Oh Whitman, my Whitman!

Walt Whitman’s Secret, by George Fetherling, Random House Canada, 350 pages, $32.

Reviewed by Ken McGoogan

Globe and Mail Update Published on Friday, Apr. 09, 2010

Nothing in the previous work of George Fetherling has prepared us for this. The man has written dozens of books, among them biographies, histories, contemporary novels, collections of essays and poems, and that autobiographical classic Travels by Night: A Memoir of the Sixties. But none of them approaches Walt Whitman’s Secret in ambition or achievement.

With this historical novel, the author sets out to change the way we see a major literary figure, the poet whose Leaves of Grass has attracted the attention of generations of scholars and readers. The result is a stunning success. While remaining within the known facts about the life of Walt Whitman (1819-1892), at least as far as a non-specialist can tell, Fetherling has delivered an imaginative triumph by implicating Whitman in the political action of his times. In the end, the poet’s vaunted innocence looks more like a pose.

Such enthusiasm demands full disclosure. Like most published writers in Canada, I do know George Fetherling. We met in the 1970s when he was still “Douglas” and we both worked at The Toronto Star. Over the decades, we have had coffee or lunch six or eight times, and I was one of 60 people invited to his 60th-birthday celebration at Massey College.

Discount this assessment if you must. In my view, Fetherling chose a brilliant narrative strategy. Like F. Scott Fitzgerald in The Great Gatsby, he presents a first-person account by an eyewitness, a minor character who, in this case, has a remarkable presence in the historical record. Though we discover his identity only gradually, the narrator is Horace Traubel, the real-life author of Walt Whitman in Camden, a nine-volume biography that focuses on the poet’s final years. Traubel, who considered himself Whitman’s “spirit child,” visited the poet almost daily from the mid-1880s until his death, and developed his multi-volume portrait from detailed notes of their conversations.

Fetherling creates a subtle tension between Whitman, the keeper of a dark secret, and Traubel, the much younger disciple obsessed with dragging it into the light. That tension keeps us turning pages. Early on, Traubel tells us that “the skeleton in W’s closet was not the one outsiders suspected.” Rather, “the supposed revelation W was at such pains to hide from the public while being compelled to reveal it in his work was actually not a secret in the least, but a commonplace truth for limited circulation.” Yes, Walt Whitman was gay. But to the discerning, that was no secret.

Readers who flip through the novel seeking a sentence or a paragraph that reveals Whitman’s secret will search in vain. A skilled and sophisticated writer, Fetherling is far beyond such awkward blundering. Whitman’s secret concerns U.S. president Abraham Lincoln, and the only rough patch in this otherwise seamless narrative occurs when the author begins weaving it into the fabric.

From the first page on, Traubel addresses “Flora,” who is based on the real-life Flora MacDonald Denison, a Canadian suffragist, radical journalist and admirer of Whitman. This enables Fetherling to introduce a striking Canadian dimension and, more important, to speak intimately of his subject in bringing him to vivid life.

Traubel describes how, for example, when he enters the poet’s room, Whitman tells him to throw his hat on the bedpost: “You see, he often hung his trousers in that manner, though his own hat, the soft gray sloucher with the high crown and the sweat stains, lay as usual on the round table by the window, holding down a stack of loose documents. … He had taken off his boots of course but otherwise had fallen asleep fully dressed. The evening was warm and muggy, but he shuffled across the plank floor, struck a match on the side of the stove and tossed it in the firebox.”

As this brief quotation suggests, Fetherling has not only found the perfect point-of-view character, but has given him a credible, entertaining voice. This is especially impressive considering that the narrator is writing, ostensibly, in 1918. When the poet shows him a nude photo of himself, Traubel writes: “I was shocked, for though I had frequently seen him in dishabille, I certainly had never lain eyes on his generative appendage.”

Fetherling also lets Whitman speak for himself, as when the poet comments on a painting by Thomas Eakins of a group of nude boys cavorting on the banks of a river: “They remind us how like a piece of fruit the body is, reaching the perfect state of ripeness that is all too brief. Eakins caught them at that moment, before they had any awareness that the ultimate end of the process is to rot and fall from the branch.”

Walt Whitman’s Secret is an adult novel. In pace as in language, it evokes another age. Resolutely unfashionable, utterly convincing, it is a resonant, shimmering work that stakes a claim on posterity.

Ken McGoogan, vice-chairman of the Public Lending Right Commission, has been known to kick off presentations by quoting from Whitman’s Song of the Open Road. This autumn, he will publish How the Scots Invented Canada.

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