Wednesday, April 16, 2014
ROBERT A. CARO'S THE PASSAGE OF POWER & WALTER H. EITNER'S WALT WHITMAN'S WESTERN JAUNT
But, if you've got the interest and the stamina—and the time (I received this for my birthday last year, eleven months ago)—this is a very rewarding read. Caro's research is so thorough and his perspective so fair (incorporating every major player's memories of events and conversations etc.) that all the books in his massive LBJ biography are worth reading. But if you had to pick just one, it would be this one.
Because as the title suggest, it concerns Johnson moving from the powerful job of Senate leader to the thankless non-job of vice-president to the traumatic transformation of JFK's assassination and his ascendancy to the presidency. Powerful stuff. And for those of us who lived through it, the details, at least in my case, can be not just fascinating but moving. I highly recommend it, even if, like me, you read a little each night and it seems to take forever.
It's one of those specialized studies trying to set the record straight. It takes a trip Whitman made with several others from Camden, where he lived at the end of his life, (actually starting from Philadelphia where he joined the others) and examines the details of it. Whitman had written about this journey in my second favorite book of his, SPECIMEN DAYS (one of my all-time favorite books of prose, as LEAVES OF GRASS is for poetry), and Eitner's book is determined to set the record straight by pointing out discrepancies between Whitman's own account(s) (not just in SPECIMEN DAYS but in publicity generated through fake interviews—interviewing himself essentially, but making it look like some reporter was doing it—and newspaper articles seemingly written by nameless reporters etc.) and either what was written in newspaper accounts by others or in letters and other sources.
I found it all totally interesting, though I'm not sure anyone who isn't a Whitmanophile (?!) would, and liked deciding where I felt Eitner might be correct in correcting the record and where perhaps the newspaper accounts or other sources might just as likely have it wrong. In pointing out the discrepancies, Eitner rehashes the history of this railroad trip to Saint Louis and Kansas and Denver in 1879 in that short post-Civil War period that most cowboy movies are set in. I loved reading contemporary takes on what that world looked like, especially to these Easterners, and more especially to Whitman, who had written poetry about the West as if he'd lived there all his life (he'd gone as far as New Orleans once before).
Eitner's book was published in 1981, so it's probably out of print. But if you're a history buff who digs the post-Civil War period in the USA, or a Whitman fan, you might find some of this book, or at least the contemporaneous photos in it, enjoyable. I did.