Friday, April 13, 2007

Walt Whitman—The Voice of America

Matt Butcher

Franz Potter
Eng 690A: Seminar in a Major Author: Walt Whitman
September 24, 2005

Walt Whitman—The Voice of America

Walt Whitman was the first American author. Americans had written before, but of all the authors that graced the continent from the first dreams of a new world as the pilgrims landed in 1620, there was no uniquely American voice. Authors up until Whitman were deeply influenced and structured by the European standards. Whitman created the new American standards that are still felt today. It is through the influential editions of his Leaves of Grass that American ideals of equality and freedom came to be.

Whitman spoke of equality between master and slave, between heterosexual and homosexual, between man and woman. One must remember the timeline here. The first edition of Leaves of Grass was published in 1855. The Emancipation Proclamation was not signed until January 1, 1863. Women were not allowed to vote until 1920. Gay and lesbian rights are still not expressly guaranteed anywhere in the country, but through most editorials these rights are seen as inevitable. What came before Whitman was limited and highly influenced by the Europeans. “His literary style was experimental, a free-verse avalanche in celebration of nature and self that has since been described as the first expression of a distinctly American voice” (

Whitman was profoundly influenced by the Transcendentalists. Ralph Waldo Emerson published as essay entitled “The Poet” in 1844 calling for a new voice, a poet who would purge the shackles upon American poets in convention and burst forth into a uniquely American style. “…for the poet is representative. He stands among partial men for the complete man, and apprises us not of his wealth, but of the commonwealth” (Emerson, “The Poet”). Emerson could not do it himself, by his own admission. “I look in vain for the poet whom I describe… But I am not wise enough for a national criticism.” Emerson seems to have found this great American poet after reading the 1855 edition of a new book of poems called Leaves of Grass. Emerson wrote to Whitman, “I greet you at the beginning of a great career” (Emerson letter).

Leaves of Grass was Whitman’s attempt to create a democratic poetry. He wanted to write verse to contain all the diversity of rapidly increasing nineteenth-century America. He knew this was a monumental task. In a poem he would write in a later edition of Leaves of Grass, he says,

Haughty this song, its words and scope,
To span vast realms of space and time,
Evolution--the cumulative--growths and generations (“L. of G.’s Purport”).

Whitman begins this grand endeavor by creating a democratic “I.” This is in juxtaposition to the royal “we.” defines the royal “we” as “Used by a royal person, and by writers and editors in formal use: to refer to themselves or the authority they represent” ( Whitman defies this and tries to speak for America, as the independent people that America comprises and the sense that Americans were all together. That is the underlying symbol of the title of the book. As a page is also known as a leaf, this ties together every American. Every American has blades of grass growing beneath their feet. America is full of this grass, grass of every type, yet still distinctly similar. Our American lawns are carpeted with it. Upon reading this book, the reader must understand that one’s passions and ideals are the same as the neighbor’s that lives next door or in the next county or in the next state. Every American shares these things, indeed, every human. The leaves of grass underneath our feet are the same as the leaves of grass underneath another’s feet. This is the underlying principle. Therefore, the “I” in the poems is not necessarily Walt Whitman. The “I” is the reader, all of us. Whitman understood that these thoughts he had may have been condemned by Victorian society but was in the minds and hearts of all Americans. Whitman tried to make the reader realize that these passions and thoughts were necessary to the human.

Do you see, O my brothers and sisters?
It is not chaos or death—it is form, union, plan—it is eternal life—it is HAPPINESS

(“Song of Myself”).

Whitman’s subjects were often risqué for the time. He sees some truths that did not realize themselves until scores of years later. One of Whitman’s grand undertakings was dematerializing the bond between master and slave. When he sees a slave, he talks of the man as a perfect human specimen. “I behold the picturesque giant and love him.” When he harbors a runaway slave, he is not afraid as he feeds him and his “fire-lock lean'd in the corner.” He goes further than sympathy and walks a mile in the man’s shoes:

I am the hounded slave, I wince at the bite of the dogs,
Hell and despair are upon me, crack and again crack the marksmen,
I clutch the rails of the fence, my gore dribs, thinn'd with the
ooze of my skin.”

By placing the democratic “I” into the lines of the poem, the reader is sympathizing and almost ready to place himself between the opposing parties, saying these lines as sort of a mantra:

I am the poet of the body
And I am the poet of the soul
I go with the slaves of the earth equally with he masters
And I will stand between the masers and the slaves,
Entering into both so that both will understand me alike.
There are no sides. There are just two people who need to be heard.

Whitman also speaks of the similarities between men and women. At this time, sexual equality was far over the horizon. The section that begins with “Twenty-eight Young Men Bathe by the Shore” tells the story of a young girl of 28 looking upon the swimming men on the beach, a peeping-tom from her own house. She pretends she is there with them, touching them (“An unseen hand also pass'd over their bodies”) and splashing them. She is looking upon them as objects. This is at a time before women were even allowed mention of such behavior. He empathizes his feelings upon her, I imagine, as we all think about people from a distance. This is even such a distance as looking out the house at the bathers. I want to equate this to men’s magazines and the dirty jokes that people make about men and these magazines together. I think this is a fantastic image of this concept, but from a 1860s perspective.

It is I, you women, I make my way,
I am stern, acrid, large, undissuadable, but I love you,
I do not hurt you any more than is necessary for you,
I pour the stuff to start sons and daughters fit for these States, I
press with slow rude muscle,
I brace myself effectually, I listen to no entreaties,
I dare not withdraw till I deposit what has so long accumulated within me.

Whitman is talking about a woman that he can have wonderful sexual relations with, and start the next generation with. He knows that this product of their union will also be doing this same act. “I shall expect them to interpenetrate with others, as I and you
inter-penetrate now.”
This woman will share this with him. This is not a solitary act or an act between two people. They make love now so that their progeny can make love in the future, ad infinitum.

However, Whitman braves even stronger boundaries when he talks about the sexual relations of two men together. This is not the same in Whitman’s mind. While sexual relations between a man and woman can culminate with a child and progeny, sexual relations between two men (or two women) serve no biological function. This to Whitman may be esteemed because sexual relations are the closest way to truly become one with another individual. Whitman talked of “amative” and “adhesive” love, the difference between heterosexual and homosexual love. Whitman believed in the divine experience of the human’s ability to procreate, but he also realized that humans don’t merely have sexual relations to procreate. Therefore, sexual relations between two men was, to Whitman, an even higher form of democracy. I cite a lengthy passage from Democratic Vistas:

I look for the counterbalance and offset of our materialistic and vulgar American democracy, and for the spiritualization thereof. Many will say it is a dream, and will not follow my inferences: but I confidently expect a time when there will be seen, running like a half-hid warp through all the myriad audible and visible worldly interests of America, threads of manly friendship, fond and loving, pure and sweet, strong and life-long, carried to degree hitherto unknown—not only giving tone to individual character, and making it unprecedently emotional, muscular, heroic, and refined, but having the deepest relations to general politics. I say democracy infers such loving comradeship, as its most inevitable twin or counterpart, without which it will be incomplete, in vain, and incapable of perpetuating itself.

Even after all of these internal democratic passages and the ideals of what makes up the free society that is America, how would the literary critics think of Whitman in the pantheon of American literature? In an 1882 issue of The Atlantic, a critic finds certain gems of wisdom in Leaves of Grass, but finds it lacking. “He degrades body and soul by a brutish wallowing in animal matter as animal matter, deprived of its spiritual attributes…for imperfect though the race is, it still remains so much purer than the stained and distorted reflection of its animalism in Leaves of Grass, that the book cannot attain to any very wide influence” (The Atlantic). This is harsh compared to Whitman’s stature now, one hundred twenty-five years later. After an 1872 anthology of poems called American Poems published in Britain by Michael Rossetti, critics tended to start seeing American poetry not in how it compared to the form and function of the polished British, but in how it tried to dissociate itself from the British tradition (“An Introduction to American Poetry”).

This must be because it was not yet understood. Whitman did amazing things with his poetry that mimicked the life of America. One of the things he did continually in Leaves of Grass is create lists. These lists would mimic the structure of passages of the Bible, both Old and New Testament, that Americans would be reading in the old King James.

A song of the good green grass!
A song no more of the city streets;
A song of farms—a song of the soil of fields (“A Carol of Harvest”)

This closely resembles lists found in, for example, Ecclesiastes, where it lists “To everything there is a season” (King James Bible). Whitman also used words and language from all walks of life.

By the end of the poem “Song of Myself,” Whitman realizes that some of the things he was expressing may not be possible within every single American. “Very well, then, I contradict myself; / (I am large—I contain multitudes.)” At a time of incredible diversity and division with the beginnings and endings of the Civil War, Whitman paused to remind us that we could all work together, striving for the same ideals that make us all American.“The messages of great poets to each man and woman are, Come to us on equal terms, Only then can you understand us, We are no better than you, What we enclose you enclose, What we enjoy you may enjoy” (from the introduction to the 1855 edition). These are his images and his meanderings. Somehow, somehow he understands that the future will think highly of him. He truly feels that he is a man ahead of his time. “The proof of a poet is that his country absorbs him as affectionately as he has absorbed it” (1855 edition).

Works Cited “We.” September 23, 2005.

Atlantic Monthly, The. “New Poetry of the Rosettis and Others.” January 1882.

Emerson, Ralph Waldo. “Letter 21 July 1855.” September 23, 2005.

Emerson, Ralph Waldo. “The Poet.” September 23, 2005.

“Introduction to American Poetry, An.” September 23, 2005.

“Walt Whitman.” September 23, 2005.

Whitman, Walt. “A Carol of Harvest.”

Whitman, Walt. Democratic Vistas.

Whitman, Walt. “L. of G.’s Purport.” September 23, 2005.

Whitman, Walt. “Song of Myself.”

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