04 August 2014

Feuillevert: Green Leaves

 “I was beginning to speak of the famous poets I knew when Garfield stopped me with ‘Just a minute!’  He ran down into the grassy space, first to one fence and then to the other at the sides, and waved a wild arm of invitation to the neighbors….’Come over here!’ he shouted.  ‘He’s telling about Holmes, and Longfellow, and Lowell, and Whittier!’ and at his bidding forms began to mount the fences and follow him up to his veranda. ‘Now go on!’ he called to me, when we were all seated, and I went on, while the whippoorwills whirred and whistled round, and the hours drew toward midnight.” - William Dean Howells, from Years Of My Youth (1916)

As many times as I have read this paragraph, it never fails to make me catch my breath in wonder.    American poets in the 19th century, including those referenced above (Oliver Wendell Holmes [1809-1894], Henry Wadsworth Longfellow [1807-1882], James Russell Lowell [1819-1891] and John Greenleaf Whittier [1807-1892] ) had an intimate relationship with their readers' lives, without benefit of radio, television, or the internet.  Their works were taught in schools, memorized for pleasure and education, and presented at public occasions of all sorts, from family gatherings to patriotic holidays.   
"(T)o try to figure out what the poem means, as much as what the poem means in our lives" is how Joan Shelley Rubin describes what has changed in how we read poetry today.  Rubin says that our reading has become less personal.  That may be why this story of poets on a summer night seems like a dream.

Howells, as editor of Harper’s, wrote for the magazine in March of 1902 about the importance of “that great reading world with which the small writing world is really so little in touch.”
I want to borrow an idea from another poet, the much-missed Adrienne Rich (1929-2012) who described Beethoven's music as "music without the ghost of  another person in it" to describe the self-examining world of our contemporary poets. What is lost and what is gained by this change?

In the summer of 1870, James A, Garfield (1831-1881) was almost half way through his eighteen years as a member of Congress. Garfield would be elected as the 20th President of the United States in 1880 but, in the event, he served in office for only 200 days;   assassinated on September 19, 1881.
Garfield was raised on an Ohio farm by his widowed mother.  The family had little money, so the young Garfield worked at a series of jobs to earn enough to attend Williams College in Williamstown, Massachusetts, After graduating in 1856, he moved back to Hiram where he became the president of Western Reserve Eclectic Institute.

William Dean Howells (1837-1920) had become an assistant editor of the Atlantic Monthly in Boston, just years earlier by one of the magazine's founders, John Greenleaf Whittier.  Howells would become a respected novelist, with the publication of Their Wedding Journey in 1872.

Whittier, the poet whose middle name Greenleaf derives from the French word feuillevert (green leaf) was color blind.   He grew up on a a farm in Haverhill, Massachusetts as part of a large and extended family.  Descended from Huguenot immigrants, the American Whittiers became Quakers and, not surprisingly fro their time, supporters of the anti-abolitionist movement.  Whittier's first poem was published without his knowledge when his sister sent it to William Lloyd Garrison at the Newburyport Free Press in 1824.  Whittier had little education but, with encouragement from Garrison, he earned money as a shoemaker that helped pay his tuition at the Haverhill Academy.  In his works Whittier's great themes were compassion and social responsibility.  Today, a bridge over the Merrimack River that connects Newburyport to Amesbury, where Whitter is buried, bears his name.

To read more:
1.Years Of My Youth by William Dean Howells was originally published in 1916 by Harper & Brother of New York  and reprinted most recently by Indian University Press at Bloomington in 1975.
2. Songs of Ourselves:the uses of poetry in America by Joan Shelley Rubin, Cambridge, Belknap Press, Harvard University: 2007.
3. John Greenleaf Whittier: A Biography by Roland H. Woodwell, Haverhill, Trustees of the John Greenleaf Whittier Homestead: 1985.

1. unidentified photographer - The James & Lucretia Garfield home, 6825 Hinsdale Street,  Hiram, Ohio, Ohio Historical Society, Columbus.


Anonymous said...

It just occurred to me that, after reading "The Accursed" by Joyce Carol Oates - and if you have, you'll know what I mean, that she should write a novel about this.

Jane said...

If Oates can bring Woodrow Wilson (!)and Jack London back to life, what can't she do!