Interview: John Marsh


John Marsh teaches English at Pennsylvania State University and has a keen interest in labor and American poetry.  His books include Hog Butchers, Beggars, and Bus Boys: Poverty. Labor, and the Making of Modern American Poetry and the award-winning You Work Tomorrow: An Anthology of American Labor Poetry, 1929-1941. His latest, In Walt We Trust: How a Queer Socialist Poet Can Save America from Itself, offers a fresh and provocative view of Walt Whitman and his present-day relevance. Kirkus Reviews wrote, “Marsh confesses his love for the legendary poet, and by the end of this insightful homage, readers are likely to feel the same.”

RWR: Why does Whitman matter?

Marsh: Whitman matters because the same things that bother us—death, money, sex, and politics—bothered him, and instead of just bemoaning them, as I am inclined to do, he worked out solutions to them. We may not agree with every solution he found, but in a culture that does not often encourage us to think seriously about these subjects, Whitman does.


 RWR: What can we learn from him?

Marsh: To put it very briefly, we can learn why death should not scare us, why sex should not shame us, why money should not compel us, and why politics should not disgust us.

RWR: How did working in army hospitals during the Civil War save him? How is that an example for us?

Marsh: On the eve of the Civil War, Whitman had begun to lose faith in the experiment of American democracy, largely because it dithered morally and politically on the question of slavery, which looked like it would destroy the union he valued so much. By extension, he began to lose faith in the American people who watched its destruction. He grew cynical. During the war, Whitman devoted his afternoons and evenings to visiting and comforting sick and wounded soldiers in the army hospitals. He came to know the soldiers well, and he was impressed by their fundamental decency. He reasoned that with young men like these, American democracy could never suffer too badly and eventually might realize its promise.


RWR: What was his vision for the future of democracy?

Marsh: Whitman had an intensely personal vision of democracy. He thought that it should emerge from and as much as possible reproduce the loving, comradely relationship between two friends. He wrote that he wanted to establish “the institution of the dear love of comrades.” In short, he wanted us to care for each other, and he thought care should be the bedrock of democracy. It is easy to scoff at such a vision, or reduce it to Whitman’s homosexuality, but he thought that democracy that did not aspire to and ultimately achieve this comradeliness did not deserve the name.

RWR: What would Whitman make of our present Gilded Age?

Marsh: It would repulse him. He thought that poverty undermined democracy, specifically, the capacity and willingness of the poor to participate in democracy. In this respect, at least, he was right, and we have not made much progress since. But wealth offended him more than poverty. Whitman believed that the pursuit of wealth insulted the very fundamentals of creation. He did not think anyone could truly own anything, so he thought of money and property as at best a necessary fiction and at worst a delusion. “What is it that you made money?” he asks in one poem, “what is it that you got what you wanted?” He doesn’t even bother to answer the question. I fear how many of us would answer it today.


RWR: Why did your researches take you to a strip club?

Marsh: Today, when we learn of someone surrendering to his or her lust, we usually either laugh at them or shame them, or sometimes both. For example, I live in a college town, and early on Saturday and Sunday mornings you can see young women in clothes from the night before making their way back home after having slept somewhere else. This is called, with some indulgent humor but altogether too much judgment, a “walk of shame.” All this would have saddened Whitman. He thought that, unlike money, lust put us in harmony with the fundamentals of creation, and he wanted to celebrate it, not laugh at or shame those who followed it. I thought a visit to a strip club would test my own attitude toward lust. Could I not just refrain from judging others or myself for feeling it, but celebrate it, as Whitman did? I found out that it is easier said than done.

RWR: What’s the problem with Whitman’s tomb?

Marsh: It flouts the best parts of his poetry. For someone who celebrated the fact that when he died his body would dissolve back into the atomic structure of the universe, and for someone who placed so little stock in material possessions, the tomb seems wrong. It shields his corpse from the grass he loved, and it cost a fortune and looks like it.


RWR: What surprised you most in writing the book?

Marsh: It will seem silly, but the poetry surprised me the most. I mean how good it was. I went to Whitman looking for wisdom, and I found it, but the things that stick with me, months after writing the book, are the turns of phrases and arresting images that embody the wisdom. Here is one example. In “Song of Myself,” Whitman writes, “I know I am deathless,” and that is more or less the wisdom that we came for. But he then follows that assertion with two concrete images that show it: “I know this orbit of mine cannot be swept by a carpenter’s compass,/ I know I shall not pass like a child’s carlacue cut with a burnt stick at night.” Two beautiful images for boundless and eternal life. It is the interaction between insight and illustration that makes Whitman such a powerful poet.

–Joseph Barbato



On the Move & Much More


“[Oliver] Sacks is the doctor we all wish we could have. The one who listens patiently, endlessly, concerned about our experiences in the hospital as well as all that we experience without.” Here‘s a review of On the Move.

Ross Macdonald at 100. Here.

R.I.P. Ruth Rendell, dead at 85. She began her writing career on an Essex newspaper and “was forced to resign after filing a story about a local sports club dinner without attending. Her report failed to mention that the after-dinner speaker had died half-way through the speech.” Here.

In Photos: “The genesis of the Haight-Ashbury scene.” Here.

The king and queen of urban fiction: “Over the past decade, the Colemans have published nearly 50 books, sometimes as solo writers, sometimes under pseudonyms, but usually as collaborators with a byline that has become a trusted brand: “Ashley & JaQuavis.” They are marquee stars of urban fiction, or street lit, a genre whose inner-city settings and lurid mix of crime, sex and sensationalism have earned it comparisons to gangsta rap.” Here.

“We learn about the funereal cannibalism of the Wari’ tribe in Brazil, about Egyptian embalming techniques and about the Muslim practice of ghusl. [Caitlin Doughty] takes us from Christianity’s obsession with the early saints to the Parisian morgues of the 19th century, and through the 20th-century medicalisation of death. We discover the death rituals of Hindus, Buddhists and Tibetan monks.” Here‘s a review of Smoke Gets in Your Eyes: And Other Lessons from the Crematory.



Burning Down George Orwell’s House

Even standing still, finally, Ray Welter’s body remained in motion and subject to inner tidal forces beyond his control.

-Andrew Ervin, Burning Down George Orwell’s House: A Novel

The World’s Largest Man

They say the South is full of storytellers, but I am unconvinced.

-Harrison Scott Key, The World’s Largest Man: A Memoir

The American People

Fred Lemish is preparing to finish his history of The American People.

-Larry Kramer, The American People: Volume 1: Search for My Heart: A Novel

Billie Holiday & More


John Szwed restores to Billie Holiday “the dignity of a true artist, one who emerges from his pages – and the records to which they drive you hungrily back – as a revolutionary.” Here‘s Billie Holiday: The Musician and the Myth.

“Symbolizing death and decay but also life and growth; the ideal setting for romance or a character’s worst day, rain is one of literature’s great workhorses.” Here‘s Rain.

“Something like this [hysteria] happens all the time,” says A. Brad Schwartz (Broadcast Hysteria: Orson Welles’s War of the Worlds and the Art of Fake News). “We’re not as aware of it since there are so many media outlets. A real threat goes off and any information level is lost—‘We’re all going to die of Ebola!’” Here.

Says Philip Ball  (Invisible: The Dangerous Allure of the Unseen): “As Plato said: Invisibility gives you the freedom to do what you will, walk in anywhere and take anything you want, go into places you shouldn’t go, and do things you shouldn’t do. These are attractive things.”

Life of a Counterfeiter

About a month ago, A. Newspaper ran as the lead item in its society section a lengthy article about a father who had been searching all over for his six-year-old son, who had been kidnapped, leaving no stone unturned, until he happened to hear of a child who sounded like his son living at a temple in Shiga prefecture, out in the country, and made a trip down to see him.

-Yasushi Inoue, “Reeds,” in Life of a Counterfeiter: And Other Stories

Many Alarm Clocks

How did a nice Jewish boy like me end up with such a stern Protestant work ethic? I take vitamins and go to the gym regularly. I defend the Constitution and signal before I turn. I’m in bed by ten most nights and up before five to exercise my right to be an overachieving American. Is this because I’m devoted to The Sun, or is it because I’m devoted to my own self-esteem? So who have I been trying to save with my Herculean labors: the world or myself?

-Sy Safransky, “My End of the Deal,” in Many Alarm Clocks

Mr. Mac and Me

I was born upstairs in the small bedroom. not in the smallest room with the outshot window, where I sleep now, or the main room that is kept for guests–summer visitors who write and let us know that they are coming and how long they plan to stay.

-Esther Freud, Mr. Mac and Me: A Novel

James Merrill

Light strikes the little boy.

-Langdon Hammer, James Merrill: Life and Art