Walt Whitman, who was born 200 years ago this year, is almost certainly the greatest American poet. In many ways, he is also the most enigmatic. Before 1855, the year that Whitman published Leaves of Grass, he had achieved no distinction whatsoever. He had no formal education—no Oxford, no Cambridge, no Harvard or Yale. His life up to his 35th year had been anything but a success. He’d been a teacher, but he was loose and a bit indolent, and he refused to whip his students. He’d published fiction of a dramatically undistinguished sort. He’d edited a Free Soil newspaper, which opposed the spread of slavery into the western territories. But there was nothing remarkable about his journalism. Much of the time, he was a workingman. He was adept as a typesetter, a difficult and demanding trade. In the summer of 1854, he was a carpenter, framing two- and three-room houses in Brooklyn.
On his lunch break, he liked to read. Whitman was taken with the writings of Ralph Waldo Emerson that summer. He surely read “Circles” and “Self-Reliance,” and “The Poet,” an essay in which Emerson called out for a genuinely American bard. Sitting quietly, Whitman read, “We have yet had no genius in America, with tyrannous eye, which knew the value of our incomparable materials.” I suspect that the phrase tyrannous eye puzzled Whitman. There was nothing especially tyrannous about him, nor would there be about his poetry. But as to knowing “the value of our incomparable materials”—maybe that was something Whitman could claim. He had seen a great deal of life. He loved to wander. He loved to look life over. He’d worked many and various jobs.
Emerson was looking for a poet whose vision didn’t derive chiefly from books, but from American life as it was. One sentence in particular in his essay opens the prospect of a new world—a new poetic world, and perhaps a new world of human possibility as well: “Our logrolling, our stumps and their politics, our fisheries, our Negroes, and Indians, our boasts, and our repudiations, the wrath of rogues, and the pusillanimity of honest men, the northern trade, the southern planting, the western clearing, Oregon, and Texas, are yet unsung.”
Though America had been a nation for nearly 80 years, it was incomplete. The Declaration of Independence, the Constitution—those were political documents, pragmatic in their designs for democracy. What America lacked was what Emerson called for: an evocation of what being a democratic man or woman felt like at its best, day to day, moment to moment. We had a mind, the mind created by Thomas Jefferson and the other Founders, but we did not know our own best spirit.
Emerson couldn’t answer the call, and tacitly admitted as much. I can’t imagine that when he asked for volunteers, he believed a jack-of-all-trades in his mid-30s, headed no place in particular, could possibly take up the task. Yet that is what happened.
“I was simmering, simmering, simmering,” Whitman told a friend. “Emerson brought me to a boil.” Whitman understood that he was a part of one of the greatest experiments since the beginning of time: the revival of democracy in the modern world. The wise believed that it probably could not be done. The people were too ignorant, too crude, too grasping and greedy to come together and from their many create one. Who were we, after all? A nation of castoffs, a collection of crooks and failures, flawed daughters and second sons of second sons, unquestionable losers and highly dubious winners. Up to now, our betters had kept us in line: The aristocracies of Massachusetts and Virginia had shown us the enlightened path and dragged us along behind them. Whitman knew (and Emerson did too) that this could not last forever. By sheer force of numbers, or force plain and simple, outcasts and ne’er-do-wells were eventually going to take over the nation.
“Song of Myself,” arguably Whitman’s greatest work, can be seen as a vision quest. In the original version, which had no title when it was published in 1855, in the first edition of Leaves of Grass, Whitman begins as an everyday workingman. He is “one of the roughs,” the tough, laboring type who is depicted on the book’s frontispiece—shirt open, hat tilted to the side, a calmly insouciant expression on his face. Through a series of poetic and spiritual encounters he gains in experience and wisdom to become a representative democratic individual, one who can show his countrymen and countrywomen the way to a thriving and joyous life.
“I celebrate myself,” Whitman says in the famous opening lines. “And what I assume you shall assume, / For every atom belonging to me as good belongs to you.” Beginning readers of the poem tend to believe that the “you” Whitman refers to is the reader, and in some sense, they are surely right. But Whitman is also talking to that enigmatic part of himself that he calls his soul. He says this very clearly: “I loafe and invite my soul.” Walking away from the houses and rooms that are “full of perfumes” and out to the stream bank in the woods, where he can become “undisguised and naked,” he begins to do all he can to seduce his soul—yes, seduce.
Whitman’s self, the figure depicted at the front of the book, offers the soul joy—especially the joy of immediate physical life:
The play of shine and shade on the trees as the supple boughs wag,
The delight alone or in the rush of the streets, or along the fields and hillsides,
The feeling of health … the full-noon trill … the song of me rising from bed and meeting the sun.
Play, delight, health, song: Come forward, Whitman says, and embrace these joys.
Up until now, the soul—“amused, complacent, compassionating, idle, unitary”—has been “both in and out of the game, and watching and wondering at it.” The soul as Whitman conceives it is delicate, a figure of watchful sensitivity. It seems to be neither male nor female. Nor is it associated with any religious conceptions of the soul. It is, perhaps, too vulnerable to emerge undefended into the world, but the self succeeds in more than just coaxing the soul forward. In one of a number of shocking moments in the poem, a love scene unfolds between self and soul—and the reticent soul becomes rather aggressive:
I mind how we lay in June, such a transparent summer morning;
You settled your head athwart my hips and gently turned over upon me,
And parted the shirt from my bosom-bone, and plunged your tongue to my barestript heart,
And reached till you felt my beard, and reached till you held my feet.
Self and soul now merged, suddenly Whitman begins—to quote another visionary poet—to “see into the life of things.” He knows that all men are his brothers and all women are his sisters and lovers. He feels at one with God, and he sees the miracle and mystery of creation, down to the “mossy scabs of the wormfence, and heaped stones, and elder and mullen and pokeweed.” This knowledge becomes yours, Whitman implies, when you dare to expose your most tender and imaginative part, under the protection of your most worldly side.
Alive with new powers, Whitman offers us his central image for democracy, the grass: “A child said, What is the grass? fetching it to me with full hands.” Whitman says that he does not know what the grass is at its essence any more than the child does. He then moves into an amazing litany of metaphors. The grass is the flag of Whitman’s disposition, “out of hopeful green stuff woven.” It may be “the handkerchief of the Lord” or perhaps “a child … the produced babe of the vegetation.” It’s “the beautiful uncut hair of graves.” The grass, Whitman observes, is darker than the beards of old men and the faint red roofs of the mouths of the dead.
But chiefly, the grass is the sign of equality, equality within democratic America:
Or I guess it is a uniform hieroglyphic,
And it means, Sprouting alike in broad zones and narrow zones,
Growing among black folks as among white,
Kanuck, Tuckahoe, Congressman, Cuff, I give them the same, I receive them the same.
We are all—light-hued and dark-hued, everyday people and distinguished statespersons—blades of grass, nothing more, nothing less. We all arise from nature, and to nature, the grass, we return. But, and here is Whitman’s crucial paradox, by affirming ourselves as nothing but leaves of grass, we become more than individual leaves. We become part of the beautiful unity—out of many, one—that is the field of green, blades shining in the sun.
The grass passage might be taken as a thought experiment offered to the reader. Try imagining yourself as one blade of grass among a beautiful profusion of blades. You’re not identical to the blades around you, but you are not far from being so. At any moment you might emphasize your singularity—what makes you unusual among the mass. Or you might emphasize your identity with the blades that are around you. Sometimes you may not feel that you are much in yourself, but the effect that you help create overall is grand and quite formidable. You have the comfort of unity, and you have the pride and focus that come from individuality. We are all “so many uttering tongues.”
Knowing what he knows, feeling what he feels, Whitman can now take us on a tour of American democracy and show us what we might achieve by following him. In the famous catalogs of people doing what they do every day, he is dramatizing something quite simple. These are your brothers, he effectively says. These are your sisters. Affection and friendship can rule the day. Relax (or “loafe,” one of Whitman’s favorite words and acts, or anti-acts) and enjoy the experience of being. If we can move away from the urge to sweat and strain and compete and seek the highest point, and instead embrace Whitman’s demanding trope of the grass, our experience of day-to-day life can be different. We can look at those we pass and say: That too is me. That too I am. Or so Whitman believes and hopes.
The pure contralto sings in the organloft,
The carpenter dresses his plank … the tongue of his foreplane whistles its wild ascending lisp,
The married and unmarried children ride home to their thanksgiving dinner,
The pilot seizes the king-pin, he heaves down with a strong arm,
The mate stands braced in the whaleboat, lance and harpoon are ready,
The duck-shooter walks by silent and cautious stretches,
The deacons are ordained with crossed hands at the altar,
The spinning-girl retreats and advances to the hum of the big wheel,
The farmer stops by the bars of a Sunday and looks at the oats and rye,
The lunatic is carried at last to the asylum a confirmed case,
He will never sleep any more as he did in the cot in his mother’s bedroom;
The jour printer with gray head and gaunt jaws works at his case,
He turns his quid of tobacco, his eyes get blurred with the manuscript;
The malformed limbs are tied to the anatomist’s table,
What is removed drops horribly in a pail;
The quadroon girl is sold at the stand … the drunkard nods by the barroom stove.
Whitman is moving through space at visionary speed, seeing what there is to see of American life. The singularity of each being matters, and their collective identity matters too. You become more of an individual by being a part of this group; the group becomes richer for containing so many different living, breathing types.
What about that quadroon girl? What do we make of the fact that she’s in bondage and perhaps on her way to a life of servitude and violation? It’s not an easy question. I think that by putting her in his list, Whitman makes her equal to all the others he names. And if that is so, shouldn’t she be as free as any of them are at their best of times? As Whitman will say later in the poem, “By God! I will accept nothing which all cannot have their counterpart of on the same terms.” A little vague, but one gets the idea. When Whitman arrives at the end of his first grand catalog, he says: “And such as it is to be of these more or less I am.”
Whitman’s vision can sound appealing. Who would not want to be part of everyone and everything and feel the presence of all of one’s fellows in a democracy—calmly and affectionately, not in Darwinian, competitive ways? But nothing is got for nothing, and it helps to know what Whitman asks us to expend and what he asks us to deny, or even repudiate, in order to be his fellow democrats.
You might resist the collective tendency of the image. You might want there to be more difference between you and your neighbor than the difference between one blade of grass out there on the lawn and the next. After all, hierarchy has its pleasures, or at least its satisfactions, especially if you find yourself at the top, looking down at the mass of unimproved humanity below. Those in the middle regions and the lower orders, too, can find some clarity in a world based on order and degree. You know where you stand, with other men and women of course but also with God. You know what is valuable—it’s what your masters affirm. You know what to scorn, even if too often that is qualities possessed by yourself and those like you.
You might react, too, against the naturalism of the image. The grass is merely physical—it doesn’t connect itself in any way to the creator, to theology, to heaven and hell. You might miss the theological dimension of existence; what the New York Times columnist David Brooks has called Whitman’s attempt to “spiritualize democratic life” might not be enough for you.
As the poem unfolds, Whitman navigates this and other obstacles. You’ve got to kick your obsession with heaven and God, as traditionally conceived, he says. Whitman sees God everywhere and hears God’s voice in all things, “yet I understand God not in the least,” he says. Then: “Nor do I understand who there can be more wonderful than myself.” And yourself, too, dear democratic reader, he might have added. For our new God is democracy; we are devoted to its thriving and expansion. The philosopher Richard Rorty put it a bit hyperbolically, but accurately overall:
Whitman thought that we Americans have the most poetical nature because we are the first thoroughgoing experiment in national self-creation: the first nation-state with nobody but itself to please—not even God. We are the greatest poem because we put ourselves in the place of God: our essence is our existence, and our existence is in the future. Other nations thought of themselves as hymns to the glory of God. We redefine God as our future selves.
Whitman is fascinated by Jesus. He goes so far as to join him in his bloody crowning and crucifixion: “I am the man … I suffered … I was there.” But Jesus is not an end in himself. Whitman’s Jesus is not the savior or the son of God, but one person among many, part of an “average unending procession,” something of an honorary American. He is, maybe, the first democrat, in that no one else prior to the founding of America—or prior to Whitman’s poetry—was so significantly devoted to the gospel of equality: That which you do to the least of mine, you do also to me.
Whitman upends traditional notions of sex, too, in strange and rather inexplicable ways. At the center of the poem is a lengthy masturbation scene, in which the poet’s onanism is a source of both struggle and release: “Is this then a touch? … quivering me to a new identity.” Whitman isn’t sure, feeling he is held “helpless to a red marauder,” yet he proceeds to celebrate the power of his semen to fructify the world. As I read the passage, it amounts to a call for the broadening of sexual tolerance. And it signifies Whitman’s trust in the reader: There’s nothing about himself he will not reveal. He trusts us, and perhaps we will trust him as well.
Whitman’s most difficult obstacle in the poem is death. He tells us that no array of terms can express how at peace he is about God and about death. He tells us also—and more significantly—that “the smallest sprout shows there is really no death.” How could this possibly be true? Some of Whitman’s critics say that he was a potent believer in reincarnation. I’m not sure he was, at least not in any conventional sense. I think Whitman’s confidence about overcoming death is a good deal more radical and original—and also troubling.
What he seems to suggest is that if you immerse yourself fully in democracy—become that grass blade—you will achieve a certain kind of immortality. The way of life that you have fully committed yourself to will go on even after you have departed. You will have contributed to something great, so you can pass peacefully from the world believing that it will continue. You are in a sense—but only in a sense—immortal.
This is a lot to ask anyone to embrace. Some think of Whitman as a poet of reassuring platitudes. He is actually an exacting poet, not only in what he asks of us as readers and interpreters, but in what he asks of us as humans. One has to wonder: Could we ever bring Whitman’s vision fully into the world? Could Whitman himself ever embody his vision outside the poem—put it into practice in his life?
In the midst of the Civil War, Whitman traveled to Washington, D.C., where he gave himself over to nursing the wounded and the dying, black and white, young and middle-aged, Union and Confederate. He spent two years there, helping the men, talking to them, writing letters for them, buying them tobacco, and giving them small gifts. Whitman wrote in a letter:
I adapt myself to each case … some need to be humored, some are rather out of their head—some merely want me to sit down [near] them, & hold them by the hand—one will want a letter written to mother or father, (yesterd[ay] I wrote over a dozen letters)—some like to have me feed them (wounded perhaps in shoulder or wrist) perhaps a few bits of my peaches—some want a cooling drink, (I have some very nice syrups from raspberries &c.)—others want writing paper, envelopes, a stamp, &c.—I could fill a sheet with one day’s items—I often go, just at dark, sometimes stay nearly all night.
When soldiers died—many did—he wrote home to their parents in gentle, vivid ways about their last hours and his friendship with them in the hospitals. He said, “My hospital ministrations are very fascinating with all of their sadness. The wounded & sick get incredible near to one. Poor young men, they respond so affectionately to kindness & magnetism.” Could one imagine any other poet or writer of even half Whitman’s capacities and achievements doing as much?
While he was in Washington at what he called “my hospitals,” I think Whitman effectively completed “Song of Myself.” He became a version of the person his poem prophesied. He engaged his soul, “clear and sweet,” as he called it. His soul became his mode of connection with the sick and wounded and dying men. His imagination allowed him to see who they were, what they were feeling, and how he could best help them.
His poetic self—tough and tireless—was at the ready too. Whitman’s endurance during the hospital years was astounding. He spent day after day, hour past hour, in a hellish environment, doing all he could. His health was always in jeopardy, but somehow he held up. Whitman proved to be durable and strong. He truly possessed what Emerson said he did: “buffalo strength.” He was still that formidable man on the frontispiece of Leaves of Grass, but he was more than that as well.
He didn’t bring God into the hospitals with him. Preachers of all stripes visited the wards in Washington, bent on shoring up the men’s faith, or converting the wayward. Whitman wanted no such thing. The soldiers knew and appreciated him as the man who did not preach to them. He may have gone on beholding God in every object, but he did not surrender the idea that he—and all others in America’s democracy—were as marvelous as God could ever be and maybe more so. He included everyone in his ministrations, as “Song of Myself” indicated he would. If you were in the hospital, Whitman was there to help you.
He was able to look straight at death. He could do this in a way that almost no one who is not a doctor or nurse can. His vision had prepared him for that. “To die is different from what any one supposed, and luckier,” he wrote. “I pass death with the dying, and birth with the new-washed babe … and am not contained between my hat and boots.” Whitman knew he was a blade of grass, and that as new, fresh grass—new citizens of democracy—arose in the world, he would be reincarnated: “The smallest sprout shows there is really no death.” He must have believed this—it had been revealed to him in his vision—or he would not have been able to face death, both his own death and the deaths of so many soldiers, with as much equanimity as he did. He came back the next day and the next ready to give more help.
Whitman didn’t do his good deeds under anyone’s direction but his own. He set no store by bosses or doctors or ward overseers. Quietly and modestly he went about his business, putting into practice everything he had learned from the amazing spiritual voyage that he had undertaken. Whitman became other people. He entered their hearts and souls, and he knew how they felt. And he came to love the men as much as they did him. In a letter to Emerson, he wrote that, in the hospitals, he got to “be welcome and useful, I find the masses fully justified by closest contact, never vulgar, ever calm, without greediness, no flummery, no frivolity—responding electric and without fail to affection, yet no whining—not the first unmanly whimper have yet I seen or heard.”
Whitman speaks to our moment in many ways. One of them is quite simple: At a time when Americans hate one another across partisan lines as intensely perhaps as they have since the Civil War, Whitman’s message is that hate is not compatible with true democracy, spiritual democracy. We may wrangle and fight and squabble and disagree. Up to a certain point, Whitman approved of conflict. But affection—friendliness—must always define the relations between us. When that affection dissolves, the first order of business is to restore it. Looking at the present, Whitman might insist not only on bonds of affection in our country, but on a more sane relation to Jesus and to God. To abase oneself before them would count to him as a serious error. But to ridicule the teachings of Jesus and those who follow him, or to make light of God’s luminous but incomprehensible presence in the world—that too would be a mistake.
Perhaps what Whitman mainly offers is hope—the hope that this new form of social life can prosper and give people access to levels of happiness and freedom that they have never enjoyed. Whitman was not programmatically cheerful, not a grinning optimist. He was badly depressed when Leaves of Grass failed in its earliest incarnations to reach people. He was horribly downcast as he saw the Civil War gathering. But he never withdrew his hope that America could be a thriving nation not only for some, but for all of its people—and that the country would be an example for others across the world, should they choose to embrace it.
After Emerson brought him to a boil, and he produced Leaves of Grass, Whitman sent a copy to the sage of Concord. Emerson wrote back what may be the most generous letter ever sent by one great writer to another. Remember: Whitman was a nobody. Emerson could readily have consigned the book to the trash heap. Remember: In “Song of Myself” Whitman achieves poetically everything that Emerson wished to achieve (and more). Remember: Emerson offered the road map and Whitman followed it. Emerson could well have melted into jealousy when he read “Song of Myself,” and pretended not to see what was there before him.
That is not what happened. Of the 1855 Leaves of Grass, Emerson said: “I find it the most extraordinary piece of wit and wisdom that America has yet contributed. I am very happy in reading it, as great power makes us happy.” It makes us happy, that is, if we can recognize it for what it asserts and what it asks of us, as Emerson did, and not turn away. “It has the best merits,” Emerson wrote, “namely, of fortifying and encouraging.”
So it did then. So it may now.
This article appears in the May 2019 print edition with the headline “Walt Whitman’s Guide to a Thriving Democracy.”