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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BONUS ELVIS PRESLEY CHALLENGE

DONALD TRUMP

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There is doubt in Europe. The paranoid reckon a Fascist demagogue will soon be in the White House and that this is a new dark day for Western Civilisation. The more measured believe Trump is no more than a motor mouth salesman who is obliged to overcommit on delivery to unrealistic customers.  And all of us are remembering that the American people have form. In the Promised Land they elect movie actors and body-builders to high office. Introspection follows rage, and we are obliged to think of our own absurdities Boris Johnson and Silvio Berlusconi. But the peoples of Europe do not only think. We can also be emotional.

Some years ago I had lunch in London with a literary agent. He was from Boston.   In the conversation it became clear that he had less regard and respect for the American South than me. Years later I watched an episode of The Sopranos and heard Tony the head honcho dismiss the American South as Elvis Country. At that moment I remembered that refined lunch in London.   I am from the North of England and curious about the Deep South to the extent of even being loyal to its people. I am aware of its faults and of the history of racism but I also value its culture, black and white. Music plays a part but there is also literature, writers like William Faulkner, Erskine Caldwell and Eudora Welty.   The Deep South has and had racist divisions but within those divisions there appeared to exist communities that allowed the ordinary to share mutual respect.   So it seemed. When I was young, I imagined an oppressed people who had dignity. Neither was I repelled by the story of bank robber Dillinger and the support he received from ordinary folk. The loyalty shown to the bank robber by outsiders was impressive, and I admired the defiance of those who understood their paltry inheritance in a loaded economic system. No doubt I was a confused young man. More important than my romantic invention was the Southern music that helped me fill a life. The music of the American South had heart and was free of pretension but it also existed as evidence of working class worth. The South had its bigots but nobody could deny the potency of blues, country, gospel, soul music and rock and roll.

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Much has been said about soft power being important to American dominance in the world. Hollywood was important but there were also all the ordinary working class Southerners who picked up a guitar and had decent tonsils.   People will argue about the respective merits of the individual musicians but nobody can deny the importance of Elvis Presley to the soft power of the USA. And, when he wilted, there were other American musicians who inspired Europeans. No doubt there are people in Boston and New Jersey who listen to Elvis and music from the American South but to them Elvis will promise less than he did to his British fans. There existed enough of those fans to let him change how we related to our own history. The British became curious about the man and his homeland and wanted to understand what had made possible something as exciting and confident as rock and roll and rhythm and blues. And, although some of us were shocked by the racism and lynching of the Deep South and never really cared for the excess patriotism , we also responded to Lucas Beauchamp the proud and independent black man in Intruder In The Dust, the patient tolerance and humanity in To Kill A Mockingbird and the responsible sympathy for the oppressed and vulnerable that was evident in The Night Of The Hunter.

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So today there are people in Britain who are disappointed by the American Presidential Election. And perhaps we have no right because, of course, we are also flawed. We must not forget Boris the piffled buffoon. But the Brits who have large record collections or used to work in record stores devoted to American music have heavier hearts than they did at the beginning of the week. There is a view that the world has become a more frightening place since Trump but I am not so sure. The world was frightening anyway. Whatever he does will consist of no more than making a bad situation worse because it has been bad and getting worse since Thatcher and Reagan.

I understand that the victory of Trump required more than the votes of the white working class in the South. Well before Trump, the selfish and not very bright rich proved they were without standards. His election tells us nothing new about the powerful and the affluent. But forget them for a moment, Elvis Country was solidly behind Trump, and that is what will disappoint those Europeans who spent a large part of their lives in record stores. The resentment and difficult circumstances of working class Americans are recognised.  The same justified misgivings about the future of ordinary working people exist in Europe. Yet the same people who feel let down by the American economy were the ones who ushered in Reagan, neoliberalism, restrictions on trade unions and tax cuts for the rich. All of it made the ordinary people of America poorer, and guess what? Those who are suffering from the medicine want more spoonfuls.

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Trump claims that he will create jobs and pay decent wages, which I hope is the main reason working class Americans voted for him, but anyone who can do a simple jigsaw should realise he is an unlikely saviour. In his acceptance speech Trump promised that his great economic plan would double growth. This is economic illiteracy. Does he mean he intends to double the annual rate of growth or that in a thousand years the rate of growth in the USA will have doubled? To be credible the sentence needed more and somewhat obvious words. What is certain is that the rich will pay less tax because they will utilise his advocated low rates of corporation tax to avoid paying income tax. Investment will reduce because excess profits will be taken out of businesses. Because money spent on research and development is tax free, higher corporation tax encourages investment and expansion yet without it Trump will somehow double output and create jobs.   Well, best of luck. And anyone who can build a wall across the breadth of America without immigrant labour is a better man than me.

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For all the mistakes of the past and the blemishes in European politics the truth is that Trump is a blot on a country whose ordinary people redefined the culture of the rest of the world.  The decline of Elvis that tarnished his career haunts those Brits who used the same record stores as me.  And they and me are disturbed by the success of Trump. Millions of Americans have voted for an inarticulate ill-mannered 70 year old who dies his hair blonde, has such compassion for his countrymen and women that he pays no taxes on his fortune, admits that he introduces himself to women with a grope, and who is married to a walk around mannequin who looks like she should be his granddaughter. Elvis continued to wear his white jump suit after he had put on weight, and after that he was identified with tack. Trump is like the white suits. He is embarrassing and has brought undiscovered tack to American politics. His appearance and personality will ensure for the fortunate that his reign has comic appeal. The not so lucky may struggle to maintain a sense of humour. They need a sense of irony at least because many of them have decided they can endure an even more lopsided economy. Those Britons who used to fill independent record stores will also be gloomy. No doubt the music and literature will turn us around so that we can be positive again about a unique culture that helped us become adults. We will make excuses for ignorance, as we have done in the past. At that point someone will say there is a reason for working class anger in the American South and that when Elvis visited Nixon perhaps he had a point about the Beatles being smug know-alls. But even then we will be mystified as to how and why Elvis and the ordinary people of the United States ever thought that Nixon and Trump were on the same side as them.

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Howard Jackson has had five books published by Red Rattle Books. His latest book Choke Bay is now available here. If you are interested in original horror and crime fiction and want information about the other books of Howard Jackson and other great titles, click here.