This lecture was originally delivered on March 8, 2008, as part of the “American Pictures” program sponsored by Washington College, the National Portrait Gallery, and the Smithsonian American Art Museum.
(For Adam Goodheart)
I. I begin and end with the great poem of Walt Whitman. It seems we all commence then exit there. Everyone but Walt Whitman himself, reported dead since 1892, who—with less than five years’ schooling, without ‘background’, without European travel, without Latin, without Harvard, without sponsorship, with only his looks and body and mind and his rankling faith in, of all things, Us—found a way to forever-after begin and begin and begin.
Shut not your doors to me proud libraries,
For that which was lacking on all your well-fill’d shelves, yet
Needed most, I bring
Forth from the war emerging, a book I have made.
The words of my book nothing, the drift of it every thing.
A book separate, not link’d with the rest nor felt by the intellect,
But you—ye untold latencies—will thrill to every page.
Truth is, Walt stalked these very halls before we did, before this was the National Portrait Gallery. He came only when needed, when sick people lined these corridors. Let me show you. I bring a new kind of portrait to this hall of portraiture.
Baudelaire wrote in 1846: “A portrait is a model complicated by an artist.” Many a poor painting and studio photo tried capturing our highly pictorial friend, Walt Whitman. It seems HE preempted all visual invention. That beard, the head massively seaworthy as Neptune’s, a tendency to have himself photographed about as often as most men get haircuts. Those self-consciously unstructured workmen’s clothes, chosen by a closet dandy. With characteristic grace, he usually found something to praise in each bad picture of him.
Today we speak of the poet’s only painted portrait that convinces us we’re really with him. It shoehorns us into conversation at the front-side of his wheelchair. He is sixty-nine, half paralyzed but this picture flatters us into thinking we’ve just somehow made him laugh. Fact is, the portrait most resembles the poet in its being so invitational. The picture becomes, in the end, Whitman’s collaboration. With us. And, of course, the painter.
Thomas Eakins started this work in November of 1886 and finished it only the following April. Had Whitman’s health permitted, there would surely be many other Eakins likenesses of Walt. The old man was dying. Soon he could not even ‘sit’, couldn’t remain propped upright up for the countless hours Eakins always required. So the young painter hurried home, bringing his camera. A good thing. Thomas Hardy proved as great a poet as novelist; and Eakins was our first brilliant American artist equally expressive with a camera and a brush.
This oil portrait braids the sagas of two hypersensitive self-described ‘toughs’: Walt Whitman very much of bustling muscular Brooklyn-New York, and Thomas Eakins, a definite if parlor-averse Philadelphian. A couple of American pioneers, the John Muir of literature and at least the Kit Carson of 19th century Main Line aesthetics!
Of all the portraits depicting our nation’s outsized Gandolphian wizards, I have fixed on this one for the simplest reason: I love the work of both the sitter and the artist. Their efforts go on changing and enlarging my own efforts. Respect and awe leading to love—surely that’s at least the beginning of an understanding?
Thomas Eakins began this work in November of 1886 and finished it only the following April. Had Whitman’s health permitted, there would surely be many other Eakins’ likenesses of him. Whitman was dying. Soon the old man could not even remain propped upright up for the countless hours Eakins always required. So the young painter hurried home, bringing his camera. A good thing. Thomas Hardy proved as great a poet as novelist; and Eakins, the first great American artist equally expressive with a camera and a brush.
This oil portrait braids the sagas of two self-described toughs: Walt Whitman very much of Brooklyn-New York and Thomas Eakins, a definite Philadelphian. A couple of American pioneers, the John Muir of literature and at least the Kit Carson of 19th century Main Line aesthetics! Of all the portraits depicting our nation’s outsized Gandolphian wizards, I have fixed on this one for the simplest reason: I love the work of both sitter and artist. Their efforts go on changing and enlarging my own efforts. Respect and awe leading to love—surely that’s at least the beginning of an understanding?
Alexandre Dumas suggested, “Every great general should be followed clear to death’s door by a historian…or at least a novelist.”—Thanks a lot, Alex.
We storytellers do have our place, our merits. If sometimes over-generous with slapdash color, if too entranced by detail, if preoccupied with our fictional characters’ most heroic contradictions, we can at least claim empathy. I, for instance, went to the very art school that hired then sacked Eakins. I know how to prime then stretch a canvas; too few art historians do.
Imagine setting up as a literary critic before learning how to read. Don’t laugh! I can name several such culprits at the “Washington Post.” You see, I know Eakins and Whitman as fellow makers of things beautiful and ugly. I share with them the toil then joy of building things (this altar to them, for instance, constructed, as you will see, in your very presence).
Like them I know the long waits that finally allow artistry’s lurching advances noticed too seldom by anyone past an audience of one, or two, three. See, Tom and Walt and I, we’re manual laborers. Criticism wears a white collar. It is management. And us barbaric mugs and yawps? the color of our collars runs a deep flag-blue. Eakins and Whitman loved depicting workers because, as Americans, they worked so damn hard themselves.
I propose to tell the tale of each artist as they’re best shown in the creation of one portrait. It became an image they both endorsed then came to warmly admire. Whitman, like Gertrude Stein studying Picasso’s future-tense image of herself, resisted it at first; but eventually Walt found the picture `became’ him. “I’m IN it like molasses is in its jug”, the old man said. Eakins, on completing the picture, handed it free-of-charge to the not-rich poet. But Eakins, being a great tease, concurrently announced he’d expected to get half and now needed to know which fifty-percent Walt would like. Whitman, who enjoyed this sort of teasing joke, (that would drive me crazy) answered, “Whatever’s left over”. The bard would subsequently hang this work in his simple home’s front-hall, beside a gas-light to make nighttime viewing easier.
These two renegades, so alike in their solitary bravery, were instructively different in temperament, social class, psychic methodology. There is, in their collaboration, something as catalytic as instructive. Hailing from different father-son generations, they first viewed each other with a becoming wariness. Whitman was at the end of writing poetry, though great prose would be forthcoming. The poet was so celebrated, uninvited company arrived daily, much of it onerous. And yet he seemed, in his decrepitude, to sit awaiting some long postponed news of himself. In the end, it was brought him by his apostles’ one Doubting Thomas. Among his late-life coterie, the most swart, gifted and secretive would be Tom Eakins. About the treacheries of being depicted, Whitman had written:
That shadow, my likeness, that goes to and fro, seeking a livelihood, chattering, chaffering;
How often I find myself standing and looking at it where it flits;
How often I question and doubt whether that is really me;
—But in these, and among my lovers, and caroling my songs,
O I never doubt whether that is really me.
One of the Whitman’s ten thousand paradoxes: how he seemed born fully certain of his identity while remaining—within such bracketing confidence—so permeable and adaptable, so utterly solicitous. Even near age seventy, he sought daily amendments to his own Constitution. (That Eakins’ painted and photographic portraits would amend the poet’s legend would be not surprise an artist so gifted. But that Eakins might also engage and expand the Poet personally—emotionally, this might have startled the solitary and prideful young painter.)
The oil portrait marks the very start of this pair’s intense five-year friendship, ended only by Whitman’s death. The painting proved to them their match had been fated. When one artist, using his best skill, portrays another and then makes a gift of the surface itself, something surpassing even art can spring into play. No money ever changed hands. Such barter seems downright anti-Capitalist! I will attempt to trace what sixty-nine year old Whitman gained from forty-four year old Eakins; and especially all that the darkling, troubled Eakins absorbed from this most communicably useful of our nation’s sages.
II. Parker Brothers should produce a parlor game: Match the greatest writer of each period with that moment’s superior painter. I mean the one likeliest to save the ever-changing animation of a living literary genius.
If only Holbein, say, had depicted young Will Shakespeare at the gates of The Globe. What if Willem de Kooning had hired to model for his brilliant “Woman # 1” an undraped Marilyn Monroe? Some kind of miracle resulted when John Singer Sargent, one sort of genius, painted Robert Louis Stevenson, another sort that Sargent clearly, in and out of paint, adored—saving forever.
In the case of Emily Dickinson, the agoraphobic counterweight to Whitman’s cosmos-hopping self, HER two daguerreotypes were surely forced upon her by bossy dad at gunpoint. But she might’ve agreed to let another recluse paint certain lightning-lit dreamscapes glimpsed only in her poems; I would give that task to the master of sundown, Albert Pinkham Ryder.
Imagine you are commissioned to pick one portrait from this hall of thousands. Imagine trying to tell the story of America through a single picture. The history of this building, now the National Portrait Gallery, can help you choose. When Pierre L’Enfant designed the capitol’s street plan, he drew at this very sight a “Church of the Republic”. He proposed it as a secular shrine dedicated to national heroes; it would be based on Rome’s Pantheon with its roof open to the air, a temple offered all those Gods not named, a loophole honoring exceptions. But, this being our America, so huge a structure, started in 1836 and finished 31 years later, instead became the Temple of Patents. A shrine limited to only human ideas, to only moneymaking latencies, all registered, all named.
There’s a story in this. Are you with me?
To obtain a patent today, you need only send a CD-rom supporting your application. But mid-nineteenth century, every would-be inventor had to also deliver his working-model, the prototype then called “an exhibit”, and to this very building.
These were displayed behind glass along the third-story galleries. Inventors naturally picked the nation’s finest craftsmen to build then paint their exhibits. So easy to picture, behind glass upstairs, a Santa’s workshop of beautifully-wrought 1860’s laundry-wringers, smelting ovens.
These remained stalled right there in place during the national emergency, our Civil War. Washington, having no military hospital, would eventually pitch the tents of fifty-six. So, a wing of this building got pressed into service as barracks, as wounded soldiers’ ward and, inevitably, as morgue.
Soon, cots of wounded Federal soldiers were being pushed against glass protecting industrial inventions halted mid-application (unless the patents involved weaponry.) Today I am able as a fiction writer to enjamb these American devices meant to insure our nation’s industrial future against the broken bodies of those boys sent out to defend the futures of these very inventions.
Only the strongest of wounded soldiers even survived the trip by horse-cart, train, then stretcher to this polished hall. How odd it must’ve been to pass out among battle’s smoke and mud, to wake alone into this civic space of the Ionic order.
Surgeons, about to suture shut a solider, wet catgut with their own spittle; they sharpened scalpels on boot-soles. Even the best hospitals proved disorganized, foul-smelling places. Strangers roamed freely, seeking wounded sons and brothers. Tricksters sometimes chose the single richest-looking boy in any ward, hoping for a brief friendship then a significant legacy. Rebel sufferers were not a high-priority. And, among visiting-hours’ throng of saints and opportunists, you could have met upstairs a man as noticeable as he was unsalaried. White bearded prematurely, wearing a maroon suit he favored, the gent greeted all, carrying slung across one shoulder his sack of treats. You’d surely recall him—his being six feet tall, two hundred pounds easy, the very picture of rosy health.
He distributed little presents to successive boys. From his bag appeared apples, candies, notepaper, newly polished coins of the sort meant to please young kids. This fellow, known to nurses, wandered, joking, paying rapt attention to one boy at a time, cot-to-cot, joshing-coddling, man to boy. His effect seemed to quicken those recovering, to soothe those adrift between worlds.
If patent-exhibits under glass seemed huge man-sized toys, this hearty visitor in red was the one Santa big enough to pass such toys to the deserving. He’d been hired by no one and yet seemed welcome by all. He’d first come to the city seeking his own wounded brother, George Washington Whitman. And, once Soldier George returned to battle, (and what would be a long prosperous life) Walt stayed on. He chose to remain in the Capitol till the war burned out. Three smoky years of it remained.
(I myself only came to recognize Whitman as I visited the wards of another emergency, that first wave of AIDS in New York. I got to know his frustration in trying to help kids whose families had, on purpose or not, lost track of them. I soon felt I’d patented the sad trick of cheering youngsters who knew themselves doomed. Doomed by certain scissoring forces of history past their control or understanding. On a subway bound to St. Vincent’s Hospital—I found a much-thumbed paperback called “Leaves of Grass”. It became for me, among my boys, in my own ward of lost causes, inspiration as essential as food. About to leave my apartment, exhausted into seeming senility, I had to say aloud, “The keys? Keys. The wallet? Wallet. The book? The Book.”)
Part of Whitman’s originality was how—too old to be drafted himself—he simply took a train to where he might best help. Never middle-class, always nine-to-five averse, a bachelor by virtue of his inclination and artistry, he found he could be useful. So he simply came where he was needed.
The middle-aged Melville was off visiting camps, writing poems. Louisa Mae Alcott worked as a nurse till typhoid fever sent her home. Hawthorne then preferred Rome. Where were Henry and William James? Where was Thomas Eakins? Their wealthy fathers stood ready to pay the fee that kept a smart boy home. But Whitman, poor? right here, pitching in. How literal. How sad, really. How brave and great an American artist! What a patriot to shame so many so-called patriots of today!
Buying boys milk out of his own scant pocket-change, writing their letters home, coming in mornings then again at night after working his hours at a paymaster’s desk. Walt would sometimes stay the night beside some patient especially in need. Then he’d walk, without having slept, directly back to his day-job; he’d leave hospitals like the one upstairs. Many times during such strolls early and late, he’d see President Lincoln out and about, under-guarded, unwisely, we now know.
Summers, Lincoln commuted from the Old Soldiers’ Home three miles out into the countryside. Always awake with the town’s many roosters, these two amazing-looking men had developed a nodding acquaintance. But Whitman would never have intruded on the public privacy of that only other genius then breathing the miasmal air of the Potomac basin. They both lived to serve.
Behold! I do not give lectures, or a little charity;
When I give, I give myself….
To any one dying—thither I speed, and twist the knob of the door;
Turn the bed-clothes toward the foot of the bed;
Let the physician and the priest go home.
I seize the descending man and raise him with resistless will.
O despairer, here is my neck;
By God! you shall not go down! Hang your whole weight upon me.
I dilate you with tremendous breath— I buoy you up;
Every room of the house do I fill with an arm’d force,
Lovers of me, bafflers of graves.
Sleep! I and they keep guard all night;
Not doubt—not decease, shall dare to lay finger upon you;
I have embraced you, and henceforth possess you to myself;
And when you rise in the morning you will find what I tell you is so.
But no good deed goes unpunished. Certainly not to that low-cost cure called Walt Whitman, compensating for Mediaeval medicine and modern weaponry with his own charm certifiable, with his Brooklyn-ese bass-baritone, his little jokes and vast eyes—not quite Confederate-gray nor Federal-blue but some treatied shade between.
He visited, by his count, ten thousand boys and men over three years, two visits a day. All tent-hospitals soon half-expected him. Of course, he chose as his favorite the most dangerous and odiferous, set beside an open sewer: Amory Square, located under what is presently the Smithsonian Air and Space Museum.
Whitman remarked to a friend, “People (say) to me, Walt, you are doing miracles for those fellows. I wasn’t, I was…doing miracles for myself.”
The white beard, the jovial manner, the sack of treats, the Saint Nicholas-likeness all were part of his visible and conscious magic. Whitman’s power comes in part from having been born with nothing past his appearance, his wit and hopes. Poverty seemed to free him to explore, exploit the strengths at hand. (For the rest of us at times, does not the Middle-class itself seem a ball and chain binding our either ankle from birth?) How could any citizen arriving so disenfranchised believe his very nation to possess a greatness surpassing that of any God? Walt could claim nothing else! Like the young Dickens, he’d been sent out to work almost as soon as he could walk well enough to get hired as anybody’s ‘messenger’. Dickens’ fossil-fuel rage derived from this early injustice, the death-sentence issued such a vulnerable soul. But Whitman simply viewed it as his main chance, Raw Opportunity.
At home, Whitman slept in a bed alongside his profoundly retarded brother, a likely Down Syndrome sufferer. This unfortunate, if allowed into an unlocked kitchen, ate himself into unconsciousness whenever possible. Other siblings would die in charity mad houses, would marry working prostitutes. Whitman, like his spirit-brother William Blake, had fetched up in a tiny house overrun with hungry children, with just one book at its center. A black Bible. And these two outsider-artists’ simple first belief? The goal must be to write another, newer, Bible. And you know? they did it.
Walt, my fellow blue-collared laborer of the word, started as a reporter, first trying on a white collar. He then attempted teaching. But, by the time his self-made personally-financed and handset book appeared, Whitman had shed like snake’s skin the trappings of Profession. He had banished even his own given name from the title page. Now that’s democracy! Walt once considered dividing his New Bible into 365 poems to make it easier for year round-meditation; he wanted it printed a size convenient to fit the pocket of every workingman and woman on earth. Whitman’s inheritance had been his mind, physique and strength. The War would cost him those.
He’d caught some fear or pestilence from all his boy-soldiers. Whitman guessed that, while helping with an amputation, he’d taken on some lethal toxin. It robbed him of the Health that had been his very Harvard.
What exactly claimed him? Was it some sympathetic post-traumatic-stress times ten-thousand? Or was this just a matter of a man getting old, and all at once? His had been a rugged constitution, (how perfect an American word for his precious health!). Whitman sacrificed that to the War. A slower assassination than Lincoln’s—but one, in the end, just as certain.
So, today, not to a hospital, but to this National Pantheon to all Gods as yet Unnoted, to this building where his portrait and manuscripts now hold pride of place, am I wrong to feel a little proud for the simple right to honor this man who nursed and praised the best in endless others, many as yet unborn?
College English classes still swear Mark Twain got Vernacular American Speech into Literature, early-admission. May I point out “The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn” was published thirty years AFTER “Leaves of Grass”? Let us now praise famous men. If Tom Eakins was always a fine deep Schuylkill-filled pond apart, Walt Whitman is still the Mississippi of American letters. His life teaches, providing the high levee overlooking his coursing work. From Walt all blessings flow. He remains—and this is crucial to our understanding his radical originality, his force of prophecy—not simply the Father of American Letters, but its Mother, too.
III. Now at this time, 1877, over a decade after Appomattox had settled everything and nothing, with Walt infirm and living by choice in working-class New Jersey, there dwelt not far across the river, a privileged black-eyed young painter of exceptional power and a lean wolf’s solitary disposition. Trained in Paris, claiming to believe that America’s Art School models should pose nude, he—in the presence of female students—plucked from a male model, the loincloth he felt that only Adam’s shame and William Penn’s crisp linen had placed there. And verily, for that, (and hidden darker deeds) this young artist, shamed by his hometown, lost his way, fell apart, set down his brushes and, verily, lived just then in particular need of a mother (his had gone crazy then died) and even a new father.
One of Tom’s former students brought him across the river to meet the famous broken old man. Eakins, this troubled, had forsaken his usually rigorous painting schedule; portrait commissions eluded him; he did not like to leave his family home. The aged poet being more famous than he might’ve hurt Tom’s feelings along with so much else. Eakins came unwillingly. Still living with his parents plus a young wife, the prodigy had never really taken care of anybody, least of all himself. His father, though a drawing master, could claim a genius for investing. Tom existed mostly on his Dad’s unlikely money and could therefore take certain so-called principled stands, ones that’d cost him all three jobs. Though gifted in certain lavish ways the old poet was, the boy’s relation with his own talent often felt as overmatched and adversarial as the wrestling-boxing matches he loved to paint.
Many people are talented. Far fewer are talented at being talented. Whitman, spared the parlor gallantries of someone merely Philadelphian and middle-class, shepherded his own work with an avid patience, a simplicity of purpose that seems egotistic only to those born sponsored. We now know the first rave newspaper reviews of his own poem were often anonymously submitted by an admiring journalist named Walt Whitman.
Eakins forever sought official praise as if to compensate for some inherent canyon of self-doubt. Though lionized by his students, family and wife, Tom lived a frenzy of work fueled by lifelong rage at being overlooked. He seemed so unlike the Whitman who might’ve been portraying his own easeful genius while looking overhead:
I do not wish the constellations any nearer.
They are very well where they are.
Eakins, starved for all the notice he surely deserved, sabotaged his own devotees. Tom turned up at a ceremony to receive a gold medal; he was wearing biking togs at the podium where he called the judges crazy for choosing him; Tom then announced he would be pedaling right to the Mint to trade this medallion in for cash, to have it melted down. And yet he wondered: Why so little acclaim? Why no job? Why fewer and fewer sitters? Why such time on his hands? Why NOT come to Camden and meet the old crank?—Great decisions are made so casually, you know?
A student of Eakins’ had also befriended the now-paralyzed old bard. This friend guessed that Tom needed to know an artist, even a genius, who could live in his own skin and who owned a house. The mutual pal had just helped buy Walt a horse and cart so the old guy might be taken out, shown the picturesque sights of Camden proper. And so Eakins, shamefaced, ‘cut’ on Chestnut and Walnut Streets, accurately accused of requiring his students to strip then pose for photos, guilty of at least sleeping naked with his grown sister and maybe driving a young niece to suicide, this skulker—so good at painting disappointed-looking people left alone among parlor shadows—now climbed stairs toward the presence of a sun-god in senescence.
Walt Whitman, fatherly yet mothering, was ever the solar center of orbiting disciples, many kind unpaid boys who wrote down all his said, then dealt with each morning’s chamber pot. Walt still trusted his own first impressions. But, even containing multitudes, this most genial of geniuses, on first sight, did not like the Eakins boy, no, not the least little bit. Walt soon pronounced the painter: “careless, negligent, indifferent, quiet.” Elsewhere he referred to Tom as “sick, rundown, and out of sorts.” But Eakins had his reasons, having lately suffered what we’d call a breakdown.
He had just returned from a so-called “Camp Cure” advocated by Teddy Roosevelt. Many young men bought their way out of Civil War service. Eakins’s father, no advocate of Lincoln, paid a scant twenty-five bucks to keep Tom home. Later as the North ran out of bodies to get shot it, this fee rose to three hundred and, by Gettysburg, a cool thousand. Not surprising, many of these boys post-Appomattox went directly West. Fellows felt a need to `rough it’ out of self-defense, (and in a zone conveniently cleared of even the last renegade Comanche.) Tom Eakins had brought home from the Dakota Territory tailor-made buckskins and, not one, but two live ponies.
But he told no charming cowboy tales during that first Camden visit. He must’ve sensed he’d made a poor impression. He came back, of course; they always do. “Blank canvas tucked under one arm…” “to have a whack” at painting Whitman. Tom’s pushiness now somehow began to amuse Walt. Here the poet was, being asked to “sit”! Well, paralyzed in a wheelchair, what the hell else could he do?
And so it started, something started. It is hard to say how much they talked at first. A stroke victim will nod off on you in a sunny silent room, and the first oil sketch Eakins did of Whitman shows a godly if tipsy King Lear, solidly endearingly asleep. Already we get hints of brushwork far freer than anything earlier. It’s as if, feeling safe here in working-man’s Camden, glad not to be employed by some society-lady paying a commission, hanging out for hours with a man whose work he knew and, unusual for Tom, respected some, the painter could take new chances.
He’d studied three years in Paris with Gerome, a stunning technician whose depicted middle-eastern slave markets were then admired. Of course in another Arrondisement of the intellect, Manet and Cezanne were breaking up the picture plane with a new sense of what Einstein was about to call relativity.
But, hey, Tom had come straight home from Paris and this, after all, was nonetheless New Jersey. Not yet ready yet for experiments in multiple points-of-view, not when Tom taught Academy students a precise unvarying perspective, the laws of retinal deception. Even so, in this amazing foot-square oil sketch, am I wrong to sense, awakened in the gloomy Eakins by a sleeping Whitman, some new sense of disruptive possibility? This would be one of only two portraits done this winter by a boy once famously prolific. Fired, shamed, the painter must have felt safer here. Compared to artistic-society Philadelphia, Camden might be the Dakota Territory. In Walt’s lair, Tom felt un-extradictable. Since the painter worked very very slowly, many sittings would be required. We know he made these stretch from winter into spring.
After enough ferry rides, an unlikely sympathy spun out, slow. Whitman soon called Tom “Eakins”; Eakins spoke to “Whitman”; they were manual labors and admired each other’s hands. Whitman was an easy man to think you knew. Eakins stayed intentionally impossible to ever second-guess. He had married his most gifted female-student and at once ceased to encourage her prize-winning work. She would cease her own painting during those decades she made his soup. Susan Eakins sadly admitted wearing costumey fabrics in hopes he might ask her to pose again. And she would cheerfully resume her own talented painting almost the day he died.
Tom’s picture of Walt’s solar disposition clocks its power, even in how the frozen orbiting planet, circling the sun times enough, begins to actually thaw itself. Even the remaining radiance of a terribly sick old man put out immense if groggy wattage. One poet described this decrepit Whitman as “down to his last disguise.” (When Walt did die, the autopsy would prove he should’ve been dead a decade back. But he’d held on like some old turtle squinting up at noon, saying what he thought, enjoying whoever climbed the stairs, accepting the acceptance that his poem still teaches, if only we could hear it.)
The men’s times alone together regularized, half-pleased as the old one dozed or scintillated, as the Young Turk painted. Walt felt un-pressured to say those wise or witty things expected by a silent partner painting, not at an easel, but more often on the floor. This contact would engender something new. Not simply a few paintings then a final loving series of portrait photographs. No, a thorny sort of friendship formed. It must be remembered that Whitman’s favorite company had always been the half-articulate drivers of horse-drawn New York conveyances, the soldiers whose language often grew smeared by fever, constricted by pain. Pure Ralph Waldo articulation had never been a requirement for Walt. And it is likely that the hours of posing passed in amiable, interpretable silence. Whitman’s torrents of written language mislead us into thinking him the perpetual toastmaster toper, like some Dylan Thomas, forever bellowing forth Performance. Instead contemporaries often recalled his deep skills at listening. Eakins kept similarly still, a man of Quaker temperament, living on a first-name-basis with silence itself. The lack of these men’s transcribed conversations must reflect as much about concord as distrust. Theirs became a union that, for Whitman’s five remaining years, proved a therapeutic bonus. The time in Camden seemed to calm, buttress, feed the angular anti-social Eakins. How these two beloved outcasts came to first respect then even like each other remains a mystery tale itself. The affection still plain in Eakins’ final image of Whitman, suggests this picture to be the end product of a long friendship, not that connection’s very start.
IV. We are all assigned one beginner-family. And, if allowed long enough lives, we get to then invent 30 or so other little tribes—each benefiting from the negative example of that first!
Whitman was always finding adoptive sons (to sponsor, admire and, when possible, if possible, more). We’ve already seen him audition and then sort of love (at considerable cost to himself) ten thousand fellows, pretty or not. His mentoring young men often served as prelude to Walt’s falling romantically in love with them. (The Horatio Alger School of Dating: rescue a ragamuffin, bathe, then dress , then feed him till he’s thankful, ready enough).
Here I must note the comedy of how many male Whitman biographers would, till lately, simply not cede the poet any true romantic life at all. Justin Kaplan’s Walt Whitman: A Life, published in 1980, effectively asserts that Whitman had only strong parental-feelings for those boys he helped. It insists that Walt preferred women, but was shy. The last line of Kaplan’s book states Whitman died “an old man who never married and had no heart’s companion now except his books…” Except his books? No wife? (Look, if heterosexual suburban marriage is the sole key to happiness then folks really should figure how to make it look like more fun!) How is it possible, after years of reading “Leaves of Grass”, after living with its author’s many passionate often-heartbroken love letters to boys, that a sentient writer can pronounce this genius erotically-disinterested?
Listen: Calling Walt Whitman “asexual” is like calling Mozart “tone-deaf”!
Whitman forever attracted idealistic and talented young men, most straight—some, actually, Oscar Wilde. (But with Walt paralyzed in a wheelchair, what difference did his central erotic wish really make?) Tom Eakins had affectionately signed both portraits he painted of his own father “The Son of Benjamin Eakins did this.” Whitman needed sons and Tom Eakins, a bad boy of prodigious talent and concomitant mischief, just then required all the good dads that he could get. He’d probably come to Camden in search of a contact or a subject but what he needed most was a confessor and a friend and—ultimately—the model of how to live with and for and by one’s own burdensome if privileged talent.
The poet and the painter had begun warily enough, first viewing each other as ‘characters’, then exceptions and finally fellow travelers.
Charles Dickens wrote about Philadelphia in 1841, “It is a handsome city, but distractingly regular…after walking about it for an hour or two…thoughts of making a large fortune by speculations in corn, came over me involuntarily.”
Eakins was every inch the product of his town. Like all smart American provincials, he did and actually did not believe New York City existed.
Whitman’s favorite painter was Jean-Francois Millet, with his sentimentalized religious gleaners and nursing mothers. Eakins’ view of this Frenchman, also beloved by Van Gogh, is not recorded but can be easily guessed. Thomas Eakins, though not born a Quaker, married in a Friends ceremony at a meetinghouse. Like so many Philadelphians he seemed aware of being monitored by William Penn, still taking names from atop City Hall. In the long wait to hear the unmediated voice of a personal God, Tom still seemed waiting. Children of the day were drilled to remain “seen but not heard.” Such an aversion to noisy display for its own sake, such a drive toward silence and plainness, set Eakins work apart. He seemed allergic not just to Europe’s artifice but the fripperies of even, say, Boston! We must recall another brilliant Pennsylvania painter, the devout Quaker, Edward Hicks, praying for heavenly forgiveness while admitting he enjoyed far too much the act of painting spots upon the leopards in his many ‘Peaceable Kingdoms.’ What a merciless God we create for ourselves! Why? Self-disgust maybe.
But Whitman’s spirit? born unteachable, blessedly pagan, pre-Christian, boastfully ‘barbaric.’ Eakins’ own brimstone inheritance suspected all pleasure, seemed born trapped in the fist of an angry employer God.
If Whitman fathered forth the melting-pot dynamism of Manhattan-Brooklyn, Eakins seems as private, Protestant and publicity-averse as a certain kind of exclusive cerebral chamber-music-at-home Philadelphia. If Whitman erred always on the side of forgiveness and inclusion, right up to subsuming and embodying all of humanity himself, Eakins despised any notion of ‘common man’s good sense’; add to that his disdain for dandified airs amongst those society-folks rich enough to commission him to paint their likenesses, at bargain prices.
While studying abroad, Eakins was drawn to Velasquez’s directness and elegance, for reasons of pilgrim austerity. (Velasquez’s position as court painter seems to have escaped our young puritan’s attention.) During his studies in Paris, a letter home tells us as much about this young man’s wit as his appetite for superior renunciation. If Whitman sometimes sounded like an ancient oracular baby, all sensation and orotund acceptance, Eakins remained, for life, an eye-roller roughly 13 years old.
O what satisfaction it gave me to see the good Spanish work so…strong so reasonable so free from every affectation….I have always hated (Rubens’) work….Rubens is the nastiest most vulgar noisy painter that ever lived. His men are twisted to pieces. His modeling is always crooked and dropsical and no marking is ever in its right place or anything like what he sees in nature, his people never have bones, his color is dashing and flashy, his people must all be in the most violent action, must use the strength of Hercules if a little watch is to be wound up … everything must be making a noise and tumbling about. His pictures always put me in mind of chamber pots and I would not be sorry if they were all burnt.
Welcome to Oliver Cromwell land, ladies and gents. First prize, one day in Philadelphia. Second prize, three days there.
Might not the puritan art-student’s charges against Rubens’ teeming energy and moiling crowded sensuality, be leveled at Whitman’s writing, too?
For Whitman, nakedness brings forth the pleasure of a bared body out-of-doors in wind and water. Eakins annexes it to acts of ritual unveilings, occasions for odd aggressions in the name of progress, science. “Teacher of Anatomy to Artists” can offer many side-room occasions for the instructive flashing of a seasoned naturist.
Thomas Eakins’ brilliance had been conspicuous in childhood. His high school tried to make him that institution’s drawing teacher the year he graduated. An only son, Tom’s parents doted on him and, in the home full of paint and ink and vellum, his abilities were found, tested, daily expanded. Great expectations plagued him all his life; and he had not the benefit of Whitman’s curious void, allowing the poet to be everything or, like most of his many siblings, nothing at all.
Whitman’s ruddy childhood was spent on a Long Island still largely wooded and his poetry forever benefited from first daily pantheistic beach hikes. Pallid Eakins is preeminently a city-boy, kept too long at piano lessons. But his outdoor subjects, his high-noon glorification of baseball, hunting, rowing, set a new standard for rigor and a sort of manly joy in American art.
It’s no surprise that Eakins considered Winslow Homer, war correspondent sketch-artist, outdoorsman, bachelor crank, his only peer and competitor. Living at home for life can impede any male’s sense of masculinity—but add to this confinement his father’s buying him out of armed service; add to this how high fever from malaria left a young Eakins sterile for life. His work, so full of melancholic women lost to reveries in carved side chairs, is a sad search for daylight, frontier, the viably Male.
Although best known for portraits, Eakins repeatedly painted the Biglin Brothers, the most famous rowers of a time when that sport was at its zenith. Then you could drink, swim, row in any American river without contracting instant tetanus. Eakins’ portraying these national idols was both an act of hero-worship and a bid for wider public attention.
The current equivalent might be some young artist’s making an art-film based on a French Open showdown between Federer and Nadal. Though Eakins professed never to expect public acclaim (seeing how little he thought of the public) this, of course, was a lie, if one most forgivable. Though the painter sneered at Whitman’s worship of the common man, it is touching to find that, before his brilliant Gross Clinic was shown, (only to be promptly banished to a back-hall’s first-aid station) the artist had quietly copyrighted that image. The young painter was that sure his picture would become a national icon seen on calendars and schoolbooks. It would make his fortune. It did not. He hailed from a social-class musical, intellectual, often fiscally-marginal but highly idealistic. Such households embraced Darwin’s 1860’s theories when period papers still abounded only with monkey jokes. Philadelphia was a great medical nexus and, given his family’s deep respect for science, two of Eakin’s masterworks celebrate surgeons as the true pioneers of American promise. (If Eakins’ work makes good use of excellent science, Whitman proves alchemical in its supernal use of junk science—mesmerism, phrenology, fads that announced all bodies “electric”. Every fad and patented scheme became the poet’s latest university and feeding lot).
Eakins, under the guise of respectable research and liberated thinking, made a cult of bad manners, and bad for anywhere, not just Philadelphia. His students were expected to pose nude for him. (Sometimes one feels there are nearly as many photos of Eakins haplessly unappealingly naked as there are of Walt Whitman consciously and raffishly clothed!) Eakins assumed his male pupils would strip before taking wrestling holds or going skinny-dipping in artful clusters. (I can imagine his calling, “Boys, Swimming-Hole-Attendance Will Be Taken Only AFTER the Camera Arrives!”).
And how did Eakins thank his goose-fleshed disciples? By making each nude boy so recognizable in the buff that—when the final work was shown at the Academy—every model’s sweetheart, parents, fellow student and teacher, identified the poor fellow front-wards and backwards, coming-going.
“Swimming” remains one of the nation’s great emblems of innocence. But the un-ease its bare skin created can be amusingly traced in its subsequent name-changes. Eakins, ever desirous of action, awarded it the verb “Swimming”. (Though only his own figure and his dog’s—Harry, a setter, a male, thankfully—are actually doing that.) The picture was next consecrated, factually if less actively, “The Swimmers”; till, to make it more sentimental, it was termed “The Swimming Hole”; at last becoming “The Old Swimming Hole”—descending from the noon-shine on bare white bottoms into the sun-screening shade of national cliché.
Whitman liked to drink water from the pitcher not the glass. He loved raw oysters and red beef, and usually kept flowers in his upstairs office sickroom. He adored champagne. His sunny chamber’s floor was, in some places, layered a yard-deep with unanswered correspondence, earlier drafts of his great ongoing poem. Emerson’s original letter of endorsement was, one day, found among the litter.
Certainly the poet’s magnificent mane, his Lear-like exile, would speak to any painter’s sense of subject. Now Tom Eakins’ rough manners, his cowboy-isms newly acquired in the Dakota Territory, his rank presumption and strong sense of self, had become an entertaining fixture on Mickle Street, Camden. Common interests? off-color stories, the cold comfort of being unfairly overlooked by the stuffy clueless prize-givers, a joy known only to outlaws hiding out together. “Wanted” men, or were they? Whitman asked for repetition of a tale about Eakins, finding a bracelet on a supposedly-nude female model, then throwing it to the floor.
I always wondered why Eakins, clearly the greatest technical painter of his generation, received no commissions beyond the banks of the Schuylkill River. I just learn he, in fact, was hired to paint a sitting President. I offer this tale to show you how discredited was the Eakins, forty-four, who arrived at Whitman’s sickroom-parlor. I hint that Tom seemed a somewhat different man five seasons later when he would at last participate in the great poet’s funeral.
For a portraitist of any day, being invited to paint a serving president is a coup waiting to happen. Sargent depicted one vigorous monolithic Teddy Roosevelt. And a band of Philadelphians backed Eakins to memorialize, for their club’s gallery of Presidents, no less than Rutherford B. Hayes. Now Presidents, no matter how ignored they’ll be by future history, always seem busy men. And most painters, admitted to their presence, make the most of the little time allotted. (Think of Whitman’s distant nods of blessing to a Lincoln unapproachable). But Eakins showed no such due-deference. He had only been charged to complete a small picture showing just the Presidential head and shoulders. But Tom’s enlarging demands preceded him by mail:
If (Hayes) is disposed…for a full-sized portrait I would undertake it with equal spirit. A hand takes as long to paint as a head nearly and a man’s hand no more looks like another man’s hand than his head looks like another. So if the President chose to give me the time necessary to copy his head and each of his two hands (for I would not be inclined to slight them) … it would seem a pity not to have the rest of him when I know how to paint the whole figure. The price…can remain the same as you mentioned.
Eakins would grouse that, instead of freezing in his presence, the great man had spun his desk-chair, answered letters, in other words, Rutherford Hayes MOVED. By the end, Eakins depicted the now-full-length President dressed like a clerk, holding a lead pencil, “garbed in his old alpaca office coat.” Hayes’ painted alcoholic flush stood at odds with his own pledge never to touch liquor while in office. That hardly mattered since critics remarked little actual resemblance. One critic noted Eakins had followed Rembrandt’s “most extreme theories of chiaroscuro” placing the figure in a very dark office “with one ray of light striking his right temple from behind.”
The portrait was hung at the commissioning Club, which almost immediately removed it, shipping it—with Philadelphia tact—direct to the Hayes White House. There, it surely suffered some form of artistic capital punishment, a latter-day beheading. The work disappeared, presumably the day its murky beet-red subject confronted this, a spurned portraitist’s revenge.
Eakins’ own sympathy toward Whitman’s image must therefore be seen in context of all he did to President Hayes, and vice versa, of course, vice versa.
Eakin’s portraits involved so many sittings—over thirty, and of two to three hours’ duration—at least one lady explain she must quit coming herself but would, if he liked, send her maid. As sitter and invalid, Whitman was always in one place, a sitting duck, ever ready for new Eakins stories, always offering a plate of oysters, some ale brought in a tin bucket from the tavern down the street. Traubel, Whitman’s amanuensis-secretary, proved welcoming at the very time Eakins was now being snubbed directly along the corridors and sidewalks of the City of Brotherly Love. Rumors of incest darkened the already-blotted reputation of this man who photographed and stubbornly painted the prettiest boys from some of the best families on the Main Line and usually in the altogether. No wonder Eakins loved working-class Camden! No wonder he forgave the scent of the fertilizer factory already in service when Whitman bought this house. And why? because he liked a pretty tree growing out front. Oh the innocence of a first-time home-buyer in his late sixties!
No surprise that, by the end, these two men had eventually become each other’s liveliest defenders. And all their shared silence, grown toward a manly deference, went direct into the work of art. After months of one fellow’s painting and the other’s modeling, they came even to somewhat echo each other, in the way shipmates do. Eakins even grew convinced of Whitman’s dubious knowledge of great painting. And Walt seemed sold on Eakins’ directness as something new in American art, a clarity to match his own. “A force of nature,” Walt passed along to the artist a compliment most often offered only him. Whitman might have spoken another self-portrait in saying: “I never knew of but one artist, and that’s Tom Eakins, who could resist the temptation to see what they think ought to be rather than what is.”
Eakins’ biographers all chronicle a different man; his champions disagree not only on his motivations but also on many of his crucial dates. I have never seen such contention among the votives of a single figure: and this itself offers the best portrait of Thomas Eakins. One thinks of Edward Hopper’s wife, Jo, assessing her husband’s art and life: “Talking to Eddy is like dropping a stone down a well and never hearing it hit bottom.”
Eakins seems to have willfully obscured his past, leaving no autobiography longer than the four line-statements required for certain catalogues. In this he could not be more unlike Whitman, whose every poem aggregates to a found single ever-evolving nine-edition work one might call…well, a song of myself.
Eakins was strictly a man for prose. When the occasion required, he could write lucent, perspectival, truly ‘worked up’ sentences. Till fired from the Academy, he had been composing a Drawing Manual soon abandoned. This work was only published three years ago. It proves to be a book of great, strict elegance. In one passage actually written while Tom was painting Whitman, am I wrong to hear an echo of the painter’s great gray champion?
I start with a moment from Walt’s “A Song for Occupations” then will lift my hand when—as proof of fusion and affection—Eakins’ tone goes gently to work over Walt’s.
Have you reckon’d that the landscape took substance and form that it might be painted in a picture?
Or men and Women that they might be written of, and songs sung?
Or the attraction of gravity, and the great laws and
Harmonious combinations and the fluids of the air, as subject for the savants?…
Or the stars to be put in constellations and named fancy names?
“Every one must have noticed on the sides of boats and wharves or rocks, when the sun is shining and the water in motion, never ending processions of bright points and lines, the lines twisting into various shapes, now going slowly or in a stately manner; then dancing and interweaving in violent fashion.
These points and lines are the reflections of the sun from the concave parts of the waves acting toward the sun as concave mirrors, focusing his rays now here, now there…There is so much beauty in reflections that it is generally worthwhile to try to get them right…
Finally, the painting before us, gives eloquent testimony to a tonic directness, a humanity rarely glimpsed in Eakins’ commissioned portraits. Eakins would hand Whitman the picture, free of charge. What this image finally offers us is an added clarity, a double portrait: in it we feel the act of two minds communing—one old man mid-conversation lost in the enjoyment of a deep and listening force, marveling at a gifted youngster in early mid-career. We are privy to the joy one huge talent takes in another of comparable size, deep maleness, shared nationality.
After finishing the portrait, Eakins would never hold another job. He’d take on fewer commissions. Those portraits he chose to paint of non-paying friends are usually far better than his society subjects. Eakins would depart his time with Whitman among the poet’s apostles (though one, Saint Peter-like, silent about his enthusiasm until tested).
If such as Tom could ever be called happy, that seemed to come in his later years, once free of the paranoia-producing hometown institutions that’d always seemed to him his one likely forum for respect and discourse.
When Whitman finally died, among those first notified by his secretary-friend Traubel, was Eakins himself. He and a former student, Charles Murray, came a final time to 328 Mickle Street. They’d arrived equipped to make Walt’s plaster death mask. Afterwards, the loyal secretary-disciple surveyed the old man’s body. He noted how, though the snowy drift of beard had been caked and disarrayed by Eakins’ work, there was no more damage than a slight reddening at the bridge of Walt’s nose. Such care had Tom taken. Whitman had requested that his young painter-friend be pallbearer at the funeral attended by thousands.
Before Eakins himself died in 1916, he would find a curious truce, if not actual peace. Freer of fretting over lack of acclaim, he did what artists do, Tom simply worked to work and let the art take care of itself. If plaudits came late he wisely enjoyed what there were of them. Not from New York, of course. Surely not from Philadelphia whose hostesses he’d aged in oil paint, whose sons, and a stray daughter or two, he’d first stripped then photographed then painted. Too much.
But, if a final show in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, seemed far from the Paris where he’d studied as a whippersnapper; even if one of the other featured artists proved to be a Miss Nevins who, this being Pennsylvania dairy country, was famous for her sculpture in butter; despite all these parochial qualifications, Eakins found his “Agnew Clinic” masterwork dignifying the very cover of the commemorative booklet. At last. Something to take home, (though his father was now dead, too.)
Maestro Tom Eakins attended with Murray, his beloved handsome male student, to squire him around, (the loyal woebegone wife left home). The Philadelphian was received like the great artist he had been all along. And the now bear-like Eakins accepted this with a simple grandeur almost, could we say,…Whitmanesque? Had Tom learned a little something from those five years of silence, communion, raw oysters and champagne in the simple frame house near Camden’s most stinkily profitable fertilizer plant?
Near the end of Eakins’ life, when prizes started finding him at last, he spoke of a national art. Ever his own man, but does not his vocabulary begin to sound all but Whitman’s own? “It would be far better for American art students…to study their own country and portray its life and types….Of course, it is well to go abroad and see the works of the older masters, but Americans must branch out into their own fields… They must strike out of themselves….”
How reassuring from the cool-to-cold Eakins, this final grace-note of public idealism! Even the poetry of ‘strike out of themselves’—with its faint echo of baseball’s three tries you’re done, re-sounds for us the echoed voice, the chambered nautilus, of Whitman. Walt’s has become, at last, the public voice of that very private Thomas Eakins. Walt’s voice out-lives and out-diversifies any mere death-date. Just as his face remains vivid, breathing, saved and shaped for us, by one great, dark, always-American painter.
I believe the sick old poet, through compliments, through the simple faith of posing, transfused some essential laurel-wreath faith that helped make the last half of Eakins’ under-loved career feel both more possible and necessary. Whitman would say of Eakins’ portrait, “It is not perfect but it comes nearest being me.” (It) “faces the worst as well as the best…” Whitman claimed to see in the image “an old, mad, blind, despised, and dying king.”
Walt, ever the teacher, had done far more than LIVE an outward example for the detached and tight-lipped Eakins. He literally forced the younger man into a rare instance of public speaking. And it’s here we’ll end. Imagine that Christ, in the Garden, had coerced a cowardly Peter to acknowledge Him.
We are at Whitman’s seventy-second birthday banquet, his last real outing. Champagne galore and far more male than female guests. The Master has been rolled in after the food is served, too weak to sit up for the whole event but wheeled aloft to hear tonight’s testimonials. By now, most everybody present except the waiters have stood and offered loud or tearful tributes. Whitman can already count fan-mail from Sojourner Truth, Alfred Lord Tennyson, and a mash-note from Bram Stoker.
But, as the praise-songs fade, there’s still one opinion he needs, and in a public setting. Though it’s his party, though speechifying ebbs without Walt’s having spoken once past nodding at those few lines of praise he can accept, he now stirs. The Bard begins to look around. Could a certain young painter possibly be present without feeling stirred to say a word or two in favor of his friend? Painful. Why does that certain portraitist—long vouched for, posed for—now fail to pipe up?
Howard Traubel, Walt’s faithful secretary, forever taking notes, describes the how the old man squints around, seeking a last required Amen:
“And Eakins,” Whitman finally says, “What of Tom Eakins? He is here.—Haven’t you something to say to us, Eaaaa-kins?”
Silence. Then a Quaker answer. “I am not a speaker.”
“So much the better—you are more likely to SAAAY something.”
And so, thus bullied-honored into public conversation yet again, thus offered his master’s final lesson that this poet sees the painter has a quiet soul set alongside his far-more-evident talent, Eakins is forced to rise. Knowing he is licked, outranked by grace, Tom states to the assembly simply this: How it has been hard, “painting the picture of Mr. Whitman. I began in the usual way, but soon found that the ordinary methods wouldn’t do—that technique, rules and traditions would have to be thrown aside, that before all else, he was to be treated…as a MAN.”
Blessed moment in a single human’s life! And, incidentally, blessed in American art! Eakins, had once tried to wrestle onto canvas the entire body of a hyperactive Rutherford B. Hayes. But with Walt so stilled, the artist focused tactful only on the half-blind Homeric head. Ignored below, the paralytic body, serving now only as feeding stem to that great skull, with its utopian vision of nationhood, cooperation, even friendship.
Eakins’s canvas preserves the man’s charm, the twinkling eyes, the talkative listener that silent Whitman always was. One young society girl that the painter portrayed had begged him after long-posing, “Please, sir, make me a little pretty.” (Sadly, Tom instead made her look like a shaved Afghan hound.) But to Whitman, Eakins granted exactly that. One critic complained this picture resembled “A summer-stock Falstaff.” But if Eakins would later photograph Whitman, showing the ancient one as actually looked now, Tom painted the old man as Walt wanted to remember looking.—Unusual mercy, Thomas Eakins.
Some are born loving. Others learn it late. And, I say, thank God for that.
I began and now end with the great fathering-mother poem called Walt Whitman. So did American literature and so will much of future conscious life:
Has any one supposed it lucky to be born?
I hasten to inform him or her it is just as lucky to die, and I know it.
I pass death with the dying and birth with the new-wash’d babe, and am not contain’d between my hat and boots,
And peruse manifold objects, no two alike and everyone good,
The earth good and the stars good, and their adjuncts all good.
I am not an earth nor an adjunct of an earth,
I am the mate and companion of people, all just as immortal and fathomless as myself.
(They do not know how immortal, but I know.)
Every kind for itself and its own, for me mine male and female,
For me those that have been boys and that love women,
For me the man that is proud and feels how it stings to be slighted,
For me the sweet-heart and the old maid, for me mothers and the mothers of mothers,
For me lips that have smiled, eyes that have shed tears,
For me the children and the beggeters of children.
Undrape! you are not guilty to me, nor stale nor discarded,
I see through the broadcloth and gingham whether or no,
And am around, tenacious, acquisitive, tireless, and cannot be shaken away.
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