The subject of Walt Whitman and politics has often been
considered, but the relationship between his shifting political loyalties, his maturation
as a poet, and the larger national picture has yet to be discussed in
detail. Scholars such as Newton Arvin and Betsy Erkkila have made
connections between Whitman's democratic poetics and the tradition of
Jeffersonian and Jacksonian republicanism. Still largely unexplained,
however, are the significant changes in Whitman's literary voice that
occurred in response to the shifting political climate of the 1847-55
Many of the things we commonly associate with Whitman's work--its air of defiance, it radical egalitarianism, its unabashed individualism, its almost jingoistic Americanism--had been absent from his apprentice writings and appeared only as social conditions worsened to the degree that he took on a self-appointed poetic rescue mission. "Of all nations," he wrote in 1855 preface to Leaves of Grass, "the United States...most need poets." When he wrote these anxious words the phrase "the United States" was virtually an oxymoron. Sectional animosities had flared up in 1850 with the congressional debates over slavery and then had exploded into full view in 1854 with the passage of the Kansas-Nebraska Act, which repealed the Missouri Compromise and opened up the western territories for slavery. The states, soon to be at war, were hardly united.
Nor were the parties. The early 1850s witnessed one of the most momentous phenomena in American political history: the collapse of the party system. The Whig party, weak for years, broke up in 1854 as a result of sectional over slavery, and Whitman's Democratic party became strife-ridden as well. The party crisis aroused Whitman's wrath against the kind of governmental authority figures he had once revered. The presidencies of Millard Fillmore, Franklin Pierce, and James Buchanan gradually eroded his confidence in the executive office. This period was a time of egregious presidential incompetency, mainly because of these leaders' soft-spined compromises on the slavery issue. Whitman, once a faithful party politician who had revered the presidential office, regarded the three presidencies before Lincoln as "our topmost warning and shame."
The 1850s was also a decade of unprecedented political corruption, a time of vote-buying, wire-pulling, graft, and patronage on all levels of state and national government. Class divisions were growing at an alarming rate.
The very social forces that drove Whitman to despair simultaneously opened up new vistas of self-empowerment. As authority figures collapsed, the individual self--sovereign, rich, complex--stood forth amidst the ruin of the parties. His growing disillusionment with authority figures sparked faith in common people and in the power of populist poetry. He had come to view American society as an ocean covered with the "scum" of politicians below which lay the pure, deep waters of common humanity.
To some extent, his vision corresponded with that of the new political movements of the fifites, particularly anarchism, Know Nothingism, and the emerging Republican party. But just as his vision of social collapse was almost uniquely grim, so his strategies for renewal were far more broad-ranging than those of any of the individual movements.
In the turmoil of the 1850s Whitman came to believe that America desperately needed a poet to hold together a society on the verge of unravelling. Poetry became his attempt to heal the nation.
Although Whitman had been involved in politics at least since he electioneered for Martin Van Buren in 1840, his concern for national events did not have notable poetic results until the 1846-48 period, when he was editing the Brooklyn Daily Eagle, the Democratic party organ of Kings County. Although only about a quarter of his Eagle articles were l, it was his political pieces that revealed his profound engagement with the developing national crisis.
Early in his editorship he was very much a Democratic loyalist who had full faith in the party's leaders and in the soundness of the two-party system. America's parties and elections washed away all impurities, he wrote, so that "true Democracy has within itself a perpetual spring of health and purity." He could express his party loyalty in unequivocal black-and-white terms: "[T]he struggles of those who have any faith in democracy at all, must be made in the frame and limits of our own party....As far as the Democrats of Brooklyn are concerned, they recognize but two great political divisions--themselves, and the men who are not themselves. These are all. Those who work not for us, work against us."
His devotion to the Democratic President James Polk showed his willingness to conform himself to the party hierarchy and structure. Polk, by acquiring huge new territories in the Southwest through financial dealings and war against Mexico, put into action the expansionist spirit of t destiny." Whitman called Polk "a truly noble Magistrate, without fear and without reproach--whose name will shine with quiet brightness for years to come, in our most honored democratic galaxy!" He placed Polk in the company of Andrew Jackson and Thomas Jefferson, and praised the presidential office itself as "this Great Office," "the most sublime on earth," at a "towering height above all other human stations."
There was, however, the nagging problem of slavery in the territories. Like other antebellum presidents, Polk waffled on the slavery issue. When in the summer of 1846 he asked Congress for $2 million to negotiate with Mexico, a Democratic congressman from Pennsylvania, David Wilmot, proposed that the bill be passed only with the proviso that slavery be excluded from all newly acquired territories. Polk denounced the Wilmot Proviso as mischievous and foolish.
Whitman, in contrast, came out strongly and early for the Wilmot Proviso in the Eagle. Although he maintained his support of Polk's expansionist policies, the President's opposition to the Wilmot Proviso troubled him. Whitman began to sour on the party that had nurtured him and to ponder the institution that would rip apart the parties and lead to war: slavery. Whitman was an antiextensionist: one opposed to the extension of slavery into the western territories. As was true with most antiextensionists, his main concern in 1847 was not the slaves themselves but rather the disruptions of American institutions posed by the South's apparent effort to put its own interests above those of the nation. Party conflict, he believed, was healthy and cleansing. Sectional conflict, by contrast, was not, since it upset the delicate balance between state and national interests.
Anything that threatened this balance was anathema to him. He vigorously denounced the opposing camps of proslavery Southern fireeaters and Northern abolitionists. Both, he insisted, threatened to rip apart the union. When the South Carolina senate proposed to establish an independent government should the Wilmot Proviso become law, he wrote angrily: "Of all follies, he nullification and withdrawing-from-the union folly of a few hotheads at the South, has always appeared to us among the greatest."
Abolitionism came under his constant attacks for similar reasons. It is sometimes forgotten today that abolitionism--the movement for the immediate emancipation of slaves--was actually unpopular in the North. Like most Northerners, Whitman could not accept abolitionists' proposed alternative to immediate emancipation: disunion, or the peaceful separation of the North and the South. He was not prepared to accept outbursts against the existing order, such as this one by William Lloyd Garrison:
Accursed be the AMERICAN UNION, as a stupendous republican imposture! [...] Accursed be it, as a libel on democracy, and a bold assault on ChristianityAccursed be it, stained as it is with human blood, and supported by human sacrifices! [...]Whitman was galled by such assaults on the American system. In an article titled "The Union, vs. Fanaticism" he blasted the abolitionists: "The effort to destroy our Constitution--the work of the wisest and purest statesmen ever assembled--and to dissolve the Union, is worthy only of a madman and a villain." Calling the abolitionists "a few red-hot fanatics," an "angry-voiced and silly set," he wrote: "The abominable fanaticism of the Abolitionists has aroused the other side of the feeling--and thus retarded the very consummation desired by the Abolitionist faction."
Fearing extremes, he began tentatively testing out statements that balanced opposite views, as though rhetorical juxtaposition would dissolve social tensions. He was confronted with what he saw as extremists on both ides. The greatest balancing agent, he was coming to believe, could be poetry--poetry that took both sides while at the same time releasing the steam of curses. He began what would become longterm strategy of his: resolving thorny political issues by linguistic fiat.
In a notebook dated 1847 there appeared his first truly "Whitmanesque" verses, beginning with the topic of slavery and moving on to curses:
I am the poet of slaves, and of the masters of slaves, [...] I go with the slaves of the earth equally with the masters And I will stand between the masters and the slaves, Entering into both, so that both shall understand me alike. I am a Curse: Sharper than serpent's eyes or wind of the ice-fields! O topple down Curse! topple more heavy than death! I am lurid with rage!
The first of these verses presents an "I" who, as a "poet," is able to "enter into" both slaves and their masters, identifying with both in such a way that the divisive slavery issue is imaginatively resolved. The second passage projects all the fire of those who curse (which for Whitman were usually ranting reformers) and funnels it through an "I" who, by becoming "a Curse," expresses a general rage without targeting specifically the American Union, as the extremists did.
Although Whitman steered a fairly moderate course on slavery in his Eagle editorials, his support of the Wilmot Proviso apparently got him into trouble with his conservative employer, William Van Anden, and by mid-January 1848 he had lost his job. In his three-month stint as writer for the New Orleans Daily Crescent, he steered clear of controversial political articles.
Upon his return North the political issues he had temporarily evaded in New Orleans suddenly impinged on his consciousness. It was an election year, and there was great turmoil in both the Democratic and Whig parties.
The Michigan senator Lewis Cass, a weak party hack opposed to the Wilmot Proviso, had been chosen as the Democratic presidential candidate, while the Whigs had chosen the slaveholder Zachary Taylor, the military hero with little political record. The prospect of either of these colorless compromisers assuming power was too much to bear for antiextensionists who wanted to keep the territories free of slavery. In June, shortly after Whitman's return, a huge rally of freesoilers was held in Manhattan's City Hall Park. Plans were laid out for a national antislavery convention to be held later that summer. The creation of a Free Soil Party was proposed. Its nominating convention was to open in Buffalo on August 9. Whitman was one of fifteen delegates from Brooklyn chosen to represent Kings County at the convention.
He participated in one of the most thrilling events of the era. The Buffalo Free Soil convention had all the intensity and excitement of a religious revival. For two days about twenty thousand people heard a dazzling array of speakers drive home their rallying points: "Free soil, free speech, free labor and free men!" and "No more slave states, no more slavery territory and no more compromises with slavery anywhere!"
At the Buffalo convention Whitman got to hear many of the leading antislavery orators of the day, including the African Americans Frederick Douglass, Charles Redmond, Henry Highland Garnet, Henry Bibb, and Samuel Ringgold Ward. The presence of Douglass and the other African Americans at the convention brings up the key question of race. Douglass left the convention dissatisfied because of the rights of blacks were not considered. Within a month of the convention he was berating the Free Soil group because of its neglect of the racial issue. His complaint was justified. The Free Soil agenda, as radical as it seemed to some, was in fact based on the racist presumption that whites must be preserved from association with blacks. The Buffalo platform stated that the western territories must be kept for "the hardy pioneers of our own land, and the oppressed and banished of other lands"--with no mention of blacks.
The whites-only plan reflected not only a fear of economic competition from slave labor but also racial prejudice. David Wilmot, the congressman who had sparked the freesoil movement, called his measure the "White Man's Proviso," declaring, "I would preserve for free white labor a fair country, a rich inheritance, where the sons of toil, of my own race and color, can live without the disgrace which association with Negro slavery brings upon free labor." Most leading freesoilers accepted this outlook.
Including Whitman. At this point in his career, he was in full accordance with the freesoil program, even to the extent of accepting its racial assumptions. The whole slavery issue, he had written in the Eagle, was "a question between the grand body of white workingmen, the millions of mechanics, farmers and operatives of our country, with their interests, on the one side--and the interests of the few thousand rich, 'polished,' and aristocratic owners of slaves at the south, on the other." "We call upon every mechanic [i.e., working man] of the north, east, and west," he continued, "to speak in a voice whose great reverberations shall tell to all quarters that the workingmen of the free United States, and their business, are not willing to be put on the level of negro slaves" (UPP, 1: 171, 172).
Whitman's views on race and slavery were in several ways like Lincoln's. Both criticized abolitionism, which they feared threatened the union. Both were more concerned about preventing the spread of slavery than about getting rid of it. Both expressed doubt that the races could be successfully integrated. In some respects, Lincoln was more conservative than Whitman. In 1848 he refused to join the Free Soil Party and campaigned instead for the Whig Zachary Taylor. On the other hand, Whitman's attitudes toward race did not progress as far as Lincoln's over time. A combination of overwhelming national events and a deep-seated hatred of slavery would eventually impel Lincoln to take a quite radical stance after the second year of the Civil War.
Whitman followed a kind of arc around center in his racial attitudes, starting fairly conservative, then becoming quite progressive (it was in this middle phase that the broadly democratic first edition of Leaves of Grass appeared), and finally settling into a deepened conservatism during and after the Civil War. One can only guess what his racial opinions were in childhood, although the vibrant presence of African Americans in Brooklyn in the 1820s and his long-remembered friendship with an ex-slave named Mose suggests an openness to African American culture. The rise of abolitionism in the 1830s seems to have pushed him, like others, to a fearful conservatism.
By the time Whitman wrote Franklin Evans (1842) he had imbibed certain pro-Southern attitudes. He had his hero learn from a Virginia planter that slaves are "well taken care of--with shelter and food, and every necessary means of comfort" and that "they would be far more unhappy, if possessed of freedom," a hundred times less happy than poor whites in Europe.
The rise of the antiextensionism, culminating in the Buffalo Free Soil convention, pushed him in a more radical direction. A month after the convention he founded a newspaper, the Brooklyn Freeman, that championed the freesoil cause. "Free Soilers! Radicals! Liberty Men!," he exhorted his readers. "All whose throats are not tough enough to swallow Taylor or Cass! Come up and subscribe for the Daily Freeman!" "Our doctrine is the doctrine laid down in the Buffalo convention," he announced. He warned readers against voting for any candidate who would add to the Union "a single inch of slave land, whether in the form of state or territory," and he strongly endorsed the Free Soil slate of Van Buren and Adams. But he pointed out that the large majority of Southerners were decent. It was the small fraction of rich plantation owners who had to be fought tooth-and-nail to prevent them from spreading slavery to the territories.
Neither the paper nor the Free Soil party, however, had a happy fate. Shortly after the first edition was published, a disastrous fire destroyed the Freeman office at 110 Orange Street and much of downtown Brooklyn as well. By the time Whitman resumed publication in November, the Free Soil ticket had been roundly defeated in the presidential election. Zachary Taylor was swept into office. Whitman continued to edit his paper until the following September, when, to his dismay, it was taken over by Hunker Democrats. Free Soil enthusiasm was fizzling. Economic necessity and the dampening of the antislavery cause made him turn his attention elsewhere.
He was jarred back into political action in early 1850 by events on the national scene. The acquisition of 850,000 square miles of western land and the population explosion in California in the wake of the gold rush made the issue of slavery in the territories a tense one once more. A seeming solution to the problem appeared in the compromise measures forged by the Whig senators Henry Clay and Daniel Webster. According to the compromise, California would be admitted to the Union a free state, but there would be no legal restrictions on slavery in Utah and New Mexico. To satisfy the South, a stringent fugitive slave law would be enforced by which recaptured slaves would not be allowed jury trial and those who aided them would be subject to a $1,000 fine or six months in jail.
Whitman saw that the compromise threatened the political health of the American republic. Conflict over principles between opposing parties, he had long believed, was essential to the nation's health. But now principles and party differences were being tossed into a gray middle ground of compromise. He was prophetic. The Second Party System, which had emerged the year of his birth and had nurtured him, was on the verge of extinction.
Whitman tried to stir things up. He published four poems between March and June that represented a whole new tone and style for him. These were angry, agitated poems, erupting with rebellious ideas and occasionally straining beyond normal rhythms toward free verse.
The first poem, "Dough-Face Song," showed that his main concern about the slavery issue was that the tepid atmosphere of compromise was snuffing out all sense of principle among party leaders. Adopting the popular epithet "doughface," referring to malleable Northerners who were like dough in the hands of Southern slaveowners, he wrote sarcastically: "We are all docile dough-faces,/They knead us with the fist,/They, the dashing southern lords,/We labor as they list" (EPF, 44). Evasion and moral flabbiness, he pointed out, could very well destroy the parties and possibly even the nation.
His animus was less against the South than against Northerners like DanielWebster who seemed to be betraying their past principles. Webster had once been an ardent critic of slavery and supporter of the Wilmot Proviso but was now making conciliatory gestures to the South. His momentous speech before the Senate on March 7, 1850 brought the wrath of antislavery Northerners down upon him. His support of a harsh fugitive slave law drove Whitman, like others, to a white fury. On March 22 there appeared in the New York Tribune Whitman's poem "Blood-Money," which compared supporters of the new law to Jesus's betrayer Judas Iscariot. He kept up the attack on the compromisers in "Wounded in the House of Friends," published in the Tribune on June 14. Southern slaveowners, he declared, were far more admirable than Northern doughfaces, whom he branded as "crawlers, lice of humanity-- [...]/
Muck-worms, creeping flat to the ground,/ A dollar dearer to them than Christ's blessing" (EPF, 37).
Whitman was hardly alone in his use of poetry to express outrage over the compromise. Whittier and Longfellow, for example, wrote poems denouncing the apostate Webster. But their poems protesting the compromise were restrained and conventional in their imagery. Whitman's poems, in contrast, were blackly humorous, darkly ironic. Unlike the other poets, Whitman was beginning to absorb the wildly subversive political rhetoric that had been used by American reformers during the 1840s. Mikhail Bakhtin has suggested that truly indigenous, national forms of writing are produced by authors who absorb what Bakhtin calls skaz, a rough translation of which is "current idiom" or "national voice." Whitman would develop a similar theory. Later dedicating himself to producing what he called "the idiomatic book of my land," he would write in 1856: "Great writers penetrate the idioms of their races, and use them with simplicity and power. The masters are they who embody the rude materials of the people and give them the best forms for the place and time."
As I show in Beneath the American Renaissance, one such popular idiom in mid-nineteenth-century America was a subversive style that combined Gothic images and fiercely antiauthoritarian rhetoric. This rhetoric had appeared in various genres during the turbulent 1840s: in the working-class speeches and editorials of Mike Walsh and other Tammany "slang-whangers"; in some of William Lloyd Garrison's speeches and writings; in the novels of George Lippard and George Thompson, who furiously excoriated America's ruling class. Lippard's The Quaker City (1845), America's best-selling novel previous to Uncle Tom's Cabin, was the quintessential example of the subversive style. Lippard portrayed elite types--bankers, lawyers, clergymen, editors--engaged in all kinds of debauchery and exploitative practices. More important than the details of the labyrinthine plot of The Quaker City was its style, which combined black humor, fierce egalitarianism, and sheer sensationalism.
It was this bizarre combination of stylistic features that characterized Whitman's political poems of the 1850s as well as many of the political moments of his major poetry and his prose writings like "The Eighteenth Presidency!" and Democratic Vistas. The connection between Whitman and Lippard has not been previously made. It has not been remarked, for instance, that Lippard was one of the few popular American writers mentioned in Whitman's voluminous notebooks. In 1860, when he was a regular at Pfaff's restaurant, he discussed Lippard with the Philadelphia writer Charles D. Gardette, to whom he had sent a copy of the 1860 Leaves of Grass. Had Whitman's interest in Lippard been longstanding? Had he known Lippard's works in the 1840s?
There are strong indications he had. There was a close parallel between Lippard's indictment of capital punishment in The Quaker City and three Whitman articles published shortly after the novel appeared. Astounded by the incongruity of Christian ministers endorsing death by hanging, Lippard sprinkled ironic commentary about the cruel "gibbet" throughout his novel and devoted long sections to his blackly humorous protagonist Devil-Bug, who cheers savagely at the sight of a gallows: "Hurrah! The gallows is livin' yet! Hurrah!" Whitman picked up Lippard's ironic wording in his 1846 Eagle pieces "Hurrah for Hanging!" and "Hurrah for Choking Human Lives!" (UPP, 1: 97, 116). In an 1845 Democratic Review article, "A Dialogue," he made the Lipppardian comment that every time he passed a church he saw a gallows frame and heard the words "Strangle and kill in the name of God!" (UPP, 1: 103). Several of Whitman's scribblings in his early notebooks also bear the impress of Lippard. The outlandish scene at the heart of The Quaker City in which Devil-Bug has a nightmarish vision of a skeleton-filled coffin propelled on the Schuykill River seems to be echoed in Whitman's equally strange jotting: "A coffin swimming buoyantly on the swift current of the river."
By using in "Dough-Face Song" and "House of Friends" dark political irony and words like "lice, "crawlers," and "muck-worms," Whitman was ushering the idiom of Lippard and other working-class reformers into poetry.
His most intense experiment in the Lippardian vein was "Resurgemus," the last poem of the 1850 group and only one of two pre-1855 poems--the other was the equally Lippardian "A Boston Ballad (1854)--absorbed into Leaves of Grass. The poem registers both excitement and frustration surrounding the European revolutions of 1848, which had led temporarily to the toppling of several authoritarian governments but which had subsequently been reversed. Whitman's message is that the revolutions may have been put down for the time being, but the spirit of revolt was very much alive in the heart of the people, who some day would rise up in anger again. Critics have tried to locate sources for the Gothicized images of "Resurgemus," some pointing to Poe. But Poe was no revolutionary, and he avoided political commentary in his writings. A more likely source was Poe's radical friend Lippard. Just as Lippard had often portrayed workers as "slaves" victimized by lying, cheating upper-class figures, Whitman indicted social rulers as "liars" who have been inflicting "numberless agonies, murders, lusts" on the people and have been "Worming from his simplicity the poor man's wages" (CP, 133). Just as Lippard had imagined an apocalyptic time when the shapes of the murdered oppressed classes would rise in an eerie, vindictive procession behind the upper classes, so Whitman describes ruling-class exploiters and warns:
Yet behind all, lo, a Shape, Vague as the night, draped interminably, head front and form in scarlet folds, Whose face and eyes none may see, Out of its robes only this, the red robes, lifted by the arm, One finger pointed high over the top, like the head of a snake appears. Unlike Lippard, however, Whitman moves beyond Gothicized protest to a positive, hopeful image of restoration. Not a grave of the murdered for freedom but grows seed for freedom, in its turn to bear seed, Which the winds carry afar and re-sow, and the rains and the snows nourish. (CP, 134)
In "Resurgemus" Whitman is using the popular subversive style but also moving toward the kind of affirmation that would characterize his major poetry. Formerly a loyal Democrat writing straightforward journalese, he had been driven by national and world events to a cynical view of society expressed in a rebellious style. In his image of the seeds of freedom being carried by the winds and nourished by the rains, he was beginning to forge a humanistic, artistic reconstruction on the ruins of his shattered political beliefs. And for the first time in print, he was using a form that approximated free verse. The seeds of Leaves of Grass were sown in the political crisis of 1850.
As the crisis deepened, Whitman temporarily backed off from poetic protest. The death of Zachary Taylor of typhoid fever on July 9, 1850 and the accession to the presidency of Millard Fillmore crushed the hopes of former freesoilers like Whitman. Fillmore shepherded the various measures of the omnibus bill through Congress. The official enactment of the compromise virtually killed off the Free Soil party. The fate of the western territories seemed sealed by law. For the time being, Whitman surrendered political activism.
In the presidential election of 1852 he was drawn inevitably back into freesoil politics, which made a dramatic resurgence because of growing sentiment against the fugitive slave law. In the campaign of 1852, the Democrats chose a dark horse, Franklin Pierce, an amiable but shallow man of uncertain opinions on slavery. Freesoilers feared that, if elected, he would give into proslavery forces--a prediction that proved accurate. His opponent, the pompous, aging General Winfield Scott, was also equivocal on slavery. Given this unsavory choice of candidates, freesoilers reorganized as the Free Democratic party. At their convention in Pittsburgh, the New Hampshire senator John P. Hale was seriously considered as the Free Democratic presidential candidate. Hale was reluctant to accept the nomination, since the chances for victory in November seemed slim. In his moment of indecision he received a letter from "Walter Whitman" of Brooklyn urging him to accept the nomination.
Whitman's letter to Hale is an important transitional document revealing his growing disgust with the established parties and his turn toward humanistic alternatives to the party system. His mentality was still, at this point, within the framework of the political process, for he expressed hope that under Hale "a real live Democratic party" would arise, "a renewed and vital party, fit to triumph over the effete and lethargic organization now so powerful and so unworthy." Expressing his disillusion with the current parties, he asked Hale "to make personal addresses directly to the people, giving condensed embodiments of the principal ideas which distinguish our liberal faith from the drag-parties and their platforms." Whitman stressed that currently legislators were out of touch with "the great mass of the common people." He confessed he did not know "the great men" of Washington, "But I know the people. I know well (for I am practically in New York,) the real heart of this mighty city--the tens of thousands of young men, the mechanics, the writers, &c. &c. In all this, under and behind all the bosh of the regular politicians, there burns, almost with fierceness, the divine fire which more or less, during all ages, has only waited a chance to leap forth and confound the calculations of tyrants, hunkers, and all their tribe."
Hale was his last hope for party renewal. Perhaps influenced by Whitman's flaming words, Hale did accept the Free Democrat nomination and campaigned enthusiastically in the fall. But the November election was dismal for the Free Democrats, who got just 5% of the national vote. Whitman's hopes for "a renewed and vital party" were dashed. Worse yet, the party to which he had once been loyal, the Democrats, had put into office Franklin Pierce. Under Pierce, the erstwhile party of Jackson, once the defender of common people, became widely viewed as the defender of slavery. The charming but pliable Pierce rapidly became the tool of proslavery forces within the party. On May 30, 1854 he signed into law a bill that overturned the Missouri Compromise by permitting settlers of the Kansas and Nebraska territories to decide for themselves about slavery.
The Democratic leadership for whom Whitman may have retained some residual respect suddenly seemed corrupt and beyond redemption. Surveying all antebellum presidents, Whitman would call Pierce "the worst of the lot" (he made a similar statement about Pierce's equally malleable successor, James Buchanan). Like many other Northerners, he seized on the fugitive slave law as a symbol of wrongheaded government intervention into the affairs of free society. For him as for other antislavery activists, the capture and retrieval of the slave Anthony Burns in Boston became the archetypal example of corrupt government.
Anthony Burns, the property of Charles T. Suttle of Alexandria, Virginia, had escaped from slavery on a Boston-bound ship early in 1854. On May 24 he was arrested by a federal marshal and confined in a Boston courthouse. After a week-long trial, the Judge of Probate, Edward G. Loring, ruled that he be taken back to Virginia. Several leading antislavery agitators, including Wendell Phillips and Theodore Parker, led a rally where they championed Burns as a helpless martyr and impugned Loring and the fugitive slave law. Because most Bostonians were strongly opposed to Loring's decision, federal troops, a thousand strong with fifes and drums, were called in to conduct the chained Burns through the streets of Boston to the ship waiting to carry him back to captivity. The slow procession was performed amidst jeering crowds and buildings draped in black. On one building an enormous American flag hung upside down. On another was suspended a black coffin inscribed "Liberty."
The seizure of Burns was an act of infamy among antislavery activists. At a huge rally in Framingham on July 4 (a day now celebrated only in irony by them) Henry David Thoreau gave his searing address "Slavery in Massachusetts," and William Lloyd Garrison burned copies of the Declaration of Independence and the Constitution as the crowd cheered grimly. The retrieval of Anthony Burns had driven many to view established American institutions with cynicism and disdain.
One such cynic was Whitman. Appalled by the Burns case, he wrote a poem, "A Boston Ballad," which was a vigorous, sarcastic protest against the way the state and federal authorities handled the Burns case. Significantly, Burns himself is not mentioned in the poem. Whitman's emphasis is on the federal government's tyrannical violation of the idea of liberty. Picturing the government-authorized troops ushering Burns through the Boston streets, he writes ironically:
Clear the way there Jonathan! Way for the President's marshal! Way for the government cannon! Way for the federal foot and dragoons....and the phantoms afterward. (CP, 135)
As in his political poems of 1850, he resorts to the kind of blackly humorous, Gothicized protest imagery popularized by George Lippard. The central scene of Lippard's The Quaker City had been the terrible procession through the streets of a modern city in which haughty social rulers led black and white slaves in chains; the procession went forward jauntily until suddenly there arose the phantoms of patriots and poor people who followed and haunted the rulers. Whitman uses a strikingly similar image in his bitter rendering of the Burns procession. He has the Boston soldiers suddenly surrounded by the phantoms of old patriots who had died for freedom and are now shocked by the betrayal of American ideals in the retrieval of Burns. The patriot ghosts groan miserably and tremble with anger at the horrid scene. The cynical narrator asks: "What troubles you, Yankee phantoms? What is all this chattering of bare gums?/Does the ague convulse your limbs? Do you mistake your crutches for firelocks, and level them?" He orders the helpless ghosts back to their graves and whispers to the Boston mayor to send someone immediately to England to exhume the bones of King George III, bring them to America, glue them together, and set up the king's skeleton as a centerpiece for "the President's marshal" and all "roarers from Congress" to worship.
Among the messages of "A Boston Ballad" is that political power in America has become so corrupt that it can be described only in savagely subversive language. Whitman's image of the rising patriot ghosts may derive specifically from Lippard, but the overall spirit of protest against corrupt institutions was part of a larger reform rhetoric seen in many activists of the day.
Whitman was adopting the spirit of agitation popularized by reformers who were trying to arouse the moral conscience of the nation. The Brooklyn preacher he most admired, Henry Ward Beecher, declared in an antislavery speech of 1851: "Agitation? What have we got to work with but agitation? Agitation is the thing in these days for any good." The next year the abolitionist Wendell Phillips declared: "Only by unintermitted agitation can a people be kept sufficiently awake not to let liberty be smothered in material prosperity....Republics exist only on the tenure of being constantly agitated." And Whitman's correspondent and favorite speaker, John P. Hale, told the Senate, "I glory in the name of agitator. I wish the country could be agitated vastly more than it is."
Whitman came to think that he, above all, was the one chosen to agitate the country. "I think agitation the most important factor of all," he once declared, "--the most deeply important. To stir, to question, to suspect, to examine, to denounce!" (WWC, 5: 529). In the 1855 preface to Leaves of Grass he announced that in a morally slothful age the poet is best equipped to "make every word he speaks draw blood[...]he never stagnates" (CP, 9). In a draft of a later preface he stressed that his poetry was meant to be bracing, rough, violent, "sharp, full of danger, full of contradictions and offence." Key lines in his poems echo this zestful tone: "I am he who walks the States with a barb'd tongue, questioning every one I meet"; "Let others praise eminent men and hold up peace, I hold up agitation and conflict" (CP, 470, 379) He would never give up the spirit of agitation he had shared with the antebellum reformers. "As circulation is to the air, so is agitation and a plentiful degree of speculative license to political and moral sanity," he wrote in Democratic Vistas. "Vive, the attack--the perennial assault!" (PW, 2: 383, 386).
Like the reformers, he was ready to use black humor and Gothicized mudslinging to describe corrupt politicians. In his unpublished prose tract "The Eighteenth Presidency!" (1856) he spewed forth horrible epithets that suggested the profundity of his disgust with the powers that be. Political leaders he compared to lice, corpses, maggots, venereal sores. About the Pierce administration he wrote: "The President eats dirt and excrement for his daily meals, likes it, and tries to force it on The excrement for his daily meals, likes it, and tries to force it on The States. The cushions of the Presidency are nothing but filth and blood. The pavements of Congress are also bloody" (CP, 1310). This kind of reformist protest rhetoric runs as a sharp, needling voice through his poetry, as in "The Sleepers" (1855), where he writes, "I am oppressed....I hate him that oppresses me,/I will either destroy him, or he shall release me," or in "Respondez!" (1856), in which he portrays a topsy-turvy society where churches are filled with vermin, criminals take the place of judges, God is pronounced dead, and so on for over seventy scathingly subversive lines (CP, 113).
His was appalled not only by the slavery issue but also by growing corruption in government. Corruption had long been entrenched in antebellum politics, especially in Whitman's New York. In 1852 the infamous board of aldermen known as the "Forty Thieves" took power in Manhattan.
Manhattan's political shenanigans were emblematic of what was happening in the nation as a whole. As Mark W. Summers has shown, during the 1850s corruption was common in other cities up and down the eastern seaboard and even in the federal government. There was direct historical reference, then, for Whitman's venomous diatribes, as in the 1855 preface where he impugned the "swarms of cringers, suckers, doughfaces, lice of politics, planners of sly involutions for their own preferment to city offices or state legislatures or the judiciary or congress or the presidency" (CP, 18).
Another alarming social phenomenon was the growing inequality between the rich and the poor. With the rise of market capitalism, class differences in America widened far more rapidly between 1825 and 1860 than either before or after this period. A powerful discourse of working-class protest accompanied these growing class divisions. Novels by George Lippard, George Thompson, and Ned Buntline depicted upper-crust figures like bankers and lawyers involved in nefarious schemes while poor people starved.
Whitman absorbed the language of working-class protest. Like the popular writers, he used in his journalism the word "upper ten" to describe the privileged few. In one notebook entry he denounced the "vast ganglions of bankers and merchant princes" (WWW, 57). In another he sounded just like Lippard or Thompson characterizing the grotesque rich: "I see an aristocrat/I see a smoucher grabbing the good dishes exclusively to himself and grinning at the starvation of others as if it were funny,/I gaze on the greedy hog." His poem "The Sleepers" included a similar image: "The head of the moneymaker that plotted all day sleeps,/And the enraged and treacherous dispositions sleep" (CP, 108). In "Song of Myself" he repeated the oft-made charge that the "idle" rich cruelly appropriated the products of the hard-working poor:
Many sweating and ploughing and thrashing, and then the chaff for payment receiving,
Among radical agitators of the day, it was the individualistic reformers of the fifties whose language and spirit most closely approximated his. The early 1850s was the time of the great flowering of American anarchism Not far from Whitman's birthplace on Long Island there was established in 1851 the utopian community of Modern Times led by a group of reformers who practiced the doctrine of Individual Sovereignty by which every individual was pronounced the "absolute despot or sovereign" of his or her own life, without reference to outside laws or governments. The leading anarchist, Stephen Pearl Andrews, advanced his doctrine in a widely read series in the New York Tribune in 1852. Gleefully celebrating himself, Andrews announced: "I claim individually to be my own nation. I take this opportunity to declare my national independence, and to notify all other potentates, that they may respect my sovereignty." The publication of Thoreau's Walden in 1854 gave further impetus to this individualistic reform.
In a decade when government authority was proving to be corrupt, individual authority seemed paramount. All the individualistic reformers explicitly or implicitly paid homage in their writings to the great enunciator of self-reliance, Ralph Waldo Emerson. Whether or not Whitman read Emerson in the 1850s (he twice said he didn't), Emerson's ideas flooded the reformist air in a decade when the individual seemed far more worthy than the state. Whitman's celebration of himself in egotistical poetry was right in step with the times. Frequently in the 1855 and '56 editions this timely individualism breaks forth: "I celebrate myself"; "Going where I list, my own master total and absolute"; "Each man to himself and each woman to herself" (CP, 27, 299, 366). Like the individualist reformers, he was impelled by chicanery among America's rulers to put the individual above the state. In "Song of the Broad-Axe" he imagines a society "Where outside authority enters always after inside authority,/Where the citizen is always the head and ideal, and President, Mayor, Governor and what not, are agents for pay" (CP, 335).
Subversive rhetoric aimed at social rulers; profound disgust with the party system; willing participation in the individualistic attitudes of the 1850s--all of these facets of Whitman fed into his rebelliousness as a poet and person. We are so accustomed, however, to think of Whitman as a revolutionary that we are liable to forget his conservative side. He loved to say: "Be radical--be radical--be not too damned radical" (WWC, 1: 223). Although he associated with reformers of all stripes and absorbed their subversive spirit, he adopted none of their programs for social change. He once declared, "I am somehow afraid of agitators, though I believe in agitation" (WWC, 1: 166). He had vehement arguments with his abolitionist friends, who, he later recalled, got "hot" with him for not espousing the abolitionist cause (WWC, 1: 363). He also shied away from joining the women's rights movement, the free love movement, and the labor movement, though he observed them all with interest.
What Whitman feared was what then was called "ultraism," or any form of extreme social activism that threatened to rip apart the social fabric. He shied away from movements that seemed to upset the balance between opposing views, and he tried mightily to restore that balance in his poetry. His poetic strategy was balance and equipoise by poetic fiat. The kind of balance he asserted in his 1847 notebook jotting--"I am the poet of slaves and of the masters of slaves"--became far more crucial with the disturbing occurrences of the 1850s, especially after the party collapse and the Kansas debacle. The poet was to be the balancer or equalizer of his land. "He is the arbiter of the diverse and he is the key," Whitman emphasizes in the 1855 preface. "He is the equalizer of his age and land....he supplies what wants supplying and checks what wants checking" (CP, 9).
With the possibility of resolution through normal political channels now dead, all the more reason, he saw, to forge a new resolution in his poetry. Seeing that the national Union was imperilled, in the 1855 preface he affirmed "the union always surrounded by blatherers and always calm and impregnable" (CP, 8). He knew that Southerners and Northerners were virtually at each other's throats, so he made a point in his poems constantly to link the opposing sides. He proclaimed himself in "Song of Myself" "a southerner soon as a northerner[...]/At home on the hills of Vermont or in the woods of Maine or the Texan ranch" (CP, 42). When he directly addressed the issues of sectionalism and slavery in his poetry he also struck a middle ground. In the 1855 preface he assures his readers that the American poet shall "not be for the eastern states more than the western or the northern states more than the southern" (CP, 15). He writes of "slavery and the tremulous spreading hands to protect it, and the stern opposition to it which shall never cease till it ceases of the speaking of tongues and the moving of lips cease" (CP, 8). The first half of this statement gently embraces the Southern view; the second half airs sharp antislavery anger but leaves open the possibility that it may be a very long time before slavery disappears--a gradualist view confirmed by Whitman's statement in an 1857 Daily Times article that slavery would probably disappear in a hundred years.
Fearing the sectional controversies that threatened disunion, he represented the Southern point of view in his poetry, as when he described the plantation with "the negroes at work in good health, the ground in all directions cover'd with pine straw" (CP, 321). Elsewhere he projected Northerners' hatred of the fugitive slave law and gave voice to the widely trumpeted notion of Frederick Douglass and others that blacks were fully human. "Song of Myself" contains a long passage in which the "I" takes an escaped slave into his house and washes and feeds him, keeping his firelock ready at the door to fend off possible pursuers. In another passage he actually becomes "the hounded slave," with dogs and men in bloody pursuit. In a third he admires a magnificent black driver, climbing up with him and driving alongside of him. The poem later called "I Sing the Body Electric" presents a profoundly humanistic variation on the slave auction, as the "I" boasts how valuable his auctioned slave is: "There swells and jets his heart....There all passions and desires..all reachings and aspirations: [...]/In him the start of populous states and rich republics" (CP, 123).
His poetry was not only a meeting-place for disparate sectional attitudes but also a reflection of the leading ideas of the two parties that dominated the North's political scene in the mid-'fifties, the Know Nothings and the Republicans. Several of Whitman's central themes--extreme valuation of the common person, intense Americanism, a cleansing impulse--tie him to these parties.
Both the Know Nothings and Republicans, besides being opposed to slavery, presented themselves as fresh, populist alternatives to previous parties, which were viewed as rotten to the core. They grew with amazing rapidity between 1854 and '56 partly because, with the disappearance of the Whig party and the proslavery apostasy of the Democrats, they advertised a fresh beginning, a new world of political purity in a time of overriding ugliness and corruption. As Alexander H. Stephens, who moved, like Whitman, out of the Democratic party into the Republican, wrote at the end of 1854: "Old parties, old names, old issues, and old organizations are passing away. A day of new things, new issues, new leaders, and new organizations are at hand." Whitman caught the spirit of the time when he wrote in the first paragraph of the 1855 preface that America "has passed into the new life of the new forms" (CP, 5).
The old party leaders, insisted the Know Nothings and Republicans, were grotesque representatives of a party system that had grown corrupt and detached from the people. Below the corruption of America's rulers lay the ness of average Americans whose values should be the basis of political action. One Know Nothing typically called for a leader who was "fresh from the loins of the people." The two Republican presidential nominees of the fifties--the hardy explorer John Frémont and the Illinois railsplitter Abraham Lincoln--epitomized this populist, anti-party impulse. In the 1856 race Frémont was pushed in Republican editorials as "a new man, fresh from the people and one of themselves." Among his supporters was Whitman, whose whole family abandoned the Democrats and turned Republican.
Whitman shared the new populist impulse. He had once been quite snobbish, as witnessed by his snide aspersions of the simple Long Island villagers in his 1840 letters to Abraham Leech. His sympathy for the masses had increased between 1846 and '48 with the rise of the freesoil movement, when the territorial dispute led him to praise publicly American working people whose values he suddenly championed. But he had then still been very much within the framework of the party hierarchy, and he retained an almost sheepish veneration of the presidency and the party leadership. With the corruption and political collapse of the fifties, however, his veneration for entrenched rulers disappeared and his respect for common people increased exponentially.
He espoused a dialectical mode of thinking that was new to him, one that lay behind the parties of the mid-fifties, involving fierce rejection of entrenched authority coupled with equally intense praise of simple artisan values. In a notebook entry he wrote: "I perceive all the corruption--[...]I know that underneath all this putridity of Presidents and Congressmen that has risen to the top, lie pure waters a thousand fathoms deep" (NP, 6: 2148). Eric Foner has shown that the Republican party rose to prominence in large part because of its appeal to the ideology of free labor, epitomized in average workers such as independent shopkeepers, farmers, and artisans of all kinds, whose values were posed as preferable to those of exploitative moguls and politicians. Whitman shared this outlook. His tract "The Eighteenth Presidency!" follows the Republican dialectic. In it he unsparingly attacks the powers that be and sings praise to "the true people,...mechanics, farmers, boatmen, manufactures, and the like." He hopes some "healthy-bodied, middle-aged, beard-faced American blacksmith or boatman" would "come down from the West across the Alleghanies, and walk into the Presidency" (CP, 1308).
A similar dialectic runs through the early editions of Leaves of Grass. Eight years earlier, he had written in the Eagle that the presidency was the most sublime office on earth. Now his attitude was exactly reversed. The people, he stressed in the 1855 preface, should not take off their hats to presidents: it should be the other way around. The President would no longer be the poet's referee: now the poet would be. The genius of the United States, he wrote, was not in presidents or legislatures but "always most in their common people," as it was better to be a poor free mechanic or farmer than "a bound booby and rogue in office" (CP, 18). His early poems are full of long catalogues of average people at work. The party collapse and the devaluation of authority figures, in other words, had fueled his ardent populism, just as it had helped give rise to the new party organizations.
He also shared with the new parties an intense Americanism that tended toward jingoism. It has often been thought that his nationalistic instinct derived from the Young America movement or from Emerson. But by the early fifties the Young America movement had turned sour. Its intense Americanism, which had in the early forties engendered literary nationalism, had been swept up in the politics of expansionism, which by the fifties was allied with the South and proslavery. Two great champions of Young America, John L. O'Sullivan and Stephen Douglas, had by the fifties become defenders of the South. As for Emerson, it is certainly likely that he directly influenced the nationalistic stance of Whitman's poetry, despite Whitman's later denials to the contrary. It is important to note, however, that at the only two documented moments of Whitman's awareness of Emerson--in 1842 and 1847--the Concord sage had no fertilizing effect on his imagination. It was only after Whitman had escaped the shackles of party and had experienced the political crisis of the fifties that he gave literary form to the Americanism Emerson represented. The timing of Whitman's suddenly intense nationalism coincided exactly with the dominance of that most nationalistic of all political movements, the Know Nothings.
After the collapse of the Whig party in early 1854, the strongly pro-American Know Nothings suddenly became the most powerful new party in the nation. The Know Nothings (probably so named because they started as a secret order whose members professed ignorance of it) tapped into long-smoldering nativist sentiment in the North. As a result of developments abroad, especially the Irish potato famine, immigrants were arriving in America at a pace never known before or since. Between 1845 and 1855 three million foreigners swarmed to America's shores, peaking in 1854, when 427,833 arrived. This was the largest proportionate increase in immigrants at any time in American history. The large majority were Roman Catholic. The Know Nothings responded to a deep-seated fear that Catholic foreigners would infiltrate American institutions and possibly even take over the government. Since many foreigners, particularly the Irish, supported slavery, the Know Nothings appealed to antislavery activists. They also incorporated defenders of the working class.
Above all, they were the party of intense, unabashed Americanism. "America for Americans" was their motto, the Star Spangled Banner was their emblem, and in 1855 the "American Party" became their public name. Their success in the Northern elections of 1854 and '55 was stunning. They elected eight governors, over a hundred congressmen, mayors in three major cities, and thousands of other local officials. They peaked in popularity in June 1855, the month before Leaves of Grass appeared, with their number at about 1.5 million members.
Whitman later recalled that the Know Nothings were "the great party of those days" (WWC, 3: 91). Although he said he did not join the organization (but then, what Know Nothing would?) he had a history of flirtation with nativism. In 1842 he had come out strongly against Bishop John Hughes in the issue of public funding for Catholic schools, an issue that came back with redoubled fury in the 1850s and fueled the Know Nothing debate. The politician in the 1850s he most admired, John P. Hale, was an ardent nativist. Since the Know Nothings in 1854 and early '55 were championing his favorite causes--antislavery, temperance, rights for working people--he may have found the American Party appealing.
At any rate, the jingoistic moments in his early poetry smacked of nativism. In one poem he wrote, "America isolated I sing;/I say that works here made in the spirit of other lands, are so much poison to these States," adding, "Bards for my own land only I invoke." In the first two editions, at the peak of the nativist frenzy, he identified himself in his signature poem, "Song of Myself," as "Walt Whitman, an American"--changed later, in less nativist times, to "Walt Whitman, of Manhattan the son." Trying to key into the nativist readership, he began a self-review of his poetry by boasting, "An American bard at last!," redoubling the boast in another self-review: "No imitation--No foreigner--but a growth and idiom of America."
If he was a nativist, though, he was one with a difference. His first woman reviewer, Fanny Fern, saw this when she called him "this glorious Native American" but specified that he was "no Catholic-baiting Know Nothing" (NYD, 147). On the one hand, he did adopt some attitudes of the Know Nothings, to the extent that he would once say that America's digestion was strained by the "millions of ignorant foreigners" coming to its shores (PW, 2: 762). Sketching plans for a lecture to be given to a Protestant group, he sounded like a Know Nothing when he wrote that Catholics were sufficiently numerous to put all American enterprises in their grasp (WWW, 41-2).
On the other hand, as was true with his attitude toward antislavery groups, he wanted to avoid extremes and in fact extended a friendly hand to foreigners in his poetry. In "Song of Myself" he announced himself "pleased with the native and pleased with the foreign" (CP, 62). In "Proto-Leaf" he wrote, "See, in my poems immigrants continually coming and landing" (LGV, 2: 288). His claim elsewhere that his poetry does not separate "the white from the black, or the native from the immigrant just landed at the wharf" in fact has validity, as is evidenced particularly by his poetic paean to international friendship, "Salut au Monde." The American Party, while it stimulated his nationalism, became one more narrow political group he rejected.
Time would tell he had good reason to do so. The American Party rapidly fell prey to the same kind of sectional divisions that had killed off the Whigs. The ascendant Republicans, meanwhile, spent more energy on attacking the Southern "slaveocracy" than on representing the interests of Northern workers. Both the problems and the proposed solutions of the parties were addressed to specific, practical needs of the moment.
For Whitman, American's problem was far deeper than the immigrant explosion or the slave power. Corruption in America was not superficial or easily removed. It was, he wrote, "in the blood" (NP, 1: 862). His disgust with the political process was more profound than that of any other commentator of the fifties. He wrote that the parties had become "empty flesh, putrid mouths, mumbling and squeaking the tones of these conventions, the politicians standing back in the shadow, telling lies" (CP, 1317). Those responsible for selecting America's leaders came "from political hearses, and from the coffins inside, and from the shrouds inside the coffins; from the tumors and abscesses of the land; from the skeletons and skulls in the vaults of the federal almshouses; from the running sores of the great cities" (CP, 1313).
The final effect of the dramatic political changes of the 1850s was to drive him beyond parties altogether. In his 1856 notebook the former party loyalist could proclaim himself "no[t] the particular representative of any one party--no tied and ticketed democrat, whig, abolitionist, republican,--no bawling spokesman of natives against foreigners" (NP, 6: 2117). The history of parties and reforms had shown him that the former led to institutionalized corruption, the latter to narrow views and sometimes wild fanaticism. He now reminded himself, "We want no reforms, no institutions, no parties--We want a living principle as nature has, under which nothing can go wrong--This must be vital through the United States" (NP, 1: 145). He had once believed the American system would perpetually purify itself through party debates and periodic elections. But with the party system having collapsed in a morass of bad principle and outright knavery, he had to look elsewhere for purification and ennoblement.
He looked mainly to nature. Nature in Leaves of Grass becomes more than just a Wordsworthian or Emersonian source of spiritual inspiration (though it is that too)--it is a cleansing solvent into which Whitman cast all the disagreeable aspects of American experience, to be made pure and healthy. At its best, American democracy itself was chiefly valuable to him for what he called its "cleansingness," its ability to simulate "Nature's stomach" with its "kosmical, antiseptic power" in casting out "morbific matter" through its election cycle and laws (CP, 949). But in the fifties, elections and laws were of little help. Refreshing nature imagery was needed to show the unclean body politic how to renew itself. Politics must reorganize itself according to what he saw as the all-rectifying principle of nature. In his poem "To a President" he drove home this political meaning of nature when he warned American's chief executive: "You have not learn'd of Nature--of the politics of Nature you have not learn'd the great amplitude, rectitude, impartiality" (CP, 410).
The politics of nature. That, finally, is what he turned to. The sky, the sea, plants, trees, roots, buds, sunshine, animals, sex, the body, the infinite universe. None of these natural phenomena had figured much in his early poetry and fiction, but suddenly they seemed all-important. He dreamed of his nature-filled poetry having an immense impact on American life. "The poets I would have must be a power in the state, and an engrossing power in the state," he wrote in his notebook (NP, 1: 144). If America saw its problems and its people recast amidst nature imagery, perhaps it would change. Sectional divisions could be repaired by an all-absorbing poetic "I" who traveled joyously through all regions and who reveled in the cycles of nature. Corruption could be positively counteracted by a poetic recreation of nature's beauties. The metaphors Whitman used to describe his mission were little less than messianic. Leaves of Grass was "the new Bible," to be read outdoors by everyone every season of the year. The poet was "the age transfigured." The proof of the poet was that his country absorbed him as affectionately as he absorbed it.
Wishful thinking, to be sure. And, as it turned out, deluded thinking.Whitman had nowhere near the immediate impact he dreamed of. In some ways, America's social problems even worsened over time. But Leaves of Grass still stands as a testament to Whitman's struggle to plant poetic seed on volcanic political soil.
Other pieces by David Reynolds: