The Voice We Need Now: Whitman at 200

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Walt Whitman, born two hundred years ago on May 31, 1819, can be best characterized as a democratic thinker about the cosmos. He gave no priority to persons based on status or birth. Whitman’s poetry presents the possibilities of such democracy, using the familiar materials of his world, knowing full well that the ideal could easily be subverted by the behavior of those who bought and sold slaves and who bought and sold all the offices in the land, including that of the President.[1]

The corporate greed that sacrifices people and environment in the name of profits was relatively new in Whitman’s America, but is all too familiar in ours. The deformation of democratic ideals that keeps rich and poor segregated from one another has gone much further in our time. Whereas a wealthy person’s home might have had a fence around it in the mid 19th century, now we have entire gated communities that keep the haves in and the have-nots out – with residential segregation by class extending to entire Congressional districts. Whitman’s era knew prejudice and discrimination directed at newcomers, notably the Irish, who came to America to escape the hunger and famine in their homeland. Today’s emigrants from Central America are greeted with tear gas and a fence that delivers the message, “Keep Out!” even as we harbor some twelve million undocumented immigrants who are doing poorly paid jobs that many Americans find too degrading to take on.

In such a world—our world—Whitman’s democratic wisdom is as relevant today as when it was written. Whitman understood well that our democracy was for sale. We are still a democracy for sale, only the scale of the mischief that money can accomplish is far greater. The Supreme Court has ruled that money, equivalent to speech and protected by the First Amendment, cannot be regulated in politics. Using money without regard to truth, corporations have paid scientists to spread disinformation about climate change, so they can continue to plunder the earth for fossil fuels, regardless of the consequences to the rest of us. Corporate lobbyists effectively control the legislation that emerges from Congress, whether for health care, energy policy or financial regulation. The greed of those who make their exorbitant salaries and bonuses on Wall Street sends our economy into periodic tailspins, effecting hundreds of millions. Our wealthiest personalities, corporate CEOs and sports and entertainment celebrities, are remunerated for their talents beyond any sense of human worth. And amidst this obscene wealth, the gap between rich and poor in the U.S. is the greatest in the world and has more than doubled in the last fifty years.

In this America, we need a healthy dose of the countervailing idea expressed in our founding Declaration of Independence, what Whitman called our “organic compact” – that all humans are created equal. Just as President and lumberjack, man and woman, black, red or white, should be equals in a democratic universe, so too necessarily, soul and body, spirit and matter, death and life, God and humans. All things in the known universe and in the parts of it that remain unknown are equal. They all partake equally in the cosmos. They are all embodiments of a single reality -- the continuum of matter-spirit, body-soul, life-death, God-human, time-space -- which Whitman, following Emerson, chose to call “divine.” And if all who are conscious know that they partake of this single divine reality, then how can they let the greed of a few control their aspirations and shape their political and economic destiny. The success of Whitman’s poetry would be evident, he claimed, by the empowerment of those who read and understood him.

With union as his guiding metaphor, it is not surprising that sexuality plays a central role in Whitman’s thought. Ever the biologist, Whitman understands reproduction as the key to understanding the world: “Urge and urge and urge,/ Always the procreant urge of the world.” In dramatizing his eroticized relationship with the world around him, Whitman offers us a vision of what it means to be deeply attached to both human beings and to the non-human. Night, the seashore, the pond side, the bar room on Broadway—these are all places for Whitman’s manifesting this attachment. He generally used the word “amativeness” to signify procreative sexuality and “adhesiveness” to convey non-procreative sexuality, and both are equally important to him. His “Calamus” poems, introduced into Leaves of Grass in 1860, are the boldest homoerotic statements since Shakespeare’s sonnets, but they are subsumed, like everything else in Whitman, under the single vaulting idea of democratic union; the love of comrades was a key expression of Whitman’s inner truth as a man attracted to men and of his democratic idea. Since our culture has only recently begun to think about the equality of different sexual orientations, it behooves us to learn what we can from Whitman’s celebration of attraction as a force binding the universe together.


Whitman’s New Religion

Whitman’s wisdom was ripe for a new continent and a new age. Whitman’s thought was adopted and promoted by a circle of disciples who were seen in their own time as pioneers of the new, whether it was environmentalism (John Burroughs), democratic socialism (Edward Carpenter), homoerotic love (J.A. Symonds) or comparative mysticism (R. M. Bucke). Whitman did not cast his lot with radical reformers – abolitionists, women’s suffragists, temperance advocates -- because their polarizing and even dis-unionist rhetoric (in the case of the abolitionists), flew in the face of his project of democratic union. In this, too, he was consistently egalitarian in his thinking, laying the groundwork for a renewed and spiritualized American democracy and a new American religion of non-hierarchical spirituality.

Whitman boldly presented himself as the inaugurator of a new religion. Like his mentor Jefferson, he rejected the supernaturalism of biblical religion. Like his mentor Emerson, he found that the Christian religious framework did not go far enough – not Jesus alone, but all of us are sons and daughters of God.  Rejecting the superiority of the divine to the human and of the supernatural to the natural, Whitman’s religious claims were for one divine reality, rooted in the equality of spirit and matter, body and soul, the seen and the unseen. “Appearances, now or henceforth, indicate what you are/… You have waited, you always wait, you dumb, beautiful ministers,/ … You furnish your parts toward eternity,/  Great or small, you furnish your parts toward the soul.” Whitman’s soul-focused rhetoric never loses sight of materiality – his body, the slave’s body, my body and your body, the physical body of the place where he lived and where we would one day live, the appearances of things—which are the “dumb, beautiful ministers” of soul. His awareness of his soul led him to the conviction that our accumulated experience was too valuable not to continue in the life of the soul after death.

The discourse on religion that we hear today, whether of fundamentalists or atheists, does not ground us in a living reality, but rather in a dying one. The contest among the three Western monotheistic religions is little more than an echo of the ancient quarrel between Israelite monotheism and the pagan religions that surrounded it. And the fundamentalisms that appear to be thriving today are but the dying gasps of that ‘old-time religion.’ As our society has become increasingly secular over the last two hundred years, religions have tended to unravel into liberal and conservative strands. The liberal strand has tried to keep pace with secularism by demythologizing the sacred scriptures of the past without ever fully rejecting their sacredness. The conservative strand has grown ever more fundamentalist, seemingly as a reaction to secularism, but actually as the only expression possible on the small sliver of intellectual ground that secularism has allowed religions to stake out. Countering both these liberal and fundamentalist religious voices, we have an increasingly shrill group of atheist, materialist writers, who delight in rejecting all forms of belief, such as Whitman’s conviction that the soul was an ever- living reality.


Whitman as Companion, Thinker, Teacher

Whitman offers himself to us as both teacher and companion in our search for a new religion and a new politics. But putting democratic union into practice is not easy. Whitman understood that the always-uniting self would sometimes lose its balance. In ”Song of Myself,” the first and greatest of his poetic testaments, Whitman dramatizes two such crises of the self: one resulting from sensory overload and over-absorption in his senses, the other, from an over-identification with the world’s suffering, where he momentarily imagined himself as a Christ-figure, rather than as “one of an average unending procession.” In “As I Ebb’d with the Ocean of Life,” Whitman dramatizes the alienation of the man who feels separate from the poet who writes his democratic poems of union. While he understands these crises as putting his project momentarily at risk, in the larger design of his poems, they are but phases of the self that take their place in the ebb and flow of the universal tide of life.  They do not deter Whitman from pursuing his democratic program on our behalf, as he puts before us images of who we can be as individuals, as members of society and as equal parts of the cosmos.

As a thinker, Whitman consistently expanded the idea of democratic Union beyond politics. For him, democracy was also a physical, metaphysical and cosmic reality. He claimed not only the absolute equality of persons, but also the equality of all animate and inanimate things. That is why his poetry is preoccupied with images from biology, geology and astronomy. That is why he moves back and forth between politics, science and religion. That is why he developed the long, loping line and catalogue form, which incorporates ever more of the world into his poetic statement. When his poetry is most alive, he represents abstract political terms, such as freedom, equality and liberty, in images of the personal happiness, health and satisfaction that he felt in being alive. Similarly, he represents abstractions such as soul, spirit or God, in personal narratives of his embodied soul in the here and now, in his awareness of God’s hand as a partner with his own and in his spirit’s imagined future journey.

Whitman is one of the most original writers who has ever written, yet he understands that in being daring, he runs the risk of being thought merely outrageous and provocative. So each time that the pendulum of his teaching and literary style swings toward individuality and originality, he makes sure to lean in the opposite direction toward the style of the common and the universal. Whitman delights in teaching through paradox, as when he claims that his verse is both “riddle and the untying of the riddle.” Accordingly, Whitman writes in two seemingly opposite modes. One is riddling, hinting, indirect, metaphoric – what we normally think of as poetry. The other is direct, explanatory, didactic – what we normally think of as prose. “Song of Myself” offers many riddling passages, often followed by explanatory glosses that seek to present the plain meaning: “the riddling and the untying of the riddle.”


Writing in the Tradition of Wisdom Literature

The great biblical books of wisdom, Proverbs, Job and Ecclesiastes, share the ambition and style of presenting knowledge in a riddling, spiritual framework; so do the Gospels, which offer narratives to emulate and parables to interpret as pathways to wisdom. We find wisdom writing in the classic works of all philosophical and religious traditions: in Plato’s dialogues, in poems of the Sufi masters, Rumi and Hafiz, the Hindu epic, the Bhagavad Gita, or the practical lessons for living in the Tao te Ching. We find it in the naturalized religion of American transcendentalism, exemplified by Emerson and Thoreau.

Walt Whitman belongs in this company. He did not introduce himself to America as a poet like other poets, but as America’s teacher. The proof of his book would be in how his readers lived their lives. “This is what you shall do,” he told his first readers in introducing his Leaves of Grass:

“Love the earth and sun and the animals, despise riches, give alms to every one that asks, stand up for the stupid and crazy, devote your income and labor to others, hate tyrants, argue not concerning God, have patience and indulgence toward the people, take off your hat to nothing know or unknown or to any man or number of them, go freely with the powerful uneducated persons and with the young and with the mothers of families, read these leaves in the open air every season of every year of your life, re-examine all that you have been told at school or at church or in any book, dismiss whatever insults your own soul…[2]

No poet had ever spoken in this way to his readers, but sages and holy men did. Over time, a circle of disciples gathered around Whitman, who recognized in him a wise sage and inspired prophet. But he challenged his followers not to be slavish imitators: “He most honors my style who learns under it to destroy the teacher.”

As a teacher of wisdom, Whitman expounded the meaning of democratic Union, the all-encompassing idea of America, which he foresaw would one day be the all-encompassing idea of the world. In the 1850’s when he began to write, the American Union was threatened with dissolution by the battle over the expansion of slavery and state’s rights. Between 1855 and 1860, Whitman dramatized and defended the idea of union and showed its necessary triumph. It is not surprising that the poems in which he dramatized a crisis of confidence date to the eve of the Civil War, when it was clear that this great work was beyond his capacity as both man and poet. Whitman’s choice to become a nurse to those wounded in that war was a clear expression of his continuing need to be involved with healing his nation and binding its wounds.

If a poet-thinker like Whitman were writing (or making films or graphic novels) today, he or she would be motivating us toward an ever-greater sense of union. Like Whitman, he or she would be modeling how to reject selfishness and greed, how to put aside traditions that keep us separated from one another in narrow regional and religious camps, and how to unite physically, emotionally, intellectually and spiritually in defense of our shared, imperiled planetary home.


[1] See Whitman’s prose harangue of 1856, “The Eighteenth Presidency! Voice of Walt Whitman to Each Young Man in the Nation, North, South, East and West,” in Kaplan, ed. “The berths, the Presidency included, are bought, sold, electioneered for, prostituted and filled with prostitutes” (1309).

[2] Whitman: Poetry and Prose, ed. Justin Kaplan (New York: 1982), p. 11.

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