Write Around the Corner

S3 E8 | FULL EPISODE

Write Around the Corner-Jean Huets

Walt Whitman has often been called “the poet of democracy, America’s Bard.” We’ll visit with Jean Huets in Richmond to discuss With Walt Whitman, Himself. Her book celebrates the 200th anniversary year of Whitman’s birth by taking you into his world and times through words and pictures.

AIRED: January 21, 2020 | 0:26:55
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[♪♪♪]

♪ Every day every day

♪ Every day every day

♪ Every day

♪ Every day I write the book

- Welcome. I'm Rose Martin,

and we are Write Around The Corner

in Richmond with Jean Huets.

Now Jean's book is Walt Whitman: Himself .

And he's often called the Poet of Democracy

and America's Bard.

I have to tell you, his work lives all over the world.

And celebrating the 200th anniversary of his birth,

Jean has written a beautifully, visually attractive book.

And we're going to talk all about it,

about this famous man and a famous American writer.

Welcome to Write Around the Corner !

- Thank you!

- It's exciting to have you

and I'm excited to learn about the book,

and we'll talk about it in just a second.

But when I was reading that you pretty much--

you grew up in Germany,

and you called half of the East Coast your home state,

how did we end up here in your beautiful home in Richmond?

- Well, I went to school at Virginia Commonwealth University

and after I graduated,

I moved up to New York for a while, New York City.

And that's where I learned about publishing,

I had a job in publishing.

And then, I married a Richmond boy and came back,

and here we are.

- Well, thank you so much

for having us here in your home to talk about your work

and to talk about this amazing writer.

And outside of Walt Whitman,

I was reading that you also have a fascination

with some books dealing with tarot,

and we'll talk about those a little later too,

and the art that goes along with that.

How did you come up with tarot and Walt Whitman

in terms of interest levels to write about?

- Quite by different paths.

With tarot, my first job when I moved up to New York

was at an occult publisher

which was then called Samuel Weiser.

I think now it's Red Wheel;

and they published books on tarot.

And from there I worked with U.S. Game Systems,

who is probably the largest publisher

of tarot cards in the world,

and I worked with Stuart R. Kaplan,

who is one of the world's experts on tarot.

And I'm more, not so much into the fortune telling,

which is what people usually think of with tarot,

but more into the artwork,

and the history, and the symbolism of the cards.

- Mm-hmm. Oh, how fascinating.

And you've talked about starting out in publishing

and you working for a publisher,

and now you are co-founder of your own publishing company!

- Yes! I'm co-founder of Circling Rivers,

and we publish poetry and literary non-fiction.

- It's similar to Walt Whitman, right?

He started out in publishing,

but he worked for what, 15 different papers,

and got fired for doing things, right?

- Yeah, he was a real job-skipper

and he also was very opinionated.

And one controversial issue before the Civil War

was Free Soil.

And Free Soil meant basically non-slave states.

And Walt Whitman did not support new states

entering the union as slave states.

And some of the papers he worked for

were more ambivalent about that.

And I think he just, aside from that,

he just seemed like kind of a free-thinking guy

and wasn't very good at settling down

and doing what the boss said.

- Right. So he decided that--

actually he's self-published initially too, right?

And I heard that he was actually a really tough reviewer.

So if he decided to review a piece

and he didn't like it, that there were no holds barred.

Am I right?

- Yeah. He had his opinions, definitely.

He was a bit on the outside,

as far as the literary world went.

His education, he only had about five years or so

of formal education.

But he was actually very educated

in that he read tons.

He went to every cultural occasion he could find,

you know, from art museums to, or art exhibitions to opera.

And so, he had-- I think some of his being an outsider

had an effect on the way he saw literature

by his contemporaries.

- Mm-hmm. Well, and I read he actually left school at 11.

Right?

And then he had a brief teaching career

at the age of around 17.

That's not a big time span to leave school at 11,

do some publishing at 15,

and then be teaching for a short time at 17.

- Yeah. He left publishing

partly because there was a huge fire in New York

and it hit the publishing sector,

like, literally destroyed it.

So he went back to Long Island.

He hated teaching. He hated it with a passion.

He wrote pretty scathing letters about it to his friends.

And then, when he moved back to New York,

he got into publishing again.

He started out as a printer,

as a what you would call a compositor,

which is literally setting the type.

You know, taking the little pieces of type

and putting it in the composing stick.

And then, it was sort of a natural move

to being an editor,

which was a path that a lot of editors took.

They'd start as a printer and then move to editing.

So that was his career in publishing.

- So true or false.

His younger siblings were named after presidents.

Three of them, right? - Mm-hmm.

- Okay, true or false. Ralph Waldo Emerson was a fan.

- Yes. ROSE: Okay.

And that he didn't believe

that Shakespeare even wrote his own plays?

- Yeah, he did get into that controversy.

- And he was real tough on Shakespeare, right?

And another one was that right before his death in 1889,

a local cemetery owner propositioned him

to write a piece, a poem about the cemetery

in trade that he could use the poem

to do publishing for his cemetery and promoting for it,

and in turn, he was going to give him a free burial plot.

- He did not get a free burial plot in exchange.

ROSE: Okay.

- He paid for his burial plot.

And in fact, his friends gave him the money for,

I can't remember exactly what it was,

but it was for a practical reason.

ROSE: Mm-hmm.

- They did not intend him to buy the tomb

that he has at Camden,

and some of them were a little dusted up over it,

but that's what he did.

As far as Shakespeare goes,

I want to say Walt Whitman loved the works of Shakespeare.

He could recite them by heart.

And he did so throughout his life.

There's one point in his memoir

where he talks about running naked

up and down Coney Island Beach, if you can picture that today...

[Rose laughs]

JEAN: ...with no one but the seagulls around

to hear him reciting Shakespeare and Homer.

And he did the same when he lived in Washington D.C.

during and after the Civil War.

He would go for walks with his friend, Pete Doyle,

and Pete remembered him reciting Shakespeare by heart,

as they walked in the moonlight around Washington, D.C.

- What were some of your early literary influences?

- Ah, you know, I always think ofCharlotte's Web

as my favorite childhood book. ROSE: Mm-hmm.

- I'm not sure if that's a proper literary influence,

but...

- Well, what were you? Seven, eight, six?

JEAN: Yeah, I was in grammar school...

- It's okay, it's proper!

- Yeah, yeah, definitely.

I just read a lot and I still do.

I read literary stuff and I read schlocky romances.

I'm a very eclectic reader.

As far as literary influences,

I mean, it would be Walt Whitman in my,

you know, later on in life.

There are so many.

I just can't really pin any down.

- And what was it like growing up?

Did you grow up in a literary family?

Was that love of reading and writing

something that was instilled early with you?

- Yeah, definitely.

My parents and my older siblings,

I was the youngest of four children,

so there was always somebody to read to me,

even before I learned to read.

And I remember, one of my early memories, actually,

is really craving the ability to read,

and looking at books and looking at the letters

and wishing that they would unveil themselves to me.

So I just always loved reading.

We always had books around the house.

I don't think, you know,

I wouldn't call my parents highly literary;

they were more readers of popular books and so forth.

But we had the children's classics,

Little Women ,Tom Sawyer .

Just-- they always made sure we had good books around.

- Well, and that's so important.

We know what an impact that has, right?

- Yes, yes.

- For kids to be able to have someone read to them

or to have books available, and that's so important.

- Yeah. - Well...

- And they took us to-- excuse me,

but they took us to libraries too.

I just want to put a plug in for libraries...

ROSE: Yay!

- ...because, you know, not everyone can just go

and buy a book, you know, whenever it strikes them.

- Exactly!

- And they took us to libraries.

They would just leave us for the afternoon,

and we would spend the afternoon just browsing,

reading any old thing we wanted to.

- Getting lost in stories.

- Getting lost in stories.

Everything from science fiction to Beverly Cleary,

or whatever, whatever was there.

- Well, and families have such a big influence

on our formative years and even as we get older.

I mean, I still will call my mom, right,

and want to have that family influence.

With Walt, what was that relationship like

with his family?

I know his mom was Quaker, right?

And so there was a Quaker influence with him there.

And then, some of the siblings there,

it was quite a big family. - Yeah.

- So, what was that dynamic like?

- His mother, he called his mother illiterate,

but what he meant was she wasn't really educated.

She didn't have-- she could read though.

She definitely could read.

She read his work, she read newspapers.

Not a lot is known of his father,

in terms of what his education was.

He was a carpenter by trade.

He was a farmer for a while, then he'd go and do carpentry.

He sort of bounced back and forth,

but mainly, he was a carpenter.

His siblings, of his siblings,

his sister, Hannah, was the most educated

in the formal sense.

And I guess I also would put his brother, Jeffy,

in there too, his younger brother,

who was actually an engineer.

He became an engineer in St. Louis.

But they weren't...

He didn't find his family supportive.

- How come?

- I don't know, because when I read their letters,

they seem, at least Jeffy, and his mother, and Hannah,

were definitely supportive.

George, his brother, George Washington,

as you pointed out named after our president,

he was, he thought that Walt Whitman

kind of wasted his talent by writing poetry.

It just wasn't practical enough.

His brother ended up being a plumber.

ROSE: Mm-hmm.

- And he just didn't really find it a good way

to spend your time.

- Hmm. You know, I was fascinated

with the impact that he had on his family

if something went wrong.

Didn't he go back and have to commit

one of his siblings to the hospital

because they became ill.

And they relied on him, right?

- Yes. ROSE: So they relied on him

even if he wasn't physically present to take care of things.

- Yeah. He was definitely,

his father died in 1855, I believe it was, and he...

Even before that,

he had already kind of become the head of the family,

the male head of the family beside from his mother.

And he had, there were some really dysfunctional situations

in his family.

And his older brother, he was the second oldest,

and his older brother Jesse,

was committed to what they called the lunatic asylum

for apparently he was violent.

And different family members had different theories about why.

And he had another brother who was a very severe alcoholic

and he died, and he caused a lot of disruption in the family.

So yeah, when something went wrong,

the letters went to Walt wherever he was;

help, help, help...

And he would go up and try to help out

and straighten things out.

- Well, and that seems like

that was part of his personality;

that he could be crass when he was reviewing a book

or he was judgmental and opinionated,

but there was a tender side. - Yes.

- He really tried to like meld

the inner and outer part of himself.

He didn't want people to be cruel.

He wanted to show kindness.

So how did, how do you think his work balanced

that personality that he had,

and then the message that he wanted to share

with the world?

- His work?

I would say his spiritual autobiography

isLeaves of Grass .

He worked on it from, you know, at least his early 30s

to the end of his life.

He did several editions, always revising.

And you could say he madeLeaves of Grass,

but alsoLeaves of Grass made him,

because in it, he expressed his ideals

and he didn't always live up to his ideals,

and people will point out,

especially in his editorial pieces,

that he could be racist or sexist.

- Mm-hmm.

- But his ideals were really clear inLeaves of Grass

and he did do his best to become the person

that he projects inLeaves of Grass .

- Well, and reading about him,

it was just fascinating to hear some of the things he did.

And talking about Leaves of Grass ,

there were originally what, 12 or 14 poems,

12 or 14, in the original edition,

and then it grew to 300, right?

- Yeah. It grew quite a bit over the years.

ROSE: And so, the iterations that he changed...

And so, the references to father and mother,

those really seem to change throughout the editions, right?

- Yeah. There's a poem inLeaves of Grass

that's now called "I Sing the Body Electric".

That wasn't the original title of it.

In fact, they didn't have titles originally but...

And he mentions the mother and the father,

and then it sort of slowly fades away,

and I don't know why he did that.

- Was that partly because

he was so affected by his mother's death?

- He was definitely very, very affected

by his mother's death.

He said it was the worst thing that ever happened to him.

ROSE: Hmm.

- He was very attached to his mother.

He considered that he got his best qualities from her.

- Hmm.

JEAN: And there is controversy

over what his relationship was like with his father.

Some people say it was terrible, and that his father was abusive.

And some people say, including his brother George,

said Walt and our dad got along fine.

- Well, and there are no,

he doesn't have any direct descendants, right?

Right? - That's correct.

Any that are known.

He claimed to have six children.

ROSE: Mm-hmm.

- But, to be honest, I doubt it.

- Well, and his sexual orientation

has come into play over the years also, right?

- Yes.

- And it's something that you touch about on the book.

What he was thinking about,

how he was acting for the time period,

and that had to be something that was intriguing for people

who are reading his work, or for at the time period,

judging because of where society was during that time.

- Yes, yeah.

He presented himself not as gay.

But he did, but by our eyes, he did present.

You know, looking at him today, it's like, oh, come on.

You know, he presented himself as being gay,

but he always sort of pulled back

from coming right out and saying it.

And of course, you know, we can understand why.

It wouldn't do very much good, you know,

to admit that at that time.

I think he wanted to be for everyone,

and maybe not only was he being a bit self-protective,

maybe he didn't want to be pinned down

as one thing or another.

- Mm-hmm. I can see that.

- I think he was very, you know, spacious,

in the way he wanted to present himself.

ROSE: Well, and a couple examples of that

were in your book where you talked about

how he went to the hospital during the Civil War

to visit with the injured, or the infirmed,

as a way to just be out of the spotlight,

which he was so great at self-promoting,

but when it came to that tender time

of taking care of someone else,

that that was really important to him.

- Yes, yes. He considered the Civil War,

he called the Civil War the hub of his book,

meaningLeaves of Grass .

And later in life, he said,

"I couldn't have written Leaves of Grass

without the Civil War," you know.

And later, one of his friends was like, oh, well,

he was confused about the time period

because we know that the first edition was in 1855.

But really, he wasn't confused.

He knew exactly what he meant

and that was you have to see it more as a wheel

than a straight linear line.

ROSE: Mm-hmm.

- And with the Civil War at the hub of his book.

And of course, he did add a lot more after the war.

He sort of thought his literary endeavor was over for a while

because the war was so stupendous

that he didn't really think he had anything to say

that could, you know, rise to the import of the war.

- Mm-hmm.

- But he wrote a couple of little volumes of poems,

chapbooks, I guess you could call them.

Drum-Taps, andSequel to Drum-Taps ,

that were obviously about the war.

And then he folded them intoLeaves of Grass,

and then he started writing again,

and added more and more.

- So, your book that celebrates

the 200th anniversary of the year of his birth,

is beautiful.

JEAN: Oh, thank you! ROSE: And the fact

that you've done it almost like a magazine layout

with quotes and photos and paintings.

How did that process come together?

JEAN: The hardest part of it

was doing the research for the images,

because what I wanted to do was to try to really get

only images that Walt himself would have seen,

like embedding ourselves with Walt Whitman.

So it's, I didn't want to use anything anachronistic,

although I did, sometimes, interpretively.

There are some paintings, for example,

that are after Walt Whitman's time,

but they show pretty much the way Long Island was

when he was a kid.

You know, there aren't any buildings

or you know, technology in the pictures.

There's one of Montauk Lighthouse

that actually the lighthouse had changed

since Walt was in Log Island.

But on the whole, I wanted it

just so we could feel like we're in his life

and walking in his shoes,

or at least walking with him as he was walking around.

ROSE: And that comes across because it's not a biography,

it's not a story that will take you in that direction

as a historical story, but exactly like you say,

it's like we're walking with him,

meeting the people that he met,

dealing with some of the struggles

that he dealt with.

The everyday life from family events

to places he visited,

to stories that he wanted to share.

So really takes us a peek inside him and his world,

and also the things that were important to him.

I had no idea that, you know,

he had such a high esteem for the women's rights movement.

Or the time that he felt like, you know,

we need to all have a safe voice.

We all need to have a fair voice in the world.

So there was this righteous component to him also.

- Yeah, yeah.

- And he lived a very simple life, didn't he?

- He lived a very simple life.

It's kind of amazing how he, well, you know,

I was at his birthplace this last weekend,

which is in Huntington, Long Island,

and anyone who's into Whitman should go and see it.

It's a wonderful place.

It's an oasis in a very, you know, highly developed area.

And ten people lived in this pretty small house.

But people just kind of endured a lot of things

that Americans would,

you know, many Americans would find uncomfortable.

When he lived in D.C.,

he lived in a garret with just a room,

a rented room in a garret, and he would move around,

I guess for, you know, who knows why;

and... just imagine living in a garret...

- Right! And owning very few possessions, right?

JEAN: Yes, yeah.

- Just take a hunk of meat with his knife

and his sugar bowl was a brown paper bag...

- Yeah! ROSE: It was just very simple.

But yet you also have pictures in the book

and references to the fact that he was kind of messy too,

with stacks of papers and books and things everywhere.

Like that creative mind was everywhere.

So a simple life.

Hmm. What do you think his message was for the world?

- His message for the world, I think is--

I think what draws people overall to Walt Whitman is,

he said, "You deserve as much respect as I do,

and as the President does."

And as the highest person and the lowest person

deserve equal respect.

And that, I think is what is so important for us to know.

That I'm no better than you are, you're no better than I am.

And then, we can really be with each other.

- That's a beautiful message.

Would you be willing to share some of your work with us?

- Yeah, of course!

- You can kind of set it up,

and tell us what you're going to be sharing.

- Yeah. Since this, you know, the title of the book being

With Walt Whitman Himself n the 19th Century, in America .

Walt said... oh, I'll read something from his essay,

A Backwards Glance Over Traveled Roads,

and then I'll go to another part.

"Leaves of Grass indeed.

"I cannot too often reiterate,

"has mainly been the outcropping

"of my own emotional and other personal nature.

"An attempt from first to last to put a person, a human being,

"myself in the latter half of the 19th century in America,

freely, fully, and truly on record."

So that's what he said about, you know,

when I mentioned earlier as a spiritual autobiography.

So, I'll read the section of the book calledOne Nation ,

and it starts again with a quote.

This quote is from the introduction

to the 1855Leaves of Grass , which is the first edition.

"The Americans of all nations in any time upon the earth

"have probably the fullest poetical nature.

The United States themselves are essentially the greatest poem."

So that's the end of the quote.

IfLeaves of Grass has another hero besides Walt himself,

"it is the United States of America.

"Walt's prose and poetry are framed by the United States,

"filled in by the United States, animated by its land,

"its features and resources, its politics, and its people.

"While he looks to future readers,

"its present is the earthy, robust,

"sometimes grotesque life of 19th century America

"with its violent convulsions of war and expansion,

"exuberant national egoism,

"boisterous innovations,

"tumult and pain, and joy.

"Walt's life began in the Jacksonian era,

"stretched through the Civil War and Reconstruction,

"and ended in the Gilded Age.

"Not yet one hundred years as a country,

"Walt's America was still, is still creating itself,

"making and remaking its legends,

"its history, its story.

"Walt reveled in its pioneer rawness,

"its brass innovation unfettered by feudalism,

"its creative spark

"unshadowed by cultural convention.

"Nothing overseas, he believed,

"could possibly measure up to anything American.

"Like the peoples who left the old world

"to find new opportunity in America,

"Walt found, demanded,

"new opportunity for poetry in America.

"He deliberately discarded old forms,

"illusions, and tropes,

"and consciously shed the overburden of the past.

"Nineteenth century America

"was pulling away from her own past, too.

"Slave-supported agriculture and manufacturing,

"artisan labor,

"a seemingly unlimited frontier,

"and she was moving toward her future.

"Ethnic diversity, abolition,

"wage labor and manufacturing,

"and American settlers.

"Governments, schools, and churches

"occupying the land from coast to coast.

The process nearly tore the nation apart forever."

- I can see why he's called the Poet of Democracy, right?

- Yeah, yeah. - Absolutely.

- He was very much into what America had to offer,

its potential. - And so insightful, right,

about that potential,

and about each person realizing their full potential.

- Yes, yes.

- Inspiring the next generation

and the next generation to try to reach that.

- Yeah.

- It's a wonderful message to share.

And thank you so much

for putting this beautiful book together...

JEAN: Oh, thank you!

ROSE: ...that people can walk with Walt

in a way that we haven't been able to do before.

I feel like I know him so much better.

- Oh, good! Thanks.

- So, thank you again for inviting us here to your home.

And I'd like to especially thank Jean Huets

for inviting us here to her home in Richmond

and sharing her beautiful book about Walt Whitman himself.

Please check us out online.

Learn more about our conversation with Jean,

about Walt Whitman,

and some of the other work that she's been doing.

Tell all of your friends about us!

I'm Rose Martin,

and I'll see you next time Write Around The Corner .

[♪♪♪]

♪ Every day every day

♪ Every day every day

♪ Every day

♪ Every day I write the book

[♪♪♪]

♪ Every day every day

♪ Every day

♪ Every day I write the book

♪ Every day every day

♪ Every day

♪ Every day I write the book

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