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The Democracy Walt Whitman Wanted

A new book argues that Whitman’s celebration of fellow feeling could unite America today.

Hulton Archive/Getty Images

In one of those fine cosmic coincidences that spangle throughout cultural history, the poet Hart Crane watched the legendary dancer Isadora Duncan perform in Cleveland one night in December 1922. Crane was yet unknown; Duncan’s life was approaching its end. (Five years later, she died in a bizarre scarf-related automobile accident on the French Riviera.) After the Midwestern audience failed to appreciate her work, Duncan scolded the prudish crowd from the stage and told them to read more Walt Whitman.

Song of Ourselves: Walt Whitman and the Fight for Democracy
by Mark Edmundson
Harvard University Press, 240pp., $29.95

Long live the Whitmanians! Since his death in 1892, Whitman’s literary descendants and disciples have been an illustrious bunch. Crane himself, a fellow Brooklynite, summoned Whitman’s spirit in his own modern verse. Ezra Pound resented Whitman’s influence yet recognized his own debts to him. Allen Ginsberg, tongue firmly in cheek, imagined Whitman leering about a postwar Californian supermarket, bathed in fluorescent light, “poking among the meats in the refrigerator and eyeing the grocery boys.” Claudia Rankine has taken up his mantle by reinventing American political lyric for a new era. Bob Dylan and Sufjan Stevens are his most explicit (and talented) musical successors.

One reason for all this adoration is that Whitman’s song can shatter glass. Still today, when you read his rough celebrations of bodily experience or his vertiginous democratic catalogs or his tender evocations of queer love, the world shifts. His poetry feels fresher than anything; his prose teetering and uncontrolled yet lit miraculously from within. “Because the vast sweep of democracy is still incomplete even in America today,” argued Langston Hughes in 1946, Whitman’s work “strikes us now with the same immediacy it must have awakened in its earliest readers in the 1850s.”

Whitman’s influence also has something to do with the sheer volume of writing he issued forth into the world over four rough decades, from the Civil War through Reconstruction to a cruelly prosperous Gilded Age. You can dip into Whitman’s vast, contradictory corpus and find whomever it is you’d like: the proto-socialist who saw economic inequality as democracy’s gravest threat; the righteous conservative worried by social degeneration and moral corruption; the paladin of Manifest Destiny well suited for the neoconservative case to invade Iraq; the poet of queer love, brave and unashamed.

The latest critic to succumb to this temptation is Mark Edmundson, an English professor at the University of Virginia. In his new book, Song of Ourselves: Walt Whitman and the Fight for Democracy, he sees Whitman as the liberal democratic icon and inspiration we need now: a kind man moved by good faith and good feelings, certain of the underlying unity of the United States and the basic decency of its citizens, sure of love’s capacity to heal conflict and soften sorrow. “What of Whitman lives?” Edmundson inquires. “What of Walt can we use?” Focused on the poet’s earliest writing, as well as his experience in the military hospitals of the Civil War, Edmundson has found us a Bidenesque Whitman to model ourselves after, a gentle general fighting cheerfully for America’s soul.

You’d be forgiven for wondering if this version is enough, as Republicans fix elections in broad daylight and right-wing voters, untethered from reality, hope to see a military coup. No poet, not even a political one, can fairly be expected to offer a practical guidebook for turning back a coordinated assault on democracy. In reality, however, Walt Whitman was a darker and more realistic political thinker than Edmundson’s book lets on, concerned as much with the “sad, serious, deep truths” of American life as with the dreamy pleasure of democracy. If he’s going to help us in this hour of crisis, we need him in his multitudes.

Ralph Waldo Emerson lamented in 1844 that America had not yet produced a great writer worthy of its ideals, a literary genius who could recognize “the value of our incomparable materials” and chant the song of American democracy. Eleven years later, a little-known Brooklyn newspaperman and carpenter named Walt Whitman finally delivered: Leaves of Grass appeared in 1855, a dazzling and difficult collection of 12 free-verse poems that he framed as “New World songs, and an epic of Democracy.” Wildly ambitious, Whitman’s cosmophagic verse swallowed up the American experience. “I skirt the sierras,” he wrote. “My palms cover continents, / I am afoot with my vision.”

At the heart of Leaves is a rambling 1,300-line poem later titled “Song of Myself.” This is likely the Whitman you know. From the very first lines (“I celebrate myself, / And what I assume you shall assume, / For every atom belonging to me as good belongs to you”), the poet’s footing is intimate and inviting and sure. Whitman’s open discussions of sexuality and the body, the joy he took from physical experience, made the work controversial. But no less daring was the way in which “Song” heroized the unheroic, lifting up the ordinary women and men of the United States and making them for the first time the stuff of verse. His lines linger upon deckhands and drug addicts, deacons and farmers, a bride sitting for her portrait and slaves in fields and in flight and the president convening his Cabinet. For Whitman, who called himself “the caresser of life wherever moving,” all seemed equally worthy of poetic attention. Although Whitman failed fully to escape the racial categories and prejudices of his time, we can read his egalitarian lyric even more inclusively than he might have, and be deeply moved. “I will not have a single person slighted or left away,” he insisted. “Have you outstript the rest? Are you the President? / It is a trifle… They will more than arrive there everyone, and still pass on.”

“Song of Myself” is a challenging poem to describe, let alone interpret. Edmundson does both masterfully. His book is mostly focused on this single text, moving through the poem line by line, a model of exegetical clarity. The style is welcoming and informal, his wide-ranging parenthetical references (to Plato, Freud, Derrida, etc.) make the experience of reading the book more like dropping into his classroom. Like many of the best teachers, Edmundson radiates enthusiasm for his subject. “I’m not sure,” he reflects, “there has ever been a more fearless poet” or one with “comparable largesse of spirit.” Whitman, he thinks, was “close to a saint,” and his work “makes you feel grateful to be alive.” It is “the most profound and original” poetry “that America has ever seen.” Edmundson’s is a kind of pedagogical devotion that hovers between inspiration and cringe. Mostly it works.

In Edmundson’s persuasive accounting, “Song of Myself” is a “coherent and continuous” poem in which the speaker undertakes a spiritual quest. As Whitman revels in the wide world of experience around and within himself, joyfully and without shame, with radical acceptance (“Welcome is every organ and attribute of me.… Not an inch nor a particle of an inch is vile”)—he is, in fact, embarked upon a journey of education and augmentation. Whitman’s “intricate purpose” is really to unify his own multitudes, to align the rational-materialistic elements of himself with his emotional-spiritual side, to join body with soul. After wrestling along the way with religion and authority and sex and death, Whitman by the end of the poem has discovered a happier and more holistic way to live. He is also, in Edmundson’s telling, a model democratic individual: in love with himself and his fellow citizens in equal measure, confident and humble and free.

What he has achieved for himself, however, Whitman also desires for his country: a form of democratic living grounded as much in people’s hearts as it is in laws and institutions. He wants American democracy to be spiritually meaningful. “Song of Myself” isn’t quite as explicit on this as Edmundson implies, but it’s true that it sets the basic parameters for the political vision that Whitman refined over his life. It’s an American epic, Edmundson writes, not only for its memorable lyric and the grand swell of its narrative but because it articulates the moral cosmology of an entire culture—a democratic odyssey in more ways than one. Whitman’s poem hopes to teach you all that “you really need to know to live as a joyful and strong citizen of [our] democracy,” Edmundson argues. This epic focuses not on the values of “war or religion” but on “the expansion of spirit and consciousness, heart and mind.” It’s a peaceful, egalitarian modern update to Homer and Virgil and Milton.

It sometimes happens that democracies are murdered. But unraveling is more common. People grow frustrated with the time that’s required to debate every issue, disenchanted with the horse-trading and the compromise, and start shopping for political alternatives. Democracy is hard. When some citizens stop taking it for granted, it becomes important to explain why it’s worth doing. One obvious way is to deliver tangible results, to show that democratic government can still solve complex problems and make our lives better. Another approach, often neglected, is to make the emotional case for democratic living. Why does democracy feel better than autocracy or minority rule? What are the positive emotions and experiences that outweigh the myriad frustrations of self-government? The political theorist Jason Frank calls this political-psychological world “the democratic sublime.”

There’s no one better at selling it than Walt Whitman. “Song of Myself” is essentially an emotional argument for democracy, a statement of how great it feels to exist and thrive in a Tocqueville-style egalitarian social state, liberated from hierarchy and domination. This is perhaps Whitman’s core contribution to democratic thought and practice: the reminder that democracy’s defenders mustn’t neglect political feelings (“Logic and sermons never convince”) and that self-government must appeal to the human heart if it is to last long.

The simplest and most compelling reason to build political democracy, Whitman implies, has nothing to do with justice. It’s because living democratically is more pleasurable than the alternatives. In Whitman’s intuitive poetic vision, we feel the most joy and happiness when we are permitted to be ourselves authentically and without shame or judgment. But it is democracy that allows us to combine that individual dignity with the feeling of being bound together with others. Equality permits us to stop craning our necks up at those who dominate us or peering down at those we control. It improves our civic posture by asking us to look outward and enjoy what Edmundson calls the “magnificent immediacy” of the world around us. In “Song,” Whitman paints a democratic life in which negative feelings have vanished (no shame, no hatred, no subjection, no anger or awe or cruelty) and we all find ourselves dignified and proud, friendly and loving, joyous and grateful and humble. These are the psychic fruits of democratic living. And “what else should democracy be about,” Edmundson asks, “but having a good time with friends?”

Democracy, then, can offer us all healthier and happier lives. Edmundson seems satisfied with this promise, writing that Whitman deftly teaches us how to “get about the business of having a democratic good time in this world.” It’s obvious that being free and equal is better than being dominated. But is it better than dominating? Exerting power over others is a seductive feeling, too, if a dark and dangerous one. One risk of focusing our attention entirely on “Song of Myself” is that neither Whitman (once charged with “an inability to feel evil” by the philosopher William James) nor Edmundson can articulate a compelling response to this challenge, to state an emotional case for democracy that appeals as much to those who already possess power as to those yet without it. Maybe there isn’t one.

In any event, the subtitle of Edmundson’s earnest book—Walt Whitman and the Fight for Democracy—indicates his purpose: to show the poet’s direct relevance to our own stormy present. Edmundson frames Whitman’s visionary poetry as a guide for a political war zone and the poet himself as a brave soldier for democracy worth modeling ourselves after. Democracy was at risk of collapsing in Whitman’s own time, Edmundson points out, and “Walt would not let that happen without a fight.”

Political combat may be noble, but it can’t really be dreamy. It requires a clear reckoning with one’s adversaries, a deep understanding of power, and the ability to see and respond to actions taken in bad faith. Was the Whitman of “Song of Myself” really such a fighter? The injunctions Edmundson is able to draw from the poet’s early work raise some doubts. Whitman asks the reader, he explains, to “immerse yourself” in democratic life, to behave in ways that are “humble and serve the people,” to “become modest and kind.” We might “achieve stability by making strong and flexible the bonds” that unite us. From Whitman we can learn the importance of “passionate democratic friendliness,” that in a democracy “affection and friendship can rule the day.” When we see forces emerge that threaten our equality, “we need to look into our hearts and gaze out into the culture, and when we see the sun [of tyranny] begin to rise, we need to step up and respond.” For Whitman teaches, Edmundson explains, that “we don’t kneel to kings.… We don’t kneel. Period.”

These are lovely and optimistic instructions, the business of modern presidential oratory. But in their gauziness and resistance to an agonistic conception of politics as conflict, it’s hard to see how they can much help us now. Today, the house of American democracy is not merely divided against itself or resting on shaky foundations—it has been set ablaze. When Edmundson concludes from Whitman that we must “fight back benevolently—and think of the grass,” it feels as though he is asking us to bring a metaphor to a knife fight.

And yet Whitman himself was intimately familiar with political violence, sensitive to the sometimes painful necessity of democratic conflict. Or rather, he became so. Whitman’s brother George enlisted in the 13th New York State Militia at the start of a Civil War that would ultimately take the lives of more than 600,000 men. In December 1862, a casualty notice in the New York Tribune (naming a “G.W. Whitmore”) prompted Whitman to bolt from Brooklyn to Washington, D.C., to find his brother. George turned out to be fine, but Whitman’s life was transformed. As Roy Morris Jr. concludes in his beautiful book on the poet’s war experience, “the Civil War saved Walt Whitman.”

Moved by the camaraderie and brotherly affection he experienced while searching for his brother in various Union camps, plus the “butchers’ shambles” of the battlefield, he spent the rest of the war caring for wounded soldiers at military hospitals in the nation’s capital. Volunteering at the bedside for three years, he comforted thousands of young men as they suffered: drafting personal letters on their behalf, supplying treats like fruit preserves and rice pudding, falling in love more than once, holding them as they died, writing to family members about their final hours. “I should say that I believe my profoundest help to these sick & dying men” to be “the soothing invigoration I steadily bear in mind,” he noted. “It has saved more than one life. There is a strange influence here.”

Whitman’s hospital dispatches, scribbled in several “lurid and blood-smutch’d little note-books,” are some of the most affecting literary records of war ever produced. Whitman struggled to convey what he called “the marrow of the tragedy,” the spiritual experience required for readers in the future to “get a fair idea of what this war practically is.” As always, Whitman sought the intangible even as he celebrated the physical. “The real war,” he lamented, “will never get in the books.… Its interior history will not only never be written—its practicality, minutiae of deeds and passions, will never be even suggested.” The sensations that gave the war meaning for so many were already lost and unknowable, “buried in the grave, in eternal darkness.”

Edmundson’s democratic parable ends with Whitman in the hospitals. Caring for soldiers with humility and affection, Union and Confederate alike, he became in reality the model democratic citizen he prophesied. Edmundson concludes his story and his argument here. This was “the true completion” of Whitman’s political vision, he writes, and the template for democratic living we need in our own time: servant leadership and unconditional love as “the heart of democratic greatness.”

For Whitman, however, the “tender and terrible realities” of the Civil War were not really a culmination or a conclusion. Time spent in the hospitals transformed his thinking about American democracy. In a letter written while he was in Washington, Whitman explained that the military hospitals “open a new world somehow to me, giving closer insights, new things, exploring deeper mines than any yet.” His own journey was not yet finished.

Six years after war’s end and amid Reconstruction, in 1871, Walt Whitman published a lengthy Franken-essay titled “Democratic Vistas,” a farrago of ideas and passages drafted at different times, then quilted together into a single work. This was a much darker and in some ways less romantic Whitman, sensitive to the real vulnerabilities of democracy and the possibility that it might perish from the earth. Having witnessed the destructive forces of the Civil War, a time, Whitman said, “when human eyes appear’d at least just as likely to see the last breath of the Union as to see it continue,” he wrote with a heightened sense of what was at stake in democratic politics. It’s in the postwar prose rather than Leaves of Grass that we find, as poet and critic C.K. Williams once observed, a Whitman “painfully aware of America’s greater faults, its incompleteness, its derelictions.”

Whitman’s poetic project in the 1850s was democratic expansion, bringing a wider range of voices into America’s political chorus. The work to be done in the 1870s was different: democratic repair and rehabilitation. The modern history of democracy, Whitman argued, could be divided into three phases. An initial period marked by the “planning and putting on record” of basic political rights: constitutions and institutions. A subsequent period of economic flourishing and material prosperity. Now, he proposed, it was time for America to heal by fixing the spiritual foundations of its civic life. “Vistas” was not a policy report or a roadmap for saving democracy, but Whitman did describe the text as “a collection of memoranda, perhaps, for future designers.”

The poet looked around and saw U.S. democracy unfinished, if not critically endangered, wracked by political and cultural crisis. “The problem of the future of America is … dark as it is vast,” he thought. “The clouds break a little, and the sun shines out—but soon and certain the lowering darkness falls again, as if to last forever.” What was most dangerous, Whitman believed, was that Americans related to their democracy so superficially. Many felt that democracy was simply a set of laws and procedures. But “unless it goes deeper,” Whitman warned, “gets at least as firm and as warm a hold in men’s hearts, emotions and belief” as tyranny or authoritarian theocracy, democracy’s “strength will be defective, its growth doubtful, and its main charm wanting.”

The answer, he wrote, was for the nation’s leaders to pay more attention to human nature. Understanding how the social experience of freedom and equality produced an American personality, as Tocqueville had done (and Whitman, too, in “Song of Myself”)—this was no longer the most essential task. In the 1870s, as the country struggled with division and disunion, it was much more important to identify the sort of citizens needed to sustain the experiment, to map out what Whitman called “the democratic ethnology of the future.”

The American “stock-personality” Whitman imagined was neither dangerously emotional (many nineteenth-century elites professed concern about mass suffrage on these grounds) nor an unfeeling rational automaton but rather a happy hybrid: passionate and “ardent … full of adventure” but also “brave, perceptive, under control … eyes of calm and steady gaze, yet capable also of flashing.” With the help of a new democratic generation of “mighty poets, artists, teachers,” Whitman thought, America should educate its people anew for the work of self-government. “For both man and woman,” he claimed, “we must entirely recast the types of highest personality from what the oriental, feudal, ecclesiastical worlds bequeath us.” Democratic selves for a more democratic world to come.

When Americans first met Whitman in the 1850s, he was singing their democracy into its modern existence: a joyful bard, their very own Virgil. By the time he produced “Vistas,” however, he had come to see himself differently. In this later essay, he presented himself as an explorer and democratic cartographer, asking his readers to “presume to write, as it were, upon things that exist not, and travel by maps yet unmade, and a blank.” And since it was a time of democratic sickness, he was prepared to act as political surgeon-in-chief, “using the moral microscope upon humanity” and staring the country “searchingly in the face, like a physician diagnosing some deep disease.”

“The political class is too slippery for me,” Whitman commented to a friend as he neared the end of his life. “I seem to be reaching for a new politics—for a new economy: I don’t know quite what, but for something?”

To be perfectly honest, Whitman’s the slippery one, and always has been. For as long as his work has been read, intellectuals and critics have tried to put his writing into political practice. But those projects always seem to founder: on the internal contradictions within Whitman’s work, on the disconnect between his optimism and the toughness of political combat, on the murky abstraction of his democratic ideas. Whether you choose poetry or prose, actually governing—or fighting—with Whitman seems nearly impossible.

What does it actually mean, for instance, to love each another as democratic citizens and friends? What does it look like on a daily habitual basis, to say nothing of policy decisions or electoral strategy, to pursue “intense and loving comradeship” with our neighbors? Or to fight for democracy with passionate friendliness? To his credit, Whitman himself knew he didn’t have the answers. “Hard questions to meet,” he wrote in 1871. “At best, we can only offer suggestions, comparisons, circuits.” Some scholars, like Martha Nussbaum and Danielle Allen, have worked through the more concrete civic implications of Whitman’s vague injunctions to political love and friendship. Edmundson struggles to do so, in part, because he never adequately describes our own contemporary democratic crisis beyond a generalized “hunger for kings” and widespread but diffuse “hatred between Americans.” But the diagnosis matters for the prescription. Aspirin and a good night’s sleep don’t do much for stage-four cancer.

In the final accounting, perhaps, it’s not Whitman’s passionate democratic friendliness or his forgiveness and good faith that we need now so much his daring and bravura, the bold determination entirely to reimagine the world that inspired Isadora Duncan a century ago. As a radical dreamer more than a dreamy liberal, he remains as thrilling and vital for our democratic imaginations today as he was in 1855, when Leaves of Grass appeared: “Now I will you to be a bold swimmer, / To jump off in the midst of the sea, and rise again and nod to me and shout, and laughingly dash with your hair.”