Friday, September 16, 2005

Anniversaries: Lolita and Leaves of Grass

150 years ago: Walt Whitman's first edition of Leaves of Grass was published.

Radio Open Source has a special on it, which you can download and listen to as an MP3 here. The quality of the interview is sometimes a bit spotty, but John Hollander and Robert Pinsky are both well worth listening to. While he doesn't always manage the flow of questions perfectly, host Christopher Lyden gives them a bit more room to do their thing than one usually expects from a radio show.

Hollander is especially compelling on Whitman's penchant for lists (a species of anaphora, he reminds us), and mentions Robert Belknap's The List (a book which was just released last year) for its take on lists in nineteenth century American literature: Thoreau, Emerson, Melville, and Whitman.

Hollander also reads a section of Song of Myself, followed by a little snippet of analysis:

The pure contralto sings in the organ loft,
The carpenter dresses his plank, the tongue of his foreplane
whistles its wild ascending lisp,
The married and unmarried children ride home to their
Thanksgiving dinner.
The pilot siezes the king-pin, he heaves down with a strong
The mate stands braced in the whale-boat, lance and harpoon
are ready,
The duck-shooter walks by silent and cautious stretches,
The deacons are ordain'd with cross'd hands at the altar,
The spinning-girl retreats and advances to the hum of the big
wheel (link)

Hollander talks about the musicality of the section, emphasizing the first two lines: "These together are equal partners on the same musical footing in this marvelous metaphoric exploration of what solo and concerted playing and singing in music are, that he explores throughout his poetry."

My version: Whitman is challenging us to follow the patterns in his seemingly random array of phenomena. There is a steady alternation between singular and plural images (and singular and plural sounds). And while the aural dimension is remarkable for its rhythm, the visual component in these lines can't be ignored. These lines, in short, contain an array of shapes and sounds that seem to play off one another, from the anthropomorphic "tongue" of the carpenter's plane, to the myriad images of hunters at the ready, and of course the suggestion of a Thanksgiving Turkey at the end of a long journey.

One other thing. Hollander also mentions "Out of the Cradle, Endlessly Rocking", which seems intensely musical as well, now that I think about it:

Out of the cradle endlessly rocking,
Out of the mocking-bird’s throat, the musical shuttle,
Out of the Ninth-month midnight,
Over the sterile sands, and the fields beyond, where the child, leaving his bed, wander’d alone, bare-headed, barefoot,
Down from the shower’d halo,
Up from the mystic play of shadows, twining and twisting as if they were alive,
Out from the patches of briers and blackberries,
From the memories of the bird that chanted to me,
From your memories, sad brother—from the fitful risings and fallings I heard,
From under that yellow half-moon, late-risen, and swollen as if with tears,
From those beginning notes of sickness and love, there in the transparent mist,
From the thousand responses of my heart, never to cease,
From the myriad thence-arous’d words,
From the word stronger and more delicious than any,

From such, as now they start, the scene revisiting,
As a flock, twittering, rising, or overhead passing,
Borne hither—ere all eludes me, hurriedly,
A man—yet by these tears a little boy again,
Throwing myself on the sand, confronting the waves,
I, chanter of pains and joys, uniter of here and hereafter,
Taking all hints to use them—but swiftly leaping beyond them,
A reminiscence sing. (link)

Notice how the emphasis moves from the other sources of song (here, especially birds), to the poet's own voice.

More on Walt Whitman at Wikipedia.

50 years ago: Vladimir Nabokov's Lolita was first published (in France).

The novel came out in the U.S. three years later, and both Nabokov and his employer at the time (Cornell University) were quite concerned that the publication of the book would lead to scandals and perhaps censorship.

But the censorship that was feared never materialized. The book was well-reviewed (though some key critics panned it), and commercially successful. Within four years, Lolita was a Stanley Kubrick movie (admittedly not one of Kubrick's best). Nabokov made so much money off of it that he retired from his faculty position at Cornell, and later moved to Switzerland.

NPR has a two-part story on Lolita, featuring the great literary critic M.H. Abrams (who was a contemporary of Nabokov's at Cornell).

Another surprising appearance in the NPR series on Lolita is Azar Nafisi (in part 2). What she has to say perhaps isn't that memorable, though perhaps it's notable that she's become a go-to person for Nabokov studies so quickly. (I have no objection, of course. See my earlier post on Nafisi here)

The more interesting of the two parts in the series might be part I, which focuses on how Nabokov wrote the book -- long summer road trips with his wife Vera. They were ostensibly studying butterflies (Nabokov was also a serious lepidopterist), but often Nabokov would sit out in the hotel parking lot and work on pieces of the novel on a stack of notecards. Also notable is that he used to ride around on buses in the afternoon, noting down the chatter of schoolgirls. (Sounds a little shady, but how else is a middle-aged Russian expatriate in upstate New York going to have any sense at all of how a 13 year old American girl actually talks?)

The New York Times also has a story on the 50th anniversary of the publication of Lolita, which covers some of this same ground, but with a helpful survey of the critical reception of the novel. Graham Greene supported it, while Edmund Wilson, Rebecca West, and Orville Prescott panned it.

Wikipedia on Vladimir Nabokov


Rani said...

*Sigh*. I loved Lolita, although I have to read it again, because I think I read it the first time when I was too young. Have you read his autobiography, Speak, Memory? Brilliant. It's probably one of my favorite books.

12:25 PM  
Amardeep said...


I haven't read Speak, Memory, though I really should. (Large pile of books currently)

Can I ask, what did you like about it?

12:52 PM  
Rani said...

Simply, the beauty of his writing. From Chapter 2:
Rainy weather would bring out these beautiful plants [mushrooms - rani] in profusion under the firs, birches and aspens in our park, especially in its older part, east of the carriage road that divided the park in two. Its shady recesses would then harbor that special boletic reek which makes a Russian's nostrils dilate--a dark, dank, satisfying blend of damp moss, rich earth, rotting leaves. But one has to poke and peer for a goodish while among the wet underwood before something really nice, such as a family of bonneted baby edulis or the marbled variety of scaber, could be discovered and carefully teased out of the soil.

On overcast afternoons, all alone in the drizzle, my mother, carrying a basket (stained blue on the inside by somebody's whortleberries), would set out on a long collecting tour. Toward dinnertime, she could be seen emerging from the nebulous depths of a park alley, her small figure cloaked and hooded in greenish-brown wool, on which countless droplets of moisture made a kind of mist all around her. As she came nearer from under the dripping trees and caught sight of me, her face would show an odd, cheerless expression, which might have spelled poor luck, but which I knew was the tense, jealously contained beatitude of the successful hunter. Just before reaching me, with an abrupt, drooping movement of the arm and shoulder and a "Pouf!" of magnified exhaustion, she would let her basket sag, in order to stress its weight, its fabulous fullness.

Near a white garden bench, on a round garden table of iron, she would lay out her boletes in concentric circles to count and sort them. Old ones, with spongy, dingy flesh, would be eliminated, leaving the young and the crisp. For a moment, before they were bundled away by a servant to a place she knew nothing about, to a doom that did not interest her, she would stand there admiring them, in a glow of quiet contentment. As often happened at the end of a rainy day, the sun might cast a lurid gleam just before setting, and there, on the damp round table, her mushrooms would lie, very colorful, some bearing traces of extraneous vegetation--a grass blade sticking to a viscid fawn cap, or moss still clothing the bulbous base of a dark-stippled stem. And a tiny looper catepillar would be there, too, measuring, like a child's finger and thumb, the rim of the table, and every now and then stretching upward to grope, in vain, for the shrub from which it had been dislodged."


1:03 PM  
Owen said...

Thanks for Whitman. His generous humanism is a sweet antidote to the shrivelled arrogance of suicide bombers killing the unemployed of Baghdad.

7:00 PM  
uma said...

amardeep, thanks for this. and oh yes, speak, memory is such a wonderful memoir: it's the first book by nabokov that i read, and the one i cherish the most.

12:32 AM  
Kush Tandon said...

Isn't Nobokov's house in Ithaca named "Llenroc". I used to walk by it all the time.

12:52 AM  
Amardeep said...


I'm not sure. I think I remember one house widely known as "Nabokov's house" on State St. on the 'hill' (somewhere in the vicinity of State and Stewart and State and Eddy).

But I might be confusing it with some other famous person's house. It was ten years ago, after all ;-)

In the first part of the NPR story I link to, they talk a lot about the house.

8:40 AM  
Kush Tandon said...


I just researched that Nabokov lived in many houses during his stay in Ithaca. Very interestng.

I must add you are one of the few South Asian/ PIO blogger who has his (or her) head on their shoulder.

1:56 PM  

Post a Comment

<< Home