Walt Whitman: He Was a Liberator of People and Culture, Using a Liberated Poetic Form. (Articles)

By Gambino, Richard | The Nation, July 21, 2003 | Go to article overview

Walt Whitman: He Was a Liberator of People and Culture, Using a Liberated Poetic Form. (Articles)


Gambino, Richard, The Nation


In 1848, 29-year-old Walt Whitman was for three months a reporter for the Daily Crescent in New Orleans, writing fluff pieces about local color and charm as seen through Yankee eyes. But he also saw darker spectacles there--streetside auctions of slaves--and six years later put his emotions into ironic verse.

   I help the auctioneer, the sloven does not half
   know his business...
   Have you ever loved the body of a woman?
   Have you ever loved the body of a man?
   Do you not see that these are exactly the same to all in all nations
   and times all over the earth?
   If any thing is sacred the human body is sacred.

When he returned to New York, he became the editor of the Brooklyn Daily Freeman, the nation's foremost voice of the Free Soil movement, whose motto was, "Free soil, free labor, free men!" He continued his advocacy of the movement, because of which, just before going to New Orleans, he had been fired as editor of the Brooklyn Daily Eagle. But intimacy with those in the movement had its effect. Whitman came to hate, on the one side, the abolitionists for their fanaticism, most of which went into infighting among themselves, and on the other, the hypocritical and corrupt men of the Democratic Party, all of them "born freedom sellers of the earth." He resigned from the Freeman, despondent. His faith rested in the sympathy of the human heart, which had failed.

   I have said that the soul is not more than the body,
   And I have said that the body is not more than the soul,
   And nothing, not God, is greater to one than one's self is,
   And whoever walks a furlong without sympathy walks to his
   own funeral drest in his shroud.

Whitman's faith in democracy flowed from the same source. It was not a faith resting on constitutionalism, legalisms, political science schemes, natural law or laws of history. It was rooted in a belief in the best of the human souls of ordinary citizens, often dismissed as his "mysticism." But when he was answering the challenge of whether the soul exists, his response did not depend on abstractions or esoterica but on the perceived experience of personal and historical growth. "No reasoning, no proof has establish'd it,/Undeniable growth has establish'd it." His faith in democracy rested on a distinctly American populism of pragmatic human experience. So in a twentieth century obsessed with ideological convictions that politics, and especially economics, determine human behavior and history, he was brushed aside as a quaint American naif whistling in the dark.

Another common error is to take Whitman's faith in free humanity as a bombastic pollyannaism, or softheaded narcissistic, mystical messianism. Yes, he tells us that as a boy he was electrified by hearing a sermon by Elias Hicks of the Quaker Church on Joralemon Street in Brooklyn. (Hicks's faith in the human spirit was so radical that even his fellow Quakers denounced him as a heretic.) Whitman was captured by the idea that "the fountain of all...truth...[is] namely in yourself and your inherent relations," and that in this, Hicks was "a brook of clear and cool and ever-healthy, ever-living water." But young Whitman, who'd been pulled out of school at age 11, developed his own pragmatic, experiential populism, so would not become a Quaker. "Logic and sermons never convince,/The damp of the night drives deeper into my soul." His mature populism was not of a Mary Sunshine kind.

Whitman's Democratic Vistas (1871) should be read by all Americans. It is a lengthy, scathing critique of American democracy's flaws at the time, and in ours--the flaws being the failings of its people and culture.

   I would alarm and caution...against the prevailing delusion that the
   establishment of free political institutions, and plentiful intellectual
   smartness, with general good order, physical plenty, industry &c.,
   (desirable and precious advantages as they all are,) do, of themselves,
   determine and yield to our experiment of democracy the fruitage of
   success. … 

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