I fumed and fumed.”
That’s Sarah Ruden at National Review responding to Mark Edmundson’s essay on Walt Whitman in the Atlantic. Professor Edmundson, Ruden says, “goes so far as to anoint Whitman America’s greatest poet.” Edmundson’s “hagiography” is, in her mind, “one of some quite vigorously spurting celebrations to mark the 200th anniversary of the poet’s birth.” She, on the other hand, judges Whitman’s art a “wind storm of assertion indiscernible in its parts and knowable mainly through the damage it leaves behind—in his case, to literary culture, whose essence is memory.”
I’m not sure what exactly that means—a windstorm has parts? Literary culture has an essence, which is memory?—but you get the point. The poet is overrated; Leaves of Grass is a plodding effort. Oh, and Whitman is racist and “proto-fascist,” too (because he believed that “inferior peoples would be eliminated by ‘the law of races, history, what-not’”).
Takedowns of revered figures can be entertaining, of course, and they can serve a moral purpose, too. When the second-rate is overpraised, it’s an affront to the first-rate. A healthy society distinguishes between high art and the rest. But if you’re going to take on a monument and judge it false, you need to get your facts straight, and you also need to base your judgments on background knowledge that extends well beyond personal taste. If you don’t, you sound like a quibbler.
Ruden fails on both accounts.
The factual errors start with the phrase “anoints Whitman America’s greatest poet.” This isn’t true. Edmundson didn’t do this. It’s been done 100 times before by countless poets, writers, critics, and professors (Harold Bloom: “If you are American, then Walt Whitman is your imaginative father and mother”).
The next error comes, ironically, with a claim of fact. Right after the “fumed” remark, Ruden writes,
Whitman is, factually, the poet whom ordinary Americans most reviled (inasmuch as they noticed him) in the days when the genre was democracy’s main artistic expression, and ignored with the most determination thereafter.
“Reviled” is a strong word. Perhaps Ruden has in mind the banning (in Boston) of the 1860 edition of Leaves of Grass because of references to prostitutes and venereal disease, or Whitman losing a Federal job because a new agency head didn’t like those elements, either. Or maybe she is remembering Emily Dickinson’s statement in a letter in 1862 to the editor of Atlantic Monthly: “You speak of Mr. Whitman. I never read his book, but was told that it was disgraceful.”
These events are evidence of Whitman’s notoriety among the decorous bourgeois elite, to be sure, but they hardly count as universal revulsion among “ordinary Americans.” In the censorship and firing cases, what happened was predictable: They mobilized Whitman’s many fans among the more bohemian circles. Over the next decade, Whitman’s fame grew steadily, and not only in literary haunts. Further editions of Leaves came out in 1867, 1871, 1881–82, and 1891–92. Clearly, publishers believed there was an audience for Whitman beyond the professionals in the Republic of Letters. Indeed, by the 1870s, Whitman was pulling in hefty fees for poems published in the most popular magazines in the country. In 1872, he was Dartmouth’s commencement speaker. It is true that Whitman was less popular in the 1850s and ’60s than Whittier, Longfellow, Bryant, and others, as Ruden says, but to assert that regular readers reviled him and later “determined” to avoid him is incorrect.
Ruden compounds the mistake several paragraphs later. Noting that the productions of the Fireside Poets did noble work of reconciliation after the war’s end, and that Whitman’s verse served no similar purpose, Ruden huffs, “Leaves of Grass would have fallen away had not professors like Mark Edmundson championed it.” This is a howler. Ruden’s claim skips over Ralph Waldo Emerson, Algernon Swinburne, Edward Carpenter, the Rossettis, Oscar Wilde, Edith Wharton, Ezra Pound, William Carlos Williams, Jack Kerouac, Allen Ginsberg, Ray Bradbury . . . all of whom acknowledged his mighty influence. Pound famously knocked Whitman’s rambling, unsculpted verse in “A Pact,” but in a little essay entitled “What I Feel About Walt Whitman,” Pound stated, “He is America.” Wharton took the title of her memoir A Backward Glance from a Whitman composition, and so did E. M. Forster in A Passage to India. It wasn’t the professors who kept Whitman high in American literary history. It was the writers.
(A note on Emerson. Ruden calls him Whitman’s “champion,” but after his initial endorsement of Whitman in 1855 after receiving a copy of Leaves of Grass, Emerson was rather muted in his public support. Emerson sent a copy of the book to Thomas Carlyle, but in the accompanying letter stated that some people to whom he had recommended the book didn’t like it, and Emerson kept quiet about it for a time, though he did recommend it privately to others. Furthermore, when Emerson and Whitman met one day and walked for two hours around Boston Common, Emerson urged him to cut some of the racier parts of the “Children of Adam” section, which Whitman thought crucial to his entire project. This was not the advice of a champion of the poet, and Whitman wisely rejected it.)
As for the “proto-fascism” charge, Ruden backs it with a statement from Whitman’s conversation recorded in 1888, a few years before he died. He does, indeed, define African Americans as inferior at that moment, and believes the law of Darwin will eventually extinguish them. It’s only a sentence in a private dialogue, but it’s enough for Ruden to pronounce her verdict.
If you keep reading, however, you find that Whitman has more to say, and it reflects better upon Southern blacks than on Southern whites. He remembers his time in New Orleans before the war, recalling that the Spanish and French men there happily married African-American women, and “the results are always good.” But the region is dominated by Southern whites, Whitman observes, who will not marry them. They were “great women,” while the white men were “lank, sallow, coughing, spitting” creatures “with no bellies” and a psychological resistance to “amalgamation.” Their resistance shall doom the blacks, Whitman predicts, but it wasn’t a sign of white superiority. It only signified the Southern whites’ prejudice. In other words, while black women were physically and aesthetically superior to white men, it wouldn’t save them.
These additional remarks complicate Ruden’s judgment. So do many scenes in Leaves of Grass, such as in “Song of Myself” when Whitman nurses a runaway slave for a week before sending him farther north. This gets us to a bigger issue in Whitman’s published writings: what Whitman means by race and historical change, which is quite different from what Ruden assumes. Ruden interprets Whitman as believing that the superior white race will obliterate the others (presumably, Africans and Native Americans). But race for Whitman is broader than our modern conception has it. Black people are not just individuals with black skin who originally inhabited Africa. They are nations and tribes and civilizations, too. When Whitman refers to the “law of races, history,” he invokes a background of thought about the rise and fall of those civilizations and all the others as well, not white supremacy finally triumphant.
The missing context here is the cultural-historical ideas in the air in the mid-nineteenth century, derived mainly from the Germans, about historical epochs and “Ages of Man.” Whitman had picked up popularizations of Hegel and others that posited a “world-spirit” or, more secularly, human progress running through different “races” at different times. History was the succession of these epochs in which certain races/nations/cultures were dominant. America was the next step in the process, Whitman believed, and it was an exceptional one. It worked on a new method—not the displacement of one people by another, but the absorption of all into one, e pluribus unum. As Whitman announced in the Preface to Leaves of Grass, “America is the race of races.”
Finally, we have Ruden’s quibble over Whitman’s anti-slavery position. After citing a reference in “Song of Myself” to a slave market, Ruden comments, “He himself didn’t much like activity as such—but no matter”—a shot at Whitman for being lazy, even when it came to abolition.
But the charge of inactivity, especially in service to the Union, is way off. Whitman was 42 when the War started. One year in he saw a list of casualties that included his brother, and so he travelled south to find him in one of the hospitals. It turned out to be a minor wound, but the trip shook him. A wartime hospital in 1862 was a ghastly place. Hygiene was crude, the smell of infection and excrement and blood overwhelming. Amputations were done without anesthesia. Limbs were piled up outside. Latrines overflowed. Every day and night the dead had to be removed.
Whitman was stunned and shocked. But he didn’t flee. He stayed and served as a nurse/comrade/comforter. He secured a part-time government job in D.C. and spent hours long into the night with the wounded and dying. He read them letters, gave them pocket money, brought them fruits and sweets, wiped their faces, and held them while they wept. He couldn’t get close to the diseased cases (dysentery was common), but he talked to them and read them stories and wrote and posted their letters. Some lived, some died, many went home without a limb or two.
Whitman stuck to it for more than two years—until he suffered an emotional and physical breakdown. It isn’t clear what kind, but the daily drain on his body and spirit eventually caught up to him and he had to stop. He never fully recovered his physical health. At age 45 he looked 60.
The motive for his service wasn’t just the Northern cause, it is true. Whitman was anti-slavery and a fierce Union man, like his idol President Lincoln. But hospital work also gave Whitman a morally-sanctioned outlet for his homoerotic impulses. It may, in fact, have provided a psychic resolution for them that his verse did not. Whitman wrote few poems of lasting value after the war’s end.
Still, Whitman’s mixed motive doesn’t at all lessen the heroism of his labors. Here, however, is Ruden’s description of them:
Granted, he served devotedly as a comforter and factotum for the wounded in the Civil War, but his vision—that is not a lofty word in his case—of the war is dispiriting.
Got that? If only he could have dropped his memories of hacksaws cutting through bone, lives draining out of men’s bodies in the form of diarrhea, teenage boys groaning and crying all night for their mothers . . . he might have given us a not-so-dispiriting vision of the war.
Ruden’s essay is an exercise in low-imagination iconoclasm, but the best answer to it isn’t the factual corrections above. It is the verse itself. After reading Ruden’s denunciation, take a look at these lines and decide if she is right to judge Whitman a hack who couldn’t craft a metaphor or compose a memorable phrase:
You sea! I resign myself to you also . . . . I guess what you mean,
I behold from the beach your crooked inviting fingers,
I believe you refuse to go back without feeling of me;
We must have a turn together . . . . I undress . . . . hurry me out of sight of the land,
Cushion me soft . . . . rock me in billowy drowse,
Dash me with amorous wet . . . . I can repay you.
That’s from “Song of Myself,” 1855 version.
Or read Whitman’s 1860 lyric “Out of the Cradle Endlessly Rocking,” whose opening verse paragraph is a tour de force of poetic craft (note the placement of subject, verb, and direct object).
Out of the cradle endlessly rocking,
Out of the mocking-bird’s throat, the musical shuttle,
Out of the Ninth-month midnight,
Over the sterile sands and the fields beyond, where the child leaving his bed wander’d alone, bareheaded, barefoot,
Down from the shower’d halo,
Up from the mystic play of shadows twining and twisting as if they were alive,
Out from the patches of briers and blackberries,
From the memories of the bird that chanted to me,
From your memories sad brother, from the fitful risings and fallings I heard,
From under that yellow half-moon late-risen and swollen as if with tears,
From those beginning notes of yearning and love there in the mist,
From the thousand responses of my heart never to cease,
From the myriad thence-arous’d words,
From the word stronger and more delicious than any,
From such as now they start the scene revisiting,
As a flock, twittering, rising, or overhead passing,
Borne hither, ere all eludes me, hurriedly,
A man, yet by these tears a little boy again,
Throwing myself on the sand, confronting the waves,
I, chanter of pains and joys, uniter of here and hereafter,
Taking all hints to use them, but swiftly leaping beyond them,
A reminiscence sing.
Ruden considers the author of those lines comparable to a propagandist. Well, then this is some of the best propaganda ever written.
Mark Bauerlein is senior editor of First Things.