Academic journal article The Southern Literary Journal

Walt Whitman and the South

Academic journal article The Southern Literary Journal

Walt Whitman and the South

Article excerpt

On August 19, 1890, Walt Whitman wrote to John Addington Symonds that his "life, young manhood, mid-age, times South, & c: have all been jolly, bodily, and probably open to criticism." (1) To silence Symonds, who had been pressing him hard about the homoerotic implications of his poetry, Whitman added, as if in passing, that he had fathered six illegitimate children and even had "one living southern grandchild, fine boy, who writes to me occasionally." He goes on to say that "circumstances connected with their benefit and fortune have separated me from intimate relations." In conversations with his friends Horace Traubel, Richard Bucke, and John Burroughs, Whitman intimates that he has an heir--whether son or grandson is not clear--and that he has convinced the "young fellow" not to come and claim kinship because this heir stands to lose "a little fortune" if he does. (2) Whitman is not, himself, worried that his children might claim his estate: they are "of good family." (3) The story, then, covers its own tracks. It is a transparent fabrication designed to sidetrack speculation about his homoerotic impulses.

Beyond the obvious fact that Whitman uses the South because its geographical isolation does not lend itself to convenient checking by his friends, the story brings together in a neat package most of the elements of Whitman's view of the South: sex, passion, illegitimacy, and by implication--an implication his biographers were to pick up on--an autocratic family that keeps the young lovers' passion from being made legitimate.

The South perplexed Walt Whitman. He was drawn to it and repelled by it. He did not--could not--understand it, as he felt he understood the rest of the United States, and the failure was a rebuke to his pose of spokesman for and embodiment of the country as a whole. In 1863 he wrote, with evident perplexity, "We north dont understand some things about southerners, it is very strange--the contrast...." (4) By the 1880s, the tone of puzzlement had given way to out-and-out contradiction. He lavishly praised Southerners on some occasions and excoriated them on others, even veering radically between the two extremes in the course of a single conversation.

In his lecture "Death of Abraham Lincoln," which he delivered on the fourth of July in 1879, 1880, and 1881, Whitman goes out of his way and stretches a point to connect Lincoln to the South. The president's death, he says, "belongs" to the whole country:

   not the North only, but the South--perhaps belongs most tenderly and
   devoutly to the South, of all; for there, really, this man's birth-stock.
   There and thence his antecedent stamp. Why should I not say that thence his
   manliest traits--his universality--his canny, easy ways and words upon the
   surface--his inflexible determination and courage at heart? Have you never
   realized it, my friends, that Lincoln, though grafted on the West, is
   essentially, in personnel and character, a Southern contribution. (5)

Whitman makes a deliberate effort to disperse any lingering animosity toward the South, and he does it by stressing the Southern-ness of Lincoln, who was, to Whitman and many others, the living manifestation of the Union during the war. While addressing audiences in New York, Philadelphia, and Boston, he attempts to establish that strong, positive bonds exist between the regions--that the South has much to offer the country as a whole. The passage, then, is clearly meant to serve a healing function.

But seven years later, as Traubel records in With Walt Whitman in Camden, Whitman reveals quite another attitude. The "inflexible determination" that he praises in Lincoln can provoke anger when wed to a cause he disapproves of, and the "easy ways on the surface" can give way to haughtiness. With considerable heat, he complains to Traubel about the "infernalities" (Traubel, III, p. 545) perpetuated by Southerners:

   You know of Mosby's guerillas--men who would run a knife through the
   wounded, the aged, the children, without compunction . … 
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