In preparation for my upcoming performances of Kurt Weill’s Four Songs of Walt Whitman with the MDR Sinfonieorchester, I have been on a fascinating journey of discovery. In delving into the life and times of one of America’s most revered poets, I have encountered a man who’s observations, analysis and commentary would not be at all out of place in the world as it exists today. In fact it is astounding to see the number of cultural parallels that can be drawn between our time and mid-nineteenth century America. Frightening? Perhaps it is. Have we progressed so little? Maybe we are simply naive in thinking that the issues of our day are unique to us?
As an example of what I am talking about, I was surprised and delighted to learn that not only did Whitman advocate rights for women, he also confronted the discriminatory pay conditions that existed for the working women of the day. Given the debate on women’s pay equity that continually, and justifiably, builds momentum throughout the western world, it is easy to see the correlation between our time and his.
In his book Walt Whitman’s America, David S. Reynolds writes:
(Whitman) was appalled by the wretched pay given for women’s work. “Poor Payment for Toiling Women” was the title of a November 1846 piece in which he complained that “the payment for Women’s labor - for female teachers, governesses, and so on, to the commonest house servant - is miserably poor.”
Whitman wrote a series of articles about the plight of the female worker, sighting insufficient pay as a major catalyst for what he believed became for many women in 1840s New York, a choice between poverty or prostitution. Whilst not a fight for what we would classify today as “pay equity”, it was an admirable cause, and an extremely progressive one. However, what made it important to Whitman was that it was relavent to the people of the day, for it was them he hoped would glean something meaningful from his analysis.
Tragically, as the Civil War raged from 1861 to 1866, its greatest consequence, death, became central to the lives of ordinary Americans. Having gone to visit his wounded brother at the front in December of 1862, Whitman’s life changed course. He experienced first hand what the people of his beloved nation were going through. On December 26th, 1862 he wrote in his diary:
Death is nothing here. As you step out in the morning from your tent to wash your face you see before you on a stretcher a shapeless extended object, and over it is thrown a dark grey blanket - it is the corpse of some wounded or sick soldier of the reg’t who died in the hospital tent during the night - perhaps there is a row of three or four of these corpses lying covered over.
Determined to document the events of ordinary men and women, and inspired by the three years he spent serving wounded soldiers in Washington D.C. throughout the war, death’s traumatic effects became the central focus of Whitman’s writing. It is here that Kurt Weill finds the parallel with his own circumstance.
The four poems Weill choses for his work are some of Whitman’s most well known and vivid writings on the multilayered experiences of death. All of them speak not from the perspective of the dying, but from the perspective of those who remain. They are moving illustrations of why D. H. Lawrence labelled Whitman “the great poet of death”. Kurt Weill, Jew who escaped the Nazi’s but knew many who did not, was well equipped to grasp the complexity of this kind of grief. It is hardly surprising then that in 1942 he took inspiration from such poems. War had become as familiar to Americans of Weill’s day as it had been to their 1860s counterparts.
Kurt Weill found in Whitman’s work a reflection of his own time. What is so remarkable, is that I did as well.