No Comment, Quotation — May 3, 2009, 6:37 am

Whitman’s Twenty-Eight Young Men

swimming_hole

Twenty-eight young men bathe by the shore,
Twenty-eight young men and all so friendly;
Twenty-eight years of womanly life and all so lonesome.
She owns the fine house by the rise of the bank,
She hides handsome and richly drest aft the blinds of the window.
Which of the young men does she like the best?
Ah the homeliest of them is beautiful to her.
Where are you off to, lady? for I see you,
You splash in the water there, yet stay stock still in your room.
Dancing and laughing along the beach came the twenty-ninth bather,
The rest did not see her, but she saw them and loved them.
The beards of the young men glisten’d with wet, it ran from their long hair,
Little streams pass’d all over their bodies.
An unseen hand also pass’d over their bodies,
It descended tremblingly from their temples and ribs.
The young men float on their backs, their white bellies bulge to the sun,
they do not ask who seizes fast to them,
They do not know who puffs and declines with pendant and bending arch,
They do not think whom they souse with spray.

Walt Whitman, Song of Myself, sec 11 in Leaves of Grass bk ii (1855)

In 1887, Renoir painted the Large Bathers, and in 1885 Eakins painted the Swimming Hole. There is a good deal connecting these paintings. Both present swimmers in full nudity, testing the prudery of the day (though in a context that was acceptable on the margins). Both have a frank eroticism which could easily have provoked scandal. But then there are also important differences, and among them the fact that Eakins painted men and Renoir women. There is also a sort of national sense of aesthetics. Renoir’s work is undeniably French, and Eakins’s is a masterwork of the American realist school. But Eakins work is more interesting to me. It’s carefully composed but it hopes to be a glimpse of an everyday outing to a favorite swimming hole. It’s drawn, like much of Eakins’s painting, from photographic masters (the specific photo on which it is based can be viewed here and at The Getty Museum). It’s popular today to talk about Eakins and his work (and this one more than others) as homoerotic. That may well be. But not necessarily. It follows an obsession that Eakins had with the human body and its movement throughout his life; nearly all of Eakins works are in some way a study of the body, and his most famous works, the two clinic paintings, are studies of studies of the human body. He aspires to show it gracefully and naturally. And he also aims to provoke. He detests the prudishness of the Victorian age; its obsession with tightly fitting and uncomfortable clothing and its sense of shame over the human body. “Eakins was a deep student of life, and with a great love he studied humanity frankly,” said his friend Robert Henri. “He was not afraid of what his study revealed to him.” His entire life was marked by controversy surrounding this point, and students who worked with him noted his preference for nudity—he posed for them and they posed for him. In this painting he presents himself in the right foreground in an almost voyeuristic pose. Eakins’s ideas about the human body find an interesting parallel in the poetry of Walt Whitman, and indeed, they may have been acquired from Whitman, at least to a degree. This attachment to Whitman survives from the records of Eakins’s students—they called themselves “the Whitmans.” Eakins admired Walt Whitman tremendously. He painted Whitman’s portrait and developed a rapport with the poet, and Whitman appreciated Eakins extraordinary vision–calling on him to speak at a testimonial dinner and then remembering that Eakins did his speaking through a medium other than words. Eakins was particularly taken by the Song of Myself. The painting The Swimming Hole seems unmistakably inspired by the passage quoted above from it, and Eakins himself, referring to it as one of “his Whitmans,” would support this reading. It’s a remarkable example of a poem realized in oil and canvas.

Listen to Antonin Dvo?ák’s Piano Trio No. 4 in E Minor, opus 90, the “Dumky,” performed by the Beaux Arts Trio. The word “Dumky” could be translated as “quick thoughts,” and each of the six movements can be seen as the musical articulation of a thought. This work, one of Dvo?ák’s most successful chamber pieces, was published in 1891, just as he began his tenure as a conservatory professor and director in New York.

Share
Single Page

More from Scott Horton:

Six Questions October 18, 2014, 8:00 pm

The APA Grapples with Its Torture Demons: Six Questions for Nathaniel Raymond

Nathaniel Raymond on CIA interrogation techniques.

No Comment, Six Questions June 4, 2014, 8:00 am

Uncovering the Cover Ups: Death Camp in Delta

Mark Denbeaux on the NCIS cover-up of three “suicides” at Guantánamo Bay Detention Camp

From the June 2014 issue

The Guantánamo “Suicides,” Revisited

A missing document suggests a possible CIA cover-up

Get access to 164 years of
Harper’s for only $39.99

United States Canada

CATEGORIES

THE CURRENT ISSUE

December 2014

Poison Apples

= Subscribers only.
Sign in here.
Subscribe here.

Growing Up

= Subscribers only.
Sign in here.
Subscribe here.

Gateway to Freedom

= Subscribers only.
Sign in here.
Subscribe here.

Guns and Poses

= Subscribers only.
Sign in here.
Subscribe here.

Christmas in Prison

= Subscribers only.
Sign in here.
Subscribe here.

view Table Content

FEATURED ON HARPERS.ORG

Article
Beeper World·

= Subscribers only.
Sign in here.
Subscribe here.

“The beeper, for a certain kind of Miami teenager in the Nineties, was an essential evolutionary adaptation.”
Photograph by Curran Hatleberg
Article
Hammer Island·

= Subscribers only.
Sign in here.
Subscribe here.

“The place could have sprung from someone’s jealous dream about white people.”
Photograph by Emily Stein
Article
Growing Up·

= Subscribers only.
Sign in here.
Subscribe here.

“The best coming-of-age stories have a hole in the middle. They pretend to be about knowledge, but they are usually about grasping, long after it could be of any use, one’s irretrievable ignorance.”
Photograph by Ben Pier
Article
Guns and Poses·

= Subscribers only.
Sign in here.
Subscribe here.

“‘It’s open shopping,’ he said. ‘A warehouse. The whole of Libya.’”
Map by Mike Reagan
Article
Christmas in Prison·

= Subscribers only.
Sign in here.
Subscribe here.

“Just so you motherfuckers know, I’ll be spending Christmas with my family, eating a good meal, and you’ll all be here, right where you belong.”
Photographer unknown. Artwork courtesy Alyse Emdur

Amount that President Obama has added to America’s “brand value” according to the Nation Brands Index:

$2,100,000,000,000

A study suggested that the health effects of exposure to nuclear radiation at Chernobyl were no worse than ill health resulting from smoking and normal urban air pollution.

A Utah woman named Cameo Crispi pleaded guilty to having drunkenly attempted to burn down her ex-boyfriend’s house by igniting bacon on his kitchen stove.

Subscribe to the Weekly Review newsletter. Don’t worry, we won’t sell your email address!

HARPER’S FINEST

In Praise of Idleness

By

I hope that after reading the following pages the leaders of the Y. M. C. A. will start a campaign to induce good young men to do nothing. If so, I shall not have lived in vain.

Subscribe Today