Before Walt Whitman was the Great American Poet he was a hack. In the decades before Leaves of Grass he worked at various newspapers in New York and New Orleans, learning the printing trade and writing yellow screeds in the style of the day, and in his early twenties he wrote a mediocre temperance novel, Franklin Evans, or The Inebriate: A Tale of the Times. There was little to suggest the greatness that was to come.
J. Aaron Sanders’s debut novel Speakers of the Dead imagines how Whitman’s transformation might have happened. Set in 1840s New York, the book looks in on the young writer as he works the beat as a reporter for the New York Aurora. Investigating a murder, Whitman uncovers a bodysnatching conspiracy that leads him into the highest echelons of the city’s power structure and through a tableau of characters that includes legendary politicians, newsmen, and a very drunk Edgar Allen Poe. Five years in the making, Sanders’s novel brings this fascinating time and place in American history to vivid life and spins a gripping and gruesome narrative of how a close encounter with death transformed a young man into a towering artist.
I interviewed Sanders via email over the course of several weeks as he prepared for the book’s release, and he offered a glimpse into his research and writing processes, shared the wisdom of sharing writing with students, and gave thanks for coffee and Radiohead.
The Rumpus: How did this book come to be? Did you wake up one day with an idea of writing a Walt Whitman mystery?
J. Aaron Sanders: It came to me while reading Justin Kaplan’s biography of Walt Whitman. In it, I happened upon the most amazing story: Whitman left home at age twelve to be a printer’s devil for a man named Samuel Clement. Being homesick, he looked to Clement as a father figure, and so he was shocked when Clement was arrested for digging up the corpse of the recently deceased Quaker prophet Elias Hicks. This story so affected Whitman that he wrote about it in the Brooklyn Daily Times in 1857, and perhaps reworked his adolescent, gruesome experience in the surreal poem “The Sleepers.” This story gave me grave robbing, which led to the resurrection men, which led to anatomical dissection, which led to Elizabeth Blackwell—all set in the gritty mid-19th century.
Rumpus: Who was Elizabeth Blackwell?
Sanders: She was the first woman doctor in the United States. Her admission to Geneva Medical College was a fluke: the headmaster thought her application was a joke. So, he opened the question of her admission to the other students. They voted to accept her and were flabbergasted when she showed up. She earned her degree, despite many obstacles, and I knew she had to be a character in my novel, because her story is so fascinating. Her interest in becoming a doctor came from watching a close friend die from a painful disease. She came to believe that women patients would benefit from a woman doctor. After graduating from Geneva in 1849, Blackwell moved to Paris to pursue her dream of becoming a surgeon. There, while treating an infant with ophthalmia neonatorum, she lost her sight in one eye when some of the contaminated solution squirted in her eye. Blackwell returned to New York City, where she opened her own clinic. Her sister, Emily, along with Marie Zakrzewska, both MDs, joined her in 1857 to help run her newly established New York Infirmary for Indigent Women and Children.
She never married, but in 1854 she adopted Kitty Barry, a little orphan girl from the great emigrant depot of Randall’s Island. She wrote in her journal that the decision was, in part, motivated by “utter loneliness.” I love this story because it humanizes her in a very specific way, and it also confirms that she dedicated her life to helping women and children (at home and at work). She transformed the medical profession, and she has been relatively unknown. I was thrilled to learn that this year her birthday was celebrated with the first National Women Physician Day. It’s about time!
Sanders: In grad school, my friend Ken Cormier and I had a radio show called The Lumberyard, which featured writers reading from their own work. The pitch was simple: a literary journal on the radio. At the end of most episodes we recorded my six-year-old son reading classic works of poetry—our own moment of Zen thing—and when he read “Youth, Day, Old Age, and Night” I understood Whitman differently.
Around the same time, I was asked to teach “Song of Myself,” and I had no idea what to do. Perhaps thanks to Dead Poets Society, I had an inkling that students needed to hear the poem so we divided up “Song of Myself” into sections and they memorized then recited these sections in their proper order in a group performance. The experience blew me away, and I was sold.
I still teach Whitman whenever I can. I’m teaching it in two courses right now, and I still have students memorize then recite passages of Leaves of Grass.
Rumpus: In the appendix you talk about how you imagine your story as a turning point for Whitman, when he began to evolve from being a hack to America’s great poet. That was based in part on a newspaper article of his that you’d come across, right?
Sanders: I don’t think it was a particular article of his, but yes, I got that idea from reading his old journalism, fiction, and poetry. I wanted to imagine a set of fictional events that somehow documents the transformation of the young Walt Whitman into the Walt Whitman, the American Poet. I wanted to capture his ambition, his physicality, his capacity for love, and to imagine a set of fictional events that might begin to explain his poetic ability to capture all of America in Leaves of Grass.
Rumpus: What was his journalism like?
Sanders: I think his journalism is quite good, and it really does teach us something about his evolution as a poet. For example, and now I’m talking about his work for the New Orleans Crescent, I think we can find the beginnings of his free-verse line in the journalism. Some of the passages, if you break the line at the em dashes and commas, really read like lines from Leaves of Grass. I guess what I’m saying is his journalism is where he really started to become the great American poet—more so than his poetry, which was formally derivative, and his fiction, which was less than brilliant.
Rumpus: Did you learn anything about Whitman that really surprised you?
Sanders: When I started the book I didn’t really understand Walt’s physicality. He was a strong, athletic man, and he did get into fights. This passage from Justin Kaplan’s biography really surprised me:
Once, when Walt was out in a boat fishing in a pond near the family farm at Babylon, a neighborhood boy, Benjamin Carman, provoked him by throwing stones in the water and rowing across his lines. Walt met him ashore and thrashed him with his pole. The boy’s father brought charges of assault, but they were dismissed, on the grounds the boy deserved worse, and according to [Walt’s brother] George, “Walt even gave the fellow a devil of a licking after the trial . . . He was a muscular young man at that time—very strong.” In later years Walt was seen to be kicking a politician down the stairs, manhandling a verger in a church, and grappling with a carpet-bag senator who insulted him; these demonstrations of explosive temper were memorable because they were infrequent and because he had been trying so hard to cultivate Quaker peaceableness (84).
I love this because it shows Walt could and did kick ass. There’s a scene early on in Speakers of the Dead when Walt confronts the coroner and lifts him by his collar, slamming him against the wall, then tossing him to the floor. It establishes him as a physical threat, and it dramatizes the tension between his temper and peaceableness, and the fact that there is real historical precedent for this is pretty cool.
Rumpus: One of the most interesting aspects of the book is how real 1840s New York feels. Tell us about your research process, how you gathered the details you used to bring to live this bygone time and place.
Sanders: I look for gaps in history, learn everything I can around them, and then create a story that fills them. In 1842 Walt Whitman published a temperance novel, Franklin Evans, and was working on a follow-up he never finished called The Madman. I wanted to explore why. Research taught me that this was around the time of the unsolved Mary Rogers murder, the rise of yellow journalism, body snatching for anatomical dissection, disease, immigration problems, and political corruption—a transformative time for New York City. For each of these narrative strands I used a corresponding historical character (Edgar Allan Poe, James Gordon Bennett, Samuel Clement, Elizabeth Blackwell, and Isaiah Rynders). I never felt the fictional elements intruding on the history, but I did have to bend history to bring all these narrative strands together. That’s what makes this book so fun.
Rumpus: You’ve told us about Blackwell and Clement, and of course we all know about Poe, but could you talk a little about Bennett and Rynders, for those who might not be familiar with them?
Sanders: Isaiah Rynders was a politician and a gangster. Before he arrived in New York he was a gambler and pistol-and-knife fighter on the Mississippi. He quickly rose in the Tammany ranks, and in 1843 he opened the Empire Club where he conducted business—both legal and otherwise. He could start and stop a mob, and he used his tremendous power to protect his own people. My impression of Rynders is that he was a man with principles who felt he had to play dirty to do the most good. He had an Irish mother and was sympathetic to the troubles faced by Irish immigrants. The more I worked on Speakers of the Dead, the more rounded he became as a character. I won’t give any spoilers here, but his motivation is to do good. He also understands that to help one person often means hurting another.
James Gordon Bennett is probably more familiar as a major newspaper figure. He started the New York Herald in 1835 and had a knack for making big stories even bigger: like the Helen Jewett murder in 1836. In 1841 he covered the Mary Rogers murder and helped organize a committee of safety that raised funds for a reward to be given to anyone who provided useful information in solving the Rogers case. It was Daniel Stashower’s The Beautiful Cigar Girl that gave me the idea to use Bennett as a character in Speakers who helps Walt Whitman.
Rumpus: What were your sources?
Sanders: I mentioned the Kaplan bio. I read as many Whitman bios as I could, and at different points in the process, they seemed vital. Jerome Loving, David Reynolds, Gary Schmidgall. One book, A Traffic of Dead Bodies by Michael Sappol, really helped me understand 19th-century New York from the medical point-of-view, and this opened up the Elizabeth Blackwell and women’s medical college subplot. Gangs of New York is a really fun book even though its reliability is in question. Stiff by Mary Roach.
Rumpus: What were some of the more interesting things you found? Anything you found that you weren’t able to use but wish you could have?
Sanders: I personally was most interested in the body snatching and anatomical dissection stuff, and even though I was able to use a lot of it for the book, I don’t feel like I quite got it all. It was a business that disproportionately affected the poor. The traffic of dead bodies was easily solvable but religion got in the way—create a legal way for doctors to acquire cadavers and it goes away. Doctors needed these bodies to move their research forward. Their research would lead to cures for horrible diseases. The whole situation sounds very contemporary.
Rumpus: Did you ever feel the research pulling you in other directions? Did you come across fascinating threads that might have lead you to a place far different from the one you wound up in for the book?
Sanders: I happened upon Elizabeth Blackwell when reading about medicine in the 19th century. I was amazed that more had not been written about her. I was so enamored with Blackwell that I developed a TV pilot with her as the main character called The Infirmary. Along with the brilliant writer, Robert Palm, we pitched the show in Hollywood but it was killed by the BBC show Copper and the Showtime show The Knick (I still haven’t been able to watch either of them).
Rumpus: How long were you working on Speakers of the Dead?
Sanders: All in all, the novel took five years. I had to stop a few times along the way while I wrote a dissertation, pitched the Blackwell TV pilot, and wrote another failed novel about the disappearance of Ambrose Bierce.
Rumpus: How many drafts?
Sanders: I honestly don’t know how many drafts I wrote of Speakers—thirty is probably in the ballpark. That probably sounds horrible. It feels horrible to say! But that’s what it took for me to get this thing done.
Rumpus: Were there times when you were discouraged?
Sanders: Writing a novel kicked my ass in ways I couldn’t possibly have imagined. Early on I had moments when I felt like I simply wasn’t a good enough writer to pull off Whitman’s character or the mystery plot. I felt like I was trying to play a piece of music I didn’t have the technique to play, and that if I kept practicing, I would be able to play it. I studied Arnuldur Indridason’s Jar City, and mapped out the structure scene by scene, and I remember that really helped me understand something about my own structure. I began taping sheets of paper together and making plot maps of my own structure so I could see it all (and take it with me). These plot maps were crucial. I loved taping the blank sheets of paper together and then filling them up with notes and plot and ideas. One really frustrating thing about writing a novel is that most days you’re simply in the middle of it, with no end in sight. These plot maps gave me a sense of completion as they became populated and sometimes I would hang them on my walls like a trophy.
Rumpus: How did you persevere?
Sanders: Radiohead and coffee.
Rumpus: In your acknowledgements you mention a lot of people who read early drafts of the book, several of them students. Tell me why you chose who chose.
Sanders: Well, it’s a quite a favor to ask someone to read a three-hundred-page manuscript, and most people who might do it for you simply do not feel comfortable telling you what they really think. Since I run fiction workshops at the university, I have the luxury of seeing students in action as they comment on their peers’ work. Many of them are excellent readers, and so I decided to ask one of my best readers to read my novel. I paid her, and she did an excellent job. So I asked another student. And another. Turns out, it’s a great way to get feedback, and because I pay them, I can give them deadlines. I even hired a former student, Tom Ingram, as my assistant. He’s smarter than I am, and he does amazing work, and he’s a terrific writer himself. The students I’ve worked with have been invaluable. I think we’ve built a kind of workshop trust already so they feel comfortable telling me exactly what they think—where they were confused or bored, etc.
What I didn’t realize when I first asked a student to read my book was that I had been grooming them for this sort of thing all along. Of course, this was never my intention—to have them read my work—I simply mean that I was training them to give feedback on fiction the way I think it’s most useful for their fellow writers. It just never dawned on me that I was also a fellow writer. I remember being very nervous to get feedback from the students because they can be quite harsh! But Molly McVey, the first student who read my book, had prepared a list of comments just as I had taught her to do. She went through them point by point, reading from the manuscript to illustrate her points, and even making some suggestions. I remember her telling me that one of my crucial plot points was not fully developed, and then she quoted me: “You forced your authorial intention onto what happens instead of allowing it to come up through the character. I just don’t believe it yet.” I was proud and surprised and later grateful.
Rumpus: Plume bought this with hopes that it would become a series. Are you at work on a second installment? Care to give a preview of what we might expect?
Sanders: I’ve nearly completed the second book in the series, which follows Whitman and his brother, Jeff, down to New Orleans where they become involved with an escaped slave, his vindictive master, and slave-trading pirates. I’m really excited about it. The third book is set in New York again where Walt teams up with Edgar Allan Poe one more time before Poe’s death. The third book is really dark, and I can’t wait to get working on it once book two is complete.