First Things | 5/1/2017 | Mark Bauerlein
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I fumed and fumed.”

That’s Sarah Ruden at National Review responding to Mark Edmundson’s essay on Walt Whitman in the Atlantic. Professor Edmundson, Ruden says, “goes so far as to anoint Whitman America’s greatest poet.” Edmundson’s “hagiography” is, in her mind, “one of some quite vigorously spurting celebrations to mark the 200th anniversary of the poet’s birth.” She, on the other hand, judges Whitman’s art a “wind storm of assertion indiscernible in its parts and knowable mainly through the damage it leaves behind—in his case, to literary culture, whose essence is memory.”

Means—a - Windstorm - Parts - Culture - Essence

I’m not sure what exactly that means—a windstorm has parts? Literary culture has an essence, which is memory?—but you get the point. The poet is overrated; Leaves of Grass is a plodding effort. Oh, and Whitman is racist and “proto-fascist,” too (because he believed that “inferior peoples would be eliminated by ‘the law of races, history, what-not’”).

Takedowns of revered figures can be entertaining, of course, and they can serve a moral purpose, too. When the second-rate is overpraised, it’s an affront to the first-rate. A healthy society distinguishes between high art and the rest. But if you’re going to take on a monument and judge it false, you need to get your facts straight, and you also need to base your judgments on background knowledge that extends well beyond personal taste. If you don’t, you sound like a quibbler.

Ruden - Accounts

Ruden fails on both accounts.

The factual errors start with the phrase “anoints Whitman America’s greatest poet.” This isn’t true. Edmundson didn’t do this. It’s been done 100 times before by countless poets, writers, critics, and professors (Harold Bloom: “If you are American, then Walt Whitman is your imaginative father and mother”).

Whitman - Poet - Americans - Days - Genre

Whitman is, factually, the poet whom ordinary Americans most reviled (inasmuch as they noticed him) in the days when the genre was...
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