Sunday, November 23, 2014

Gary Schmidgall's "Containing Multitudes"

Gary Schmidgall is Professor of English at Hunter College at the City University of New York. His books include Shakespeare and Opera, The Stranger Wilde: Interpreting Oscar, and Walt Whitman: A Gay Life.

Schmidgall applied the “Page 99 Test” to his new book, Containing Multitudes: Walt Whitman and the British Literary Tradition, and reported the following:
The Page 99 Test does seem to work for Containing Multitudes. Its page 99, in a chapter on Milton and Whitman, draws attention to the radically disparate styles of the two poets: "The unique Milton and Whitman styles, both endlessly mimicked but almost never successfully, seem at first glance an Atlantic Ocean-sized distance from each other. Whitman's admonition to himself, 'No ornamental similes at all,' would alone seem to sink the notion of discussing his style and Milton's in the same breath." And yet...the chapter is devoted to bringing the two poets (their affinities, shared views of the human condition, and the likenesses of the arc of each career) into intimate conversation. I set out in Containing Multitudes to write a book that should not exist, and page 99 is like most of its other 367: the author who famously declared America deserved a literature of its own, distinct from the "feudal" and anti-democratic literature of Britain, was deeply influenced by his transatlantic forebears. Though, Whitman seems to have made a conscious effort to downplay or conceal the extent to which the literary heritage of "that wonderful little island" seeded Leaves of Grass. In a cheeky unsigned self-review of the first edition, he boasted he would "make no allusions to books or writers; their spirits do not seem to have touched him." Containing Multitudes seeks to reveal that, though he largely kept his vow about allusions, his second assertion was decidedly disingenuous. My study's chapters argue that several odd literary couples--Shakespeare and Whitman, Milton and Whitman, Burns and Whitman, Blake and Whitman, Wordsworth and Whitman--are not so odd after all. In shorter essays five other important 19th-century authors are also associated with Whitman: Scott, Carlyle, Tennyson, Wilde, and Swinburne.
Learn more about Containing Multitudes at the Oxford University Press website.

--Marshal Zeringue