Excerpt from “Walt Whitman’s Impossible Optimism,” from “The Impossible Art: Adventures in Opera” by Matthew Aucoin ’12, published by Farrar, Straus and Giroux.
Walt Whitman is more operatic than opera itself. He attempts, in his poems, to channel the surging, boundary-bursting force of the burgeoning American nation, in all its chaotic self-contradiction. He yearns to speak on behalf of the whole continent, to unite opposites and smooth over differences, as if the country could be gathered into a gigantic choral collective. He introduces himself as a “kosmos”; he would like both to speak for everyone and to be no one in particular. He is a chameleon, a shapeshifter, a self-appointed national cheerleader. Everything about him is impossible.
Because of this — because he’s an opera in himself, and also because I (maybe unwisely) dared to put him onstage as the protagonist of my first opera, “Crossing” (2015) — Walt gets a chapter of his own in a book that otherwise concerns itself exclusively with operas and their creators. (I think he’d be thrilled to find himself in the company of Orpheus, Falstaff, and the rest of the art form’s outsize personalities.)
The idea of surrounding Whitman’s geyser-like poems with the orchestral sound that they seem to demand is — I see now — an all-but-unattainable endeavor, but it seemed like an irresistible challenge to me around the time I graduated from college. When I set out to write the opera that would become “Crossing”, however, I didn’t know that my excavations of Whitman’s contradictions and paradoxes would hit so close to home: I’m a Whitmanian optimist at heart, and “Crossing” turned out to be an interrogation of the limits of that optimism. And I couldn’t have guessed that Whitman would seem so relevant to the reckonings America would face throughout the years the opera was being developed.
“Crossing” was first produced by Boston’s American Repertory Theater (A.R.T.) in 2015, and that production, directed by Diane Paulus, traveled to the Brooklyn Academy of Music in the fall of 2017. By the time “Crossing” reached New York, Whitman’s inveterate optimism seemed both naïve and all too familiar. Back in 2016, a lot of us had assumed, or obstinately insisted, that the nation’s better angels would surely win the day; the alternative seemed nightmarish and inconceivable. And then, of course, that nightmare became our everyday reality. Throughout the first half of 2017, during those awful months when the Trump administration was rolling out policy after grotesque policy, I remember feeling, as I revised “Crossing” in advance of its Brooklyn production, that Whitman was telling me things I’d never noticed before. He seemed to embody both America’s best qualities and its most self-deceiving, self-aggrandizing ones. Engaging with Whitman suddenly felt like an uncomfortable self-examination, an X-ray that analyzed the stress fractures within my own misplaced optimism.
My goal in “Crossing” was both to look at America through Whitman’s lens and to scrutinize that lens, to hold it up to the light. Whitman has diffused himself so pervasively into the language through which America understands itself (even our concept of selfhood owes much to his expansive definition of the self) that he is often all but invisible. His generosity, his messiness, his blind spots — and above all his unshakable, irrational optimism — are our own.
This chapter has a double impossibility: my impossible attempt to capture Whitman’s spirit in operatic form, and the generative impossibility that is Whitman’s optimistic worldview, which doggedly endured beyond all disillusionment.
When the team at the A.R.T. invited me, in 2012, to write an opera for the company’s 2014–15 season, which was to have a year-long focus on the American Civil War, I wasn’t sure I was the right person for the task. In many ways, the invitation was enticing. I had just graduated from Harvard, where the A.R.T. shares its rehearsal and performance spaces with student theater groups, and the theater’s artistic leadership had seen some of my student work performed on their main stage. Commissioning a full opera from me was a huge leap of faith on their part. And given that I’d just moved to New York for a job on the Met’s music staff, it was comforting that the A.R.T.’s theater already felt like home to me, a space of learning and experimentation.
But — the Civil War? Really? That moment in history felt somehow both distant and overfamiliar; to immerse oneself in Civil War studies was, I thought, to risk exposure to various kinds of musty, unhealthy nostalgia. The music I associated with that historical moment was hardly appealing, either. The aural image that the war conjured for me was a twangy unaccompanied fiddle whining away behind a Ken Burns voice-over, some grainy-voiced actor reading a soldier’s sad letter home. Midway through our first Black president’s eight years in office, what could be urgent or fresh or relevant about that?
Whitman was the key that unlocked that era for me. The poet’s vividly personal account of the war, recorded in the diaries he kept during his years working as a volunteer nurse in Virginia and Washington, D.C., provided the window I needed to see the Civil War on a human scale. Whitman knew that the war’s casualty count was so staggering that the enormity of the loss couldn’t be felt, except as an impersonal statistic, by anyone reading about it from afar. Because of this, his diaries maintain a stubborn focus on individual lives and individual experience. He insists that the war’s most important events were the countless quiet acts of love and heroism that typically go unrecorded: “The real war will never get in the books,” he writes, even as he attempts to write a book that would tell the story of that “real war.” If I was going to explore this moment in American history, I needed Walt Whitman as a spirit guide.
Whitman’s decision to devote years of his life to volunteering in field hospitals was an act of unfathomable generosity, and one that would severely test the optimism that was his natural state of being. The first thing the poet describes upon his arrival at a makeshift hospital in Virginia is “a heap of amputated feet, legs, arms, hands, &c., a full load for a one-horse cart,” with “several dead bodies” lying nearby, covered in blankets. But this gruesome sight, and the carnage that he would subsequently witness on an almost daily basis, did not deter him. Whitman had both a strong stomach and a limitless capacity for sympathy; he was born to be a nurse. As we’ll see, some of his pre–Civil War poems show traces of a poignant inner struggle to understand what a queer poet’s role in society could be, especially in wartime. He had no desire to be a soldier — can you picture Walt Whitman aiming a rifle at his fellow man? But he was also no ivory-tower writer; he wanted to be there, at the heart of the crisis, helping however he could.
In the hospitals, Whitman channeled his creative exuberance into the multiform work of healing. Depending on different soldiers’ needs, he served at various times as a nurse, a companion, a bedside scribe, a garrulous raconteur, and a shamanic source of spiritual comfort. This varied and extroverted work arguably suited him better than the solitary labor of writing poetry. One can often sense a frustration, in Whitman, that his poems can’t burst off the page and metamorphose into an embrace, a kiss, a communal sing-along. The war created a unique opportunity for Whitman to translate his artistic principles into action. Instead of writing poems for an imagined future reader, he could tell stories and write letters for individual after individual, face-to-face. The bedside encounter is the ideal locus for Whitman’s art.
The more I studied Whitman’s diaries, poetry, and biography, however, the more certain things bothered me. Wasn’t there something odd about the way Whitman spent practically all his time with helpless soldiers — often mere boys, as the poet exclaims over and over in the diaries and in his frequent physical expressions of affection? (“I loved him much, always kiss’d him, and he did me,” Whitman writes of one young soldier, in a typical description.) Did Whitman perhaps need the radical intimacy of these wartime friendships as much as, or more than, the soldiers he tasked himself with comforting?
The war also had a curious impact on Whitman’s artistic work: his experience in the hospitals seems, at some level, to have cured him of the need for poetry. He continued to write, of course, but his most ambitious poems — “Song of Myself,” “Crossing Brooklyn Ferry,” “The Sleepers” — date from before the war, and his poems about the war usually strike me as pale echoes of experiences that were, for him, too intense for words. The line between the transcendent and the terrible, the inspired and the merely bombastic, is always quite thin in Whitman, and even in his pre-war prime, there are arguably more weak poems than great ones. But after the war, his batting average is much lower; the wind seems to go out of his sails. Whitman called the war “the most profound lesson of my life”; did that “lesson” lessen his need for creative work? And where did the vast ambition of the pre-war years come from in the first place? What was that boundless hunger that needed to express itself in poetry?
Whitman’s poetry is not just “operatic” in the generic sense: he was a devoted opera fan, and his experiences attending live opera in New York substantively influenced his development as a writer. It might come as a surprise that the self-proclaimed bard of American democracy, the poet who wanted to burst free of the shackles of received verse forms and who had a declared allergy to any art that reeked of Continental decorum, unabashedly worshipped at opera’s altar. Whitman thought of opera as an emancipatory volcanic force, one that was capable of precipitating transformative spiritual experiences in listeners who submitted to its power. In one of the extravagant catalogues of human experience in “Song of Myself,” a series of earthy work-sounds (“the heave’e’yo of stevedores unlading ships by the wharves,” “the steam-whistle,” etc.) is followed by a euphoric vision of opera:
I hear the trained soprano … she convulses me like the climax of my love-grip;
The orchestra whirls me wider than Uranus flies,
It wrenches unnamable ardors from my breast,
It throbs me to gulps of the farthest down horror,
It sails me …
Whitman experiences the art form with his whole body: opera invades and overloads his nervous system, prompting an ecstasy so extreme that it verges on trauma. The experience of operatic performance, for Whitman, seems barely distinguishable from sex, or an acid trip.
Like many of the art form’s aficionados, Whitman grew to love opera only after overcoming an initial aversion to it. In his youth, he preferred unpretentious, homegrown music, like brass bands and touring family vocal groups. He initially found the European classical singing style “stale” and “second-hand … with its flourishes, its ridiculous sentimentality, its anti-republican spirit.” What changed his mind was his experience of the spectacle of fully staged live opera. In the many opera houses that popped up in mid-nineteenth-century New York City, Whitman heard the bel canto operas of Bellini, Donizetti, and Rossini, as well as Verdi’s earlier works, and evidently underwent a kind of conversion. Here at last was an art form as big and bold and loud as he imagined the American spirit itself to be! (As a Verdi lover, and as someone with a taste for high-decibel live performance, I’m tickled that Whitman’s poetic bluster may owe something to the earthshaking intensity of the Verdian orchestra playing at full throttle, “which we privately confess … is one of the greatest treats we obtain from a visit to the opera.”)
Once he had been “converted,” Whitman proselytized enthusiastically on the art form’s behalf. In a touching letter from 1863, Whitman describes opera to a group of young soldiers in a Washington war hospital. Whitman was volunteering in the hospitals at the time but had gone home to Brooklyn to visit his mother. “Two or three nights ago,” he writes, “I went to the N Y Academy of Music, to the Italian opera. I suppose you know that is a performance, a play, all in music & singing, in the Italian language, very sweet & beautiful.” He then writes a detailed, blow-by-blow plot synopsis — it’s clear from his description, which makes the opera sound like an action movie, that he’s writing for an audience of teenage boys — at the end of which Whitman reminds his young friends of the basic facts of the art form: Comrades, recollect all this is in singing & music, & lots of it too, on a big scale, in the band, every instrument you can think of, & the best players in the world, & sometimes the whole band & the whole men’s chorus & women’s chorus all putting on the steam together — & all in a vast house, light as day, & with a crowded audience of ladies & men. Such singing & strong rich music always give me the greatest pleasure.
Whitman’s description of the opera house’s atmosphere — the men and women singing together, the vast theater, the bright light, the crowded audience — resembles the sweeping American panoramas that fill his poems, those impossible snapshots that aim to describe the seething activity of a whole continent. A letter like this illuminates the way that opera, in its attempt to create an all-encompassing, communally shared sensory experience, provided Whitman with a model that no other art form could. Other poetry might aspire toward the condition of music, but Whitman’s aspires toward the condition of opera.