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Forger of the American Spirit

books and culture

Forger of the American Spirit

Reflections on Walt Whitman’s bicentennial May 31, 2019
Arts and Culture

Walt Whitman Speaks: His Final Thoughts on Life, Writing, Spirituality, and the Promise of America, edited by Brenda Wineapple (Library of America, 196 pp., $19.95)

If optimism is the American creed, Walt Whitman stands as its most exuberant exponent. He was steadfast in his embrace of America. In “Song of Myself,” published in Whitman’s first volume of Leaves of Grass, in 1855 (and appearing in all subsequent editions), he presents himself as the flesh-and-blood representative of a sprawling and rising nation:

Of every hue and cast am I, of every rank and religion,

A farmer, mechanic, artist, gentleman, sailor, quaker . . .

Breathe the air but leave plenty after me,

And am not stuck up, and am in my place.

The essential Whitman qualities can be appreciated anew with the publication of Walt Whitman Speaks, a slim volume presenting, as its subtitle tells us, “His Final Thoughts on Life, Writing, Spirituality, and the Promise of America.” Throughout his life, Whitman had many such thoughts—in his last years alone, enough to fill nine volumes, transcribed by his young friend and amanuensis, the writer and social reformer Horace Traubel. In 1888, Traubel began nearly daily visits to Whitman at his Mickle Street row house in Camden, New Jersey, writing down, in shorthand, almost every utterance. The mostly one-way conversations halted only with Whitman’s death, at 72, in 1892. Walt Whitman Speaks is a “best of” from his bulky and repetitious material, ruthlessly pared and elegantly sorted by the editor, Brenda Wineapple, an historian and biographer, into categories like “Nature,” “Egotism,” “Sex,” “Friendship,” and “Democracy.” Whitman, I think, would be pleased.

It’s tempting to think of Whitman merely as a reflection of his times—an age of boundless confidence, as a young nation sprouted into a global titan. But that would be a double mistake. First, America did not enjoy an untroubled passage through these years—the Civil War, for one thing, intervened midway in Whitman’s life—and second, Whitman’s literary contemporaries did not all share his buoyant and expansive temperament. Consider Herman Melville. Both were natives of New York, born a few months apart in 1819 (Whitman in West Hills, Long Island, Melville in southern Manhattan). Like many Yankees, they opposed slavery and its spread. But their contrasting dispositions came to the fore when fighting began between the North and the South. In his poem “The Swamp Angel,” Melville offers an ode to the Union gun—the angel—that rained death and destruction on Charleston, South Carolina, in the siege of the city that Northerners blamed, rightly, for giving birth to the Southern rebellion. The poem seems to suggest Charleston’s deserved comeuppance, in a tone of cold anger: “Is this the proud City? the scorner/Which never would yield the ground?”

That was not a tone found in Whitman, a war volunteer who nursed the wounded. “Some of my best friends in the hospitals were probably Southern boys,” he tells Traubel, decades later. “I remember one in particular, right off—a Kentucky youngster . . . I found myself loving him like a son: he used to kiss me good night—kiss me . . . Oh! I could tell you a hundred such tales.” This recollection is mirrored in Whitman’s poem, “Reconciliation,” written at war’s end:

For my enemy is dead, a man divine as myself is dead,

I look where he lies white-faced and still in the coffin—I draw near,

Bend down and touch lightly with my lips the white face in the coffin.

The Union victory strengthened Whitman’s bright spirits. As the Gilded Age dawned, his contrast with contemporaries remained striking. For Mark Twain, younger than Whitman by 16 years, the endemic corruption that defined this chapter of American life was a wellspring for sardonic sayings along the lines of, “It could probably be shown by facts and figures that there is no distinctly native American criminal class except Congress.” Ambrose Bierce, born 23 years after Whitman, began work on The Devil’s Dictionary, where he defined a cynic as “a blackguard whose faulty vision sees things as they are, not as they ought to be.” Brooks Adams, great-grandson of John Adams and 29 years Whitman’s junior, plunged into despair. He wrote a mawkish treatise that he considered calling “The Path to Hell,” but ultimately titled The Law of Civilization and Decay.

Whitman would have none of this. His was not a foolish optimism—he saw the Gilded Age for what it was, having his own moments of gloom, a sense of how “genuine belief seems to have left us” and “the lowering darkness falls,” as he wrote in “Democratic Vistas,” a prose pamphlet published in 1871. Yet Whitman never succumbed to cynicism. “I believe our institutions can digest, absorb, all elements, good or bad, godlike or devilish, that come along,” he tells Traubel, for “it is impossible for America to fail to turn the worst luck into best—curses into blessings.” He was proven right: the Gilded Age was not America’s undoing, with the country and its institutions finding, even in these often rank times, the seeds of renewal.

What, then, was the root source of Whitman’s irrepressible hopefulness? The answer can be found nearly everywhere in the pages of Walt Whitman Speaks, especially in the short section titled “Spirituality.” By the time Whitman started pouring out his thoughts to Traubel, America had established itself as an economic giant. Whitman was not opposed to the country’s gaudy material achievements; after all, “the body must precede the soul,” he instructs his friend. Nevertheless, it was the soul that reigned. True meaning was not to be found in “railroads, telegraphs, factories, stores . . . no, no: these are but fleeting ephemera—these alone are nothing, absolutely nothing; only the absorbent spirit enveloping, penetrating, going beneath, above, all—only this is something.” In this dogma, the American spirit, a life force unto itself, can be found everywhere in the land, in nature as in the beating heart of every man and woman: “America—her clouds, her rivers, her woods—all her origin, purpose, ideals; let it be reflected in the majesty of each individual.” This democratic spirit, by Whitman’s conviction, was unquenchable.

This high-voltage positivity was not an unalloyed good. Whitman’s faith anticipated what came to be called the American Century, built around the dubious idea that an exceptional America had a missionary role to rescue and remake the world. “I wonder,” he suggests to Traubel, “if the American people are not the most enterprising on the globe, in history—any land, any age? They seem to be in readiness at all times for all emergencies; places of peril they transform instantly to safeties.” This was bunk. In just a few years, America would be embroiled in the Philippines—first ridding the Filipinos of their Spanish colonial overseers, but thereafter waging a war of conquest against natives demanding full independence for their country.

Whitman by then was in his grave, but surely he would have found a way, not to excuse America’s conduct in the war, but to accept it as but one thread, if a scarlet one, in the country’s unfinished tapestry. As unapologetically signaled in “Song of Myself,” he made no vow of consistency in his assorted soapbox pronouncements, and he proved resolutely faithful to that promise, too:

Do I contradict myself?

Very well then I contradict myself,

(I am large, I contain multitudes.)

My own habit, every other year or so, is to read “Song of Myself,” usually also dipping back into “When Lilacs Last in the Dooryard Bloom’d,” his lovely ode, written after the assassination, to Lincoln: “the sweetest, wisest soul of all my days and lands.” Whitman is invariably a tonic, and it’s hard to resist speculating, as fanciful as the exercise might be, on what he might make of today’s America and its multitudes. The perpetual swamp of Washington, of course, hardly could come as a surprise. “Washington is corrupt,” he tells Traubel, “but the evil is mostly with the upper crust.” (Then again, he had “no doubt” that “by and by the capital will go west—somewhere along the Mississippi—the Missouri.”) Donald Trump? Perhaps Whitman would be charitable in judging Trump’s personal character; in “Democratic Vistas,” he inveighed against “refinement and delicatesse” as “a cancer” on the body politic and pleaded “for a little healthy rudeness.” Whitman gave wide berth to outrageousness and had intimate and agreeable acquaintances with outsize egos—including his own. While projecting such judgments is inevitably an exercise of imagination, not scholarship, it’s clear enough that Trump is the opposite of the type that tended to provoke Whitman’s ire. “I often get mad at the ministers—they are almost the only people I do get mad at,” he confesses to Traubel. What of Bernie Sanders, a native of Brooklyn, where the young Walt attended public schools and in later years edited a newspaper? Maybe, in Sanders’s raspy voice, Whitman also might detect something familiar—the “barbaric yawp” that he sounded “over the roofs of the world,” as proclaimed in the final stanza of “Song of Myself.”

Whitman, though, had scant sympathy for socialism. The original Gilded Age, with its “robber barons” and Newport palaces, was notable for its colossal disparities in wealth; yet Whitman, the anti-materialist, with his overriding belief in the spiritual character of all things, could not be persuaded by Traubel, a dedicated socialist, that “vices, evils, sins” might have an origin in the structure of the economy. Evil, for Whitman, stemmed from heartlessness and an absence of faith in the American experiment. In this sense, he undoubtedly would detest the restrictive immigration approach favored by Trump and the president’s supporters. It was much the same in Whitman’s day, with calls for sealing the borders, and in Walt Whitman Speaks, his position is clear. “We ought to invite the world through an open door—all men—yes, even the criminals—giving to everyone a chance—a new outlook,” he says. “America is not for special types, for the caste, but for the great mass of people—the vast, surging, hopeful, army of workers. Dare we deny them a home…?”

Listen closely, as the 2020 presidential campaign unfolds, for the Whitmanesque notes. Pete Buttigieg struck one in his launch speech in South Bend, Indiana, the city he presides over as mayor. “You and I now stand in a city that formally incorporated in 1865, the last year of a war that nearly destroyed this whole country. What an act of hope that must have been,” he told the crowd. “We stand on the shoulders of optimistic women and men. Women and men who knew that optimism is not a lack of knowledge, but a source of courage.” That’s it, exactly. Whitman’s optimism was rooted in spirit, but of a type as hard and as unbending as metal. He helped forge the American spirit, and it abides today.

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