Allen Crawford is quick to show off his automaton. It’s a clockwork bird in a cage and, when wound up, sounds and moves as if it was a living breathing creature. It’s the star of a parlor full of strange and wonderful curios, a Victrola, a cocktail kit, skulls of various sizes and species. Crawford dismisses most of this decor, pointing out which plants are artificial and which artwork was rescued from the trash, but the automaton is introduced with a certain amount of pride and affection. It may be a fake bird, but it is a real fake bird.
Crawford, whose new illustrated adaptation of a famed Walt Whitman poem, Whitman Illuminated: Song of Myself comes out this month, is very concerned with authenticity. He seems more restless in the parlor with its Victorian bric-a-brac. “It’s kind of ridiculous having a room like this,” Crawford admits, surveying it. “It almost feels like a stage set.” In a way, it is. His parlor served as the backdrop for a series of web videos Crawford did for Hendrick’s Gin in the guise of his Lord Whimsy character.
Lord Breaulove Swells Whimsy was a proudly overdressed dandy who longed for the past’s sense of occasion to be more apparent in the present. Crawford inhabited Whimsy for years as a blogger and in his first book, The Affected Provincial’s Companion, Volume One, published in 2006. But Song of Myself has Crawford’s name, not Whimsy’s, on the cover. It is no accident that Crawford, in looking to distance himself from the artifice of Lord Whimsy, chose to delve into a work that is about self-discovery and authentic connection.
“That first book, that was an interesting ride,” Crawford says. “There was a performative aspect to it that I enjoyed because I’m a bit of a song and dance man anyway. But then people wanted me to be that all the time. Eventually what happens is you’re in a position where you are always disappointing people.”
In looking for a new creation that wouldn’t have the artifice of The Affected Provincial’s Companion, Crawford was inspired by Matt Kish’s Moby-Dick in Pictures. Crawford wanted to take a similar journey through a work of classical literature. The piece had to be of a size Crawford could handle, but still be hefty enough to be challenging. It had to have imagery that would inspire illustrations, but nothing so literal that the they would be redundant. On top of all of that, it would have to be popular enough to have some ìname recognitionî when published. Walt Whitman rose to the top of the short list of authors, and with Song of Myself, Crawford had his script to illuminate.
“I’m more of a William Carlos Williams guy,” Crawford says. “Wallace Stevens, John Berryman, that sort of thing. Those are my poets. But Whitman is kind of the ‘ur-poet’ in that regard. He’s the one that they’re drawing from.”
Crawford refers to his new book as a travelogue, a visual record of his journey through the poem. Viewing it as a landscape, an undiscovered country ripe for exploring, allowed Crawford to tackle Song of Myself as a dual narrative. There’s Whitman’s work, presented in its entirety. And surrounding it is Crawford’s red, blue and green dispatches from each moment of the text, speaking not only of the poet’s words but also of the illustrator’s frame of mind. The tone changes from spread to spread.
Crawford’s illustration’s are bold images drawn from nature, his experiences, and whatever influence moved him at the time. One particularly stunning spread involves an astronaut adrift in a sea of green while Whitman’s claims of being the poet of the soul float around him. The modern imagery fits the subject matter; Whitman was the first poet to use dinosaur imagery, the stunning scientific discovery of his time.
Crawford has no problem putting astronauts, old friends and the house he grew up in next to a 150-year-old poem. “You want continuity, not nostalgia,” he says. “You want to bring the past into the present. You don’t want to bring the present into the past. That’s nostalgia. I’m not interested in that. I want to make it new.”
Whitman Illuminated: Song of Myself is a book that relishes being a physical object. Crawford requested that publisher Tin House not make the book too large, so that it might be easily held and turned around on one’s lap. The heavy recycled-paper pages soak up Crawford’s rich ink lines, and the cover is rough and textured. It’s a book that begs to be picked up, and Crawford’s placement of Whitman’s words encourages the reader to spin it around once they’ve done so.
The book’s tangible quality speaks again to the subject of authenticity, the idea of getting something real, something of value. Whitman spoke of connection to the human race, and Crawford’s illustrations mirror that desire. Rather than the musings of a man who doesn’t exist, as with The Affected Provincial’s Companion, Crawford instead is inviting you on a very particular journey with him through another’s masterpiece. Indeed, it’s a trip worth taking.
Thurs., May 15, 6pm. Rosenbach Museum and Library, 2008-2010 Delancey Place. 215.732.1600. rosenbach.org