“The Prairie-Grass Dividing,” the Beer

August 31, 2019

The second in a series of seven Walt Whitman beer reviews: “The Distillation Would Intoxicate Me Also”

There’s democracy in beer drinking, or so Americans like to believe. When the punditocracy asks — in its quadrennial act of voter pandering — “which presidential candidate would you rather have a beer with?” they imagine a pub as the public’s true home. They think we want leaders who’ll warm the same barstools, talk the same talk. But did Barack Obama’s “Beer Summit” actually earn him any points among his detractors? And do pints drunk during primaries translate to votes? I’m skeptical, but I would defer to Benjamin Franklin, whose “The Drinker’s Dictionary” (1737) — an alphabetized list of synonyms for drunkenness, 228 entries strong — continues to delight:

A

He is Addled, He’s casting up his Accounts, He’s Afflicted, He’s in his Airs.

 

B

He’s Biggy, Bewitch’d, Block and Block, Boozy, Bowz’d, Been at Barbadoes, Piss’d in the Brook, Drunk as a Wheel-Barrow, Burdock’d, Buskey, Buzzey, Has Stolen a Manchet out of the Brewer’s Basket, His Head is full of Bees, Has been in the Bibbing Plot, Has drank more than he has bled, He’s Bungey, As Drunk as a Beggar, He sees the Bears, He’s kiss’d black Betty, He’s had a Thump over the Head with Sampson’s Jawbone, He’d Bridgey.

Franklin’s essay is madcap, abecedarian poetry, it’s a tongue-in-cheek check on drunkenness, and it’s a sly commentary on democracy and drink. Franklin compiled it, or so he claims, “from the modern tavern-conversation of tipplers.” In this it resembles Leaves of Grass, which Walt Whitman filled with the found language of dock workers and carriage drivers. Drunkenness, Franklin implies, is a democratic language; it’s one we all speak.

Is this why beer seems like a Whitmanic beverage? Or is it beer’s association with the everyman? With conversations shared, over six-packs, as the sun sets? Whitman drank beer, as David Reynolds notes, for the company. “My own great pleasure at Pfaff’s,” Whitman said of the New York beer cellar and bohemian hangout, “was to look on — to see, talk little, absorb.” Beer was his prop. Let others feel “the Malt […] above the Water,” as Franklin described it (see W); Whitman is always above the Malt. This is the antithesis of, say, Charles Bukowski — a writer whose bottle seems like part and parcel to his work. Whitman used beer to observe a new segment of the demos. His bottle’s value is in the democratic entrée it provides.

But what of this new bottle from Bell’s Brewery? What does it provide us drinkers? In a word: deliciousness. “The Prairie-Grass Dividing” could very well become my favorite brew in the Leaves of Grass Series, a lineup that celebrates Whitman’s 200th birthday. It’s an offering — I’ll confess — that is tailor-made for my taste buds. I love Belgians beers, sours, farmhouse ales, and wild fermentations. At the time of its release, I was moaning my way through a flight of wild ales at de Garde Brewing, tasting the terroir of a dairy town (Tillamook!) on the Oregon Coast. I dig saisons. I’m game for goses. I even like fruit beers, the bashful kind, like slightly boozy sodas.

“The Prairie-Grass Dividing” is very much the latter, a plummy wonder, effervescent and lightly soured. Bell’s brews it with coriander and salt, but it was the stone fruit I noticed in both color — more peach than the pink they advertise — and flavor. Bell’s calls this a “gose-style ale,” but it drinks like a radler. It’s not too sweet, not cloying. With a modest ABV (4.5%), “The Prairie-Grass Dividing” is ready for your bike basket, beach walk, or lunch. I love to drink summery beers out of season, to feel their “special odor breathing” well into the fall. I’m thankful for this one’s six-month shelf-life. It might pair with a fruitcake. It might melt the snow.

What I wonder about, though, is the following: why this poem? “The Prairie-Grass Dividing” is, well, second-tier Whitman, a ten-liner from his “Calamus” section — those are the poems of male love and “adhesiveness” — that is centered in the Midwest.

The prairie-grass dividing, its special odor breathing,
I demand of it the spiritual corresponding,
Demand the most copious and close companionship of men,
Demand the blades to rise of words, acts, beings,
Those of the open atmosphere, coarse, sunlit, fresh, nutritious,
Those that go their own gait, erect, stepping with freedom and command, leading not following,
Those with a never-quell’d audacity, those with sweet and lusty flesh clear of taint,
Those that look carelessly in the faces of the Presidents and governors, as to say Who are you?
Those of earth-born passion, simple, never constrain’d, never obedient,
Those of inland America.

We have some grass, and it’s dividing. (Who walks it?) Our speaker demands the “close companionship of men” — that’s very “Calamus” — but how exactly do grass blades “rise of words”? I love the ultimatums, born of desire; I love the openly erotic call for men with “never-quell’d audacity” and “sweet and lusty flesh.” Are these the folks that part the prairie-grass, releasing its scent into the “open atmosphere”? Seems likely. Perhaps they arrive, like this beer, from “inland America.” Though isn’t Bell’s, which hails from Michigan, more Great Lakes than Great Plains? Do the beers and the boys both offer something “spiritual,” or just high spirits? This beer, like these men, is sweet (if not lusty), sunlit and fresh (if not quite nutritious).

I’m playing at nuances, but this beer’s raison d’être is right there under my pint-glass: democracy. Grass is Whitman’s great democratic image. It grows “among black folks as among white,” he writes, among “Kanuck, Tuckahoe, Congressman, Cuff” (“Song of Myself”). Prairie-grass is a regionalized variant of the same. It breeds folk who, uncowed by authority, are equal to their elected officials. These men “look carelessly” at the President. (Good on them. Our current one warrants nothing short of a scowl.) They fit with Whitman’s Midwestern hopes. “The main social, political, spine character of the States,” he writes in Democratic Vistas (1871), will “run along the Ohio, Missouri and Mississippi rivers.” The prairie states are “the theater of our great future.”

Every two years that seems, however perversely, to come true. The Senate gives undue power to the unpopulated Plains states. The Electoral College doubles down on the already undemocratic tendencies — see Voter ID laws; see gerrymandering — that plague our increasingly undemocratic elections. The “theater” of national politics, at the presidential level, is Midwestern, with Ohio (and Iowa, and Michigan) getting the final answer to a question we all ask: Mr. President, “Who are you?” Why does the Midwest so matter? Why do we let it? And what is the Midwest, metaphorically, to the U.S.?

The comic artist Chris Ware — he’s prairie-born, from Omaha, Nebraska — sums up the Midwest by way of its urban center, Chicago. “If New York is the brains of the country, and Los Angeles is its asshole, then Chicago is its heart” (Hillary Chute, Why Comics? 2017). And there you have it: Americans, for better or worse, listen to their hearts, or — a poor substitute — the heartland. This is surely a reason to drink. I’m thankful then that I can knock back a few bottles of “The Prairie-Grass Dividing.” Or turn the page on his poem. Or both. This beer is fruity and sweet and friendly—an aspirational Midwesterner. It won’t save the union, but it’s worth a roll in the hay.

Bell’s “The Prairie-Dividing” is currently available in bottles and on draught. Check the Kenyon Review Online for future reviews of Bell’s Brewery’s Leaves of Grass Series. You should also click over to the Massachusetts Review for Marsha Bryant’s smart piece on Bell’s first Whitman beer, the “Song of Myself” IPA. It’s called “Liquid Whitman.”