Whitman, Slavery, and the Emergence of Leaves of Grass

By Martin Klammer | Go to book overview

Epilogue
"On the Extremest Verge"

As stunning as Whitman's representations of African Americans may be in Leaves of Grass, no less remarkable is his almost immediate retreat from these new and radical claims in the years following. For while the 1855 Leaves of Grass represents Whitman at the dramatic emergence of his commitment to writing sympathetically about African Americans, it marks as well a sort of endpoint--the pinnacle of his public concern for slaves and his representation of them as dignified human beings. Both his poetry and prose in the years immediately after the first edition make clear that just as suddenly as his writing about slavery rallied to the peculiar confluence of forces in 1854, it returned to a less idealistic rendering of his free soil concerns. The enigma of this reversal is not helped by Whitman himself, who, toward the end of his life, offered contradictory testimony as to the endurance of his anti-slavery views. "Well, when I was young I had an intense anti-slavery spirit, which was shown in my writings," Whitman told a newspaper reporter during a trip to Canada in 1880. "Since that time I have been down South, and found out that there was no more slavery there fifty years ago than there is to-day in the North."1 But Whitman also told Horace Traubel: "I have been anti-slavery always--was then, and am now; and to all other slaveries, too, black or white, mental or physical."2 Whitman's latter

____________________
1
Cyril Greenland and John Robert Colombo, Walt Whitman's Canada (Willowdale, Ontario: Hounslow Press, 1992), 15. The problem with Whitman's claim, however, is that his only real trip to the South--excluding an 1862 visit to his brother George on a Virginia battlefield--is his time in New Orleans ( 1848-49) before he had even developed an "intense anti-slavery spirit" from which to depart. Whitman's inconsistent statements about his anti-slavery views reflect not only the complexity of these views (and perhaps also the nature of memory) but also his tendency toward self-fashioning for different audiences in different contexts.
2
Traubel, With Walt Whitman in Camden, 3:76.

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