(Max Nordau published Degeneration—which is, interestingly, available as a available for free download as a PDF here— in 1892; the book was a precursor to some of the “decline of the West” rhetoric the Nazi party employed. Given that Nordau himself was Jewish, and a co-founder of the World Zionist Organization, that fact remains a particularly bitter irony. It’s also important to remember that the Nazis famously mounted an exhibition called “Entarte Kunst” which means “Degenerate Art.” This exhibition of modernist art aimed to show the extent to which the works shown, many of them by Jewish artists, “insult[ed] German feeling.” Here, Nordau turns his withering gaze on one of the greatest of American poets, Walt Whitman.)
“He was a vagabond, a reprobate, and his poems contain outbursts of erotomania so artlessly shameless that their parallel in literature could hardly be found with author’s name attached. For his fame he has to thank just those bestially sensual pieces which first drew him to the attention of all the pruriency of America. He is morally insane, and incapable of distinguishing between good and evil, virtue and crime.”
Max Nordau, Degeneration, 1895.
Excerpted from: Bernard, Andre, and Bill Henderson, eds. Pushcart’s Complete Rotten Reviews and Rejections. Wainscott, NY: Pushcart Press, 1998.