I was confronted rather forcefully one afternoon by a loud message on a boarded-up storefront: “STRANGER!” it called, “if you, passing, meet me, and desire to speak to me, why should you not speak to me? And why should I not speak to you?” The sign covered an otherwise unremarkable window in Washington, DC, but the words were well placed: Walt Whitman’s poetry belongs in a city.
Some weeks before, I encountered Whitman in a different setting: an exhibit honoring the bicentennial of his birth at New York’s Morgan Library. It’s an appropriate spot—Whitman loved his “Mannahatta,” as he titled one of his poems. And it’s a good time to celebrate Whitman, whose untrammeled delight in his country might tell us something about national identity.
The exhibit’s full name is “Walt Whitman: Bard of Democracy,” based on an 1859 note in which Whitman proclaimed himself as such. It’s a relatively obscure line scribbled in a personal journal, and one of many in which Whitman boldly addressed readers while celebrating himself (“Comrades! I am the bard of democracy”). But it fits: Whitman had long thought of himself this way, going so far as to anonymously publish favorable reviews of his own first volume of poetry, at least one of which declared the arrival of “an American Poet at last!”
That review, which is prominently displayed at the Morgan, is something of a cross between a poem and an advertisement, and toasts “that style which must characterize ‘the nation of teeming nations.’” In it, Whitman described himself as virtually every American type: “a northerner—a planter . . . . a Yankee bound his own way . . . . a boatman over Ontario, Erie, Michigan, or Champlain—a Hoozier, or Badger, or Buckeye, a Louisianian or Georgian—a poke-easy from sandhills and pines.” The poet who is the sum of all these types is “a learner with the simplest, a teacher of the thoughtfulest . . . . a farmer, mechanic or artist—a gentleman, sailor, lover, quaker, prisoner, fancyman, rowdy, lawyer, physician or priest.” In short, “through the poet’s soul runs the perpetual spirit of union and equality.”
While it’s easy to smile at Whitman’s anonymous praise of his own work, he seemed serious about creating a distinctly American literature. In his preface to the original 1855 edition of Leaves of Grass (his first book, which he drastically revised multiple times throughout his life), Whitman wrote that “The English language befriends the grand American expression—it is brawny enough, and limber and full enough . . . . It is the chosen tongue to express growth, faith, self-esteem, freedom, justice, equality, friendliness, amplitude, prudence, decision, and courage.”
If writing reviews of one’s own work is unorthodox, the history of Leaves of Grass is similarly eccentric. It was self-published anonymously by Whitman around the 4th of July, 1855, and originally included 12 poems—most of which were wildly long and half of which were unnamed. The rest all shared the same title: “Leaves of Grass.” The slim, strange volume contained errors and inconsistencies throughout, and was later transformed by Whitman into almost entirely different books in his numerous “revised editions.” Nevertheless, Whitman proudly sent a copy from the first printing to Ralph Waldo Emerson, who responded by calling it “the most extraordinary piece of wit and wisdom that America has yet contributed.”
In some ways, Whitman engaged Emerson directly in Leaves of Grass. The exhibit features an 1841 edition of Emerson’s Essays lying open to his piece on “Self-Reliance,” in which Emerson posed a question: “Suppose you should contradict yourself; what then?” In Leaves of Grass, Whitman famously asked and answered a similar question: “Do I contradict myself? Very well then, I contradict myself. (I am large, I contain multitudes.)”
In another essay, “The Poet,” Emerson asked his readers (as the museum label puts it) “why so many ordinary aspects of American life still remained ‘unsung.’” Whitman later wrote to a friend, seemingly in response, “I was simmering, simmering, simmering. Emerson brought me to a boil.” Among the famous poems from early editions of Leaves of Grass is one entitled “I Hear America Singing.”
He responded to Emerson’s letter with an open letter of his own, proclaiming that, “Swiftly, on limitless foundations, the United States too are founding a literature.” It’s unfortunate that this response was not mentioned in the exhibit, as it provides insight into Whitman’s true aim. In it, he challenged “America, grandest of lands,” to cultivate artists worthy of her:
You are young, have the perfectest of dialects, a free press, a free government, the world forwarding its best to be with you. As justice has been strictly done to you, from this hour do strict justice to yourself. Strangle the singers who will not sing you loud and strong. Open the doors of The West. Call for great new masters to comprehend new arts, new perfections, new wants. Submit to the most robust bard till he remedy your barrenness. Then you will not need to adopt the heirs of others; you will have true heirs, begotten of yourself, blooded with your own blood.
Almost at the start of the exhibit, some of these heirs are on display. A 1931 edition of Langston Hughes’s The Weary Blues lies open to his poem “I, Too,” which recalls Whitman in its first line (“I, too, sing America”) and stakes a claim for African-Americans’ place in America’s story. The museum label notes that Hughes had jettisoned all the books he’d brought on a trip to Africa save for one: Leaves of Grass.
The Spanish poet Federico Garcia Lorca was also captivated by Whitman; during a 1929 visit to New York, he grew to love the “furious rhythm” of the city and Whitman’s poetry. The Morgan features a first edition of Lorca’s 1931 The Poet in New York, which includes his poem “Ode to Walt Whitman.” Lorca seemed to be making the point that, while Whitman wished to contain all of America in his poetry, he could not help but belong to the island he’d grown up watching from across a river. He proclaimed himself to be “of every hue and caste . . . . every rank and religion,” yet he was unable to entirely escape particular ties.
Whitman was born in Suffolk County in 1819, moved to Brooklyn at the age of four, and finally made his way to Manhattan as a teenager. He later claimed that the poems in Leaves of Grass “arose out of my life in Brooklyn and New York from 1838 to 1853, absorbing a million people . . . . with an intimacy, an eagerness, and an abandon, probably never equaled.” In a letter from 1868, he reflected that he might be “the particular man who enjoys the shows of all these things in New York more than any other mortal—as if it was all got up just for me to observe and study.”
His love for New York seemed bound up with his love for epic poetry: in his 1882 memoir Specimen Days, Whitman described his daily visits to Coney Island, where he would “race up and down the hard sand, and declaim Homer or Shakespeare to the surf or sea-gulls.” (The Morgan displays Whitman’s personal copies of Homer’s Odyssey and James Macpherson’s Fingal, an epic poem based on ancient Gaelic folklore.)
Whitman shared this love of classic verse with Abraham Lincoln, whom he came to celebrate in much of his writing. Though the two never met, Whitman penned an essay several years before Lincoln’s presidency in which he called for a bearded “Redeemer President of These States.” The Morgan suggests Whitman might have had a hunch about Lincoln’s career path, which may or may not be true. What is certain is that Whitman wished to replace the “debauched old disunionist politicians” with a figure appropriate for “a proud, young, fresh, heroic nation.” In the essay, a handwritten version of which is on display, Whitman also linked his fierce support for abolition with his yearning for great American art, asking whether the nation’s slave-owners “expect to bar off forever all preachers, poets, philosophers—all that makes the brain of These States, free literature, free thought, the good old cause of liberty.”
Whitman’s experience serving wounded soldiers during the Civil War seemed to deepen his sense that Americans needed to be unified through a peculiar kind of art, which he believed could stem from a peculiar kind of leadership. In Lincoln, Whitman found his ideal American hero—an autodidact like himself, who connected with Whitman’s beloved “common people.” He remarked at one point that “after my dear, dear mother, I guess Lincoln gets almost nearer me than anybody else.”
He was devastated by Lincoln’s assassination; as the Morgan shows, Whitman scribbled “Lincoln’s death—black, black,” in a personal notebook shortly after hearing the news. He found a bright spot of sorts, though: In a lecture following Lincoln’s death, Whitman exclaimed, “Why, if the old Greeks had had this man, what trilogies of plays—what epics—would have been made out of him!” In his view, Lincoln was greater than Washington in part because his death ranked higher in “the imaginative and artistic senses—the literary and dramatic ones.” In these elements that were indispensable to the formation of national identity, Lincoln surpassed “Cæsar in the Roman senate-house, or Napoleon passing away in the wild night-storm at St. Helena . . . . Paleologus, falling, desperately fighting, piled over dozens deep with Grecian corpses . . . . calm old Socrates, drinking the hemlock.”
The Morgan doesn’t shy away from suggesting that Whitman looked at Lincoln’s death as a “meal ticket,” and he did publish and speak a great deal about Lincoln throughout his life, including through an annual address. But his personal writings indicate he genuinely grieved over the loss. And while the museum devotes perhaps too much time to assessing Whitman’s admirers and speculating about his personal life and homosexuality—Allen Ginsburg and Oscar Wilde feature prominently in addition to Hughes and Lorca—it falls short in its assessment of why Whitman admired Lincoln and Emerson so deeply. All three men saw something transcendent in America that the Morgan doesn’t address. The exhibit is worth attending for Whitman’s writings alone, but it does not adequately explore why the “bard of democracy” saw himself that way.
Of course, the answer to that question is elusive. In The Atlantic, Mark Edmundson recently argued that Whitman was attempting to convey “what being a democratic man or woman felt like at its best, day to day, moment to moment.” In celebrating himself, Whitman sought to remind the nation that it was worthy of being celebrated, for reasons that, as Whitman himself put it, were “indirect.” American greatness could be found not only in the country’s founding documents, but in the daily lived experiences of its vast variety of “brothers and sisters”; or as Edmundson writes, Whitman’s “famous catalogs of people.”
In National Review, Sarah Ruden took the opposite tack. Insisting that she has “done [her] dutiful reading of Whitman” and “can remember practically nothing,” Ruden denounces Whitman as a racist and proto-fascist. She unfairly minimizes his membership in the Free Soil Party (calling it “narrow and self-interested”), neglects to mention his anti-slavery writings, and dismisses both his wartime service to the Union and his affection for Lincoln. She calls Whitman less “the father of the American spirit than the father of empty American celebrity: the Kardashians, mommy bloggers . . . . the whole mutually trampling stampede of ineffable individual specialness.”
Whitman might not have entirely balked at this last criticism, though it still misses the mark. He did seek to elevate what the elites of his time viewed as common, and to give a young, fractured nation a sense of self-respect, however removed it might have been from the imprimatur of European tastes. In Leaves of Grass, he called the United States “the greatest poem,” and described the style of the country’s poets as “transcendent and new. It is to be indirect, and not direct or descriptive or epic. . . . Here the theme is creative, and has vista.”
He also sought to give America a hero. In his annual speech commemorating Lincoln’s death, Whitman insisted that the most important outcome of the president’s “heroic-eminent life” would come “centuries hence,” in “its indirect filtering into the nation and the race.” He believed it would give “a cement to the whole people, subtle, more underlying, than anything in written constitution, or courts or armies—namely, the cement of a death identified thoroughly with that people….a Nationality.”
Whitman’s hopes for such a “nationality” may have been misplaced, and he may have failed in his overall project. Americans might too easily shrug off heroism or retreat to a protective cynicism, to paraphrase Winston Churchill. They may not feel the attachment to Lincoln—the entirely ordinary and entirely great man of Whitman’s writings—that Whitman had hoped for. But there is some reason for optimism. Kim Kardashian has an outsized influence on our culture, but she is not the only influence. Lincoln’s status as a self-made man and noble martyr still looms large in our historiography, and distinctly American forms of pop culture—whether the Westerns of yesteryear or the lavish superhero movies of today—offer something Whitman may have valued, in their stories of local and national pride and martyr-worthy clashes.
And while Whitman’s writings could be vulgar and his vision was admittedly “indirect,” there seems to be no reason to believe, as the revisionists would have it, that he was insincere in what he wanted to provide the American people. Whitman sought to convey a sense of the grandeur of their nation, the majesty of everyday life, and a vision of Americans as different from, but with the capacity to achieve equal footing with, the masters of the past. At its best, Whitman’s own work achieved that vision. His attempt to “sing America”—to draw from what the country was rather than preach about what she ought to be—is still worth celebrating two centuries later.