But what if your entire book is based on another one? What if a certain piece of information (in the cases of these books, a writer or a specific novel) is foundational to your text? How, then, should you proceed? Should you explain the referenced work so that those unfamiliar with it can enjoy your book? Or should you simply accept that some readers will fall behind and end up befuddled? It’s a tricky enterprise, and since there are as many ways to pay homage to earlier literature as there are ways to create new literature, I thought it would be useful to see how some contemporary writers approach this finicky issue.
If you’re a professor or mentor, it’s the time of year you should expect to be hit up for recommendation letters. You can find inspiration in Ralph Waldo Emerson’s recommendation letter for Walt Whitman, when the latter was seeking government employment despite his controversial poetry. “He is known to me as a man of strong original genius, combining, with marked eccentricities, great powers & valuable traits of character: a self-relying large-hearted man, much beloved by his friends.” Even if the government didn’t like Whitman’s work, we do; read our own Michael Bourne’s essay on the power of Whitman’s poetry.
He was a sassy youngster…[A]s to burning the epistle up or not—it never occurred to me to do anything at all: what the hell did I care whether he was pertinent or impertinent? he was fresh, breezy, Irish: that was the price paid for admission—and enough: he was welcome!
…Poe’s verses illustrate an intense faculty for technical and abstract beauty, with the rhyming art to excess, an incorrigible propensity toward nocturnal themes, a demoniac undertone behind every page—and, by final judgment, probably belong among the electric lights of imaginative literature, brilliant and dazzling…
I went to class, I wrote papers, I taught my sections of comp, but really I was adrift. Anyone who has felt this way for any length of time knows that “adrift” isn’t a metaphor but a description of a physical fact. I would wake up in the middle of the night with the queasy sense that the bed I was in, the tatty little bedroom around me, the ground it all sat upon seemed strangely insubstantial. Temporary. Not to be trusted. Other nights I had dreams in which I simply ceased to exist. There I was, sitting in my parents’ living room or standing at the head of my classroom at school, screaming and screaming, but no one saw me, and worse, no one seemed to be particularly put out that I wasn’t there. The world went on its merry way as if I had never existed. Dreams like those made jumping off the Golden Gate Bridge sickeningly attractive. The fall would kill me, yes, but at least then I would be actually dead, at least then I would be missed.
It was during this time of profound personal crisis that I first read the famous opening lines of Whitman’s “Song of Myself”:
I celebrate myself,
And what I assume you shall assume
For every atom belonging to me as good belongs to you.
I loafe and invite my soul,
I lean and loafe at my ease…observing a spear of summer grass.
I was doing a lot of leaning and loafing that year, but very little inviting of my soul. Like a lot of lost people, I assumed that my soul – “the other I am,” to use Whitman’s term for it – was the problem, and that inviting it too openly, too nakedly, would send me right over the side of the Golden Gate Bridge.
Excerpted from Michael Bourne's “Embracing The Other I Am; or, How Walt Whitman Saved My Life,” which has been nominated for the 3 Quarks Daily Literary Award.