Oscar Wilde, on his tour of America in 1882, made not one but two pilgrimages to Camden, N.J., to see Walt Whitman—whose poetry he claimed to have known “from the cradle.” Afterward, the Good Grey Poet told a reporter that Wilde was “genuine, honest, and manly.” He added, for emphasis, “He is so frank, and outspoken, and manly.” Wilde, in return, compared Whitman to Goethe and Schiller: “There is something so Greek and sane about his poetry; it is so universal, so comprehensive.”
This comical instance of brazen late-19th-century logrolling comes from Michael Robertson’s Worshipping Walt (Princeton, $27.95), which introduces us to a handful of the “hot little prophets” who made a cult of Whitman, and also reminds us of the religious purpose of his poetry—with Leaves of Grass as gospel.
Mr. Robertson’s gloss on the Camden quid pro quo is right on target: “Oscar gave Walt class; Walt gave him manliness.”
NICOLAS RASMUSSEN’S ON Speed (NYU, $29.95), a fascinating history of the use and abuse of amphetamines, is full of hair-raising detail: “The German military consumed 35 million methamphetamine tablets in April, May, and June 1940”—the blitzkrieg in a whole new light. Even more compelling than the historical perspective—which allows for visits to Harlem Jazz clubs, the haunts of Greenwich Village beatniks and Andy Warhol’s Factory—is Mr. Rasmussen’s withering survey of the current scene, with speed, in the form of Ritalin and Adderall, prescribed to millions of American children who have been diagnosed with Attention Deficit Disorder, and millions more using it recreationally. Add a dash of theorizing about the medicalization of social problems, and you have a book that is, well, addictive.
IT’S AS THOUGH all of Mike Davis’ nightmare scenarios for the destruction of Los Angeles (the quake, the fire, the flood) had been conflated and intensified and unleashed on a city far less deserving of cosmic retribution. We’re talking about Lisbon—famous for the piety of its citizenry and the ferocity of its Inquisition—on All Saints’ Day in 1755, at 9:30 in the morning, with the population dutifully gathered at prayer. First came the catastrophic earthquake, in three vicious installments; then the tidal waves (also three of them); then the fires. How many died? Somewhere between 15,000 and 60,000, depending on who you ask.
If you want the details, they’re laid out in good order in Nicholas Shrady’s The Last Day (Viking, $25.95). If you just want the moral of the story, skip straight to Voltaire, who pondered the calamity for several years before putting it to excellent use in Candide. His first reaction is recorded in a letter dated Nov. 24 (just 23 days after the quake):
“What a game of chance human life is! What will the preachers say—especially if the Palace of the Inquisition is left standing! I flatter myself that those reverend fathers, the Inquisitors, will have been crushed just like other people. That ought to teach men not to persecute men: for, while a few sanctimonious humbugs are burning a few fanatics, the earth opens and swallows up all alike.”