Walt Whitman and British Socialism: "The Love of Comrades"

By Robertson, Michael | Walt Whitman Quarterly Review, Summer 2016 | Go to article overview

Walt Whitman and British Socialism: "The Love of Comrades"


Robertson, Michael, Walt Whitman Quarterly Review


Kirsten Harris. Walt Whitman and British Socialism: "The Love of Comrades." New York: Routledge, 2016. ix + 219 pp.

In the late 1880s, when he began visiting Walt Whitman daily and writing up their conversations, Horace Traubel also commenced a campaign to make the poet confess that he was a socialist at heart. Patiently, the young radical would watch for an opportunity to make a political thrust; inevitably, the canny old man would parry. "Do you have any sympathy for . . . socialism?" Traubel asked bluntly at one point. "Lots of it-lots-lots," Whitman replied. "Too much is made of property, here, now, in our noisy, bragging civilization-too little of men." Traubel persisted: "But about their political program- how about that?" "Of that I'm not so sure," Whitman told him. "I rather rebel. I am with them in the result-that's about all I can say." Expressions of general sympathy for people over property were the most Traubel was able to extract from Whitman; the young man acknowledged that as far as Whitman was concerned, "individualism deservedly carries the day."

Despite his profound and frequently expressed skepticism about socialist political activity, for roughly two decades, beginning in the 1880s, Walt Whitman was revered among British socialists. One of the most interesting questions in the history of Whitman's international reception is how a Free Soil Democrat became a patron saint of British socialism. Kirsten Harris's Walt Whitman and British Socialism is the first book-length response to that question. Employing deep scholarship and flexible, sensitive interpretations of literary and political discourse, Harris makes an important contribution to transnational Whitman studies.

Harris's lengthy introduction serves as a valuable primer on late-nineteenth-century British socialism. Henry Pierson's tripartite division of the socialism of this period into Marxist, Fabian, and "ethical" strands, laid out in two influential books published in the 1970s, has dominated understanding of the period. Drawing on recent revisionist accounts, Harris rejects that neat division. She turns to Edward Carpenter's concept of the "larger socialism" as a useful way of understanding the diverse socialist movements of the era. Socialism overlapped not only with trade unions but with the women's rights movement and local cycling clubs; it drew in workers, artists, vegetarians, and spiritual seekers. Within the heady atmosphere of what socialist editor Robert Blatchford called the "new religion" of socialism, Whitman's politically vague but emotionally stirring appeals to fellowship made him particularly useful during this multi-faceted early phase. As Harris notes, "Able to accommodate overlapping and competing ideas, Whitman could speak powerfully to a movement . . . fiercely debating what it was and how it should develop" (8-9).

The book's first two chapters are on Edward Carpenter and the group of Whitmanites in Bolton, England, known as the Eagle Street College. Harris has dug deeply into the archives, and she offers novel perspectives on these now-familiar figures. Critical conceptions of the relationship of Carpenter's Towards Democracy to Leaves of Grass solidified almost from the moment of the first edition's publication in 1883, when Edward Aveling in an influential review proclaimed Carpenter to be the "English Walt Whitman." Aveling intended the label as a compliment, but a similar, widely publicized remark by Havelock Ellis was more critical: when a friend showed Towards Democracy to Ellis at a socialist political gathering in London, he handed it back with the dismissive comment, "Whitman and water." Ellis later recanted his hasty judgment, and many British socialists regarded Towards Democracy as a worthy companion-volume to Leaves of Grass.

By the time of Carpenter's death in 1929, his poetry had been largely forgotten. It was revived in the 1970s by critics interested in the history of homosexuality, Whitman scholars among them. …

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