Years ago, in a congress that took place in Pittsburgh, I participated in a panel about the relations between South American and American literatures. One of the works, very conventional by the way, was about Whitman. This reading provoked a debate with much public intervention, a debate that, for me, was one of the peaks of interest in the experience because it was an excellent summary of the value that that author's poetry had for contemporary literature. In that university classroom, we all knew it: to use a very Whitmanian metaphor, Leaves of Grass, Whitman's most recognized book, was a stone in the water of literature and its waves reached far, far away. In Buenos Aires, he reached both Jorge Luis Borges (in the conservative Florida) and Roberto Arlt (in the progressive Boedo). That was the point of the debate promoted by a US professor specializing in Argentine literature: how is it possible that Whitman influenced both conservatives and leftists; What qualities of his poetry allowed that?
Walt Whitman deeply broke the poetic rules of his time. It makes sense that, as can be read in a very funny book called The Critical Eye, one of the critics of that time wrote about Leaves of Grass "Mr. Whitman knows poetry as much as a math monkey". The poetry of that volume has such an advanced quality that it made its author crazy in the eyes of his contemporaries and essential for the twentieth and twenty-first centuries. What Leaves of Grass brought to the literary language had to do both with the poetic material (which Whitman greatly expanded) and with the resources, the forms. The resources fall in love with that lover in the ways that Borges was; and the revolutionary poetic matter to a revolutionary like Roberto Arlt.
It is under the light of that immense poetry that is reads Life and Adventures of Jack Engle in the excellent translation of Pablo Ingberg. And since Whitman's poetry is in the minds of those who read the book, reading is always double: a constant comparison between that prose and Leaves of Grass. In this type of approach, the first thing that draws attention is the orthodoxy of prose. It is a very nineteenth-century novel, from the titles of the chapters (long summaries of the content of each one) to the publication form (as a newspaper serial) through the permanent relationship with the readers, to whom the first narrator guide, provoke, ask questions and encourage them to move forward.
Among many other interventions, that voice helps its readers with indications about time: "This chapter is by retrospective necessity of the previous one", he says for example. That taking readers by the hand on issues that are currently understood without much explanation leads to interesting reflections on the way in which, during the twentieth and twenty-first centuries, science and certain forms of contemporary art, cinema above all, changed not only the writing but also the capacity of reading, the "horizon of expectations" of the readers, as Gombrich says. The question would be: why Whitman, whose innovations left most readers behind, so much that many considered him a "monkey", did not dare to do the same in prose?
Life and Adventures has something of Dickens's novels about poverty and social ascent (Ingberg clearly marks it in the prologue) and also partly repeats Spanish picaresque gestures: it explains the present good fortune of the narrator, who before he was a ragged tramp although it is true that, in this case, most of the story happens when the character has already improved his lot in society. Beyond its autobiographical features, in the United States this story of economic success is a version of the "American dream", according to which anyone can pass from poverty to power. For that reason, although the "good" renounce it and criticize greed in the "bad", money is at the center of much of what happens in the book. And binary manichaeism (good versus bad, rich versus poor) is also typical of the American literature of the wasp (Protestant Anglo-Saxon whites), that is, the group that had power in the nineteenth (and, of course, follows it having in the xx and especially, in the xxi, if you think of the current president).
The book is orthodox yes, but there is no doubt that it is from Walt Whitman. In the descriptive passages (for example, whenever the river is described in New York), one can trace the sonorous, baroque and powerful language that all the readers of Leaves of Grass recognize: long sentences, passion for adjectives, enumerations and that fierce joy that characterizes "Canto sobre mí mismo", his most famous poem.
And, on the other hand, even the Whitman not formally played is Whitman: his ideas coincide politically and socially with those of the man who, at that very moment, is writing poems of the Gale that would be Leaves of Grass for the world. When you read Life and Adventures of Jack Engle, published in six installments in the Sunday Dispatch, it is impossible not to imagine Walt, the carpenter's son, in a double task: while writing a novel that is going to give him some money, he shakes the lethargy of poetry pacata and lasts of its time with poems that inaugurate a different universe. But the same thing Melville is doing: he publishes a series of fairly orthodox books and then, abruptly, Moby Dick, that the critics defenestraron right away. Democracy, the center of joy and the music of "Canto sobre míme", is very present here in the description of poor children and their terrible unmet needs, in the folkloric notes related to the people and in all the reflections that are They do on philosophical subjects such as death and happiness.
Yes, also in prose, Whitman is Whitman: a poet of the people (although his people did not understand him as a poet). In Life and Adventures, many of the characters are the counterparts of the upper classes who prefer to paint authors like Henry James. Yes, also here, Whitman is a poet of democracy, equality, the embrace of everything that exists.