Too Good to Be True: The Life and Work of Leslie Fiedler

By Mark Royden Winchell | Go to book overview

CHAPTER TEN
From Princeton to Athens

THEES SAY IN that rich and varied collection No! In Thunder that may shed most light on Leslie's own psyche is “Walt Whitman: Portrait of the Artist as a Middle-Aged Hero.” Originally published as the introduction to the edition of Whitman's verse he edited for the Laurel Poetry Series, this essay was written at a time when Leslie himself was unheroically facing the crisis of being a middle-aged artist. Without knowing this, one might find the essay's emphasis merely puzzling and idiosyncratic. After all, so much of Whitman's bombastic optimism seems to inform Leaves of Grass that it might at first seem odd to focus on the poet's mid-life crisis. Nevertheless, Leslie argues that “the key poems of Whitman's book were written from sometime just before 1855 to 1860; that is, from the moment the poet approached his thirty-fifth year to the moment he left behind his fortieth.” (CE, 1:288).

Leslie goes on to argue that Whitman's mid-life crisis remained more real for him “as a poet than the great national crises of secession and war, and [that] at the center of that personal crisis is a crushing sense of loneliness, of being unloved” (289). If the “I” who serves as protagonist for “Song of Myself” is a thinly disguised projection of Whitman himself, the ideal audience he creates—“The Beatrice he could never leave off wooing, the Penelope to whom he could never return”—is a considerably more ephemeral presence. “As the hero of [Whitman's] poem is called `I,' ” Leslie writes, “so the loved one is called `you'; and their vague pronominal romance is the thematic center of `Song of Myself.' It is an odd subject for the Great American Poem: the celebration (half-heroic, half-ironic) of the mating between an `I' whose reality is constantly questioned and an even more elusive `you.' The latter pronoun in Whitman's verse almost always is followed by the phrase `whoever you are' ” (290).

Since 1941, the man who wrote this essay had continually left and returned to Missoula, Montana, never feeling quite at home anywhere. He celebrated his fortieth birthday at Princeton, which was geographically less than fifty miles

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