‘Volunteer fireman’s clothes’: Thomas Eakins

Miss-Amelia-Van-Buren

(Eakins, Miss Amelia Van Buren: The Phillips Collection, Washington, D. C. Eakins ‘excelled at painting thought’, Robert Hughes wrote.)

A word about Thomas Eakins – not Thomas Atkins, which is a whole other world* – but Thomas Cowperthwait Eakins, painter, sculptor and photographer, born 25 July 1844 (died 1916). A tremendous artist of the realist persuasion, who didn’t always chime with the prevailing tastes or accepted modes of behaviour. His public ‘often resented having unvarnished truth shoved at it, and he entered his forties regarded as truculent and socially inept – at home with his family and his cabal of students, but otherwise unpleasant to know.’[1]

In Artopia, his art diary, the late John Perreault discussed Thomas Eakins and a recent book about him by Henry Adams, Eakins Revealed: The Secret Life of an American Artist (Oxford University Press, 2005). He asserted that Adams was certainly right in taking to task Lloyd Goodrich, one-time director of the Whitney Museum of American Art, ‘for creating the deceptive view of Eakins as manly, honest, and forthright, posing him as virtuously all-American and the dubious precedent for the all-American representational painters Goodrich was promoting then’. In reality, Perreault says, Eakins ‘had a high-pitched voice, affected volunteer fireman’s clothes and often painted in his underwear; failed his classes in Paris, told dirty jokes, was “feminine,” was not exactly fond of women, was never much of an athlete, and drank a quart of milk with every meal.’
https://www.artsjournal.com/artopia/2006/02/eakins_naked.html

The high point here, obviously, is ‘affected volunteer fireman’s clothes’. Wonderful.

Though he had a three-year stint in Paris, which included training at the Ecole des Beaux Arts, Eakins was back in Philadelphia by the end of 1870 and remained in the city thereafter, teaching at the Academy until he was forced to resign in 1886, the purported reason being his removal of a male model’s loincloth in a class which included female students.

Eakins-Whitman

(Eakins, Walt Whitman, Pennsylvania Academy of Fine arts)

In December 1887, Eakins took the ferry across the Delaware River to Camden and began painting a portrait of Walt Whitman, a few weeks after their first meeting. Eakins had had no significant contact with the Impressionists in France, absorbing rather the lessons of French academicism: his ‘contemporary reputation as a radical lies more in his pedagogy, his use of photograph, and in his interest in the nude, rather than in his approach to portraiture.’[2] Nevertheless, Whitman would prefer Eakins’ interpretation of him above all the many other versions because it depicted him ‘“without feathers”’.[3] ‘I never knew of but one artist, and that’s Tom Eakins, who could resist the temptation to see what they thought ought to be rather than what is.’[4]

As so often, ‘Realism’ is the beginning rather than the end of the matter. Robert Hughes remarks that there are two halves of Eakins the realist: the idea of a painting as ‘a factual and consistent slice of life’ but, ‘rejecting the illusion of Impressionist instantaneity’, he is for ‘memory and combination’, for ‘the tangle of feelings, however far under the surface they may be.’ He bought his first camera in 1880 and saw clearly enough how it could both empirical and romantic, that it could ‘describe fact and suggest fiction’.[5]

Eakins’ most familiar painting is probably The Swimming-Hole, first, The Swimmers: apparently, John Perreault comments, Eakins’ widow tried to shift the title further, to the ‘even more sentimental’ The Old Swimming Hole, and denied that he used photographs – but he did.

Thomas_Eakins_-_Swimming_(1895)

(Amon Carter Museum of American Art)

Unsurprisingly, the painting recalls Whitman: ‘Where the splash of swimmers and divers cools the warm noon’.[6] And the title recalls too Ezra Pound’s ‘Canto XIII’, the ‘Confucian’ canto, where Kung walks ‘out by the lower river’ with several companions. He asks them what they would do to fulfil their destinies and they speak of government, military administration, religious practices.

And Tian said, with his hand on the strings of his lute
The low sounds continuing
after his hand left the strings,
And the sound went up like smoke, under the leaves,
And he looked after the sound:
”The old swimming hole,
”And the boys flopping off the planks,
”Or sitting in the underbrush playing mandolins.”
And Kung smiled upon all of them equally.
And Thseng-sie desired to know:
”Which had answered correctly?”
And Kung said, “They have all answered correctly,
”That is to say, each in his nature.”

Reason-Eakins

Back in my book trade days, I remember a book by Akela Reason, Thomas Eakins and the Uses of History (Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 2010), which drew on unpublished letters, diaries of friends and contemporaries, and period newspapers, and won the SECAC Award for Excellence in Scholarly Research and Publication.

 
*Popular term for a British infantryman, dating back to at least the mid-eighteenth century, prevalent in the First World War, generally shortened to ‘Tommy’, and used not infrequently by Rudyard Kipling, as in the poem of that name:

O it’s Tommy this, an’ Tommy that, an’ “Tommy go away”;
But it’s “Thank you, Mister Atkins,” when the band begins to play-
The band begins to play, my boys, the band begins to play,
O it’s “Thank you Mr Atkins,” when the band begins to play.

 

References

[1] Robert Hughes, American Visions: The Epic History of Art in America (London: The Harvill Press, 1997), 295.

[2] Jane Watkins, editor, Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts: 200 Years of Excellence (Philadelphia: Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts, 2005), 158.

[3] Jerome Loving, Walt Whitman: The Song of Myself (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1999), 455.

[4] Quoted by F. O. Matthiessen, American Renaissance: Art and Expression in the Age of Emerson and Whitman (1941; New York: Oxford University Press, 1968), 604.

[5] Hughes, American Visions, 289, 296.

[6] Song of Myself, in Walt Whitman: The Complete Poems, edited by Francis Murphy (Harmondsworth: Penguin Books, 1986), 98. This edition has a detail from The Swimming Hole on the jacket.

 

‘Camerado! this is no book’

walt-whitman

Walt Whitman—‘an American, one of the roughs, a kosmos’[1]
https://www.poetryfoundation.org/poems-and-poets/poets/detail/walt-whitman

‘Camerado, this is no book,
Who touches this touches a man’—Walt Whitman, ‘So Long!’[2]

In the summer of 1945, a prisoner in the Disciplinary Training Center in Pisa, Ezra Pound, at the end of his tether (‘au bout de mes forces’), came across a copy of The Pocket Book of Verse, edited by Morris Speare and first published in 1940:

That from the gates of death
that from the gates of death: Whitman or Lovelace
found on the jo-house seat at that
in a cheap edition! [and thanks to Professor Speare]
hast’ou swum in a sea of air strip
through an aeon of nothingness,
when the raft broke and the waters went over me[3]

In April 1913, Pound had published ‘A Pact’.

I make a pact with you, Walt Whitman—
I have detested you long enough.
I come to you as a grown child
Who has had a pig-headed father;
I am old enough now to make friends.
It was you that broke the new wood,
Now is a time for carving
We have one sap and one root—
Let there be commerce between us.[4]

Not exactly a ringing endorsement for a poet who will throw you a lifeline thirty years later. One can see why Pound was included in the list of those ‘arbiters of current taste’ that, in John Berryman’s words, ‘have generally now declared themselves in favour of Whitman; but always reluctantly and with a certain resentment or even contempt. I am not,’ Berryman goes on, ‘able to feel these reservations myself’, and then: ‘I like or love Whitman unreservedly’.[5]

Randall Jarrell (never better than when he is enthusing about someone or something) wrote that: ‘To show Whitman for what he is one does not need to praise or explain or argue, one needs simply to quote.’ Jarrell does, at length and with great effect. And again, ‘Not many poets have written better, in queerer and more convincing and more individual language, about the world’s gliding wonders’. And again, ‘In modern times, what controlling, organising, selecting poet has created a world with as much in it as Whitman’s, a world that so plainly is the world?’ Perhaps just one more: ‘The thereness and suchness of the world are incarnate in Whitman as they are in few other writers.’[6]
claude-cahun-sylvia-beach

(Sylvia Beach 1919 by Claude Cahun, via http://www.artnet.fr/)

Sylvia Beach (proprietor of Shakespeare & Co., first publisher of Joyce’s Ulysses), wrote of her Aunt Agnes visiting Whitman in Camden, where manuscripts were strewn all over the floor. Her aunt was with a friend, Alys Smith, who later married Bertrand Russell. Earlier visitors had included Henry Thoreau who, on 10 November 1849, went to Brooklyn with Bronson Alcott to meet Whitman, while, according to one of Whitman’s biographers, Bram Stoker also paid a visit and later ‘used Whitman as the model for the murderous count in Dracula’.[7]

It’s just short of 200 years since Walt Whitman was born, 31 May, at West Hills, Long Island; 162 since his copyright was registered (15 May 1855) and 795 copies of Leaves of Grass printed, 200 of them with embossed green cover and gilded lettering, while the remainder were bound more cheaply.[8]

Walt-Whitman-2

(Walt Whitman: via The Guardian)

He was prolific, sometimes heroic, sometimes verbose, sometimes ridiculous, often magnificent. I tend towards Berryman’s sentiment here: unreservedly, why not? Jarrell is not uncritical—‘only a man with the most extraordinary feel for language, or none whatsoever, could have cooked up Whitman’s worst messes’—but he grasps what is perhaps the salient point about Whitman: while we are too often steered towards ‘gems’, the glittering phrases, the quotable lines, some poets need to be approached and seen and held more largely. Quoting section 36 of Song of Myself, Jarrell comments: ‘There are faults in this passage, and they do not matter’.[9] Yes. (It occurs to me at this juncture that, setting these three—Whitman, Berryman, Jarrell—together, I achieve not only an assembly of fine poets but a trio, a triumvirate, a trinity of profusely bearded Americans.)

JohnBerryman_TomBerthiaume  RandallJarrell_poets.org

(John Berryman; Randall Jarrell; both via Academy of American Poets (https://www.poets.org/): John Berryman photo credit: Tom Berthiaume)

Apart from the pulling and hauling stands what I am,
Stands amused, complacent, compassionating, idle, unitary,
Looks down, is erect, or bends an arm on an impalpable certain rest,
Looking with side-curved head curious what will come next,
Both in and out of the game and watching and wondering at it.[10]

‘If you want me again look for me under your boot-soles’, Whitman wrote towards the end of ‘Song of Myself’. And again: ‘Failing to fetch me at first keep encouraged, / Missing me one place search another, / I stop somewhere waiting for you.’[11]

Do I contradict myself?
Very well then I contradict myself,
(I am large, I contain multitudes.)[12]

And he does. As we do, which is really the point.

There is a wonderful resource, the Walt Whitman Archive, at: http://www.whitmanarchive.org/
Co-directed by Ed Folsom and Kenneth M. Price and published by the Center for Digital Research in the Humanities, at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln, it offers published works, letters, manuscripts, biography, criticism, pictures, Civil War notebooks and journalism, and much else. They have also digitized—good grief—the whole nine volumes of Horace Traubel’s With Walt Whitman in Camden.

 

References

[1] Song of Myself (1855 edition), printed as Appendix 4 of Walt Whitman: The Complete Poems, edited by Francis Murphy (Harmondsworth: Penguin Books, 1986), 698.

[2] Walt Whitman: The Complete Poems, 513.

[3] The Cantos of Ezra Pound, fourth collected edition (London: Faber and Faber, 1987), 512-513. The last lines refer to the sequence in The Odyssey (Book V) where Odysseus, having left Calypso’s island on a raft, is shipwrecked through the malice of the god Poseidon and saved through the intervention of the goddess Leucothea.

[4] Ezra Pound: Poems and Translations (New York: Library of America, 2003), 269.

[5] Berryman, ‘“Song of Myself”: Intention and Substance’, in The Freedom of the Poet (New York: Farrar. Straus & Giroux, 1976), 227.

[6] Jarrell, Poetry and the Age ([1955] London: Faber & Faber, 1973), 107, 110, 119, 122.

[7] Sylvia Beach, Shakespeare and Company, new edition (Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press, 1991), 20; Jerome Loving, Walt Whitman: The Song of Himself (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1999), 422-426, 445.

[8] Paul Zweig, Walt Whitman: The Making of the Poet (Harmondsworth: Penguin 1986), 231.

[9] Jarrell, Poetry and the Age, 110, 116.

[10] Whitman, Song of Myself, Section 4. This is the 1891-1892 ‘deathbed’ edition, in Walt Whitman: The Complete Poems, 66-67.

[11] Song of Myself, Section 52; and the last lines: The Complete Poems, 124.

[12] Song of Myself, Section 51: The Complete Poems, 123.