Peter Riley’s Against Vocation: Whitman, Melville, Crane, and the Labors of American Poetry (New York: Oxford University Press, 2019) and Caroline Hellman’s Children of the Raven and the Whale: Visions and Revisions of American Literature (Charlottesville: University of Virginia Press, 2019)

Poetry comes from all directions: with Ferlinghetti, to and from Paris, Harold Norse from East Coast to West, from Brooklyn to Paris to San Francisco, recalling Whitman’s “Crossing Brooklyn Ferry.”

Cities are defined by their poets, traipsing from port to embarkation to shore leave, loitering, laboring, waiting, always wondering. “Under thy shadow by the piers I waited; Only in darkness is thy shadow clear,” wrote Hart Crane, recalling the men he came to know under the Brooklyn Bridge, near the Navy Yard, arriving there from parts unknown, perhaps meeting someone Jean Genet encountered:

“Loved by Querelle, I would be loved by all the sailors of France. My lover is a compendium of all their naïve virtues.”

            Like Crane, Genet sees the sailor as a universal subject, connecting his with countless other bodies and subjectivities. He could also be talking about a poem, or bodies electric, or a sweaty mix in between. Such sensibilities help us contend with notions of public space, migrations, ideas, memories and people moving through them, writing, living, observing and being observed. Ferlinghetti imagined a Coney Island of the Mind, thumbing his nose at the critics, writing, and managing a luminary bookstore. Writers wonder and work. It is not news. We all have our trades.  Keep your day job, I learned.  And that has made all the difference.

Enter Peter Riley’s Against Vocation: Whitman, Melville, Crane, and the Labors of American Poetryrecently published by Oxford UP (May 2019), a study of the works of Whitman, Melville and Crane. Excavating ephemera from their working lives, Riley considers the literary careers and day jobs of these authors: alongside literary production, Whitman fixed up houses in Brooklyn, Melville worked as a Customs inspector, Crane labored as a copywriter, and O’Hara put in time as a curator at the Museum of Modern Art. In their own ways, each resist tides, offering counternarratives to what was coming.  Excavating their labors, Riley seems to suggest their efforts represent a “‘rite of passage’ vocational logic that does so much to secure and reproduce the current neoliberal paradigm.”  Supporting his claim, Riley begins his study with an excavation of a piece of wallpaper in a house where Whitman worked, drafting poetry on the back. “The cheap manufactured wallpaper, with its finials and foliage, hits at bourgeois affection and trifling domestic preoccupation,” suggests Riley on the book’s first page. The wallpaper is a metaphor for both art and work. “What was the Walt Whitman of 1855 doing with a sample of wallpaper?” wonders Riley, beginning his work of historical criticism, focusing on writers’ day jobs. Ultimately, the author tells us that “Against Vocation historicizes, and presents an alternative account to, the exceptional poetic labor that underpins this kind of affirmatory thinking.”  The source of or explanation of this “affirmatory thinking” is anything but clear.

Writers write. Writers work. And? Still, two themes run throughout this study of poets and their labors: the specter of the working writer and the ever-present observer, combing through their unpublished drafts and papers looking for inconsistencies and meanings, scolding and judging them by today’s standards of race, mining their words. Living here in Brooklyn where people are defined by water and work, creative capital was (is) supported by day jobs painting houses, catering, and waiting tables, even if many of them (us) feel like Bartlebys and “would prefer not to.” Poets work, poetry is work; T.S. Eliot spent his days in a bank; Wallace Stevens as an insurance executive; Frank O’Hara at the MOMA (which now houses a permanent exhibit on him). These examples highlight movement of cultural capital as influences find their way from day jobs to the zeitgeist to the pen to paper.  Kafka made money at Assicurazioni Generali, an Italian insurance company and later as a clerk handling workers’ compensation insurance, each effort informing his understanding of the rules and structures, the iron cage of highly bureaucratic organizations, and by extension, a closed perspective on modernism. Without that experience, it is hard to imagine his writings taking on quite the same complexion.  

Robertson Davies made the point over and over again in The Other Half of Robertson Davies: “There are as many ways as there are writers,” suggests Davies. “I combine writing with other sorts of work…” His day job as a journalist kept him with words, drafting novels all day long as he edited away. “When I had spent the days doing this, I went home and worked, altogether work that filled eighteen volumes.” We labor and we write all day long, even if pen does not hit the paper for hours at a time. The two dynamics overlap. The thesis of Against Vocation is not novel; it feels bewildering and omits a few important sources, such as David S. Reynolds’s Beneath the American Renaissance: The Subversive Imagination in the Age of Emerson and Melville (Oxford University Press, 1988). A vital contribution to American literary studies, Reynoldspositsthat   many of our canonical writers were influenced from both high and low culture, perspectives that informed their support for social movements.  I’m not opposed to historical criticism. But words and methods matter. Sentences and questions matter, as does clarity.

In his own manner, Riley mines “The Working Day,” chapter ten of Capital (volume one) by Karl Marx, among the most compelling of the three volumes. “Whitman rewrites Marx’s monstrous, irrevocably compounded bodies as irrevocably concealed poetics that refuses the possibility of commodification’s immaculate conception,” argues Riley. Work and labor, writing and poetry move hand in hand. The contradictions of capital are many; Karl Marx and Walter Benjamin saw and wrote about them. Most of us, including academics, such as myself, or Riley whose book sells for $65.00 a book, are caught up in them.

At one of Stanley Aronowitz’s sessions on the Frankfurt School theorists last fall, I mentioned Against Vocation and some of my thoughts on the work. Read The Dialectical Biologist, replied Aronowitz, a text (Harvard UP, 1985) by Richard Lewontin and Richard Levins.   In it, Lewontin and Richard Levins argue “that a dialectical method was necessary to deal with complexity and change in the social and natural world. Medicine.. divorces itself from the social, and deals in simple linear, causal relationships between biological parts: A causes B and is cured by C. But health and illness are always in dialectical relationship with environment, society, culture and history.” So are writing and work. We all are all a part of this dynamic, laboring in a social environment that informs our contradictions and struggles. No one can escape this. Whitman contradicts himself.  This is part of what makes his writings on work, and democracy so compelling. Dialectical reason helps us come to grips with this movement back and forth, in constant flux.

“What’s Whitman’s contradiction? asks Stanley, referring to a queer sensibility he did not see when he read those Leaves of Grass when he was 14.

“Maybe I didn’t read it closely?” Aronowitz confesses, without looking at the essence, appearance, or “the living contradiction between” what Marcuse sees as “ the movement of things from that which they are not to that which they are.”  Ideas collide with shapes in time, poetry pointing us outside, to something more bountiful.

“If you want to be a secure person, do not take a secure job,” Aronowitz continues.

It is hard not to see these dialectical workings in Whitman’s poetry, regardless of whether he worked as a real estate developer or handy man or journalist, commenting on issues of his day as his thinking evolved. On and on Aronowitz goes, taking us on a detour away from Marcuse, through a discussion of Whitman, the limits of our thinking, back to the 19th century. Marx’s reach extends in countless directions, Aronowitz mumbles, his ideas landing with 19th century French writer Honoré de Balzac. He is said to have wanted to study La Comédie Humaine after completing Capital. Afterall posits Balzac: “Reading brings us unknown friends.” Marx had few but Engels. Marx’s exploration of Balzac’s writings on the everyday life of laborers and revolutionaries alike would not come to be. But imagine if it had?  Walter Benjamin’s readings of Baudelaire might have found warmer reception.

“All happiness depends on courage and work,” concedes Balzac. It is never simple or even possible to separate our labors from our creativity or the influences that form us. They are all part of the totality. Few of us completely conceptualize the whole. Instead we look at fragments. Marx loved Shakespeare stealing some of his best lines for his work. And Shakespeare, in hand, borrowed from Ovid. And on and so on. The secret roads between these texts are well worth traversing advises Harold Bloom in the Anxiety of Influence.  The point of criticism is to help navigate and illuminate some of these roads, with sentences that invite along.

For an enticing engagement of these travels, consider Gothic Queer Culture: Marginalized Communities and the Ghosts of Insidious Trauma, Laura Westengard’s investigation of ghosts embedded in queer theory, crypts in lesbian pulp fiction, monstrosity in AIDS poetry and art, and sadomasochism in queer performance (U Nebraska Press, 2019).  “The ghost is not simply a dead or a missing person, but a social figure, and investigating it can lead to that dense site where history and subjectivity make social life,” begins the epigraph by Avery Gordon on the first page of Westengard’s fascinating, sometimes eerie new work. This is a story about lost souls and trauma, trans icons and the ghosts navigating the often scary, haunted spaces in between the graveyards and shopping malls of our cities.

Another useful example is Caroline Chamberlin Hellman’s Children of the Raven and the Whale: Visions and Revisions of American Literature. “Nothing changes, through much be new-fashioned…” the work’s epigraph, from Melville in Mardi, and a Voyage Tither, 1849, reminds us. “In the books of the past we learn naught but of the present; in those of the present, the past. All Mardi’s history – beginning, middle and finis – was written out in capitals in the first page penned.”

The song remains the same. Literary inheritance “inform[s] how we read, write, and teach,” posits Hellman.   Place matters. To situate her study, Hellman acknowledges her subjectivity, locating herself as an academic at the City University in Downtown Brooklyn, the locale where Johnathan Lethem’s novel Motherless Brooklyn takes place, where Whitman and Crane, Hubert Shelby and Arthur Miller labored, making homes for themselves. “[L]iterary inheritance extends to geography, history, and intangible culture,” contends Hellman. “My teaching at New York City College of Technology within the City University of New York system has offered me unique opportunities to investigate seemingly incongruous texts within the same space and conversation,” writes Hellman.  “Our college’s annual literary arts festival which has featured writers such as Colson Whitehead, Junot Diaz… among others…influenced my syllabi and my thinking.” Over time, Hellman began folding these works into American literature surveys and developed courses that featured constellations or pairs of writers responding to the ideas of the earlier ones. Exploring these works with her students became an increasingly interactive process. “At an institution where it is common to have twenty nationalities in single classroom,” notes Hellman, “our conversations regarding American identity and experience, transnationalism and what constitutes immigrant fiction were especially rich.”  The result of these conversations is the Children of the Raven and the Whale.

Here, Hellman considers at the ways in which contemporary multi-ethnic writers of the United States have responded to nineteenth and early twentieth century texts historically central to the American literary canon. Each chapter looks to constellations of texts, Whitman and Lethem in chapter one, Coates and Baldwin, Melville, and Wright in chapter two, on and on, tracing influences, rewritings and layerings. Hellman’s pairings open up countless ways of reading and re reading both early and later texts.

Take chapter three “Short Happy Palimpsest,” which compares Junot Díaz’s Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wow and Hemingway’s story “The Short Happy Life of Francis Macomber.” Unearthing lines between Diaz’s Santo Domingo and Hemingway’s story of a safari in Africa, between the colonized, the colonizers, literary colonialism, dictatorship and evolving ideas of masculinity, Hellman reads Diaz and his ambivalent relationship with Hemingway. “In a dictatorship, only one person is allowed to speak,” notes Diaz, referring to Rafael Leónidas Trujillo Molina, Dominican strong man, who ruled the Dominican Republic from February 1930 until his assassination in May 1961. Often referred to as the Goat, Mario Varga Llosa wrote a novel about these years. The literary influences of the era are many.  Two of Trujillo’s offspring, Ramfis and Radhamés, for example, were named after characters in Aida, the Verdi opera.

In a democracy, we’re all allowed to speak, implies Diaz. Whitman’s genius is to show us how. In this way, Diaz is an heir, helping expand the notions of what the literature of our dwindling democracy can be, reminding us what can happen if we neglect it, while offering a grim foreshadowing.  The canon has long been occupied by white male authors posits Hellman. Contemporary ethnic American authors endeavor to reclaim this American space. Hemingway is an example of the occupier— and so Diaz invokes (and counters) his text quite consciously, in his redefinition of the territory of U. S. Literature. This is a story of contemporary writers forging ahead, into new, more complicated engagements in the spectrum of American experience. Revealing and reveling in the traces of texts once submerged, Hellman invites us to explore.

“The more one judges, the less one loves,” Balzac reminds. Throughout this review of Against Vocation and Children of the Raven and the Whale, we witness the former and the latter. With clarity and finesse, Hellman reminds us that the roads between the stories, the detours   matter; the sentences matter.


Benjamin Heim Shephard is the author of a number of books, most recently, Illuminations on Market Street, Sustainable Urbanism, and Brooklyn Tides, co-written with Mark Noonan. Email: [email protected].


Latest Issue

2024: Vol. 23, No. 1

Latest Issue

2024: Vol. 23, No. 1

By Rohini Hensman: Rolling Back the Global Advance of the Far Right

By Zillah Eisenstein: Why Democracy and Socialism Need Anti-Racist Socialist Feminism

By Denise Lynn: Claudia Jones and the Emancipatory Promise of Socialism

By Melissa Farley: Prostitution, the Sex Trade, and the COVID-19 Pandemic

By Ninotchka Rosca: The Dutertefly Effect and the Philippine Stub Universe

By Paola Cavalieri: On the Poverty of Philosophy or the Black Hole of Factory Farming

By Robert Lacey: The Filibuster and the Ghost of Calhoun

By Patrick D. Anderson: Christian Cotton and Robert Arp (editors), WikiLeaking: The Ethics of Secrecy and Exposure (Chicago: Open Court, 2019).

By Erik Grayson: Mary Dearborn, Ernest Hemingway: A Biography (New York: Knopf, 2018)

By Aidan J. Beatty: Daniel Finn, One Man’s Terrorist: A Political History of the IRA (New York: Verso: 2019)

By Warren Leming: Brett Anderson, Afternoons With the Blinds Drawn (New York: Little, Brown 2019)

By Iain Ferguson: The Unconscious in Social and Political Life, (London: Phoenix Publishing House 2019)

By Ben Shepard: Peter Riley’s Against Vocation: Whitman, Melville, Crane, and the Labors of American Poetry (New York: Oxford University Press, 2019) and Caroline Hellman’s Children of the Raven and the Whale: Visions and Revisions of American Literature (Charlottesville: University of Virginia Press, 2019)

By Michael Karadjis: Andy Heintz, Dissidents of the International Left: New Internationalist Publications, (Oxford, University Press, 2019)