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Walt Whitman, who was built-in 200 years ago this year, is about absolutely the greatest American poet. In abounding ways, he is additionally the best enigmatic. Afore 1855, the year that Whitman appear Leaves of Grass, he had accomplished no acumen whatsoever. He had no academic education—no Oxford, no Cambridge, no Harvard or Yale. His activity up to his 35th year had been annihilation but a success. He’d been a teacher, but he was apart and a bit indolent, and he banned to whip his students. He’d appear fiction of a abominably boilerplate sort. He’d edited a Chargeless Soil newspaper, which adjoin the advance of bullwork into the western territories. But there was annihilation arresting about his journalism. Abundant of the time, he was a workingman. He was accomplished as a typesetter, a difficult and ambitious trade. In the summer of 1854, he was a carpenter, framing two- and three-room houses in Brooklyn.
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On his cafeteria break, he admired to read. Whitman was taken with the writings of Ralph Waldo Emerson that summer. He absolutely apprehend “Circles” and “Self-Reliance,” and “The Poet,” an commodity in which Emerson alleged out for a absolutely American bard. Sitting quietly, Whitman read, “We acquire yet had no ability in America, with absolutist eye, which knew the amount of our incomparable materials.” I doubtable that the byword absolutist eye puzzled Whitman. There was annihilation abnormally absolutist about him, nor would there be about his poetry. But as to alive “the amount of our incomparable materials”—maybe that was commodity Whitman could claim. He had apparent a abundant accord of life. He admired to wander. He admired to attending activity over. He’d formed abounding and assorted jobs.
Emerson was attractive for a artist whose eyes didn’t acquire chiefly from books, but from American activity as it was. One book in accurate in his commodity opens the anticipation of a new world—a new anapestic world, and conceivably a new apple of animal achievability as well: “Our logrolling, our stumps and their politics, our fisheries, our Negroes, and Indians, our boasts, and our repudiations, the acrimony of rogues, and the pusillanimity of honest men, the arctic trade, the southern planting, the western clearing, Oregon, and Texas, are yet unsung.”
Though America had been a nation for about 80 years, it was incomplete. The Declaration of Independence, the Constitution—those were political documents, businesslike in their designs for democracy. What America lacked was what Emerson alleged for: an abstraction of what actuality a autonomous man or woman acquainted like at its best, day to day, moment to moment. We had a mind, the apperception created by Thomas Jefferson and the added Founders, but we did not apperceive our own best spirit.
Emerson couldn’t acknowledgment the call, and tacitly accepted as much. I can’t brainstorm that aback he asked for volunteers, he believed a jack-of-all-trades in his mid-30s, headed no abode in particular, could possibly booty up the task. Yet that is what happened.
“I was simmering, simmering, simmering,” Whitman told a friend. “Emerson brought me to a boil.” Whitman accepted that he was a allotment of one of the greatest abstracts aback the alpha of time: the awakening of capitalism in the avant-garde world. The astute believed that it apparently could not be done. The bodies were too ignorant, too crude, too acquisitive and acquisitive to appear calm and from their abounding actualize one. Who were we, afterwards all? A nation of castoffs, a accumulating of crooks and failures, awry daughters and additional sons of additional sons, absolute losers and awful arguable winners. Up to now, our betters had kept us in line: The aristocracies of Massachusetts and Virginia had apparent us the aware aisle and abject us forth abaft them. Whitman knew (and Emerson did too) that this could not aftermost forever. By arduous force of numbers, or force apparent and simple, outcasts and ne’er-do-wells were eventually activity to booty over the nation.
“Song of Myself,” arguably Whitman’s greatest work, can be apparent as a eyes quest. In the aboriginal version, which had no appellation aback it was appear in 1855, in the aboriginal archetype of Leaves of Grass, Whitman begins as an accustomed workingman. He is “one of the roughs,” the tough, active blazon who is depicted on the book’s frontispiece—shirt open, hat agee to the side, a calmly airy announcement on his face. Through a alternation of anapestic and airy encounters he assets in acquaintance and acumen to become a adumbrative autonomous individual, one who can appearance his countrymen and countrywomen the way to a advancing and blissful life.
“I bless myself,” Whitman says in the acclaimed aperture lines. “And what I acquire you shall assume, / For every atom acceptance to me as acceptable belongs to you.” Alpha readers of the composition tend to acquire that the “you” Whitman refers to is the reader, and in some sense, they are absolutely right. But Whitman is additionally talking to that ambiguous allotment of himself that he calls his soul. He says this actual clearly: “I loafe and allure my soul.” Walking abroad from the houses and apartment that are “full of perfumes” and out to the beck coffer in the woods, area he can become “undisguised and naked,” he begins to do all he can to abduct his soul—yes, seduce.
Whitman’s self, the amount depicted at the advanced of the book, offers the body joy—especially the joy of actual concrete life:
Play, delight, health, song: Appear 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 apprehensive at it.” The body as Whitman conceives it is delicate, a amount of alert sensitivity. It seems to be neither macho nor female. Nor is it associated with any religious conceptions of the soul. It is, perhaps, too accessible to appear undefended into the world, but the cocky succeeds in added than aloof adulation the body forward. In one of a cardinal of abominable moments in the poem, a adulation arena unfolds amid cocky and soul—and the bashful body becomes rather aggressive:
Self and body now merged, aback Whitman begins—to adduce addition abstracted poet—to “see into the activity 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 phenomenon and abstruseness of creation, bottomward to the “mossy scabs of the wormfence, and aggregate stones, and ancient and mullen and pokeweed.” This ability becomes yours, Whitman implies, aback you cartel to betrayal your best breakable and artistic part, beneath the aegis of your best carnal side.
Alive with new powers, Whitman offers us his axial angel for democracy, the grass: “A adolescent said, What is the grass? attractive it to me with abounding hands.” Whitman says that he does not apperceive what the grass is at its aspect any added than the adolescent does. He again moves into an amazing account of metaphors. The grass is the banderole of Whitman’s disposition, “out of hopeful blooming actuality woven.” It may be “the handkerchief of the Lord” or conceivably “a adolescent … the produced bairn of the vegetation.” It’s “the admirable uncut beard of graves.” The grass, Whitman observes, is darker than the beards of old men and the aside red roofs of the mouths of the dead.
But chiefly, the grass is the assurance of equality, adequation aural autonomous America:
We are all—light-hued and dark-hued, accustomed bodies and acclaimed statespersons—blades of grass, annihilation more, annihilation less. We all appear from nature, and to nature, the grass, we return. But, and actuality is Whitman’s acute paradox, by acknowledging ourselves as annihilation but leaves of grass, we become added than abandoned leaves. We become allotment of the admirable unity—out of many, one—that is the acreage of green, blades animated in the sun.
The grass admission ability be taken as a anticipation agreement offered to the reader. Try apperception yourself as one brand of grass amid a admirable affluence of blades. You’re not identical to the blades about you, but you are not far from actuality so. At any moment you ability accent your singularity—what makes you abnormal amid the mass. Or you ability accent your character with the blades that are about you. Sometimes you may not feel that you are abundant in yourself, but the aftereffect that you advice actualize all-embracing is admirable and absolutely formidable. You acquire the abundance of unity, and you acquire the pride and focus that appear from individuality. We are all “so abounding uttering tongues.”
Knowing what he knows, activity what he feels, Whitman can now booty us on a bout of American capitalism and appearance us what we ability accomplish by afterward him. In the acclaimed catalogs of bodies accomplishing what they do every day, he is assuming commodity absolutely simple. These are your brothers, he finer says. These are your sisters. Amore and accord can aphorism the day. Relax (or “loafe,” one of Whitman’s admired words and acts, or anti-acts) and adore the acquaintance of being. If we can move abroad from the appetite to diaphoresis and ache and attack and seek the accomplished point, and instead embrace Whitman’s ambitious adumbration of the grass, our acquaintance of circadian activity can be different. We can attending at those we canyon and say: That too is me. That too I am. Or so Whitman believes and hopes.
Whitman is affective through amplitude at abstracted speed, seeing what there is to see of American life. The aberancy of anniversary actuality matters, and their aggregate character affairs too. You become added of an abandoned by actuality a allotment of this group; the accumulation becomes richer for absolute so abounding altered living, breath types.
What about that quadroon girl? What do we accomplish of the actuality that she’s in chains and conceivably on her way to a activity of bondage and violation? It’s not an accessible question. I anticipate that by putting her in his list, Whitman makes her according to all the others he names. And if that is so, shouldn’t she be as chargeless as any of them are at their best of times? As Whitman will say afterwards in the poem, “By God! I will acquire annihilation which all cannot acquire their analogue of on the aforementioned terms.” A little vague, but one gets the idea. Aback Whitman arrives at the end of his aboriginal admirable catalog, he says: “And such as it is to be of these added or beneath I am.”
Whitman’s eyes can complete appealing. Who would not appetite to be allotment of anybody and aggregate and feel the attendance of all of one’s advisers in a democracy—calmly and affectionately, not in Darwinian, aggressive ways? But annihilation is got for nothing, and it helps to apperceive what Whitman asks us to expend and what he asks us to deny, or alike repudiate, in adjustment to be his adolescent democrats.
You ability abide the aggregate addiction of the image. You ability appetite there to be added aberration amid you and your acquaintance than the aberration amid one brand of grass out there on the backyard and the next. Afterwards all, bureaucracy has its pleasures, or at atomic its satisfactions, abnormally if you acquisition yourself at the top, attractive bottomward at the accumulation of battered altruism below. Those in the average regions and the lower orders, too, can acquisition some accuracy in a apple based on adjustment and degree. You apperceive area you stand, with added men and women of advance but additionally with God. You apperceive what is valuable—it’s what your masters affirm. You apperceive what to scorn, alike if too generally that is qualities bedevilled by yourself and those like you.
You ability react, too, adjoin the accuracy of the image. The grass is alone physical—it doesn’t affix itself in any way to the creator, to theology, to heaven and hell. You ability absence the apostolic ambit of existence; what the New York Times columnist David Brooks has alleged Whitman’s attack to “spiritualize autonomous life” ability not be abundant for you.
As the composition unfolds, Whitman navigates this and added obstacles. You’ve got to bang your attraction with heaven and God, as commonly conceived, he says. Whitman sees God everywhere and hears God’s articulation in all things, “yet I accept God not in the least,” he says. Then: “Nor do I accept who there can be added admirable than myself.” And yourself, too, baby autonomous reader, he ability acquire added. For our new God is democracy; we are adherent to its advancing and expansion. The philosopher Richard Rorty put it a bit hyperbolically, but accurately overall:
Whitman is absorbed by Jesus. He goes so far as to accompany him in his blood-soaked consummate 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 being amid many, allotment of an “average amaranthine procession,” commodity of an honorary American. He is, maybe, the aboriginal democrat, in that no one abroad above-mentioned to the founding of America—or above-mentioned to Whitman’s poetry—was so decidedly adherent to the actuality of equality: That which you do to the atomic of mine, you do additionally to me.
Whitman upends acceptable notions of sex, too, in aberrant and rather baffling ways. At the centermost of the composition is a diffuse masturbation scene, in which the poet’s onanism is a antecedent of both attempt and release: “Is this again a touch? … agitation me to a new identity.” Whitman isn’t sure, activity he is captivated “helpless to a red marauder,” yet he gain to bless the ability of his berry to beget the world. As I apprehend the passage, it amounts to a alarm for the adorning of animal tolerance. And it signifies Whitman’s assurance in the reader: There’s annihilation about himself he will not reveal. He trusts us, and conceivably we will assurance him as well.
Whitman’s best difficult obstacle in the composition is death. He tells us that no arrangement of agreement can accurate how at accord he is about God and about death. He tells us also—and added significantly—that “the aboriginal sprout shows there is absolutely no death.” How could this possibly be true? Some of Whitman’s critics say that he was a almighty accepter in reincarnation. I’m not abiding he was, at atomic not in any accepted sense. I anticipate Whitman’s aplomb about advantageous afterlife is a acceptable accord added abolitionist and original—and additionally troubling.
What he seems to advance is that if you asperse yourself absolutely in democracy—become that grass blade—you will accomplish a assertive affectionate of immortality. The way of activity that you acquire absolutely committed yourself to will go on alike afterwards you acquire departed. You will acquire contributed to commodity great, so you can canyon affably from the apple assertive that it will continue. You are in a sense—but alone in a sense—immortal.
This is a lot to ask anyone to embrace. Some anticipate of Whitman as a artist of abating platitudes. He is absolutely an burdensome poet, not alone 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 anytime accompany Whitman’s eyes absolutely into the world? Could Whitman himself anytime actualize his eyes alfresco the poem—put it into convenance in his life?
In the bosom of the Civil War, Whitman catholic to Washington, D.C., area he gave himself over to nursing the blood-soaked and the dying, atramentous and white, adolescent and middle-aged, Union and Confederate. He spent two years there, allowance the men, talking to them, autograph belletrist for them, affairs them tobacco, and giving them baby gifts. Whitman wrote in a letter:
When soldiers died—many did—he wrote home to their parents in gentle, active agency about their aftermost hours and his accord with them in the hospitals. He said, “My hospital ministrations are actual alluring with all of their sadness. The blood-soaked & ailing get absurd abreast to one. Poor adolescent men, they acknowledge so affectionately to amore & magnetism.” Could one brainstorm any added artist or biographer of alike bisected Whitman’s capacities and achievements accomplishing as much?
While he was in Washington at what he alleged “my hospitals,” I anticipate Whitman finer completed “Song of Myself.” He became a adaptation of the being his composition prophesied. He affianced his soul, “clear and sweet,” as he alleged it. His body became his approach of affiliation with the ailing and blood-soaked and dying men. His acuteness accustomed him to see who they were, what they were feeling, and how he could best advice them.
His anapestic self—tough and tireless—was at the accessible too. Whitman’s ability during the hospital years was astounding. He spent day afterwards day, hour accomplished hour, in a abhorrent environment, accomplishing all he could. His bloom was consistently in jeopardy, but somehow he captivated up. Whitman accepted to be abiding and strong. He absolutely bedevilled what Emerson said he did: “buffalo strength.” He was still that appalling man on the frontispiece of Leaves of Grass, but he was added than that as well.
He didn’t accompany God into the hospitals with him. Preachers of all stripes visited the wards in Washington, angled on shoring up the men’s faith, or converting the wayward. Whitman capital no such thing. The soldiers knew and accepted him as the man who did not deliver to them. He may acquire gone on attending God in every object, but he did not abandonment the abstraction that he—and all others in America’s democracy—were as astonishing as God could anytime be and maybe added so. He included anybody in his ministrations, as “Song of Myself” adumbrated he would. If you were in the hospital, Whitman was there to advice you.
He was able to attending beeline at death. He could do this in a way that about no one who is not a doctor or assistant can. His eyes had able him for that. “To die is altered from what any one supposed, and luckier,” he wrote. “I canyon afterlife with the dying, and bearing with the new-washed bairn … and am not independent amid my hat and boots.” Whitman knew he was a brand of grass, and that as new, beginning grass—new citizens of democracy—arose in the world, he would be reincarnated: “The aboriginal sprout shows there is absolutely no death.” He charge acquire believed this—it had been appear to him in his vision—or he would not acquire been able to face death, both his own afterlife and the deaths of so abounding soldiers, with as abundant aplomb as he did. He came aback the abutting day and the abutting accessible to accord added help.
Whitman didn’t do his acceptable accomplishments beneath anyone’s administration but his own. He set no abundance by administration or doctors or area overseers. Agilely and abundantly he went about his business, putting into convenance aggregate he had abstruse from the amazing airy boating that he had undertaken. Whitman became added people. He entered their hearts and souls, and he knew how they felt. And he came to adulation the men as abundant as they did him. In a letter to Emerson, he wrote that, in the hospitals, he got to “be acceptable and useful, I acquisition the masses absolutely justified by abutting contact, never vulgar, anytime calm, after greediness, no flummery, no frivolity—responding electric and after abort to affection, yet no whining—not the aboriginal afraid bleat acquire yet I apparent or heard.”
Whitman speaks to our moment in abounding ways. One of them is absolutely simple: At a time aback Americans abhorrence one addition beyond accessory curve as acutely conceivably as they acquire aback the Civil War, Whitman’s bulletin is that abhorrence is not accordant with accurate democracy, airy democracy. We may altercation and action and altercation and disagree. Up to a assertive point, Whitman accustomed of conflict. But affection—friendliness—must consistently ascertain the relations amid us. Aback that amore dissolves, the aboriginal adjustment of business is to restore it. Attractive at the present, Whitman ability assert not alone on bonds of amore in our country, but on a added sane affiliation to Jesus and to God. To abase oneself afore them would calculation to him as a austere error. But to badinage the commodity of Jesus and those who chase him, or to accomplish ablaze of God’s beaming but incomprehensible attendance in the world—that too would be a mistake.
Perhaps what Whitman mainly offers is hope—the achievement that this new anatomy of amusing activity can advance and accord bodies admission to levels of beatitude and abandon that they acquire never enjoyed. Whitman was not programmatically cheerful, not a animated optimist. He was abominably depressed aback Leaves of Grass bootless in its ancient incarnations to ability people. He was angrily downcast as he saw the Civil War gathering. But he never withdrew his achievement that America could be a advancing nation not alone for some, but for all of its people—and that the country would be an archetype for others beyond the world, should they accept to embrace it.
After Emerson brought him to a boil, and he produced Leaves of Grass, Whitman beatific a archetype to the academician of Concord. Emerson wrote aback what may be the best acceptable letter anytime beatific by one abundant biographer to another. Remember: Whitman was a nobody. Emerson could readily acquire boarded the book to the debris heap. Remember: In “Song of Myself” Whitman achieves poetically aggregate that Emerson admired to accomplish (and more). Remember: Emerson offered the alley map and Whitman followed it. Emerson could able-bodied acquire broiled into annoyance aback he apprehend “Song of Myself,” and affected not to see what was there afore him.
That is not what happened. Of the 1855 Leaves of Grass, Emerson said: “I acquisition it the best amazing allotment of wit and acumen that America has yet contributed. I am actual blessed in account it, as abundant ability makes us happy.” It makes us happy, that is, if we can admit it for what it asserts and what it asks of us, as Emerson did, and not about-face away. “It has the best merits,” Emerson wrote, “namely, of animating and encouraging.”
So it did then. So it may now.
This commodity appears in the May 2019 book archetype with the banderole “Walt Whitman’s Guide to a Advancing Democracy.”
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