In his eloquent introduction to Worshipping Walt: The Whitman Disciples, Michael Robertson remembers searching for spiritual guidance in the late 1970s: others turned to Buddhism and the Bhagavad Gita; he turned to Leaves of Grass. As his captivating and beautifully composed 2008 study reveals, he was hardly the first. Almost immediately after Whitman began publishing, readers like John Burroughs, Edward Carpenter, and Oscar Wilde approached his work less as poetry than prophecy, offering a new vision of nature, faith, gender, and sexuality. British writer Anne Gilchrist, for one, was so taken with Whitman and his work that she crossed the Atlantic, three of her children in tow, with plans to become his wife. She would be sorely disappointed.
Professor of English at the College of New Jersey, Robertson traces the lives of these and other Whitman followers in Worshipping Walt and simultaneously provides a portrait of the spiritual and literary world of the late nineteenth century. He is also the co-editor of Walt Whitman, Where the Future Becomes Present, and author of Stephen Crane, Journalism, and the Making of Modern American Literature.
What project are you working on now?
My book in progress, The Last Utopians, looks at utopian socialists in the U.S. and U.K. in the late 19th and early 20th centuries. I’m focusing on Edward Bellamy, William Morris, Edward Carpenter, and Charlotte Perkins Gilman. The research is proving to be great fun, and the deeper I plunge into the project, the more I’m convinced of the wisdom of Oscar Wilde’s aphorism, “A map of the world that does not contain Utopia is not worth even glancing at.”
What was the last thing you read to seriously inspire or haunt you?
I recently finished Ursula Le Guin’s 1974 novel The Dispossessed, a wildly entertaining and inventive science fiction novel about an ambiguously utopian future. It’s so serious and profound in its engagement with politics at every level—nation, family, gender, sexuality, work, food—that it makes most of the fiction I read seem pallid in comparison.
What digital resource do you rely on?
As a teacher of poetry, I’m ever-grateful for Modern American Poetry, the website developed by Cary Nelson at the University of Illinois.
What is the best writing advice you’ve ever gotten?
Will Howarth, my mentor at Princeton, told me, “Start writing before you think you’re ready. The writing will show you the gaps in what you know; you can fill those in later.” It’s easy to think, I have to read absolutely everything that’s relevant before I begin writing. But that can easily turn into a way of postponing the hard work of putting pen to paper (or fingers to keyboard).
What’s the one book or article published before 1970 that has most influenced your work?
Why 1970? If you’ll say 2000, I’ll say Susan Bordo’s The Male Body (1999). Much of my work is centered on gender and sexuality, so Bordo’s book has influenced me in obvious ways. But its primary influence on Worshipping Walt was less obvious. The Male Body is a daring book, a work of true public scholarship, both deep and accessible, mixing high theory and personal history, close reading and witty anecdote. Bordo’s example liberated me to write something more personal and engaged than I’d done before.
What do you see as the most annoying tendency in contemporary scholarship?
Jargon. We don’t have to leave the role of public intellectual to Cornel West. Each of us has a responsibility to bring our scholarly work to the broadest audience possible. For some, that might mean writing a crossover book that combines scholarship and trade-book appeal. For others, it might mean writing an op-ed, publishing online, writing for the Chronicle of Higher Education Review, organizing a conference for local high school teachers, talking to community groups. As students of the humanities, we’re dealing with issues that are relevant to everybody; we need to do a better job of sharing what we’ve learned.