Walt Whitman and the Soul of Democracy

What's most shocking about Whitman's writing today is not his eroticism but his passionate embrace of equality


A few weeks ago, I was reading Walt Whitman, enthralled by the energy and rhythm of his poetry. It's easy to see why he was embroiled in fights with 19th-century censors. "I will go to the bank by the wood and become undisguised and naked," he wrote, "I am mad for it to be in contact with me." In Song of Myself, he praises "a well-made man," saying, "dress does not hide him;/The strong, sweet, supple quality he has strikes through the cotton and flannel;/To see him pass conveys as much as the best poem, perhaps more;/You linger to see his back, and the back of his neck and shoulder-side."

And these are some of the milder passages. These probably aren't the ones that got him fired from his job at the Department of the Interior and charged with "that horrible sin not to be mentioned among Christians."

What's most shocking about his writing today is not that he loves men or describes "the body electric." What's stunning is his democratic sensibility.

What a long way we've come. Whitman, who lived in Brooklyn for 28 years, would be astounded that New York has actually legalized same-sex marriage. He would have been equally amazed by a recent article in the New York Times about an effort to recruit more gays and lesbians into politics. And I'm sure his eyes would have widened a few weeks ago when the Federal Reserve Bank of Richmond ran a rainbow flag up its flagpole at the request of a group of gay and lesbian employees in honor of gay pride month.

These events--especially the New York decision--are victories in the fight for gay and lesbian equality. New York has joined a handful of other states where people who love each other can make a legal commitment in a public ceremony and announce to the world at large: We are men and women with hopes and dreams. The promise of freedom, equality, and happiness in the Declaration of Independence applies to us, just as it applies to you.

And yet, as important as these victories are, and as critical to celebrate, they still leave me hoping that our country will live up to another ideal that struck me in Whitman's poetry. Not only should everyone be free to love whomever they want and marry anyone they wish, but they should be able to work when they need to.

Today's politicians and pundits seem to have forgotten the unemployed in their endless debates about wealth creation, capital gain reduction, and high corporate taxes. How rarely we hear about the factory worker, the contractor, the construction worker whose lives have been upended by the prolonged economic disaster. They're not on the morning talk shows, or called to congressional hearings. They don't write the op-ed pieces. Mostly they're forgotten and ignored.

But Whitman wouldn't have forgotten them. What's most shocking about his writing today is not that he loves men or describes "the body electric." What's stunning is his democratic sensibility. He loves everyone. "I contain multitudes," he wrote. He embraced the soul of democracy, its fundamental faith in humankind. He knew that the fate of each one of us is inextricably linked to the fate of all. "Whoever degrades another degrades me," he wrote. "I speak the password primeval, I give the sign of democracy./By God, I will accept nothing which all cannot have their counterpart of on the same terms."

Presented by

Kathleen Kennedy Townsend is the author of Failing America's Faithful: How Today's Churches Mixed God With Politics and Lost Their Way. From 1995 to 2003, she was Maryland's first woman lieutenant governor.

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