of Whitman’s book, but I recall pulling out the thinnest, the first edition, or a facsimile of it. It was probably the size that drew me (less than a hundred pages and tall like a picture book), as well as its striking design. It was green with a gold title, roots sprouting from the bottoms of the letters, leaves flowering from the tops, and the back cover was identical when you flipped the book over, implying the beginning and end were the same, or that there was no beginning or end, or that everything was somehow upside down. There was no author’s name on the cover (though copyrighted inside by one Walter Whitman in tiny letters), but opposite the title page, was an engraved daguerreotype of a man who looked like a cowboy: hat, no suit, no tie, no flowing hair, no pencil poised like a dart, and no Victorian look of smug transcendence or self-indulgence.
    I knew it was poetry because of where it was located in the library, but it had a wonderful absence of the tin-eared rhyming nailed into my head in English class. Thumbing through it, I thought it was some sort of mis-shelved bible because of the language, until I read the introduction, which told me the genius of America was its “common people,” for which I read “working class poor.” I believed it immediately and imagined the president doffing his hat to me at the construction site where I worked demolition on weekends, or at the Five & Ten where I washed dishes weekday afternoons, asking my advice on everything from the price of beans to pending wars, especially the one my friends and I were destined to be involved in — each working class generation had its own war, and we were waiting for ours.
    The force of my experience with Whitman’s introduction paled once I read the first poem, the untitled, unnumbered blasts of language and thought which in later editions would be tamed into numbered sections with the misleading title “Song of Myself.” It was Whitman at his purest, untainted by later affectations and delusions of grandeur — a profound masterpiece resulting from some sort of pre-Civil War satori experience without the benefit of Buddhism or LSD. I didn’t really know what he was talking about, but I couldn’t put it down. The moment I picked it up, Leaves of Grass ignited in my hands. It expressed a view of the universe that was as like and unlike Pittsburgh as possible, and, if not cohesive or even comprehensible to me then, appeared to be all-inclusive. Its subject was not merely the world but the universe, and not only life but consideration of its opposite. The subject matter was no less than everything, or so it seemed.
    In contrast to the tinkling dross that kept him company on the shelves, I was engulfed by Whitman’s vatic tone, and, unlike the others, he energetically glorified and celebrated the kind of world I lived in. I was attracted by the attention, though skeptical. Beneath the stereotypical image of the noble worker (we forthright, positive citizens who could never afford to believe official descriptions) lay the truth. Our existence was hardly a subject for celebration. It was dominated by crippling accidents, violent struggles for improved conditions, corrupt labor unions, subsistence and mortgage worries, collapsing businesses, a sliding belief in government, hatred of taxes, and a violent desire to get drunk.
    But I kept reading.
    Whitman seemed to view industry as a force that could carry humanity forward to higher purposes, while I constantly brushed mill ash out of my hair and teeth, fished mutant creatures from factory polluted rivers, and squinted to see the sky through gaseous mist. The working people he so revered constantly punched one another in the head, worked overtime without wages, battered their wives and children, chewed up and spit out youth and beauty with bitterness, and could never work hard enough to make enough to drink and still keep food on the table.
    The sane governments, insights, and human affections Whitman intimated were not present where I lived, but he caused me to imagine there was another world, a parallel world, a shadow world of sorts, the way our labor unions were a shadow government. Perhaps in that other world, if I could find it, I would discover the source of his optimism and philosophical certainty, colored with its odd, all-embracing skepticism: “Do I contradict myself? Very well then . . . I contradict myself; I am large . . . I contain multitudes.”

    Walt Whitman

But first I had to understand what he saw when he scanned the wage slave, wife beating, war-scarred motor humpers of the multi-racist working class I was part of, a world where you could be pounded with a bottle if you disagreed with someone, or smashed with a chair if you agreed. What did Whitman see? People with dreams but no money to accomplish them, I concluded, people who mistook work for freedom and poured everything into it, people who lived at the top of their lungs because they were used to being ignored, and people who lived in perpetual motion because they always had somewhere to go for someone else’s sake.
    What he praised was not so much our quotidian lives as our loyal industry, unabashed directness, and our impulse to move and change. Change into what? Into anything. In that world only a fool would want to remain the same, though most had no choice but to live out static lives interrupted only by child birth, military service, layoffs, and death. Perhaps, I thought, Walt Whitman was trying to drum up compassion for our world, while trying to lift our spirits and encourage us to break loose — it struck me that way, and there was no one around to argue otherwise. For all I knew, his work represented the sort of political bombast my father was fond of pointing out, but I didn’t want it to be so, and luckily it wasn’t. Like any other adolescent, I cautiously wanted something pure to believe in, and while baseball and basketball won over many of my friends, I went for Whitman.
    I never discovered the source of his optimism, but eventually, despite a lack of critical ability and historical understanding, began to appreciate his work for its sheer exuberance and energy, its resistance to conservative logic, and its almost total absence of Victorian prosody. It was his ineffable reality I came to accept most deeply, not his meaning, and certainly not what I initially misinterpreted as simple nationalism, though that was certainly part of it. It was poetry as powerful force of observation, mysterious vision, and insight, no matter how impossibly hopeful.
    By extolling the virtues of human experience with such ostensible ease and unabashed ecstasy, he was, I thought, in a way inviting everyone to be a poet or an artist, to free books from their libraries, paintings from their museums, and to pry everything creative away from professionalism. The farther from institutions, the better, the more distance between art and hallowed halls, the more likely it was to evolve, or, at minimum, change importantly.
    As it happens, North American poetry has emerged since his time as the most inclusive and malleable of arts, though not because it is plastic, but because from it the least is expected. It cannot be traded as commodity because it has no physical value, and cannot specifically belong to anyone — its virtue and curse. It cannot be defended from pretenders because it has no gate to guard, no public expectations exist for it, very few people read it seriously unless they intend to write it (or already do), and no one can defend its higher qualities comprehensively because none can agree upon what they are. In fact, no one understands exactly what it is, and it is protected from legislative censorship not by its failure to provoke consensus or dissent, but by the reality that most US politicians do not (or simply cannot) read it, including recent presidents.
    One must, however, note an exception to that generalization, considering that Whitman’s Leaves of Grass was drawn, along with cigar dildos, into the late twentieth century President Clinton-Intern Lewinsky debacle by virtue of the fact that the book was given as a gift by the sax blowing commander in chief to his kneeling beloved at the outset of their trysts. Until that information surfaced, Whitman had not been involved in a government scandal (albeit on a lesser level) since being fired from his job at the Bureau of Indian Affairs in 1865 by secretary of the interior James Harlan just after the Abraham Lincoln assassination. Harlan, a conservative, considered Leaves of Grass obscene, though he later denied that was the reason he fired Whitman, which makes him a liar as well as a government censor, neither of which is rare. The more recent Whitman sighting is humorous, somewhat thrilling if one considers the romantic nature of the gesture, and, if anything, illustrates that Clinton did indeed have something in common with Lincoln: they both seemed to like Whitman, though there’s no evidence that either actually read him.
    For aspiring poets, there’s still an important lesson to be learned from Whitman the artist, and the earlier the better (those already cynical and putrefied may relearn it if they wish): he was not doing a job. Poetry was not his profession, it was his life, a necessity, pure love, and when he wrote “I, me, my,” he wasn’t writing to draw attention to a suffering, unattended ego. He was reaching beyond the self, out into the living universe of things, ideas, and events — the world he was part of — as if through poetry the universe could rise up with a human voice.
    In his case, it could. But in the end, I think he was mistaken (however ecstatically) about the realities of the working class, the common people, though his roots were those of a working man and commoner. He wanted their world to be something it never was, and transformed it into a platform from which to project idealized perceptions and imagined possibilities for a flawless democratic society, something quite impossible. Then again, the poet who would come to write one of the most moving of Civil War memoirs (embedded in his autobiography Specimen Days) could not foresee, or chose to ignore, the carnage poised to emerge from the intrinsic flaws of the virtuous society he extolled and glorified in that first masterpiece, “Song of Myself.”
    Hindsight may not be to the point, and his world lacked the mass communication syndicates that inform us of the most minuscule news items and social developments, but one must question how it could be that a man who lived with his eyes and heart wide open, could have so little to say about certain matters that truly contradicted his notions of liberty and freedom. He was, for example, sympathetic, but not very mindful of slavery, and was certainly not an abolitionist. Nor was he particularly attentive to the past and pending genocide wrought against native Americans by the original Euro-invasion and on-going US westward expansion, in spite of his employment at the Bureau of Indian Affairs.
    In his work, there are no songs of labor about the severely abused transcontinental railroad and Gold Rush Chinese, no mellifluous observations of gandy dancing Irish pounding their brains out on the tracks, no Latinos to speak of, and only a passing mention of Jews. His was not an empty country (what we see now by way of human variety also existed then), but his expanse was confined by the fact that he was mainly an arm-chair traveler. Many of the missing may be found in works like the poem “Salut au Monde!,” but from such catalogues we learn only that he knew his geography, had a vivid imagination, and was literally (merely) popping a salute from his “America” to the rest of the world, which he never saw.
    For all his curiosity, he didn’t travel much. He went to New Orleans as a young man, to parts of the south and Washington, DC during the Civil War, and later in life went west by train as far as Denver. He visited Canada briefly, made it to Boston, and settled in Camden, New Jersey near Philadelphia in old age, but he never crossed an ocean, or even the Rockies (a feat for someone who lived through the great California Gold Rush and not only claimed to be manly, adventurous, healthy, and universally curious about his country, but was also a working journalist at the time). As it turns out, he was not, in fact, caught up in the turbulence and sweep of things to the degree his readers tend to believe, and his vision of the larger world bordered on the romantic and imaginary.
    He adored his America, but didn’t see or experience much of it (his impressions from train windows aren’t very convincing), and his poetry suffers from the fact. He was not particularly interested in the trademark evils of the brand of democracy practiced on his home court, and there is a bruising lack of criticism in his work regarding the life crushing exploitation of the poor and working classes by the wealthy and powerful. He was our first public poet, but as observer of society at large, his poetry generally ignores the limited prospects and impoverishing conditions that faced the common people he lionized. But that’s no great surprise.
    There are important exceptions (their number increases sharply mid-twentieth century), but avoiding social criticism and political content has long been endemic and symptomatic for a wide range of North American poetry, not that social indifference is confined to poetry by any means. This artistic silence (not unusually referred to as good taste) reflects a type of selective silence that flowed into our general social consciousness from the early Puritan tradition of colonial leaders never telling the British king the truth about the horrors of life in the colonies, lest he take away their power. Bad news was forbidden, and once the new Americans learned to be selective about reporting horrid social conditions, especially their disgraceful treatment of indigenous people, it became a trait to willfully ignore them, planting, perhaps, the seeds of the illiberal, intolerant conservatism that has dogged our history. In that context, it follows that even one of our most public of poets might tend to be (if not apolitical) uncritical of the country’s deepest social faults in his poetry, adding to our image of Whitman the iconoclast intimations of one flirting with conventionalism.
    Still, who Whitman really was remains unclear on a number of levels. For example, which of these sexes was he: heterosexual, homosexual, bisexual, or asexual? Based on his work and biographical details, and viewed through the lens of the present, he seemed to be all four at various points, sometimes all at once, and should probably be considered — if as a sexual being at all — humanly omnisexual in order to grasp the breadth of his implications. But even in those matters, touchy if not dangerous in Victorian North America, he avoids taking a distinct position, while managing to project a sexually liberated persona throughout his work. Politically speaking, he also remains in the closet, but comes off as more limited, though it’s probably intentional.
    He was very selective about his subject matter, and careful about its implications, but he absolutely believed in and promoted Democracy, which bears its own range of historical problems, leaving his work open to serious criticism. In his 1898 political essay “The Triumph of Caliban,” Nicaraguan poet Rubén Darío (Whitman’s Spanish language counterpart, and otherwise an admirer of his work), called him “a prophet of Democracy, Uncle Sam style,” meaning Uncle Sam the imperialist, unwanted invader, cultural imposer.
    Claiming to be the poet of the common people, Whitman’s weakness, as I’ve been pointing out, is to have overlooked the darkest aspects of their lives in his poetry. One would not think to criticize him on that level if he had not projected his image and poetry as the voice and living body of the people en masse, but he did, and the facts of his neglect must be observed if we are to appreciate him fully, which also means considering the non-political context of most serious North American poetry. It’s not that Whitman was unaware of social problems, he was very aware of them. Among other things, he published a clumsy temperance novel (about a sot named Evans, I’m sorry to note: Franklin Evans; or The Inebriate ) thirteen years before the first edition of Leaves of Grass . But that book and a number of other didactic prose and poetry texts are so gratuitously pro-American and nationalistic in spirit that they seem disingenuous in retrospect, and he would have been dismissed as a minor pamphleteer had he written nothing else.
    However, on a positive note, his overall work is too important for such a fate, and he was too impressive a figure in life to be dismissed, unless we dismiss the past completely. The seminal poet of North American literature, the best aspects of this work remain (acknowledged or not) an unshakable influence on all poetry written in English since his time.
    When his poetry hit its stride in 1855 with the first edition of Leaves of Grass , it was destined to change just about everything there was to change about North American poetry, breaking linguistic, prosodic, and emotional barriers so successfully that one could no more go back to writing the sort of poetry that existed before him (not seriously at least) than one could go back to painting Rembrandts. Because of the concept and reality of time, forward progress seems actual, and as far as we know at present, nothing in the universe can return to the exact state it was in before moving forward (or in any direction we can perceive), and such is the case with all things, including poetry and other arts. Apparently, change is continuous, if not progressive, rendering Neo-movements (such as poetry’s various and recurring stabs at producing classical verse, or Neo-formalism as it is sometimes called) flat and boring unless they incorporate intentional humor or self-conscious reference to the original models.
    Mixing mediums to make the point, a successfully executed sonnet today (for that matter, any classical verse form) must be at least as inventive as a Komar and Melamid painting. They are the two Soviet artists who brought us the mid-1990s Most Wanted painting series by conducting a broad, ten country survey of what average people most want and expect from art, then painted the results, which are both disturbing and entertaining. What they created are and are not paintings — they are representations of paintings. More to the point on the subject of Neo-formalism is their series of at least fifty-nine 5” X 7”, conventional looking (except for their size) romantic landscape oils attributed to a one-eyed Russian painter named Nikolai Buchomov, born near the end of the 19th Century. These paintings are part of a conceptual work, complete with a convincing photograph of Buchomov, eye patch in place, and biographical documentation, all compiled or created by the artists. The work is playful and attractive, sublime and absurd.
    As pointed out by the lively art critic Arthur C. Danto, upon close examination, one comes to realize that a recurring geological detail in the paintings is actually the side of Buchomov’s nose as he gazed out with his one eye, brush in hand, at the landscape. An engaging classical sonnet written now, if possible, would have to contain self-conscious references at least that clever and subtle. We have Whitman to thank for that in part.
    Since his time, North American poetry (and the rest of the world seems not far behind at this point) has experienced many deaths, mainly by university and creative writing workshop executions, and by those who insist it is a job — a crude punching of the poetry clock. It has been frozen, ossified and manipulated over and over for reasons and prizes that have nothing to do with poetry, the results of which often have nothing to do with anything significant. But it has not been buried because one moment it might be stiff upon the floor with rigor mortis, rhyming couplets dribbling from a hole in its temple, but the next it is fully awake, running around the streets with its head on fire.
    It’s a duppy art. Art of the living dead.
    Whitman might have added that nothing so intangible and difficult may be adequately taught at any rate, and that poetry is therefore in no danger of being taught to death. Inspiration is important, but if one is not a born genius or prodigy, the act of writing genuine poetry can only be learned, or awakened, through a life of patience, observation, omnivorous reading, and hard work. To continue doing so past middle age, it helps to view failure and success as relative, and to trick one’s good sense into thinking obscurity is the equal of fame. One must also, as Whitman did, work always without a net or concern for unfriendly opinions, and upon hitting the ground continue to plummet willingly, through everything, until gravity reverses itself and you are falling upwards again.
    That may sound like hard medicine, or optimistic hyperventilation if you’re a poet on the downswing feeling dark and inconsolable, but in the United States (a now nearly post-book, post-literate society on the edge of finding out what dot commerce and the Internet will really do to the imagination, not to mention publishing, especially poetry books, which generally have a briefer shelf life than a butterfly’s existence), odds are things can only become a more intensified version of the same, until unbearable, then far worse than imagined possible. It’s best to brace oneself against the storm, though Whitman might have somehow managed to sweep even this grim reality into an optimistic poem. Then again, his accomplishments are completely native to his own time, rich as it was without airplanes, radios, televisions, computers, world wars, or atomic weapons.

                    *                     *                     *

Not long after that spring day I left Forbes Field to wander among the statues, I decided to run away from home. It took a year or so of staying away for longer and longer periods, but I finally left for good. I remained in Pittsburgh, memorizing every inch of it, and made some effort to continue going to school while living by my wits, exploring that world of rivers and ethnic neighborhoods cupped within a green circle of hills. My adventures, many and extreme, lasted until I finally dropped out of High School, and in 1966 became determined to go find the war I was raised to participate in.
    My best friend since Elementary School, who was not a dropout and lived in a different world than mine by then, came looking for me when he heard about my plans. He had somehow discovered the unvarnished truth about the horrors of a conflict on the verge of exploding into full-scale war in a place called Vietnam. How he unraveled the knot of media and government misrepresentations about Vietnam at such an early stage of open US involvement still puzzles me. I was oblivious, knew nothing about it, and was hardly alone in my ignorance. Like most military age males (as the army put it) I was a prime example, a fledgling member, of the brotherhood of benighted working class cannon fodder the US is so famous for.
    Like the Korean War, the events in Vietnam were being referred to as a “Police Action,” and that should have tipped us off. The most likely to serve, and with relatives who had survived what they only referred to as a war in Korea, we might have asked a simple question: If it’s a police action, why tanks and bombers instead of squad cars and billy clubs? But of course there was no one to ask, and the question would have sounded silly. We remnants of the romanticized working class, along with an emerging underclass (nearly full-blown at the beginning of the twenty-first century), were a vital part of the now obvious poverty draft. For us, military service was the only way to get out of the streets and on track to a good job, the most promising means of securing enough dignity and money for an education. No books, no art, and nobody could change that reality.
    My friend knew all that, but he wasn’t merely afraid, he was troubled. He did not want to go to a place that had nothing to do with us, had serious moral compunctions about killing other people (in this case the Vietnamese), and did not want to die fighting for something that had nothing to do with Manchester, the North Side, or the whole country for that matter. I didn’t want to die either, but it never crossed my mind that I could. I can’t say for certain his thinking was as complex as I like to remember, but I knew him to be anything but a coward, so his arguments were not about simple fear, and because I was otherwise aimless, therefore open minded, I listened. He’d thought about things I hadn’t imagined, and though there was never a question that any upstanding North Side boy would ever wait around to be drafted, he talked me out of joining the high-mortality-rate Army or Marines. Instead, he insisted we join the Air Force, where our chances for survival would be much improved, and where we innocently believed they would allow us to fly airplanes. We took the recruitment tests at the same time one sunny day, with the promise that we would be part of what they called a “buddy system,” stationed together for the whole four years of our enlistment. The plan was for me to stick around until he graduated High School in a month or so, then we would take on the world from the wild blue yonder.
    It was a good plan, but he failed the physical and I headed south for basic training in San Antonio without him, on a train during the great airline strike of 1966. I had traveled a lot on trains, they were a particular obsession of mine since the tracks were only a half block from my house, but I’d always traveled on the outside ladders or in empty box cars, and that trip to Texas was the first time I ever sat in the passenger section. I missed my friend, but felt like a king, serenading myself with every railroad song I could remember. It was a thrilling adventure, and the absurdity of going off to the Air Force on a train would not strike home until later when I realized no one in their right mind was going to strap a high school dropout into the pilot’s seat of a multi-million dollar aircraft. Humans, on the other hand, were obviously more expendable because I qualified to be a medic, a sort of short order surgeon. But I took it very seriously, putting my new skills to good use, especially during a brief exposure to the results of martial violence in Libya during the Six Day War of 1967, then at a hospital in Vietnam during the flat out hell of 1969.
    In the end, I did not escape that war as my friend hoped, but had in fact volunteered to go to it because I wanted to see what was happening to my generation without relying on slanted details from the newspapers or television. I wanted firsthand knowledge. It was stupid and reckless, but I was not unlike my hero Whitman. Finally roused to action in the Civil War by news of the wounding and possible death of his brother George, who had disappeared at the battle of Fredericksburg, he went south to the war zones searching for him. Finding him alive, with a minor shrapnel wound to the face, Whitman stuck around to help nurse him back to battle, then hitched a ride to Washington, DC with a shipment of wounded soldiers. He could not bring himself to leave the hospitals after that.
    For the rest of the war he tended the wounded, told them stories, eased their pain, wrote their letters, and held them as they died. He was finally in a position where he could not avoid what he already knew but had not written about: the true miseries of the poor, which are unmitigated in the reality of war. In my own way, by going to war, I wanted, like him, to be able to say: I understand the large hearts of heroes... I am the man... I was there. I came to understand nothing of the sort, and what I learned I could have lived without, but the experience made me admire Whitman even more. Understanding the world a little better than I did as a boy, having witnessed what humans can do to one another, I discovered a vital point rereading his work: it is not only possible but necessary to wring beauty and compassion out of horror, even if the results seem unthinkable. Otherwise, there can be no important art at all.
    After the war, I went back to Pittsburgh to attend college for a few years, and though I finished, grew restless, discouraged by what was happening to my city, heart of labor that even I had managed to romanticize by then. Unemployment was touching everyone, and old friends were plunging back into the poverty they had worked so hard to escape. The money was leaving, especially the North Side where it never really took root. Steel mills began to disappear, and smaller factories everywhere were shutting down. For the time being I had my fill of tragedy, and left. No, actually I escaped.
    Two decades later I returned again and wandered around North Side. The Manchester section, where I was born, was darkened with areas that appeared to be open-air crack dens sprawled through the streets like eviscerated guts of a once animated body composed of houses, factories, and productive lives. Other sections were barely clinging to life. My best friend’s house had became a derelict building.
    I was a nascent airman marching around in the hot Texas sun when he managed to do something unheard of on the North Side. He lucked into a group of Quakers, or some other religious group, registered with the draft board as a conscientious objector, and was granted CO status, which meant he didn’t have to go, and he really did not want to. He could not believe in war, and wanted to spend his life differently, which included going to college without having to do battle for the sake of someone else’s blind political ambitions. But the combination of being hopelessly poor, bearing principles that aroused suspicions of homosexuality and cowardice (which must have cost him physically every day, though he was respected and feared as a street fighter, and famously in love with the girl he intended to marry), proved that ideas were no match for peer pressure in the working class, and after a year of struggle, he allowed himself to be drafted, easily passing a physical he could not pass for less demanding duty. He became an Army Medic, went to Vietnam near the beginning of 1968, and was killed in action six months later. He hated the war. He wrote from Vietnam and told me so. He warned me not to come. He said it would not be what I expected. It was not an adventure, he said, it was wrong, a crime against both sides. A few months later, I would be wincing as mortars fell, thinking of Whitman, washing the dead, hating the war with a passion, thinking of my friend, wishing I had listened to him.
    He was the only son of a divorced mother, and they were very close. His two sisters still lived at home when he died, but, as I recall, both were on the verge of marriage. His mother, who would never recover from such a loss, faced being left on her own. The house was eventually abandoned, and she never sold it as far as I know. After years of neglect, it collapsed into itself, and sat there like an unlived life, a reminder. When I saw it again, it had become an eyesore in a block-long row of modest, party wall Victorian houses with front porches separated by waist-high railings that my friend and I leapt every morning on our way to elementary school at full speed in our very hip engineer boots, one end of the block to the other, his neighbors screaming behind us.

Walker Evans - Bethlehem PA street scene

Walker Evans: Houses and Steel Mill, Bethlehem, Pennsylvania, November 1935


During my visit, the neighborhood where the old library stood seemed to have fared better than our little section of North Side. It was spruced up and looked attractive, but blanched of its character. The rows of shops, the farmer’s market, even the streetcar tracks were gone, and there were no milling crowds because everything had been funneled into a central, enclosed mall. But the surrounding parks, dating back to a period of wealth and prosperity, were well tended and in full bloom, my beloved railroad still ran nearby, and most of the landmarks had survived, including the library.
    Near Allegheny River, arched by bridges to downtown Pittsburgh, in a neighborhood I knew as one where I could always get work on the loading docks, I came upon the recently opened Andy Warhol Museum, lodged in a refurbished factory building I vaguely remember working in. Andy Warhol, homeboy and outsider, is a pure product of the Pittsburgh working class, and his art has interested me uninterrupted since I discovered it after the war. We both broke away from the working class streets of Pittsburgh and made it through the Vulcan King’s university (Carnegie Tech in Warhol’s time, Carnegie-Mellon in mine), and that was a detail impossible to overlook when, in a puzzled state, I saw my first Warhol Campbell’s soup can.
    Until that day I wandered into my past, I had always been under the mistaken impression that Warhol was from South Side — he was definitely not from North Side, where he would have been pulverized at an early age for his geeky, nerdish looks — but after checking deeper, I discovered he was, in fact, from a tiny working class neighborhood above the north shore of Monongahela River near Oakland. Graphic master of the quotidian, he swept everything assumed unsuitable into the arena of subject matter and possible beauty, and as such approached Whitman in his perceptions. Regardless of his reputed and actual lifestyle proclivities, which have long fomented serious criticism and gossip ranging from outrageous to well-deserved to entertaining, he is an artist ignored at the peril of being completely oblivious to Whitman’s sort of street level focus, as well as Buchomov’s nose, and is Pittsburgh’s greatest argument against provinciality, not to mention one of the most shining children of its history.
    Across the street from the Warhol Museum, there’s a bar & grill I recognized from the days when I banged through the neighborhood working on my father’s ice truck. Sometimes he would take me there. It’s called the Rosa-Villa, which (unless actually a family name) strikes me as a bit of foreign lingo dyslexia — both Italian and Spanish would place the Villa first. I opened the door, almost forty years later, looked in through cigarette smoke and darkness, and swear the same workers who were sitting there the last time I came in with my father were still sitting there. They looked up at me, expecting, I suppose, some odd looking nervous art patron from the museum wandering in, someone to gawk at and rib, if only between themselves and under their breaths. But they seemed to sigh when they turned back to their drinks in disappointment, dismissing me through a form of recognition I could never explain, communicated in the way we nodded to one another. A fellow gawker.
    I felt a wave of nostalgia, knowing this new museum, like the Carnegie Library of my youth, would fall under their ax of criticism. Warhol was not from North Side (an important detail), but a relatively distant, hated place across the rivers. His was the land of hunkies and pollacks, plus he was gay (it being a well-known fact that homosexuals have been nonexistent on North Side from the time of the dinosaurs), and this Warhola Monument (not Warhol) was just another inedible gift of the rich.

I suspected their favorite artist, like my father’s (probably Warhol’s at one point, and one of mine), might be the brilliant painter John Kane, so-called Primitivist (née Self-taught, etc.), railroad worker who hobbled around one-legged after being run over by a train one tipsy night, and senior member of Pittsburgh’s working class art pantheon. I’d heard about Kane from the time I noticed house paint could be of many colors, and he was probably the first artist I became aware of. The Rosa-Villa crowd would be wrong about his preeminence, but they would be worth arguing with on the subject, and I have no doubt they would be willing to argue, voices almost completely gone from the universe now, along with their difficult world, willing to be heard, wishing to be understood.

Photo of George Evans

George Evans
San Francisco, May 1985
Photo by John Tranter

George Evans’ next collection of poetry, The New World, is forthcoming from Curbstone Press (CT) in spring 2001. He is also co-translator of two other volumes forthcoming from Curbstone Press at the same time: The Violent Foam: New and Selected Poems, by Daisy Zamora (translated from Spanish with the author), and a collection of poems by the Hanoi poet Huu Thinh, The Time Tree (translated from Vietnamese with the writer Nguyen Qui Duc). He lives in San Francisco.

This piece also appeared in hard copy in Shearsman 48, edited by Tony Frazer. Their Internet site:

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