Walt Whitman an American

Guy Davenport
Vol. 5, No. 1, 1976


His rooms in Camden were shin-deep in wadded paper; nonchalanace was one of the household gods. Visitors, wading in, knew the others so numinously there around the old man with so much white hair and beard, so freckled and so barbarically slouched on a buffalo robe: the ghosts of Rossini and Scott, of Lincoln and Columbus, of Ancharsis Cloots and Elias Hicks, and two supreme goddesses, Artemis Philomeirix and Eleutheria who eidolon was erected in his sixty-third year on Bedloe’s Island, a gift from the French, three hundred and two feet tall, status and pediment together, the word of Frédéric-Auguste Bartholdi, at the sight of which millions of eyes would water in gray dawns with an anguish of hope which only Whitman’s poetry can duplicate (“Not a grave of the murdered for freedom but grows seed for freedom…in its turn to bear seed, Which the winds carry far and re-sow, and the rains and the snows nourish”), Liberty.

Lincoln, on horseback, tipped his hat to him in Washington one day, a gazing stranger whom Lincoln must have supposed was some office seeker or underling in one of the departments, perhaps a geologist with that grizzled a beard. It was the Republican equivalent of Napoleon looking in on Goethe to talk history and poetry.

He attended Poe’s funeral, standing toward the back of the mourners. He comforted the dying in the war (like Henry James) and wrote letters home for them (like Ezra Pound at Pisa).  Not until he was an old man did anyone care or know who he was. George Collins Cox cam and photographed him hugging children (and copyrighted the photograph, as if Walt were Niagara Falls or Grand Grand Canyon); Thomas Eakins came and did a masterpiece of a portrait. Young men came and learned what they might do with their lives, John Burroughs being the star pupil.

Like Poe, he has always been suspect in his own country. To name the Walt Whitman Bridge the authorities had to sidestep the objections of Christians and Patriots that his morals were un-American. Emerson, who once strolled through the louvre without stopping in front of a single picture, was at pains to have it known that he was not a close friend of Whitman’s. Thoreau wrote in his journal, December 1, 1856: “As for the sensuality in Whitman’s ‘Leaves of Grass,’ I do not so much wish that it was not written, as that men and women were so pure that they could read it without harm.”

“Whitman,” Kafka told his friend Gustav Janouch, “belongs among the greatest formal innovators in the mordern lyric. One can regard his unrhymed verse as the progenitor of the free rhythms of Arno Hols, Émile Verhaeren, and Paul Claudel…the formal element in Walt Whitman’s poetry found an enormous echo throughout the world. Yet Walt Whitman’s significance lies elsewhere. He combined the contemplation of nature and of civilization, which are apparently entirely contradictory, into a single intoxicating vision of life, because he always had sight of the trnasitoriness of all phenomena. He said: ‘Life is the little thing that is left over from dying.’ So he gave his whole heart to every leaf of grass. I admire in him the reconciliation of art and nature….He was really a Christian and—with a close affinity especially to use Jews—he was therefore an important measure of the status and worth of humanity.”* [FOOTNOTE *Gustav Janouch, Conversations with Kafka, translated by Goronwy Rees, New Directions, 1971, p. 167.]

“Have you read the American poems by Whitman?” Van Gogh wrote to his sister-in-law in September 1888. “I am sure Theo has them, and I strongly advise you to read them, because to begin with they are very fine, and the English speak about them a good deal. He sees in the future, and even in the present, a world of healthy, carnal love, strong and frank—of friendship—of work—under the great starlit vault of heaven a something which after all one can only call God—and eternity in its place above this world. At first it makes you smile, it is all so candid and pure; but it sets you thinking for the same reason.

“The ‘Prayer of Columbus’ is very beautiful.”** [FOOTNOTE ** Complete Letters of Vincent Van Gogh, Vol. III, New York Graphic Society, 1958, p. 445.]

The range of sensibilities that responded to his is impressive and a bit puzzling: Henry James, Melville, Swinbure, Tennyson, Victor Hugo, John Hay, Yeats, the Rossettis. He was a force useful to talents as diverse as those of William Carlos Williams and Dino Campana, Guillaume Apollinaire and Hart Crane. He had freed poetry from exclusive commitments to narrative and the ode. He closed the widening distance between poet and audience. He talks to us face to face, so that our choice is between listening and turning away. And in turning away there is the uneasy feeling that we are turning our backs on the very stars and on ourselves.

He succeeded in making himself a symbol of American idealism as bright as and in many ways far more articulate than Jefferson or Jackson. But as an ideal figure he turned out to be risky currency. Thoreau and Emerson were safer, more respectable, and more apt to remain in the realm of ideas.

Whitman, Jack Yeats complained, was bad for the American spirit because it seemed to him that we indulged all too naturally in that in which Whitman urged us to wallow. Beerbohm caricatured this view of Whitman (“…inciting the American eagle to soar”), and the young Ezra Pound in his pre-Raphaelite suit thought Whitman much too much, while intelligently suspecting that there was something there that the critics weren’t seeing.

There are lots of things the critics haven’t seen. It is for instance worthwhile reading Whitman against the intellectual background he assumed his readers knew and which is no longer remembered except sporadically: the world of Alexander von Humboldt from which Whitman takes the word cosmos; Louis Agassiz, for whom Thoreau collected turtles; Volney’s Ruins, the historical perspective of which is as informative in Whitman as in Shelley; Fourier; Scott. A great deal that seems naïve and spontaneous in Whitman has roots and branches.

His age still read Plutarch as part of its education, and Whitman’s understanding of erotic camaraderie looks different (less personal and eccentric) beside a knowledge of the Theban Sacred Band under Pelopidas and Epameinondas, whose conversations in Elysium with Freud one would like to hear, those heroes who names were terror to the Spartan infantry, who were Pythagoreans who believed, in the Master’s dictum, that a friend is another self, who were sworn to chastity, and who passed daily the palace of an old king named Oedipus.

And they were, as they said in their language, democrats.

Whitman’s fond gaze was for grace that is unaware of itself; his constant pointing to beauty in common robust people was a discovery. Custom said that beauty was elsewhere. Women in his time were pathologically interested in their own looks, especially in well-to-do families, because that would be their sole achievement, aside from motherhood, on this earth. There were laced breathlessly into corsets, caged in hoop-skirts, harnessed into bustles. Their bodies were girl about with bodices, drawers, bloomers, stockings, gloves, petticoats. Their shoes were always too small. They took no more exercise than aged invalids. Their hair was curled with irons heated in an open fire, then oiled, then shoved into a bonnet it would tire a horse to wear. Their flesh never met the light of the sun. They fainted frequently and understandably. How in the world did they pee?

In Plutarch you could read about Spartan girls who wrestled with boys, both naked. It was the opinion of the Spartans that clothing on would be indecent. (We know of a Philadelphia woman in the time of Dr. Benjamin Rush who chose to die in modesty rather than let a doctor see her breasts.)

On suspects that Theoreau would have married a woodchuck or a raccoon, in the biology of the union could have been arranged. Whitman might, given the opportunity, like Clarence King or Lafcadio Hearn, have married a black woman. It was one of his fantasies that he had had one for a mistress.

Freud’s replacing one Calvinism with another pretty much the same should not fool us into thinking we can say that Whitman’s love for handsome boys was a psychosis which we can then subtract from his book, like Victoria looking at da Vinci’s notebooks with the anatomical drawings decorously covered by brown paper. That love is the very heart of his vision. He was re-inventing a social bond that had been in civilization from the beginning, that had, in Christian Europe, learned various dodges, \and met its doom in Puritanism and was thus not in the cultural package unloaded on Plymoth Rock.

As in the ancient world Whitman had no patience with the pathic (as his word was), the effeminate. He wanted in men and women a love that was unaware of itself, as heroism is unaware of itself, as children are unaware of their own beauty. What Whitman was observing as the mating habits of the species was a debased form of Courtly Love that the industrial revolution had entwined with commerce (a pretty wife was an asset to a rich man, indeed, she was part of his wealth). Women were caught in a strange new myth, as if Pluto were the most eligible husband for Persephone.

There was accuracy in Whitman’s turning to those spirits that were free to be lively, lusty, inventive. He loved as Nietzsche said of the Greeks, the health of the race. His race was like none before. It stood at a unique place in history. It joined the two halves of the world. Whitman’s great vision culminated in his celebration of the spanning of our continent with rails, the closing of the gap between Europe and America with the transatlantic cable, and the opening of the Suez Canal. These completed the circle Columbus had drawn the first brace arc of. More than commerce would flow along that new route that at last belted the whole earth. Why should not ideas as archaic as man himself immigrate along that line?

One reason Whitman is so interested right now is that we do not yet know if that band around the earth is an umbilicus or a strangling cord. Albert Speer explained at Nuremberg that radio and telephone had amplified Hitler’s scope and accelerated the implementation of his orders so far beyond any power available to previous tyrants that we need a new kind of imagination to grasp how so much evil could have been done in those twelve infernal years. The first hell allowed by the world belt was Whitman’s own Civil War, an old feud of the English that infected the new world and broke out with renewed vigor, Roundhead and Cavalier, North and South, industrialist and planter.

Whitman’s fellow nurse in the Union hospitals, Henry James, would live until 1916, another hell caused by easy scope of movement. Modernity seems to sink Whitman’s vision of a cohesive society further and further back into the past while isolating its essential purity and brilliance. The final sterilizer of his vision would seem to be the internal combustion engine, which has made all movement restless and capricious.

And at the center of all Whitman’s poetry there is movement. His age walked with a sprier step than ours; it bounced in buckboard and carriage; a man on a horse has his blood shaken and his muscles pulled. A man in an automobile is as active as a sloth; an airplane ride offers no activity more strenuous than turning the pages of a magazine. Dullness, constant numbing dullness, was the last thing Whitman would have thought of America, but that is what has happened.

In his second letter to Emerson Whitman objected at length to “writers fraudulently assuming as always dead what everyone knows to be always alive. He meant sex; I wonder if the assumption might not now be valid of the mind. From Whitman onward there is a distrust of the poet in the United States. The art of genteel America was to be fiction, the movies, and Schlagsahne. There is a bewildering irony in New England Transcendentalism’s fathering both Whitman and the current notion that poetry is cultural icing, spiritual uplift, wholly unrelated to anything at all. What was useful to middle-class frumpery was trivialized for anthologies, and the rest dismissed to the attention of professors and idealists.

Within a few miles of each other in the 1880s Whitman was putting last touches to his great book, Eadweard Muybridge was movements milliseconds apart of thousands of animals, naked athletes, and women, and Thomas Eakins was painting surgeons, boxers, musicians, wrestlers, and Philadelphians. Mary Cassatt, who might have been among them, had moved to France, Permanently. In a sense Muybridge and Eakins were catching up with Whitman’s pioneering. Their common subject, motion, the robust real, skilled and purposeful action, was distinctly American, an invention. Eakins and Muybridge were forgotten for years; Eakins came over to Camden and photographed and painted Whitman. Their arts ran parallel, shared a spirit and a theme. Muybridge’s photographs, the monumental Zoopraxis, kept Degas and Messonier up all night looking at it. There has been no finer movement in American art, nor a more fertile one (from Muybridge, through Edison, the whole art of the film), and yet their impact was generally felt to be offensive. Eakins and Muybridge were forgotten for years; Whitman persisted.* [FOOTNOTE *Muybridge inscribed the double-folio Zoopraxis: Men and Animals in Motion as a gift to Haverford College, eccentric soul that he was. The good Quakers wrapped it in brown paper and hid it on the shelves of the library among outsized books, omitting to list it in the card catalogue. I found the bulky parcels there in an idle moment in 1964. Once I saw what I’d found, I commanded three hale students to help me carry it to my apartment, I then called the great kinesiologist Ray L. Birdwhistell, Jr., who dropped everything and came out. We spread the sheets all over the floor and in hours of looking I listened to Birdwhistell’s analysis of how nineteen-century people moved, what they did with shoiulders, elbows, hips, eyebrows, toes, knees. Sherlock Holmes would have fallen down and worshiped. Any reading of Whitman is vastly enriched by a knowledge of Eakins and Muybridge; their arts can now be seen as a complementary. Whether the Quakers have catalogued their Muybridge, sold it for the thousands of dollars it is worth, or put it back in its plain brown paper on the back shelves of the library I have never asked. ]

Grass: “a uniform hieroglyphic.” Meaning in Leaves of Grass is an interpretation of symbols. The poet’s work encompasses the undertaking of the most primitive transcriptions of nature into signs as well as contemporary decipherings of science, which had “great saurians” to explain, electricity, new planets. The double continuum of time and space became in Whitman’s imagination a coherent symbol of perspectives to range.

Emerson’s “He seems a Minotaur of a man” and Thoreau’s “He occasionally suggests something a little more than human (both remarks were in letters to friends, not public print) catch Whitman in what would become traditional opinions: that his idealism was inappropriate to his rough matter, and that the roughness of his matter offended the idealism of his cultivated readers. No woman, it was assumed, could ever read him; Lowell insisted that the book, if placed in libraries, be kept from seminarians.

Is he so big that no one has yet taken his size? The cooperative struggle to measure Melville revealed greatness upon greatness. Where Whitman’s tone is rich we can see his mastery: there is nothing anywhere like “Out of the Cradle Endlessly Rocking” (Hugo at his most resonant and symbolic sounds thin beside it; Leopardi, a plausible rival, could not have achieved the wildness, the lonely openness of the poem). Nor does “When Lilacs Last in the Dooryard Bloom’d,” for all its Tennysonian color and voice, have an equal.

There are 390 poems in Leaves of Grass as Whitman left it. Modern editions add 42 others that he had rejected or not yet included; the Blodgett and Bradley Comprehensive Reader’s Edition (Norton, 1965) adds 123 more pages of fragments, deletions, and notebook drafts.

He threw away:

I am that halfgrown angry boy, fallen asleep,

The tears of foolish passion yet undried on my cheeks


Him of The Lands, identical, I sing, along the single thread…

in which the full timbre of his voice is undiminished. Had Whitman written entirely in his strong, aria-like, lyric mode, he would have fared far better with the critics (who speak of his formlessness) and fellow poets (who complain of the catalogues, the dross, the talk), but he would have been little more than an American Victorian, Tennyson with a twang.

We have paid too little attention to Whitman’s subjects, especially when they smack of the prosaic. Consider “Outlines for a Tomb” (G. P. buried 1870),” which imagines various tableaux for a millionaire philanthropist’s tomb, a poem thoroughly traditional, a classical eulogy to which Chaucerian pictured rooms have been added. The poem comes into stereoptic focus when we go to the trouble to discover that G. P. is George Peabody (17955–1869). The curious “buried 1870” becomes clear when we know that Peabody died in London and was brought home in a British war ship, with full honors. An apprentice to a dry-goods firm at eleven, he worked his way up in the world until, as head of a banking firm with offices in Baltimore, Philadelphia, New York, and London, he was able to become one of the first great merchant philanthropists. He gfave two million to the English for housing for the poor, a museum to Harvard, and a museum to Yale. Yale got her museum to house the paleontological collection of Othniel Marsh, who was Peabody’’s nephew; Harvard got hers to house Agassiz’s biological specimens. Havard was not originally a beneficiary; it was only after the pious Peabody discovered that Marsh was a Darwinian that he tried to counteract this heresy by bestowing equal funds on Harvard, where Agassiz, Darwin’s superior as a zoologist, declined to accept the great theory without further proof. Yet you will not find George Peabody in the Britannica*. [FOOTNOTE *You will in The Columbia Encyclopedia. For an account of Peabody in his scientific context, as well as for a splendid history of paleontology in the age of Whitman, see Robert West Howard’s The Dawnseekers, Harcourt Brace Jovanovich, 1975. You can also see in this book a photograph of Edgar Allan Poe inspecting the fossil skeleton of a prehistoric horse: a discovery still unknown to Poe scholars. ]

As Whitman’s world faded into a dimness, a great deal of his poetry was rendered meaningless except as a general of abstract statement. Things vivid to him and his readers, such as Transcendentalism, the philosophy of Fourier and Owen, the discovery of dinosaurs in the west by Cope and Marsh, phrenology, photography, telegraphy, railroads, have fused into a blur. A technological era was beginning to articulate itself and Whitman was its poet. It was not a time to which one inside it could easily give a name, or a direction. Whitman’s only certainty was that he was living in a new kind of society, that tore itself asunder in the tragedy of the Civil War, but did not thereby abandon its original intention to be a democratic republic.

Quicksand years that whirl me I know not whither.

Your schemes, politics, fail, lines give way, substances mock and elude me,

Only the theme I sing…

The theme. A music of sensations, songs containing catalogues of things, as if creation could be summoned and praised by chanting the name of everything there is, the constructing of a context, like Noah’s ark, where there is a place for everything, a compulsion to confront every experience with innocent eyes—no one phrase is ever going to label Whitman’s theme. The base on which it stands is Christian: a sympathy whose scope is rigorously universal, a predisposition to love and understand. Young admirers fancied him an American Socrates, but of course he is the very opposite. He was like those Greeks in love with the immediate, the caressable (always with the eye), the delicious, who, to St. Paul’s distress, worshiped each other when free from placating and begging from a confusion of gods.

And he was decidedly pagan, always ready with a good word for “the rhythmic myths of Greece and the strong legends of Rome.” A pagan is not a godless man; he is a man with many gods., Whitman could easily (as he liked to imagine) kneel with the Muslim, hear the Law with the Jew, sit in silence with the Quaker, dance with the Pawnee.

This splendid sympathy with forms knits his book together. Grass is the one universal plant, absent only in the deserts of the poles. Classifying and naming the grasses of the world has kept botanists overworked since Linnaeus, and the end is nowhere in sight. Leaves: we use the word for the pages of books, and the first paper was leaves of grass, papyrus. Grass is a symbol for life through the Bible, integral with the metaphor of shepherd and sheep.

There were “nations ten thousand years before these States”; we are carrying something on. And of this past “not a mark, not a record remains—and yet all remains.” From the people in the deep forgotten past,

Some with oval countenances learn’d and calm,

Some naked and savage, some like huge collections of insects,


Our heritage is unknown but there is no doubt of there being a heritage.

Chrales Fourier, who thought civilization a mistake, said that mans first duty is to keep the Sacred Flame, which he understood to be both our kinship to God and those livelinesses of spirit man himself had invented—the dance, poetry, music, mathematics, communal genius like French cuisine, Cretan stubbornness, Scotch skepticism, Dutch housekeeping,. Whitman knew Fourier only in the washed and bowdlerized versions of hi thought discussed at Brook Farm, and in the writings of Blaine, Greeley, and Margaret Fuller. Perhaps he believed Emerson’s warning that Fourier was basically unsound. Yet Whitman and Fourier were of the same historical moment, and much of their thought rhymes, though with many a dissonance. Fourier died (in Montmarte, while saying his prayers, kneeling against his bed, surrounded by his cats) when Whitman was 18. In those eighteen years Fourier was writing texts that would have interested Whitman immensely—they were not published until 1957, and some are still unpublished. They describe a world, the New Harmony as Fourier called it, that has kept the flame. It is a world divided up into beehives of communities, each of which is a family of human beings and animals. All work is done by everybody, an hour at a time. The days are rhythmic and contain a little of everything good. All sexual predilections are arranged for and honored for their diversity. Ceremonial honors are given to those whose passionate nation encompasses the widest range. All are friend and servant to all. Children learn every skill by age 10, yet the dominant note of the community is play.

Fourier’s vision was an opposite to the commercial world in which he lived and suffered. In utopian design his is the most extreme yet achieved. It can be explained by noting that Fourier’s every detail intends to save the individual from that dullness and quiet despair which was the immediate and alarming result of the Industrial Revolution.

If the world was to belong to the rapacious, civilization was then little more than the jungle. Rapacity, in any case, as Fourier thought, was alternative action symbolizing and disguising warmer passions unacceptable to civilization. Marriage, for instance, is a reproductive not a social unit. A true family is an enormous gathering of people, and where everybody knows where he belongs. The city was to disappear, and we may already have cause, watching the cities rot and revert to the jungle, to wonder whether Fourier’s small communities could possibly by this time have rotted with such Spenglerian gangrene as Detroit and St Louis.

To keep the sacred flame. The image is taken from antiquity, when the household fire was a god, part of which was give to each member of the family as they went away to new homes. Symbolically this fire was the family spirit, guardian of its integrity and survival. Fourier talks about it as if it were spirit itself, and he designed his Harmony to preserve the liveliness of the child into old age; he saw no reason why it should drain away. He is the only philosopher interested in happiness as the supreme human achievement. A good nature should be the whole concern of government. ‘

It was compliant, insouciant, easy good nature that Whitman admired most in a society. And nineteenth-century industrial culture had begun to erase the possibilities of Whitmanian good nature. Ruskin noted the characteristic sulk on America girls’ faces, the pout, the petulance. Look at the Steichen photograph of J. P. Morgan 1903, the one with the dagger. Slow-burning rage, not charming insouciance, was to be the standard American state of mind,.

An American publisher remembered in old age “a large-boned old man in a sombrero” shuffling into the Hotel Albert (the anecdote is Ford Madox Ford’s, and is therefore suspect). “I am Walt Whitman,” said the old man, “if you’ll lend me a dollar you’ll be helping immortality to stumble on.” (The dollar would have been equally useful upstairs in the hotel, where Rhyder hovered over his visions: American culture has the eerie habit of passing itself, in narrow corridors, ghostlike.) Whitman’s personal loneliness and destitution became a part of the legend quite early. “a fine old fellow in an iron land” begin Rubén Darío’s sonnet to Whitman. Garcia Lorca:

Not for a single moment, handsome old Walt Whitman,

have I lost the vision of your beard full of butterflies,

your corduroy shoulders wasted by the moon

your thighs if virginal Apollo,

your voice like a column of coarse ashes;

old man beautiful as mist*

[FOOTNOTE: *Geoffrey Dutton’s translation, in his Whitman, Grove Press, 1961, p. 111.]

Crane in The Bridge lets his evocation of Whitman walking on the beach “Near Paumanok—your lone patrol…” blend with another beach, Kitty Hawk. Even if the Gasoline Age had not changed the world into the Slope of Sisyphus, it would still be arguable if any society could have lived up to Whitman’s idealism. Like Thoreau’s, it is an idealism for individuals rather than conglomerates. For all its acceptance of the city crowds and the bustle of commerce, it is in essence pastoral, following natural rhythms, with sympathies that depend on the broad and easy freedom of country people. Never again could a major American poet comprehend, much less repeat, Whitman;s vision. Yet many began there and were nourished on its honey before they ate of the tree of the knowledge of good and evil. Charles Ives did, set some of the poems as songs, but abandoned his Walt Whimtan Overture, if he ever indeed began it. Pound’s Cantos are a version of “A Passage to India” written in finer historical detail and transposed into a tragic mode. Paterson is Whitman;s vision after a devastating rain of acid vulgarity. Olson’s Maximus records the awful fact that Whitman’s prophecy for a coherent democratic society remains unfulfilled in nay sense, as we now live in an incoherent industrial society that has discovered that death is much better for business than life. The largest American business it he automobile, the mechanical cockroach that has eaten our cities; that and armaments.

Of the delights celebrated in “A Song of Joys,” most are accessible now only to the very rich, some are obsolete, some are so exploited by commerce as to be no longer joys for anybody except the stockbroker, two are against the law (swimming naked, sleeping with “grown and part-grown boys”), and one is lethal (“the solitary walk”).

Whitman is a kind of litmus paper, perhaps a seismograph. Reading him, we become aware of an awful, lost innocence, and are not certain whether the innocence was real or in Whitman’s imagination. He gave his whole life to a book, he freed literature to go courses that were until Whitman unsuspected. He had the power to move even unwilling hearts (witness Gerard Manley Hopkins reading him because he couldn’t not read him, knowing the author to be “a scoundrel” and the poetry to be wicked). Pound in the cage at Pisa remembered a University of Pennsylvania philologist who was surprised at attitudes toward Whitman, as “even the peasants in Denmark know him.” The Japanese publish a journal devoted to him. The Russian Futurists and Mayakovsky considered Whitman to be the founder of their school.

Many excellent books have been written about him, his place in world literature is still assured. He is still, however, a renegade, disreputable still. That he was a master of words and rhythms is affirmed and denied with equal passion. His cults come and go, He is, like Goethe in Germany and Victor Hugo in France, inextricably part of our history. Like Jefferson and Franklin he has been woven into our myth. He is our archetypal poet, our great invention in literature, our lyric voice., I like to think that eventually he will shame us into becoming Americans again.



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