It’s “River Deep — Mountain High” on Walt Whitman’s Birthday
By Stuart Mitchner
Walt Whitman is America.
I am as bad as the worst, but thank God I am as good as the best.
—Walt Whitman (1819-1892)
Walt Whitman was as good as the best when nursing and “being there” for wounded and dying soldiers from both sides of the Civil War. On May 31, 1865, his 46th birthday (today is his 204th), he sat beside a 21-year-old rebel soldier, “who lies a good deal of the time in a partial sleep, but with low muttering and groans — a sleep in which there is no rest. Powerful as he is, and so young, he will not be able to stand many more days of the strain and sapping heat of yesterday and to-day. His throat is in a bad way, tongue and lips parch’d. When I ask him how he feels, he is able just to articulate, ‘I feel pretty bad yet, old man,’ and looks at me with his great bright eyes.”
Whitman expands on what he means by “the worst” in Democratic Vistas (1871), where he finds “the problem of the future of America is in certain respects as dark as it is vast. Pride, competition, segregation, vicious wilfulness, and license beyond example, brood already upon us….Flaunt it as we choose, athwart and over the roads of our progress, loom huge uncertainty, and dreadful, threatening gloom. It is useless to deny it. Democracy grows rankly up the thickest, noxious, deadliest plants and fruits of all — brings worse and worse invaders …. We sail a dangerous sea of seething currents, cross and under-currents, vortices — all so dark, untried — and whither shall we turn?”
Comes the Poet
We can turn toward Passage to India, a long poem of 12 stanzas composed in 1870, wherein Whitman sees the whole world “swimming in space, / Cover’d all over with visible power and beauty, / alternate light and day and the teeming spiritual darkness …With inscrutable purpose, some hidden prophetic intention, / Now first it seems my thought begins to span thee. …. Perhaps even now the time has arrived.” After the seas have been crossed, and the captains and engineers, inventors, scientists, chemists, geologists, ethnologists have finished their work, “Finally shall come the poet worthy that name.”
150 Years Ago
Besides being Walt Whitman’s birthday, May 31 marks the 150th anniversary of his settling for the rest of his life in Camden, N.J., where his mother had died in mid-May 1873. Already partially paralyzed after a stroke in January, he had come from Washington to be with her as soon as he heard she was ailing. Although he still managed a trip west in 1879, the only actual “passage” he could sail from Camden was across the Delaware to Philadelphia. Later he found words for his fate: “Washington, New Orleans, Brooklyn — these are my cities of romance. They are the cities of things begun — this is the city of things finished.”
A Woman’s Strength
In the biographical memoir, With Walt Whitman in Camden April 8–September 14, 1889 (Southern Illinois Univ. Press 1964), Horace Traubel gives an account of Walt’s 69th birthday on May 31, 1888. At a Philadelphia dinner in his honor, he was in “a rather merry mood. Songs were sung.” Weda Cook, who posed for the 1890 Thomas Eakins painting The Concert Singer, sang a song of her own composition based on Whitman’s Lincoln poem “O Captain! My Captain!” Whitman “seemed to be much touched, exclaiming ‘Bravo!’ several times as she went on.” When she was through, he told Traubel, “There’s fine soil in that girl.” Asked what he liked best in singers, he said, “I like strength in a woman — woman’s strength.” Later he told Traubel, “My love is anybody’s love today.”
“River Deep — Mountain High”
When Tina Turner died a week ago, I knew there was no way I could keep so strong and beloved a performer out of a column celebrating Walt Whitman. In Saturday’s New York Times Arts section, you see a massive close-up of a serenely staring woman a year short of 80 next to a list of “essential tunes” that includes “River Deep — Mountain High,” a majestic song that spans Whitmanesque extremes as Phil Spector’s “Wall of Sound” production builds “stronger, deeper, higher,” trumpeting the fanfare of the title with a sweep and grandeur that resounds throughout Passage to India, Whitman’s song of “Asia’s, Africa’s fables, / The far-darting beams of the spirit, the unloos’d dreams! … The deep diving bibles and legends.” The poet sings of the “races, neighbors, to marry and be given in marriage, / The oceans to be cross’d, the distant brought near,” of the “Wind River and the Wahsatch mountains”; the “Unspeakable high processions of sun and moon and countless stars above, / Below, the manifold grass and waters, animals, mountains, trees.” Then, ringing through the last stanza: “Passage to more than India! Of you O waters of the sea! O winding creeks and rivers! Of you O woods and fields! Of you strong mountains of my land! … Sail forth — steer for the deep waters only.”
The more I listen to “River Deep — Mountain High,” the more it seems that for all her power and energy, Tina Turner is as much embattled as amplified within Phil Spector’s vast echoing temple of sound. Although she comes through magnificently with each chorus, her “coming through” isn’t what this power-of-love anthem is about. I’m thinking now of Whitman’s response to the singer at his birthday party: “There’s fine soil in that girl,” and after that to say, age 69, “My love is anybody’s love.” You can hear Tina’s “soil” in her song “The Best,” which has a “Born to Run” fanfare in the arrangement that presents her at her strongest and sweetest.
When I open Leaves of Grass to Children of Adam, looking for some semblance of Tina, I find it in “A Woman Waits for Me,” where, after claiming “In you I wrap a thousand onward years,” the “large, undissuadable” poet says “The drops I distill upon you shall grow fierce and athletic girls, new artists, musicians, and singers.” Seeing generations ahead, “The babes I beget upon you are to beget babes in their turn.” He demands “perfect men and women” from his “lovespendings …. loving crops from the birth, life, death, immortality I plant so lovingly now.”
“The One Pioneeer”
Reading such passages, I can imagine D.H. Lawrence cackling with glee as he makes notes for his chapter on Whitman in Studies in Classic American Literature (1924), where after mocking Walt (“he who aches with amorous love”), Lawrence comes round to “the great poet” who has “meant so much to me, the one man breaking a way ahead. Whitman, the one pioneer. And only Whitman …. Ahead of Whitman, nothing. Ahead of all poets pioneering into the wilderness of unopened life, Whitman. Beyond him, none. His wide, strange camp is at the end of the road.”
On a Random Road
Mindful of Pound’s “Whitman is America” and Whitman’s “best and worst” and the quoted passage from Democratic Vistas, I took out the Thomas Mosher facsimile of the first 1855 edition of Leaves of Grass, a big lean rangy book, two hands high, and I opened it at random. A third of the way down the page, I came to this line: “I help myself to material and immaterial, / No guard can shut me off, no law can prevent me.”
So here he’s the outlaw, a pose Bob Dylan echoes in his 2020 LP Rough and Rowdy Ways, especially in “I Crossed the Rubicon” and “I Contain Multitudes,” where he claims Whitman’s title and is thereby contained by Whitman.
In this one page, Whitman is everywhere and everything: “Speeding with tailed meteors … storming enjoying planning loving cautioning,” now he’s in a crow’s nest “sailing through the arctic sea, with white topped mountains in the distance,” then he fancies a battlefield, then the suburbs of “some vast and ruined city.” Then as sudden as a turn of the heel or the motion of a wing, he becomes “a free companion” who bivouacs “by invading watchfires.”
As you near the bottom of the big page, it’s still startling in the year 2023 to read “I turn the bridegroom out of bed and stay with the bride myself, / And tighten her all night to my thighs and hips.” Yet his voice “is the wife’s voice, the screech by the rail of the stairs.” And before you can think this is what Whitman means by “the worst,” as if caught in dangerous “under currents,” he ends the page with a line I thought of as Tina Turner sang her heart out in the soundstorm of “River Deep — Mountain High”: “I understand the large hearts of heroes, / The courage of present times and all times.”
The annual “Song of Myself” marathon is coming up on Sunday, June 4, from 2 to 5 p.m. Every year since 2004, the Whitman Initiative has been holding these marathons in which individuals are assigned sections of “Song of Myself” to read. During the pandemic, there were online marathons, a custom that has continued alongside the in-person event as a way of bringing “the poetry-loving world together.” On Sunday, September 10, from 3 to 6 p.m., readers will return in person to Brooklyn Bridge Park for the 20th annual live marathon. For further information, contact firstname.lastname@example.org or visit waltwhitmaninitiative.org.