Originally published in The Evergreen Review Issue 125 in December, 2010.
Walt Whitman’s Secret
By George Fetherling
(Random House Canada, 2010)
Review by Christopher G. Moore
George Fetherling is Canada’s Aldous Huxley, his career spans poetry, essays, travel, biography and fiction. There doesn’t seem to be any literary frontier that Fetherling has not covered and his efforts are appreciated by readers who find the truth of our present and past often is best discovered by signing onto a literary tour led by a master literary explorer and adventurer. And Fetherling’s literary credentials make him a perfect guide into Whitman’s world.
His novel Walt Whitman’s Secret (2010) shows him at the height of his literary insight. In one novel, Fetherling has captured the nuance and interior emotions of post-Civil War America through the lens of one its most captivating writers: Walt Whitman. In less capable hands, Walt Whitman’s Secret could have veered off the rails into polemics. It is to Fetherling’s well-honed artistic sensibilities that he has been able to deliver the story of a writer, his relationships, his motives, doubts, detractors, and fans.
Horace as the young narrator who meets regularly with Whitman over a three-year period becomes his living literary executor, recording his conversations and the comings and goings of the people as they pass through Whitman’s life. This device works beautifully to recreate the persona and the cult of the great writer. Horace’s romance with Anne—who indeed brought him into the Whitman fold—allows the personal story of the narrator to rest along side that of Whitman. The relationship between Horace and Anne forge an additional layer of deep, resounding emotion to the narrative. We want to know who these narrators are, and Fetherling brings both of them to life that lends credibility to their mission to devote their life to Whitman.
Through the eyes of Horace and Anne, the Whitman biography unfolds as if to Crown witnesses who were at the scene were called to testify as to what they saw, heard, and experienced. The novel succeeds in detailing the transmittal of artistic values from one generation of writers to the next, the sacrifice of those who attach themselves to famous writers, their rewards, doubts, and uncertain that will follows them as they record the details of a noted life. The writer/mentor paradigm becomes a perfect vehicle to fully illustrate Whitman’s private (and public) life.
On another level, it is the public figure of Whitman and the history of censorship, bigotry and homophobia that existed between the mid to late nineteenth century America that gives the novel considerable depth and resonance. Many things have not changed since Whitman’s day. But some important changes did occur such as the abolition of slavery.
The novel is the story of slavery, gender inequality, prejudice and the American Civil War. The passages of Whitman’s life in Washington, D.C. during the Civil War are memorable—the intrigue, alliances, the fear and hatred—the hospitals overflowing with the wounded. And there was Whitman administering comfort to the wounded soldiers from both sides. Thirty-one million Americans lived in America during the Civil War; more than 600,000 casualties were suffered in the conflict. Fetherling captures the back-story of the assassination of President Lincoln with great skill and drama, recreating the political and personal dynamics that led to the murder.
Walt Whitman’s Secret raises a number of serious questions about whose life and story best explains an epic period of history? Who does the choosing? Who are the people who choose? What does it say about a society that looks to its artists and writers to redeem the truth of the past as opposed to the generals, politicians and pundits? The future generation of writers looks for a way into re-telling the history of the past. Most of the ink would have been spilled to write this period of American history in the form of Lincoln’s biography or those around him. In other words, a political commentary of the period.
Fetherling does not deny the importance of political/biographical perspective, but offers a fresh, vivid look at the period from the vantage of America’s leading poet of the time. What was the literary world of American in the mid-nineteenth century and how was it connected to the political world? The secret in the title of the book shows the connection between poet and political leader was more than just an abstraction of living at the same time and place. Whitman had met Lincoln. That isn’t the secret. As the tug of personal connections closes in, we find that Whitman’s personal life was profoundly changed by Lincoln’s death.
On the most fascinating level, we find Fetherling’s own story has a writer under the spell of Whitman, a story of extracting himself from Whitman’s shadow and seeing himself and Whitman from a new perspective. Whitman’s reinvention of himself through multiple editions of Leaves of Grass, allows Fetherling to peel back the private mystery of Whitman the man. The publishing history of Leaves is a story of censorship, repression, and threats of imprisonment. America’s long anti-intellectual tradition finds a direct connection to homophonic attitudes that prevailed in the establishment. At the same time, we enter Whitman’s house in Camden, New Jersey through Horace and Anne’s eyes and meet the Whitman admirers from Canada, England and America.
Whitman’s story is of a time when a literary person could attend fame without achieving personal wealth. In a time when such a divergence seems almost inconceivable, Fetherling reminds us that what is handed down from one literary generation to the next isn’t the author’s bank records but a body of work that, on its own merits, withstands the test of time and takes on the mantle of a significant narrative of its time.
There are rewarding surprises layered throughout the story. The original use of the term “typewriter” is a piece of trivia every writer should know. Yet it fits to perfectly in the narrative it is only later we realize what a delightful insight we’ve discovered.
With the publication of Walt Whitman’s Secret, Fetherling reconfirms his unique voice in Canadian literature, one of those rare literary authors whose thoughtful, and insightful travels into the heart of a past world breathes life into it, and makes us understand it in a fresh and novel way.