Whitman, Slavery, and the Emergence of Leaves of Grass

By Martin Klammer | Go to book overview

Introduction

On July 4, 1953, Langston Hughes published a column on Walt Whitman in the popular African American newspaper, the Chicago Defender. In the column, subtitled "Calls Whitman Negroes' First Great Poetic Friend, Lincoln of Letters", Hughes praised Whitman as the "greatest of American poets," one whom "Negroes should read and remember." Leaves of Grass, Hughes wrote, "contains the greatest poetic statements of the real meaning of democracy ever made on our shores." Hughes cited passages from Whitman's poetry that denounce slavery and proclaim the equality of all people; he asserted of a passage from the poem "Says" that "certainly there has been no clearer statement made on equality or civil or political rights than this statement"; and he noted the numerous references in Whitman's poetry "to Negroes, to Africa, to Asiatics and to darker peoples in general," all of whom includes within "the amplitude of his democracy and his humility."1

Two weeks later Hughes printed in its entirety a letter from Lorenzo D. Turner, a professor of English at Roosevelt College in Chicago, who disagreed with Hughes's praise of Whitman's racial attitudes. Turner wrote: "From a careful study of all Whitman's published works I am convinced that he was not a friend of the Negro, and had very few contacts with Negroes, and thought that they were inferior to other human beings." Turner quoted a number of passages, mostly drawn from Whitman's journalism, in which Whitman attacked abolitionists, proposed a colonization scheme for blacks, admired the South and pro- slavery Senator John C. Calhoun, and expressed his reluctance to endorse Northern interference with the institution of slavery. Turner concluded: " Leaves of Grass was Whitman's show-piece, and, unfortunately, is the only one of his works that the average readers see. But to

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1
Langston Hughes, "Calls Whitman Negroes' First Great Poetic Friend, Lincoln of Letters", Chicago Defender, 4 July 1953, 11.

-1-

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Whitman, Slavery, and the Emergence of Leaves of Grass
Table of contents

Table of contents

  • Title Page *
  • Contents *
  • Acknowledgments *
  • Introduction 1
  • 1 - The Construction of a Pro-Slavery Apology 7
  • 2 - The Failure of Borrowed Rhetoric 27
  • 3 - Emerson, New Orleans, and an Emerging Voice 45
  • 4 - The 1850 Compromise and an Early Poetics of Slavery 61
  • 5 - An Audience at Last 85
  • 6 - A Slave's Narrative 115
  • 7 - Speaking a New Word 141
  • Epilogue - "On the Extremest Verge" 159
  • Bibliography 165
  • Index 171
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