- Playwright Dan Osterman tells the history of the writing of Dreambook.
- Dramaturg Brenna Nicely tells of Walt Whitman's time in New Orleans.
- Composer Nick Thorkelson writes about Nicodemus, minstels, and the musical origins of Dreambook.
1. Playwright Dan Osterman tells the history of the writing of Dreambook
I don’t remember being particularly interested in Whitman’s poetry in high school, although I was a great general reader. It was when a girlfriend let me down easy with a Hallmark card with a particularly appropriate Whitman quote in it that I was first grabbed by him. In 1975 or so, I happened to meet a New Jersey park ranger who oversaw the historic Whitman House in Camden where W. died in 1892 and got the tour. I remember going to a reading by Justin Kaplan from his biography of W. from around the same time. I was writing my own poetry then and reading further in U.S. and world literature and was always interested to find that many writers cited his work as formative for their own. I also remember going to his family tomb in Harleigh Cemetery on the Camden/Collingswood line and communing with the “sprouts that show there is really no death” on top of it.
Life goes on. In 1992 I dove into the sources and came up with a one-man play using W.’s old age in the Camden House as the setting and using quotes from his works to give a glimpse of his life. There is much to draw from. Essays and journals that were published as “Collect” and “Specimen Days.” His Civil War hospital diaries are well-known. The poetry itself. My wife and I were active with the Putnam, Connecticut, community theater, and an actor friend generously gave a staged reading of this piece, but I was not satisfied with my work and tossed out the manuscript. I knew then there was a bit more to this project of mine.
Soon after this I discovered Oscar Lion, an early 1900s wealthy New York ribbon manufacturer, who had indulged a craving for collecting anything related to Whitman. Upon his death in 1945, his hoard of publications and memorabilia became the comprehensive Oscar Lion of Walt Whitman at the New York Public Library. At about this time, I came across a Metropolitan Museum monograph by the African American folk-art collector Regenia Perry with a striking reproduction of a painting of a black man and a white man shaking hands on its cover, painted by a freeborn biracial man named Jules Lion circa 1845, who also happened to be the first practicing daguerreotypist in New Orleans and trained in Paris under Daguerre. I thought the names were an interesting coincidence.
Meanwhile, I was indulging a collecting habit of my own on W. and American life of the 1800s. Slang and regional colloquialisms, home-culture, the schisms and intrigues of politics, out of the way odds and ends all interested me and still do. When we moved to Boston in 1994, I started scouting the used bookstores and at one long-gone address near Porter Square came across an entire shelf of hard-to-find, W.-related books, which included a book of W. parodies from the 1930s, six W. biographies (one seems to be written every ten years or so), including one in French, and other delights.
Whitman spent three months in the spring of 1848 in New Orleans as the editor of a newspaper. Very little information has made it down to us moderns about W.’s time with the Daily Crescent, except for what little he had written himself. And what little had made it to the historical record was contradictory. W. was the editor; no, he was the pressman only; no, he wrote articles here and there. To top it off, there seems to be one glaring oversight by the biographers and historians: there was never any mention of William Walker and Walt Whitman in the same breath even though they shared or overlapped editorial duties that spring. The bylines for notices, stories, etc. were signed only with the initials W.W. if they were signed at all, leaving the historical record a little cloudy as to who was responsible for what. Surely an amateur sleuth such as I was not the only person to have ever dug this up? All this makes for great speculation, and yet unbelievably no Whitman biographer had ever bothered to untangle these loose knots. But wait, hold on, it wasn’t the Daily Crescent at all. It had begun life as the weekly Crescent when the W.’s were active, and after only a year of operation had gone by and after the W.’s moved on, after having presumably drove the paper into the ground, did the paper come into new ownership and evolved to become the Daily Crescent.
Now, William Walker is an interesting Napoleon sort of a fellow. He went on to become the Oliver North/Wild Bunch leader of mercenaries bent on creating new outlets for the slaveocracy that ran the economy of the South pre-Civil War. He had himself set up as the King of Nicaragua, where he eventually met his end. (In the Reagan era of military adventurism, Ed Harris played him as political theater.) What would life have been like for these two in the same news office? The politics alone boggle.
In the many first-hand sources of W.’s life told by contemporaries, one last anecdote must be mentioned, although it won’t complete the puzzle. In the Henry Bryan Binns biography of 1905, there are several notes as to children. One story recounts that toward the end of his life, a well-wisher was told by the housekeeper that he had just missed Whitman’s grandchild. The visitor said he would have liked to meet him, and Whitman flung back: “God forbid.
2. Dramaturg Brenna Nicely tells of Walt Whitman's time in New Orleans.
Three Months in a Populous City
Once I pass’d through a populous city, imprinting my brain, for future use, with its shows, architecture, customs, and traditions;
Yet now, of all that city, I remember only a woman I casually met there, who detain’d me for love of me. . .
—Walt Whitman, “Once I Pass’d Through a Populous City”
Walt Whitman’s affair with the South began in winter 1848. Unemployed, 28 years old, he met a Southerner between acts of a play. The main hired him to run clippings for the burgeoning New Orleans Daily Crescent. Whitman, with his teenage brother Jeff, hopped aboard trains, stages, and boats for the 1,300-mile journey from Brooklyn to New Orleans.
During his tenure in Louisiana, Whitman surely encountered another ambitious young man, 23-year-old William Walker, co-owner and editor of the Crescent. Although Whitman avoided talking politics while at the paper, Walker was prone to fighting duels and was just a few years from becoming a filibusterer, attempting to colonize Latin America and divide it into U.S. slave states. In 1857, Walker forced his way into the presidency of Nicaragua, only to be executed three years later after a British Navy commander handed him over to the Honduran government. Revered in the South as a pioneer, Walker made few friends in the North. Despite his high-profile personality, his relationship to Whitman remains a mystery.
The historical Jules Lion, one of the first daguerreotypists in New Orleans, was about 39 when Whitman’s boat pulled into port. Whitman likely encountered bohemian types similar to the portrayal of Jules in Dreambook. A fan of the live-modeling trend of tableaux vivants, Whitman frequented New Orleans exhibitions where nude or moderately draped men and women acted out scenes from the Bible or classical mythology.
As with much Whitman lore regarding his sexuality, suspicions about his affairs while in New Orleans are as plentiful as they are circumspect. One rumor is that he had an affair with a woman who bore him a son, although if there were an affair, the lover was just as likely to have been a man, as expressed in the poem from the period titled, “Once I Pass’d Through a Populous City.” That poem originally contained loving descriptions of a man. Later, the lover changed into a woman for the “Children of Adam” sequence of Leaves of Grass, which celebrates heterosexual love. Whitman, ready at any moment to please his reader and himself, was gender-fluid at least in personifying his love and affection.
Whitman spent only three months in New Orleans in 1848, yet Southern voices, characters, and landscapes echo through his work. Nearly a decade later, he writes, “The dialect [of the slaves] has the hints of a future theory of the modification of all words of the English language, for musical purposes, for a native grand opera in America.” The Southerner’s vital, spontaneous, and often violently antiauthoritarian way of speaking captured the ear and mind of Whitman, who soon began to write in the loose-fitting mix of slang and imagery that would later earn him recognition as a master of the American idiom.
Seven years after Dreambook takes place, Whitman published the first edition of Leaves of Grass.
3. Composer Nick Thorkelson writes about Nicodemus, minstels, and the musical origins of Dreambook.
His name was Epictetus (ἐπίκτητος) but we call him Epictitus because it sounds better when sung. The name is Greek for “gained” or “acquired.” A 2nd century Stoic philosopher in Rome and born a slave, a saying attributed to him—“Everything has two handles”)—inspired the song and sermon that open Act II.
It is said of Epictitus that he limped because when he was a child his master broke his leg for a minor infraction. Epictitus's response: don’t throw away your happiness getting upset about things you cannot control. "Practice from the start to say to every harsh impression, 'You are an impression, and not at all the thing you appear to be.' Then examine the impression and if it has to do with the things that are not up to us, be ready to reply, 'It is nothing to me.'"
The trope of the slave who bears oppression with equanimity was common in antebellum and wartime abolitionist culture. The most famous example is Uncle Tom’s Cabin, but in 1864 the abolitionist songwriter Henry Clay Work also made use of it in one of his most popular minstrel songs, “Wake Nicodemus.” It’s about an old man “of African birth” who dies in slavery but dreams he will awake when emancipation comes:
Nicodemus was never the sport of the lash though the bullets had oft crossed his path
There were none of his masters so bold or so rash as to face such a man in his wrath
But his great heart with kindness was filled to the brim, he obeyed who was born to command
And he longed for the morning which then was so dim, ’tis the morning which now is at hand
You may notice that I cribbed some bits for the song “Epictitus.” I was intrigued by the parallels between the actual and fictional figures.
Henry Clay Work presented his songs in minstrel shows, which were performed in my Connecticut home town into the 1950s, organized by the school superintendent! This only stopped as our town ceased to be lily-white, and the insult became impossible to ignore.
Minstrelsy was a white mimicking of black culture wrapped up in condescension, puritanism, and racism. It has been linked to everyone from “King of Jazz” Paul Whiteman to George Gershwin to Elvis Presley.
So here is Dreambook, something of a minstrel show because two white artists, Dan Osterman and myself, have put words into the mouths of black characters. I can only hope we have been as truthful and respectful as one can be while imagining other lives and other times.
As for stoicism, a little goes a long way; too much will turn you into a coward. Anna Lion begins by making the best of a bad situation, turning her dreams into dividends. Where does she go when that does not work out? In our play, slavery, racism, empire, and repression feel like the whole story, no one imagines that chattel slavery will be vanquished 15 years later. We leave Anna both deeply disappointed and deeply hopeful, just like so many of us today.