American Poetry: Walt Whitman and the Songs of Ourselves

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In the middle of the nineteenth century, America met the poet they had been waiting for. Though he wouldn’t experience much notoriety in his lifetime, Walt Whitman is now known as one of America’s greatest poets.
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John Marsh offers Walt Whitman’s poetry as an unlikely remedy for the uncertainty American's face today in “In Walt We Trust.”

Life in the United States today is full of uncertainty: about our jobs, mortgages, retirement, health, relationships and our childrens’ future. Author John Marsh identifies four sources of our contemporary malaise in In Walt We Trust(Monthly Review Press, 2015) and then looks to the American poet Walt Whitman for relief from it. By doing so, Marsh argues that Whitman has the capacity to show us how to live and die in America today. This excerpt, which takes a look at Whitman’s life and poetry, is from the Introduction, “Walt Whitman—A Poetic Comfort.”

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The Life of Walt Whitman

Walt Whitman was born in 1819 in West Hills, New York, on Long Island, and moved with his family to Brooklyn when he was not quite four years old. Like many children from working-class families (his father was, at various times, a farmer, carpenter, and house builder), Whitman left school before he turned twelve. He worked as an office boy, and at age thirteen he was apprenticed to a printer. In his late teens and early twenties, he taught school in various Long Island small towns. There he made his first tentative steps into journalism and Democratic Party politics. In 1841, he moved to New York City, and over the next few years wrote for various newspapers and published very bad short stories in literary magazines. In 1845, he left the city and moved back in with his family in Brooklyn. Shortly thereafter, Whitman became editor of the Brooklyn Daily Eagle.

Within two years, though, he lost the job when he got ahead of the Democratic Party, which controlled the newspaper, on the issue of slavery. Whitman opposed the extension of slavery into the western territories newly acquired during the recently concluded Mexican War. His Party dithered on the issue. After a brief sojourn in New Orleans, in 1849 Whitman returned to Brooklyn, where he sold articles to newspapers and, like his father, took up house building.

Then everything changed.

No one is quite sure how, or even when, but at some point in the first half of the 1850s, probably around 1853 or 1854, Whitman began writing some of the strangest, most ambitious, and moving poetry in all of American literature. Overnight, it seemed, he went from unenthusiastic house builder and middling journalist to inspired prophet and groundbreaking poet. In 1855, he self-published Leaves of Grass, which consisted of a visionary preface about the responsibility of the poet in America and twelve untitled poems that did not rhyme and did not keep a soothing, iambic beat and therefore did not seem, for some readers, like poetry at all. The first edition of the book contained Whitman’s masterpiece, a long, erotic, omnivorous poem he would eventually call “Song of Myself.” In the opening lines of the poem, he wrote:

I celebrate myself,
And what I assume you shall assume,
For every atom belonging to me as good belongs to you.

I loafe and invite my soul,
I lean and loafe at my ease . . . . observing a spear
of summer grass.

In a way, these lines contain all of the poetry Whitman would go on to write. Almost everything, that is, is there from the start: Whitman’s sense of the divinity of all human beings (what allows him to celebrate himself); his interest in science (every atom); his commitment to equality (the equivalence and exchangeability of those atoms); his tendency to speak directly to his reader (you); his urge to study what everyone takes for granted (the spear of summer grass, in which he discovers all of life and creation). The only thing missing, perhaps, is Whitman’s intense love for the human body. A few lines below the ones quoted above, Whitman writes, “Welcome is every organ and attribute of me, and of any man hearty and clean. / Not an inch nor a particle of an inch is vile, and none shall be less familiar than the rest.” In a contemporary review, the illustrious critic Charles Eliot Norton, one of the few people to actually read the first edition of Leaves of Grass, described the poems in it, including “Song of Myself,” as a “compound of the New England transcendentalist and the New York rowdy,” which still seems spot on.

Whitman devoted the rest of his life to Leaves of Grass, adding new poems, bringing out new editions, seeking to become what he wanted more than anything else in the world to become but never, in his lifetime anyway, quite became: the poet whom Americans—all Americans—read as though their lives and the life of their country depended on it.

During the Civil War, Whitman became a volunteer nurse in the army hospitals in Washington, D.C., and then settled into a government clerkship in the attorney general’s office. But in 1873 he had a stroke that left his left arm and leg paralyzed. A few months later, he resigned his position in Washington and moved in with his brother and sister-in-law, who then occupied a house at 322 Stevens Street in Camden. (Today, 322 Stevens Street is a vacant, unkempt lot—even the sidewalk is gone.) Later that year, Whitman’s brother moved down the street to 431 Stevens Street (also now a vacant lot, though the sidewalk at least remains). In 1884, as his brother prepared to move from Camden to the countryside, Whitman purchased a two-story house at 328 Mickle Street, where he lived out the remainder of his life, dying in 1892 at age seventy-two.

At the Mickle Street house, and before that at his brother’s house on Stevens Street two blocks away, Whitman received a string of visitors, famous and obscure, or then famous and now obscure, who sought out the poet. Among others, these included the naturalist John Burroughs; the poet Henry Wadsworth Longfellow; the Irish novelist (of Dracula fame) Bram Stoker; the artist Thomas Eakins, who painted a portrait of Whitman; the writer Hamlin Garland; “three Hindus,” as Whitman described them in his diary; and the journalist, diplomat, and future Librarian of Congress John Russell Young. On the lecture circuit in the United States in 1882, the Irish writer Oscar Wilde came twice, once in January and again in May. “Before I leave America,” Wilde wrote Whitman between visits, “I must see you again—there is no one in this wide great world of America whom I love and honour so much.”

Even before Whitman moved to Camden, his readers had sought him out. When Whitman published the first edition of Leaves of Grass in 1855, he sent a copy to the most influential writer in America, the poet and essayist Ralph Waldo Emerson. Emerson responded with a short letter full of praise. “I greet you at the beginning of a great career,” he wrote. He would have written sooner, he said, but “I did not know until I last night saw the book advertised in a newspaper that I could trust the name as real and available for a post-office.” Emerson closed with: “I wish to see my benefactor, and have felt much like striking my tasks and visiting New York to pay my respects.” Emerson, though, could not strike his tasks. (He would later look up Whitman when the poet was in Boston in 1860 overseeing publication of the third edition of Leaves of Grass.) In his place, Emerson sent Amos Bronson Alcott (father of Louisa May Alcott) and Henry David Thoreau, who called on the poet at his Brooklyn home and left impressed if somewhat mystified.

Whether to Brooklyn or, more often, to Camden, all came, all struck their tasks, because after reading Whitman, they wanted to pay their respects, and because, like Emerson, they could scarcely believe that a person like Whitman could really exist. But exist he did. There was a man, and now there is a house, if no longer a man, to prove it.

Walt Whitman’s Impact on American Life

I admit I had not always felt so strongly about Whitman. Or rather, I had felt strongly about him, just not strongly for him. For most of my twenties, I was a fire-breathing socialist, and Whitman, though one of the few canonical poets to come from a working-class background, had not, I believed, been nearly socialist enough.

Nor, I believed, had he been nearly melancholic enough. Whitman seemed defiantly unbothered by the cruelty and stupidity of the universe, especially the cruelty and stupidity of death. Without knowing it, I shared the philosopher William James’s estimate of Whitman, who, James said, had “a temperament organically weighted on the side of cheer and fatally forbidden to linger . . . over the darker aspects of the universe.” Whitman’s optimism, James believed, amounted to a kind of “indiscriminate hurrahing for the universe” and had “become quasi-pathological.” For me, a young man seeking to impress others with his intellectual seriousness, this optimism clearly would not do. No one is impressed by yes-men. Instead, I looked to those who, as Herman Melville said of Nathaniel Hawthorne, said “NO! in thunder,” and who “the Devil himself cannot make say yes.” That is, I took my cues about the futility of love from the likes of T. S. Eliot’s “The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock” and my conclusions about the finality of death from poems like The Waste Land. Next to these hard-boiled writers, Whitman seemed downright soft.

Nor did I always believe that Whitman would save America from what ailed it. More often than not I thought he was—or represented—exactly what it suffered from. His naive optimism, his boosterish patriotism, his fuzzy spiritualism, his celebration of the body and sex—though these may have once seemed, in the nineteenth century perhaps, like the solution to a problem, they now seemed like the problem itself. Americans did not need to be told to look on the bright side, to love America, to trust God, or, my Lord, to worship sex. They needed to be told not to.

But I know now that I was wrong. At some point, and for me it came in my early thirties, you realize that socialism will be a long time coming in the United States, especially when one of our two political parties fervently believes that the United States is already on the road to socialist serfdom. When you wake up to this reality, you care a lot less about whether a poet was socialist enough or not, and a lot more about how he can help you live in the world you have.

I was less wrong to resent Whitman’s pathological optimism, but wrong nonetheless and in ways that really mattered. Whitman did write that “what is called good is perfect and what is called bad is just as perfect,” which William James thought was plain silly. But Whitman’s optimism, as James believed, was not “congenital.” Or not merely congenital. Whitman may have been born that way, but he had reasons for his optimism, and for his “indiscriminate hurrahing for the universe.” And when you look into those reasons, as I had never really done before, the hurrahing does not seem nearly so indiscriminate—or not so pathological, anyway. Indeed, it may be less pathology than cure.

As you might gather from the title and subtitle of my book, I have changed my mind about Whitman and his place in America, too. True, when it comes to the country of reality, many Americans, as prosecutors say, are a flight risk. Too many elements of our culture, especially our popular and political culture, teach us, as the polemicist Chris Hedges puts it, that “we can be whoever we seek to be, that we live in the greatest country on earth, that we are endowed with superior moral and physical qualities, and that our future will always be glorious and prosperous, either because of our own attributes or our national character or because we are blessed by God.” At times, Whitman can seem to join the chorus of voices indulging and even encouraging Americans in these beliefs. As a people, we occasionally celebrate ourselves altogether too much.

But Whitman had nothing to do with building up the empire of illusions that currently enfold and enthrall Americans, not just because few people actually read him, then or now, and therefore you cannot lay much blame at his door. But also because—read carefully—he says no such things. Indeed, I am now convinced that reading Whitman would go far toward striking back against that empire of illusion.

This excerpt has been reprinted with permission from In Walt We Trust: How a Queer Socialist Poet Can Save America from Itself, by John Marsh and published by Monthly Review Press, 2015.

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