Academic journal article The Southern Literary Journal

The Literary World Gone Mad: Hayne on Whitman

Academic journal article The Southern Literary Journal

The Literary World Gone Mad: Hayne on Whitman

Article excerpt

Paul Hamilton Hayne accepted the Anglo-American poetic tradition without serious qualification. He considered Tennyson the great poet of the period and Longfellow the leading American bard. Moreover, though he enjoyed a daily snort of bourbon or rye and paid court to the ladies as avidly as any South Carolina gentleman of the old school, he was quite strait-laced in matters concerning public behavior. It is no wonder, then, that he considered Walt Whitman a "tremendous charlatan" as a poet and a "big shameless Beast" as a man.

Hayne's assertions regarding Whitman have not gone unnoticed. Charles R. Anderson touched on Hayne's unfavorable views in 1940, Charles Duff), and Jay B. Hubbell noted them in 1945 and 1954, respectively, and Edd W. Parks commented briefly on them in 1962. On two previous occasions I have remarked on Hayne's unfavorable opinion of Whitman, but the scope and range of Hayne's distaste for Whitman and his poetry have yet to be fully described and documented. (1) Consequently, since much of what Hayne said about Whitman remains unpublished or uncollected and was written when Hayne was the representative poet of the South and since part of Hayne's response manifested itself in a delightful parody, it seems appropriate that his views be set forth. (2)

Hayne's earliest reference to Whitman occurred in 1860 in a letter to John R. Thompson, editor of the Southern Field and Fireside at the time and formerly editor of the Southern Literary Messenger. "Your critique upon Mr. Walt Whitman," he observed on June 10, "delighted me beyond measure! The comparative success of his work demonstrates the lowness both of morals & taste among even the better class of readers & critics at the North." (3)

Two months later the Ordinance of Secession was engrossed in Charleston and Hayne's attention was focused on other matters. Whatever comments he made on Whitman during the Civil War remain for the present where they originally appeared, but in 1867 Whitman's "A Carol Harvest" in the September Galaxy provoked a notice from Hayne in the Southern Opinion, a Richmond weekly. Leaves of Grass, remarked in the issue for September 7,

   reads like the composition of a raving Bedlamite, some miserable, unclean
   wretch, whose senses, inflamed by lust and every conceivable evil passion,
   delights in bellowing balderdash against all the decencies of life, the
   purities of civilization, or the most sacred and treasured convictions of
   the healthful human heart.

   His style of versification, if we may so call it, is peculiar. It consists
   in the mechanical arrangement of the baldest prose into couplets and
   paragraphs of unequal length, which no system of prosody the world has ever
   known could be made to interpret.

These remarks, strong as they are, must nevertheless appear somewhat reserved in the context of Hayne's discussion of Whitman in 1868 in Southern Society, a Baltimore periodical he contributed to regularly. In an article called "A Yankee Phenomenon" Hayne pays his "respects" to Whitman's reputation and to his ideas and poetry, and, in effect, establishes the foundations for his subsequent appraisals of Whitman as man and artist. After describing Whitman's reputation as his "friends" have promulgated it, Hayne continues:

   By dint of sheer, towering presumption; of obstinate repetition of the same
   political and moral monstrosities, in language studiously obscure, and yet
   with every trick of the most audaciously prurient rhetorick; by eternal,
   impudent, unmitigated self-assertion--Walt Whitman has succeeded in
   hoodwinking thousands of shrewd, sensible and learned men, and of imposing
   upon them the veriest intellectual and spiritual rubbish of the past as
   something possessed of a novel, incalculable value!

   What is his "equality of all men" but the watchword of the French
   Revolution revived and illustrated by the verbiage of an erotic and
   mystical mannerism? … 
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