Elvis Presley

BLAST FROM THE PAST

WALT WHITMAN AND ELVIS

Walt Whitman Poet Literature

 

French political thinker Alexis de Tocqueville wrote this in Democracy In America

There will be more wit than erudition, more imagination than profundity  … performance will bear marks of the untutored and rude vigour of thought, frequently of great variety and singular fecundity.

It sums up Elvis Golden Records Volume 1 quite well.  This is what Walt Whitman said in his poem Song Of Myself –

I am the poet of the Body and I am the poet of the Soul,

The pleasures of heaven are with me and the pains of hell are with me,

The first I graft and increase upon myself, the latter I translate into a new tongue.

Whitman was determined to deny himself nothing, to embrace the whole world because he was, like all  human beings, ‘inevitable and limitless’. He was not necessarily the father of American ambition but he was adamant that it was different from what had gone before and that the possibilities and consequence could be enormous. Others who have written about Elvis have mentioned Walt Whitman and also Herman Melville. Comment, though, has been restricted to saying no more than Whitman, Melville and Presley are all American artists and democrats, as if the mere mention of an actual poet in an essay on Elvis requires discreet footsteps.

In Mystery Train – Images Of America In Rock And Roll Greil Marcus criticises Elvis for not giving an emphatic no to the tasteless elements of American culture.  Marcus quotes the novel Bartleby by Melville with its hero who ‘prefers not to’ and argues that all serious artists must say no to something.  But Marcus also uses Whitman to emphasise the importance of Elvis and so contradicts the Bartleby assertion.  Both Whitman and Elvis were determined to contain everything.  Whitman does say no but his no is different because he is saying no to saying no to anything.  He rejects the discriminators.  Our lives will not have the required grandeur unless we are sensitive to everything and welcome all into our sensibility.  He does not respect racial or cultural birth right in the way of blues and country music purists.  We are universal and share entitlement, the oppressed and the privileged.

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Although Whitman was white and from New Jersey, he claimed –

I am the hounded slave, I wince at the bite of the dogs.

And –

I celebrate myself and sing myself

And what I assume you shall assume

For every atom belonging to me as good belongs to you.

In the inclusive world of Whitman there is no patent on virtue and talent.  It demands to be shared and copied.  The vibrancy of contradictions is more important than identity.

Do I contradict myself

Very well then I contradict myself.

(I am large, I contain multitudes.)

If he draws a line, it is not with the benefit of taste and intelligence but a resistance to corruption –

Welcome is every organ and attribute of me, and of any man hearty and clean,

Not an inch nor a particle of an inch is vile, and none shall be less familiar than the rest.

If we all have the same ambition to embrace the world, we will not be identical because there is so much that is diverse; Whitman describes himself as the arbiter of the diverse.  But our potential to welcome all and experience it with the weight of memory means that every human being is sacred and that means we are all both individual and universal.

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Elvis needed to embrace not only the American continent but also his personal complexity.  Of course, the tilt towards universality taken by Elvis may have been a consequence of the greed of Parker who wanted Elvis to appeal to as many suckers as possible.  The purpose of Parker is, though, less important than the performer who is required to play.

‘I am large, I contain multitudes.’

And Elvis did.  And this by Whitman, written in the middle of the 19th Century, anticipates Elvis and rock and roll.

I too am not a bit tamed, I too am untranslatable,

I sound my barbaric yawp over the roofs of the world.

Elvis has been accused of naïve narcissism and it was in his nature but Whitman would recognise the trait as a virtue, especially if personal delight is extended to others.

I sing the body electric,

The armies of those I love engirth me and I engirth them

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Moby Dick is the novel that can be compared to Song Of Myself.   Both stress the variety, detail and transcendental grace of ordinary life, and the failure of Ahab is that he confuses ambition, which is good, with obsession, which is bad.  True ambition, that is non-judgemental ambition, will seek everything.  Obsession is obliged to exclude others and to dismiss nature and material that has worth.  The warning against the false glory of obsession or singular ambition has a tragic consequence in Moby Dick but the warnings also exist in the poetry of Whitman.  All writers need sales but this judgement is particularly harsh –

Let him who is without my poems be assassinated.

He is not, of course, criticising a failure to buy his book but an unwillingness to embrace his writing into a comprehensive sense of self and the material other.  If his ambition embraces the stranger then the stranger has to embrace him.  We have to engage.

Stranger if you are passing meet me and desire to speak to me, why should you not speak to me?

And why should I not speak to you?

To the European ear, this quote may not mean much but its simple description of the responsibility for strangers to speak captures American optimism. When Elvis visited a French nightclub he posed for photographs with strippers and whores. He spoke to those who would speak to him. For all his faults he did the same with the fans, he would pose with the glamorous and the ugly, the slender and the obese. This does not make him a wonderful human being, merely an American.

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The desire by Whitman for grandeur can easily be mistaken for gluttony.  Whitman avoided it by travelling the country and staying poor.  Elvis made the mistake of retreating to Graceland and indulging his wealth.  His rich democratic instinct, which was initially rooted in Whitman type appetite, was soon scarred by fear and excess comfort.  And American appetite, like its ambition, is different. The poetry of Whitman exalts the common man but faith in human beings untarnished by hierarchy is not unique to America.  To convince the reader that he was serious about how he could embrace the world and acknowledge the ordinary, the poems of Whitman often contained long lists.  The amplitude of the continent defines Americans as blessed. Pablo Neruda in his poem Oda Al Hombre Sencillo also stresses the importance of the common man but Neruda also insists on old world restraint –

Ves tú qué simple soy,

Qué simple eres,

No se trata

de nada complicado

Roughly translated this means – you see that I am simple, that you are simple, one should not try for anything complicated.

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Both Whitman and Neruda imagine a state of grace for the common man but Whitman imagines it as momentary and random.  Neruda insists, though, that mutuality, and not just indiscriminate universality, is important.   The mutuality of Neruda requires the curiosity of Whitman but also a sense that dignity demands restraint as well as experience.

Ando, nado, navego

Hasta encontrarte,

 y entonces te pregunto

como te llamas,

calle y numero,

 para que tu recibas

mis cartas,

para que yo te diga

quien soy y cuanto gano,

donde vivo,

y como era mi padre.

The recognition of inevitably muted existence by Neruda challenges the universality of Whitman which is rooted in appetite.  Translated it means – I walk, swim and search until I find you and then I will ask you your name, street and number, so that you receive my letters, so that I tell you who I am and what I earn, where I live and who is my father.

This is not man in a new vast continent. What is best shared is our simplicity not our magnificence.  Only this will endure.  Magnificence dies in the second act.  But Elvis had talent, he was the well-made man that Whitman promised.

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But you a new brood, native, athletic, continental, greater than before known

Arouse! for you must justify me.

When Elvis was interviewed on board USS Randall he was asked what book was he reading. Elvis said Leaves Of Gold.   The poems of Whitman are contained in Leaves Of Grass. Unfortunately, Elvis picked the wrong book.  But the title is close.  Elvis was nearly there.  His initial promise that he could contain multitudes and stay healthy and clean was ultimately denied.  Whitman is still waiting to be justified.

Howard Jackson is suffering from influenza.  He will return to Bitten: Breaking Bad when he has recovered.

Howard Jackson has had eight books published by Red Rattle Books including novels, short stories and collections of film criticism.   If you are interested in original horror and crime fiction and want information about the books of Howard Jackson and the other great titles at Red Rattle Books, click here. 

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JACK THE RIPPER ‘THE DEMENTED GENIUS’ HIS DEEDS AND TIMES

36 BLOODHOUNDS

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This tale begins with a bark and ends with a bite. Bloodhounds have a sense of smell that enables them to follow trails up to two days old over difficult country. Their long noses are able to distinguish the scent of one individual from that of others.  The bark mentioned above appeared in the form of a letter to the Star newspaper.  The letter appeared on 8th September 1888, the day Ripper victim Annie Chapman was murdered.   The suggestion in the letter that bloodhounds could be used to help apprehend Jack the Ripper was not novel.  Bloodhounds have a sense of smell and so on.  In 1876 J H Ashforth of Nottingham had urged Lancashire Police to recruit bloodhounds. The dogs helped the police to convict murderer William Fish, so much for the rumour about cat food. The letter to the Star on 8th September alerted J H Ashforth. He raised his head, sniffed the air and wrote to the Commissioner Metropolitan Police, Sir Charles Warren. The Commissioner replied to the letter but took no further action. The letter from Warren has been described as courteous. Warren had consulted the police doctor. The view of Dr Phillips was that the bloodhounds would trace the blood of the victim rather than the killer.

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The opinion of Dr Phillips did not settle the matter. The double slaying of Liz Stride and Catherine Eddowes on 30th September 1888 prompted an editorial in The Times the next day.  Readers were reminded about the success of the Lancashire Police when they had used bloodhounds. This inspired Percy Lindley to write to the newspaper.   Lindley, who just happened to be a breeder of bloodhounds, suggested that a couple of trained dogs be kept at the Whitechapel Police Station.   Lindley was not a lone voice.   H M Mackusick boasted he had the largest kennel of bloodhounds in existence. Mackusick added empiricism to the argument. ‘Ten well-trained bloodhounds would be of more use than a hundred constables in ferreting out criminals who have left no trace beyond the fact of their presence beyond.’ Not everyone agreed with top of the world Mackusick. Up in Yorkshire there was a long-standing suspicion of fancy ideas that were peddled by city types down south. Edwin Brough was a bloodhound breeder from Wyndgate near Scarborough. He doubted that English dogs were sufficiently well trained to operate in the crowded streets of Whitechapel.

Without ever being enthusiastic, Sir Charles Warren asked the Home Secretary Henry Matthews to approve a £50 purchase of a bloodhound and an additional £100 maintenance allowance for subsequent years. This would allow puppies to be trained and mentored by the original £50 bloodhound. Matthews approved the £50 purchase but refused to authorise the £100 annual allowance. In the money of today £50 is equivalent to £20,000.  Henry Matthews is remembered for his timidity as Home Secretary and even today the Home Office is not regarded as an example of streamlined efficiency.

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Back in 1888 on 6th October no nonsense Yorkshire man Edwin Brough left the Yorkshire Moors and arrived in London.   Brough had two trusted companions. These were his bloodhounds Barnaby and Burgho.   Trials began in Regents Park two days later on 8th October.  Barnaby and Burgho were able to track for nearly a mile a man who had been given a fifteen minutes start.  In the evening there was a second trial at Hyde Park. The trials continued and were successful. There were six in total. The hounds were not quick, presumably because they were a bit sniffy, but Barnaby and Burgho were able to follow a scent and trace its owner.

But if there were a heaven, that place where good doggies go in the Elvis song Old Shep, someone would complain about the altitude. A less than principled journalist reported that the dogs had been lost on Tooting Common. This was not true. What happened was that on 18th October a sheep was killed on the Common and this incident inspired invention by journalists. The Press and its readers expected Barnaby and Burgho to be put to work.  Unfortunately, they were back up North with Edwin Brough and breathing fresh Yorkshire air.   Brough was not an enthusiast like top of the world Mackusick. His relationship with the Metropolitan Police soon became odorous. The Metropolitan Police were not quick in making payments to Brough for the use of his dogs, and Brough needed some brass to live on and perhaps buy more bloodhounds.  Burgho was versatile and had an alternative career.  He was put into a show in Brighton.

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In the spirit of compromise Barnaby had been lent to a friend of Brough that lived in London. When Barnaby was summoned to assist in catching a burglar, Brough was unimpressed. Policemen had walked all over the burgled premises and ruined the scent. The burglary had also been committed at five in the morning and some hours before Barnaby was recruited to help. Brough did not receive any payment from the police for the efforts of Barnaby. Nor was he given assurance about compensation if Barnaby were injured by a criminal.

Meanwhile Warren was making limited progress. Matthews somehow relented and gave approval for Warren to pay for Barnaby to be insured and to cover the cost of hiring a puppy that could be trained with the accomplished bloodhound from Yorkshire.  By then, though, Brough had said enough was enough. He was almost as sniffy as his bloodhounds. By the time the money was approved Barnaby and Brough were already home in Yorkshire, two disillusioned creatures bored with fighting crime and dealing with what they regarded as southern softies.

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In 1904 Edwin Brough became an author.   His book was titled The Bloodhound And It’s Use In Tracking Criminals. The pages are now dog-eared but this text remains valuable if controversial, something to chew on. ‘It is a very significant fact that at the time of the ‘Jack the Ripper’ outrages in the East End there were no murders committed during which Sir Charles Warren had arranged for a couple of Bloodhounds to be kept in London, but directly it was announced that the hounds had been sent back, another of this series of horrible murders was perpetrated.’

Aye, happen, as they say in Yorkshire. Liz Stride and Catherine Eddowes were murdered on 30th  September, and Mary Jane Kelly was murdered on 8th November, forty days or not quite six weeks later.   Brough, though, did not arrive in London until 6th October.  Bloodhounds were not seen on the streets of Whitechapel.  Barnaby was used in one instance and his purpose was to detect crime. The dogs were not a deterrent. But dog lovers may take offence and believe that it was Barnaby that drove the Ripper indoors to kill Mary Jane Kelly. When the police arrived at the home of Kelly after her murder, they waited outside her home for two hours before breaking down the door. The reported reason is that the detectives were waiting for Barnaby to arrive and to somehow detect the scent amidst the heat and carnage that was inside the home of Mary Kelly. No one, it appears had told the detectives that Edwin, Burgho and Barnaby were already in Scarborough.

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The bite that ends the tale is this. The typical Ripper book is fattened with indexes that detail the various participants, victims and suspects. Reference is made to what happened to Brough, Barnaby and Burgho within the various accounts but their names are usually overlooked in an index. Brough was at least able to write a book and be remembered that way. Barnaby and Burgho were willing workers and compared to their colleagues in the Metropolitan Police the two bloodhounds had a special kind of integrity.   A mention in the index for Barnaby and Burgho is not too much to ask.

Howard Jackson has had seven books published by Red Rattle Books including novels, short stories and collections of film criticism.   If you are interested in original horror and crime fiction and want information about the books of Howard Jackson and the other great titles at Red Rattle Books, click here.