Walt Whitman's Different Lights

Article excerpt

In the long line of American radicals - celebrated in a book published this spring by Routledge - the figure of Wait Whitman stands tall as writer, poetic free spirit and a nineteenth-century prefigurer of the Beat generation. But as Robert Martin describes here in an extract from the book, the extent to which his philosophical and even sexual concerns challenged the temper of their times, has not been properly appreciated.

`I am as radical now as ever', Wait Whitman (1819-92) told his friend, the author Horace Traubel at the end of his life. A few months later he remarked to Traubel that 'there wouldn't be much wealth left in private hands - that is, if my say was final'. But Whitman's radicalism was individualistic; as he put it, he did not 'belong to any school'. In Whitman's earlier life he had been more willing to affirm party affiliations. In 1848 he had been a Brooklyn delegate to the Free-Soil convention, the anti-slavery coalition that split the Democrat Party, calling for unconditional backing for ex-President Martin Van Buren, and editing the new Free-Soil paper, The Freeman. He gave up the venture after the paper's office burned down, and after he had come to recognise the role of compromise in politics.

Whitman's radicalism had much in common with his age and his American roots. Radicals in America seem generally to have preferred the individual and the anarchistic to the collective and the socialist. Whitman might reject the idea of private property, but he cared too much about his sense of 'self' to be able to adapt to any political programme. Whitman's radical origins included the utopian movements that flourished in the American 1840s. He was a great admirer of Frances Wright, the British reformer (1795-1852), who had founded the Nashoba Community, an inter-racial utopia in West Tennessee, and collaborated with Robert Dale Owen on the New Harmony Gazette. Wright's talks on education, birth control, and the distribution of wealth, and her attacks on the church lie behind much of Whitman's poetry.

Another important formative influence on the young Whitman were the views of Quaker reformer, Elias Hicks. Hicks' transformation of American Quakerism brought it into line with a growing evangelism, replacing a strict code of unworldliness with an emphasis on the personal voice or 'inner light'. The appeal of Quakerism for Whitman was, as Newton Arvin put it, their 'spiritual independence and self-trust'.

The American 1848 was not a programme for political revolution, although it included a justification for resistance by individuals. It was instead a reaffirmation of American ideals of self-hood and individualism. Whitman imbibed these ideas above all from Ralph Waldo Emerson (1803-82), in essays such as 'Self-Reliance'. It was that joining of the celebration of the individual consciousness with the celebration of the young nation that appealed to Whitman, who saw himself as the national poet Emerson called for. Nevertheless, however much Whitman was a spiritual descendant of Emerson's, there were significant differences. Just as Whitman knew and admired the actual radicals and utopians of his day, and had himself participated in some of the moral/social crusades, such as the temperance movement, while Emerson remained aloof, so too Whitman saw himself as providing a place for the body that was strikingly absent, or derided, in Emerson's Platonism.

Whitman's vision was not merely a product of the Concord philosophers (the group including Margaret Fuller, Henry Thoreau and Nathaniel Hawthorne that settled with Emerson in Concord, Massachusetts) of his time, but even more of an American radical tradition, an antinomianism (opposition to the obligatory nature of moral law) perhaps derived from the early Puritans and their dissenters, and from the revolutionary voice of Thomas Paine. For Whitman, America's 'radical human rights' were in large part the work of Paine. They were also the product of his own childhood and young adulthood. …