Walt Whitman's Different Lights

By Martin, Robert | History Today, April 1994 | Go to article overview

Walt Whitman's Different Lights


Martin, Robert, History Today


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. …

The rest of this article is only available to active members of Questia

Sign up now for a free, 1-day trial and receive full access to:

  • Questia's entire collection
  • Automatic bibliography creation
  • More helpful research tools like notes, citations, and highlights
  • Ad-free environment

Already a member? Log in now.

Notes for this article

Add a new note
If you are trying to select text to create highlights or citations, remember that you must now click or tap on the first word, and then click or tap on the last word.
One moment ...
Default project is now your active project.
Project items

Items saved from this article

This article has been saved
Highlights (0)
Some of your highlights are legacy items.

Highlights saved before July 30, 2012 will not be displayed on their respective source pages.

You can easily re-create the highlights by opening the book page or article, selecting the text, and clicking “Highlight.”

Citations (0)
Some of your citations are legacy items.

Any citation created before July 30, 2012 will labeled as a “Cited page.” New citations will be saved as cited passages, pages or articles.

We also added the ability to view new citations from your projects or the book or article where you created them.

Notes (0)
Bookmarks (0)

You have no saved items from this article

Project items include:
  • Saved book/article
  • Highlights
  • Quotes/citations
  • Notes
  • Bookmarks
Notes
Cite this article

Cited article

Style
Citations are available only to our active members.
Sign up now to cite pages or passages in MLA, APA and Chicago citation styles.

(Einhorn, 1992, p. 25)

(Einhorn 25)

1

1. Lois J. Einhorn, Abraham Lincoln, the Orator: Penetrating the Lincoln Legend (Westport, CT: Greenwood Press, 1992), 25, http://www.questia.com/read/27419298.

Cited article

Walt Whitman's Different Lights
Settings

Settings

Typeface
Text size Smaller Larger Reset View mode
Search within

Search within this article

Look up

Look up a word

  • Dictionary
  • Thesaurus
Please submit a word or phrase above.
Print this page

Print this page

Why can't I print more than one page at a time?

Full screen

matching results for page

Cited passage

Style
Citations are available only to our active members.
Sign up now to cite pages or passages in MLA, APA and Chicago citation styles.

"Portraying himself as an honest, ordinary person helped Lincoln identify with his audiences." (Einhorn, 1992, p. 25).

"Portraying himself as an honest, ordinary person helped Lincoln identify with his audiences." (Einhorn 25)

"Portraying himself as an honest, ordinary person helped Lincoln identify with his audiences."1

1. Lois J. Einhorn, Abraham Lincoln, the Orator: Penetrating the Lincoln Legend (Westport, CT: Greenwood Press, 1992), 25, http://www.questia.com/read/27419298.

Cited passage

Welcome to the new Questia Reader

The Questia Reader has been updated to provide you with an even better online reading experience.  It is now 100% Responsive, which means you can read our books and articles on any sized device you wish.  All of your favorite tools like notes, highlights, and citations are still here, but the way you select text has been updated to be easier to use, especially on touchscreen devices.  Here's how:

1. Click or tap the first word you want to select.
2. Click or tap the last word you want to select.

OK, got it!

Thanks for trying Questia!

Please continue trying out our research tools, but please note, full functionality is available only to our active members.

Your work will be lost once you leave this Web page.

For full access in an ad-free environment, sign up now for a FREE, 1-day trial.

Already a member? Log in now.