Olive Prouty, Religion, and Walt Whitman
An affinity for Walt Whitman. For mainstream religion, not so much.
For Prouty, old Walt's poetry shined like a beacon. Now, Voyager and her next novel, Home Port, derive their titles from Whitman's Leaves of Grass. The two writers each celebrate the human spirit and the democratic ideal of America. In this gem found in the Songs of Parting, Whitman describes the bells tolling the death of President Garfield, relating them to the pulse and heartbeat of a great nation:
THE SOBBING OF THE BELLS.
Midnight Sept 19-20, 1881
The sobbing of the bells, the sudden death-news everywhere,
The slumberers rouse, the rapport of the People,
(Full well they know that message in the darkness,
Full well return, respond within their breasts,
their brains, the sad reverberations,)
The passionate toll and clang — city to city, joining, sounding, passing,
Those heart-beats of a Nation in the night.
Prouty also celebrates America from this transcendent viewpoint. In White Fawn, Prouty has Fabia Vale musing about the State House and the United States. (Dell paperback edition, pp.313-14)
there floated across her field of vision, obliterating the names completely, a map of the United States. She saw the crooked hook of Cape Cod. Why did they ever call it an arm? Compared with the rest of the map, it was about the size of a newborn baby's little finger. Where it joined the hand there was a tiny speck of gold no bigger than a pin-prick—the State House Dome, directing, dictating, showing us the right way, Grandmother Vale had told her years ago.
Why should that tiny pin-point hold Dan and her prisoners? Why should they be robbed of independence of act and thought, and remain all their lives in bondage to the cliques and castes that crowded around the little hill on which it stood, when there existed all those miles and miles of broad, open, limitless space stretching westward—state after state, blue, green, lavender, corn-colored, running in an endless panorama, without barrier or interruption, clear to the Pacific Ocean? Oh, how she would love to step out into the waiting space with Dan!
As if her darkened field of vision was a screen in a moving-picture theater and she was looking on from the audience, she saw the map fade into a background, and against it, clearly outlined, appeared two figures—a man and a girl, Dan and herself, crossing the states together. They were hand in hand, trudging along over Ohio, Illinois, Iowa, Nebraska, Wyoming—stepping over the Rocky Mountains without any difficulty whatsoever, smiling and confident.
Whitman's brand of humanism was captured nicely in the eulogy delivered by Robert Ingersoll at Whitman's death in Camden:
I know he needs no words of mine. His fame is secure. He laid the foundations of it deep in the human heart and brain. He was, above all I have known, the poet of humanity, of sympathy. He was so great that he rose above the greatest that he met without arrogance, and so great that he stooped to the lowest without conscious condescension. He never claimed to be lower or greater than any of the sons of men.
He came into our generation a free, untrammeled spirit, with sympathy for all. His arm was beneath the form of the sick. He sympathized with the imprisoned and despised, and even on the brow of crime he was great enough to place the kiss of human sympathy.
One of the greatest lines in our literature is his, and the line is great enough to do honor to the greatest genius that has ever lived. He said, speaking of an outcast:
Not till the sun excludes you do I exclude you.
Prouty's views are in keeping with this kind of humanism. While Whitman seemed to focus on the Everyman and Prouty focused on the upper stratum of society, she objected to, and she has her sympathetic characters act against, the exclusive and snobbish attitudes that infused high society. Lisa Vale and her family embrace a central humanist ethic—they afford worth and dignity to all human beings. One of Lisa Vale's children, Murray, while attending an upper-class prep school in his senior year, befriends the only Jew in the school, Ike Weinstein, and brings him home for the Winter holidays. Ike sits with the family at dinner and they accept him on his own terms. Prouty’s inclusiveness made her special—she gave us an intimate and flavorful portrait of life in the top social stratum, but still favored an egalitarian humanist stance on life.
A humanist moral code appears in an episode in the first Vale novel, a chapter entitled "The Unknown Girl." Fabia Vale, going to regular meetings of a social club, sees a middle-class girl named Esther White who is ruthlessly snubbed by all. Seeing the unfairness of this, Fabia makes a point of befriending Esther and bringing her into conversations, and giving her a ride home. Finally Esther is accepted by the other girls.
A final example of these equality values is given by the character of the attending nurse in Now, Voyager. "Dora felt no more in awe of Lloyd (Charlotte's oldest brother) than of "Gramma" herself. The girl was utterly without respect, Lloyd said. But also without disrespect, all the family conceded. The family had never seen anyone quite like Dora before. She treated them as if they and she were on exactly the same level. It didn't seem to occur to Dora that there was any reason for her to feel inferior to anybody in the world."
Along with her social values, we may be able to divine Prouty's thoughts about religion through the attitudes shown by Charlotte Vale, Lisa Vale, June and Fabia. Religious beliefs played a small part in their overall world view. The few times any of them spoke of God, they showed uncertainty of his existence.
At right, her memoirs Pencil Shavings describe the time when Olive, in ninth grade, joined a main-line Christian church. As an adult, Prouty joined and regularly attended the local Unitarian church in Brookline, Mass., where she found a halfway point between doubt and religion.
All the girls in my Sunday School class were joining the church that fall. I was planning to do so too. But after the death of Mrs. Holbrook, I hesitated. 'I don't know what I believe,' I told my father. . .
Our minister had a talk with me in private. I was far too much in awe of Dr. Mears to ask any questions. He asked me only two that I remember—the first one was, why did I want to join the church? I replied, because other girls my age were joining it. He then asked me if I believed in Jesus Christ. I flushed at that, it seemed so intimate, and murmured, 'Yes, I guess so.'