Elizabeth Gilbert – The Signature of all Things. And Walt Witman

First up, I never read Elizabeth Gilbert’s best-seller Eat, Pray, Love. She’s coming to Writers’ Week in Wellington, and her latest book, The Signature of All Things was in my birthday pile (yay!), so I’ve read that. I enjoyed it immensely, though it sagged a bit in the middle.

TheSIgnatureOfAllThings

The protagonist, Alma Whittaker, is born into a wealthy family in Philadelphia, in 1800, not beautiful but clever. She becomes a botanist, then a student of mosses. The events and emotional traumas of her life, along with her study of mosses, lead her to an obsession with the connectedness (and brutality) of life. By the end of the book I was thinking that all the characters that impact on Alma have been invented by the author to demonstrate or illustrate that idea. (This is not a criticism.) I won’t say more about it as I’d have to give away too much of the plot. Suffice to say that I liked Alma a lot and most of the other characters, except for the man she married, Ambrose Pike, who I thoroughly disliked, which I suspect was not the author’s intention.

It is a coincidence that I read this book at the same time as I am exploring Walt Whitman’s long poem, Leaves of Grass, (as I wrote in my blog entry on 9 February). As I was reading The Signature of All Things, I kept think of the Whitman poem. There’s an exuberance and passion in Elizabeth Gilbert’s writing about the natural world in places that echoes Whitman, and some lists as Alma walks around Amsterdam that are very Whitmanesque. And Ambrose Pike embodies some of the more mystical and self-referential aspects of Whitman as he presents himself in the poems, though without the latter’s absorption in his physicality. (In fact, Ambrose Pike denies his body, especially in an erotic sense, in distinct contrast to Whitman.)

Alma herself has some Whitman-like qualities – she finds ways to enjoy her body in a world that thwarts her in this regard, but then she is a woman and not beautiful by the standards of her day. Alma also shares with Whitman a passion for engaging with the world and for knowing the world in the fullest possible way.

It may be fanciful to link Elizabeth Gilbert to Whitman, but it makes sense to me. And the exuberance is something I enjoyed in reading each of them.

Advertisements

Walt Whitman, women, himself, and the world

I’m doing this free, online, short course on Walt Whitman and his Leaves of Grass, led by Professor Elisa New of Harvard University. (https://courses.edx.org/courses/HarvardX/AI12.2x/2013)

 Walt Whitman (1819-1892), age 37, frontispiece to Leaves of grass, Fulton St., Brooklyn, N.Y., 1855, steel engraving by Samuel Hollyer from a lost daguerreotype by Gabriel Harrison.

Walt Whitman (1819-1892), age 37, frontispiece to Leaves of grass, Fulton St., Brooklyn, N.Y., 1855, steel engraving by Samuel Hollyer from a lost daguerreotype by Gabriel Harrison.

Leaves of Grass, for those not familiar with it, is a long poem, or collection of poems, that Whitman worked on over many decades during the second half of the nineteenth century. It’s an exuberant epic of a growing America, its body of people, the body of the writer and the places, urban and rural, that all inhabit.

A surprise, when I began reading in preparation for the beginning of the course, was the way he specifically includes women, as in, “And I will show of male and female that either is but the equal of the other.” This seems remarkable to me from a book that was first published in 1855. One other example:

I am the poet of the woman the same as the man.
And I say it is as great to be a woman as to be a man,

Although it goes on to refer to “the mother of men” women in these two lines are neither subsumed nor lesser.

The title page of the second-hand copy of Leaves of Grass I bought.

The title page of the second-hand copy of Leaves of Grass I bought.

Another surprise is the vehement enthusiasm he has for the physical world, the present and the future, humanity and his own body. (Wikepedia says, somewhat coyly, that “there is disagreement among biographers as to whether Whitman had actual sexual experiences with men.”) This is a poet who throws himself at and into the world and revels in his own body in ways that seem home-erotic to me.

In the fifty-second and final part of the poem “Song of Myself” is the line, “I sound my barbaric yawp over the the roofs of the world.” And nobody will, or does, stop and tame him, not in the lines of the poems, anyway.

I have not before come across a poet anything like Walt Whitman. I may have more to say about him.