Walt Whitman: Slavery, Paradox and Future Poetics
*This essay was originally written for a Graduate course on American Poetry in Fall 2010.
Walt Whitman’s personal inconsistencies regarding his position on slavery have been the subject of much scholarly criticism and debate. It has been well documented that Walter Whitman, the journalist, political activist and public figure, held dramatically opposing views on slavery and race concerns than did Walt Whitman, the poet, bard of democracy and champion of equality. The latter Whitman used his poetry–particularly the many editions of Leaves of Grass–to indulge in a sense of admiration, identification, sympathy and respect for the “hounded slave,” while the former was an active member of several political parties, composed ideological editorials in a few political publications and was for some time, an ardent opponent of the abolitionist movement. Given his blatant paradoxical ideologies and his transparently polar vision on slavery, how is a twenty-first century reader supposed to reconcile these contradictions?
Certainly there are no clear and authoritative explanations for the conflicting politics of Whitman the journalist and Whitman the poet. One can only look to the poetry and the politics to formulate, as close as possible, a concise interpretive analysis of Whitman’s duality. George Hutchinson and David Drews wondered: “How Whitman could be so prejudiced, and yet so effective in conveying an egalitarian and antiracist sensibility in his poetry, is a puzzle yet to be adequately addressed” (569). This paper examines just one of many possibilities regarding the double identity of a liberal poet who spoke of a future promise of freedom, equality and democracy in America, against the backdrop of a conservative public figure, bogged down by the racist stereotypes of his contemporary society. Martin Klammer suggests, “One way to make sense of Whitman’s seeming inconsistencies on slavery is to recognize that his journalism addressed the realities of the present, while his poetry pointed toward his hopes for America’s democratic future” (642). Aside from a juxtaposition of his poetics with his public persona and an examination of his expressed feelings toward his own contradictions, this paper also highlights passages that explore what I call Whitman’s “future poetics” in which the poet writes his verse, not merely for contemporary consumption, but more importantly, for a future audience.
Perhaps the most obvious example of his future poetics is expressed in one of the poems that appeared in a later edition of Leaves of Grass titled “Poets to Come.” This poem offers a clear appeal to future artists who Whitman believes must justify his poetic intentions, while strategically positioning him as a poet of the future, not the present. Bypassing his contemporary audience and directly addressing a future one, he consequently establishes an alibi for his seeming contradictions and misunderstood political ideals. Whitman was very concerned with how his poetry would be interpreted. In 1888, he told his friend Horace Traubel, “I am not thin-skinned about opposition: it is being misunderstood–that’s what tantalizes me” (Whitman, Camden 56). “Poets to Come” immediately departs from the nineteenth century and thrusts itself forward to a time even beyond our own with the opening lines:
Poets to come! orators, singers, musicians to come!
Not to-day is to justify me and answer what I am for,
But you, a new brood, native, athletic, continental, greater
than before known,
Arouse! For you must justify me.
I myself but write one or two indicative words for the future,
I but advance a moment only to wheel and hurry back in the
darkness. (Whitman 48).
Whitman’s passionate directive calls twenty-first century readers to interpretive action. By calling for future artists to “Arouse! For you must justify me,” he is in essence asking for a proper interpretation and understanding of his persona and ideals. In legal terms, to justify is to defend from wrongdoing; in religious, it means to free one from sin. However, it is not wrongdoing or sin that Whitman seems concerned with, but merely a recognition of his contemporary’s misrepresentation and lack of understanding of his ideals, for he admits that “not to-day is to justify me and answer what I am for” (48). His direct appeal to future artists for justification appears as a self-affirming acknowledgment of personal flaw and ineptitude, since he recognizes not only the conscientious limitations of his society, but perhaps also his own complacency and complicity within that society. Here, the speaker advances but a moment, only to recoil “back in the darkness” of his own time, as if the future holds the promise of enlightenment and understanding, while he and his contemporaries remain trapped in the self-professed unmitigated darkness of the nineteenth century.
Throughout much of his poetry, Whitman recognized his limitations as a purely angelic representative of society, admitting: “I am not the poet of goodness only, I do not decline to be the poet of wickedness also. / What blurt is this about virtue and about vice? / Evil propels me and reform of evil propels me, I stand indifferent” (85). This expressed paradox of simultaneity, like good and evil, defines much of “Song of Myself.” It is this type of confessional double identity, coupled with the prejudices of his contemporaries that propel him to look beyond what is achievable in his own time, to a utopian future of hope, freedom and democracy. “Because of the radically democratic and egalitarian aspects of his poetry, readers generally expect, and desire for, Whitman to be among the literary heroes that transcended the racist pressures that abounded in all spheres of public discourse during the nineteenth century” (Hutchinson and Drews 569). Nonetheless, this was not always the case with Whitman. He recognized in himself some of the same flaws of his society.
Whitman was a descendent of a slave-owning family, and had, since childhood, been conditioned to look upon blacks as an inferior and subordinate race. Although his poetry reveals an enlightened, almost angelic persona who transcends contemporary prejudices, there is evidence to suggest his inherently bigoted perspective on race, would linger in his ideals until the end. From his early career as a journalist, to his close friendship with the ardent abolitionist and novelist, William D. O’Connor, much of his writings and ideals expose a public figure disinterested with the moral implications of racism and the plight of the black slave, and more concerned with the stability of the Union, westward expansion and his endorsement of a white working class. Whitman was a passionate supporter of the free-soil movement, which he thought would preserve the value of white labor. He argued adamantly for the Wilmot Proviso, a bill introduced in Congress by Representative David Wilmot that attempted to prohibit slavery in the newly acquired western territories. Klammer sums up Whitman’s position by claiming, “In his Eagle editorials in 1846–1847 Whitman argues, as did free-soil Northerners in Congress, that the introduction of slavery into the new territories would discourage, if not prohibit, whites from migrating to those areas because white labor could not economically compete with slave labor and would be ‘degraded’ by it” (640).
While his public persona largely remained silent on any moral criticism and condemnation of the injustices of slavery and the inherent contradictions between democracy and bondage, his poetic consciousness divulges a starkly different point of view. In his essay, “Walt Whitman and the Negro,” Charles I. Glicksberg notes, “the editor and the poet speak a different language. The editor must assume a tone of objective and judicial deliberation; the poet, if he is to arouse the reader’s emotions, must compose with impassioned intensity” (328). It is hard to conceive that the public figure mentioned above is the same person who writes with such respectful admiration for the slave, as noted in the following passage:
The negro holds firmly the reins of his four horses, the
block swags underneath on its tied-over chain,
The negro that drives the long dray of the stone-yard,
steady and tall he stands pois’d on one leg on the
His blue shirt exposes his ample neck and breast and
loosens over his hip-band,
His glance is calm and commanding, he tosses the slouch
of his hat away from his forehead,
The sun falls on his crispy hair and mustache, falls on the
black of his polish’d and perfect limbs. (Whitman 74)
In this excerpt from “Song of Myself,” Whitman portrays a working class “negro” with even more praise than he allots to white workers. In this passage, blacks are no less competent laborers than anyone else. In fact, the attention Whitman gives to the perfect physicality of the “negro” is hardly found anywhere else in the poem when referencing white working class. Using language that can not be interpreted as anything less than pure physical approbation, Whitman describes the “negro” as “steady and tall,” “calm and commanding,” “polish’d and perfect.” Here, the “negro” is a confident and competent working man, whose perfect limbs specify a flawless laborer, complete and lacking no physical attributes to perform his work. The last line from this passage is particularly relevant since it points to a worker that can not be surpassed by another; whose incomparable perfection can not be compromised. The “negro” laborer, as represented in this passage is, in fact, superior to any other race of workers. Although this excerpt appears problematic, since Whitman lavishes tribute to the body only and not the spiritual or intellectual capabilities of the “negro,” it nonetheless further highlights the paradox of the two Whitmans. If this romantic association with the perfect “negro” worker were true, then why would Walter Whitman fight so ardently for the rights of white workers only and not the rights of all workers, regardless of race?
This question rests at the very root of the paradox that is Walt Whitman. New Critics would argue that the poem should be read on its own merits and not analyzed against the backdrop of Whitman’s personal life. But the poet can no more be separated from his historical condition, than his sociopolitical ideals severed from the poet. Phillip Callow argues, “One doesn’t need to be charitable toward Whitman’s stance vis a vis the plight of slaves. The prospect of contemporary America was his context, and we have to place him within it… What did he know of the realities of black slavery?” (143). In all fairness to Whitman, one should heed Callow’s advice and place Whitman within his context. It would be disingenuous not to call attention to the chronology of important events in his life. For instance, his staunch support for free-soil and the Whilmot Proviso mostly took place throughout the years 1846–1849, while writing as a journalist for several publications. The first edition of Leaves of Grass wasn’t published until 1855. This span of time may have presented Whitman with different experiences, therefore, fostering a divergent outlook on the rights of slaves. So what did Whitman know about the plight of the slave?
One answer can be surmised from his three-month stay in the South. Shortly after his dismissal from the Brooklyn Daily Eagle in 1858, Whitman was offered a job as a writer for the New Orleans Crescent. On this first trip to the South, he would witness first hand the impressionable business of a slave auction, which undoubtedly left an indelible impact on his psyche. In his book, The Historic Whitman, Joseph Jay Rubin recalls such an auction that took place at Bank’s Arcade where “… merchandise just received from Virginia and North Carolina would be put on the block” (190). Rubin claims, “Because the Arcade served as a newsgathering center, [Whitman] was there to watch the spectacle. Sales began at noon after inspection by prospective buyers of the chattels who filled benches and small rooms” (190). Witnessing the dehumanizing conditions of slaves at auction–sold like mere cattle–may have contributed to his opening up on the moral issue of slavery. Shortly after Whitman’s return to New York, Callow argues, “Turning in the 1850s to a poetry which changed his blood as it was meant to change ours, Whitman opened channels of sympathy in himself toward flesh other than his own. Sympathy and identity were the watchwords of his approach to worlds that had been walled off from him till then” (146).
If sympathy and identity truly were the watchwords of his new approach to the moral question of slavery, one can surely find several examples that justify such a claim within certain verses of “Song of Myself.” One often quoted section of the poem directly referencing slavery is a scene in which a runaway slave stops outside the speaker’s house. The speaker ignores the legal ramifications of the Fugitive Slave Law of 1850, which would automatically carry six months in prison and a $1000 fine for anyone providing food and shelter to the runaway slave. He invites the runaway inside:
Through the swung half-door of the kitchen I saw him limpsy and
And went where he sat on a log and led him in and assured him,
And brought water and fill’d a tub for his sweated body and bruis’d
And gave him a room that enter’d from my own, and gave him
some coarse clean clothes,
And remember perfectly well his revolving eyes and his
And remember putting plasters on the galls of his neck and ankles;
He staid with me a week before he was recuperated and pass’d
I had him sit next to me at table, my fire-lock lean’d in the corner.
This move by the speaker, who plays the double role of protector and nurse, not only reveals humanitarian kindness, it also squarely puts him in line with the abolitionists who often operated the Underground Railroad and aided the runaways in their safe passage north. The scene paints a hopeful picture of the equality and democracy Whitman envisions for the egalitarian future of America. At great risk to himself, the speaker saves the runaway’s life, and like equal brothers, shares his home, his clothes, his food, and his table. For this brief moment, white and black are isolated from the racism that abounds in the outside world around them and are able to coexist in harmony and peace. This utopian vision of equality might easily be shattered by the suspicious last line, which randomly places a “fire-lock,” or a rifle, in the same room as the two comrades. However, it was not uncommon to find a rifle in most every home during the nineteenth century; therefore, its presence in the speaker’s home should not come as a surprise. But what need is there for a rifle to be interjected in the scene? Why mention it? The rifle is significant in that it ratifies the level of trust and camaraderie between the two men of different races. The speaker doesn’t say the rifle was locked and loaded at his side, but left unattended, leaning against a corner, useless in this situation. The image of the lame rifle further supports the speaker’s ease in the company of this racial “other,” which his white brethren has long demonized and oppressed.
The abolitionist implications of this passage dramatically place Whitman the poet and Whitman the journalist at vastly distant points within the controversial debate on slavery. Again, it is difficult to accept that the poet and the journalist are the same person, since their political ideologies on race radically differ. The actions of the poet highlighted in the above-mentioned passage are characteristic of an abolitionist’s commitment to the destruction of the institution of slavery. In contrast, Walter Whitman, the public figure, regarded the abolitionists as radicals and “red-hot fanatics.” His public approach to ending slavery was one of silence and patience, since he believed true democracy would take root in America by a gradual emancipation, further advanced by generations to come, and not by the loud intrusiveness of the abolitionists who he thought only thwarted any progress toward freedom. On 7 November 1846, Whitman wrote in the Eagle: “‘We have often thought,’ said Whitman, ‘that if the ultraism and officiousness of the Abolitionists had not been, the slave states at the south would have advanced much farther in the ‘cause of freedom’ to their slaves… The abominable fanaticism of the Abolitionists has aroused the other side of the feeling–and thus retarded the very consummation desired by the A. faction’” (Brasher 162).
Because this editorial appeared in an 1846 edition of the Eagle, and the quoted passage from “Song of Myself” was first published in 1855, the experiences Whitman might have encountered within that nine year gap might have aroused different feelings of sympathy toward the slave’s condition as noted with his witnessing of the New Orleans auction. Nonetheless, there is plenty of evidence to suggest Whitman remained plagued by prejudices even toward the latter part of the nineteenth century. Glicksberg claims, “He might preach earnestly against the extension of slavery to the newly acquired territories, but as far as the Negro problem was concerned, Whitman, like Lincoln, was more interested in preserving the Union than in immediately emancipating the slaves… The supreme object was to keep the union intact; this was a more important issue than that of abolition” (327). Even after the war, Whitman held reservations about the ability of freed slaves to assimilate with the dominant white society. One such reservation was registered in his opposition to the Fifteenth Amendment to the Constitution granting voting rights to newly freed blacks.
Whitman’s opposition culminated in a quarrel with his good friend and enthusiastic supporter, William D. O’Connor. O’Connor was a staunch abolitionist before the war and an advocate for black rights during reconstruction. Before their split, his commitment to Whitman the poet was steadfast and firm. It was O’Connor who published The Good Gray Poet: A Vindication in 1866 chastising Whitman’s critics while lauding the merits of his poetry (Lott 477). “In August 1872 Whitman and O’Connor quarreled over the constitutional amendment to ensure voting rights for blacks in an upcoming presidential election. Offended by Whitman’s stubborn conservatism, O’Connor denounced him” (Cavitch 181). The break between the two friends underscores Whitman’s inner conflict between liberal poet on the one hand, and conservative politician on the other, and proved to be a momentous event since it is well documented that he cherished O’Connor’s friendship more than his own family. “He admitted to Horace Traubel that he had probably been ‘tainted’ by the ‘New York’ attitude toward antislavery, and he came to blame his split with William Douglass O’Connor upon his own shortcomings in this respect” (Hutchinson and Drews 568).
Whitman was very much aware of the contradictions that belied his liberal poetic convictions and his public conservatism. He was aware of the seeming deficiency such inconsistencies placed on his character as a true champion of equality. In 1888, he admitted to Traubel, “I have made my mistakes too–have not always got events, myself, into right perspectives: have said things that should not have been said–have been silent when I should have spoken: in all that, I, too, have been guilty enough” (Whitman, Camden 79). Surely, this admission falls short of a true confession since Whitman is still being silent about his silences. But one can assume that his regret of silence on certain events very well might correlate to his silence on the issue of slavery and abolition, since many of the complaints lodged against him refer to his unwillingness to confront, head on, the injustices of slavery. Glicksberg claims, “There is no allusion, not even in the Lincoln poems, to the breaking of the shackles, or setting the negroes free, no swelling of the current note of the Lincoln adulation… That it was a mere emancipation war, that these tremendous battles and the sieges were for a negro’s freedom, Whitman will have no such thought!” (330).
Nonetheless, the poet does strike a chord of identification with the plight of slave’s in several passages within his poetry. In one such passage of “Song of Myself,” the speaker takes on the first person “I” to directly identify with the brutality and violence inflicted upon the slave. He states:
I am the hounded slave, I wince at the bite of the dogs,
Hell and despair are upon me, crack and again crack the
I clutch the rails of the fence, my gore dribs, thinn’d with the ooze of
I fall on the wheels and stones,
The riders spur their unwilling horses, haul close,
Taunt my dizzy ears and beat me violently over the head with whip-
stocks. (Whitman 101).
Although this violent imagery is difficult to read, it is surely even more difficult to experience. By painting a detailed description of the barbarity of the Fugitive Slave Laws, one can easily connect with the terror and despair of the slave. This scene is teeming with images of extreme physical pain and psychological anguish, so brutal in its graphic details that it forces one to identify first-hand with the horror. Writing in the first person, the speaker not only becomes himself the hounded slave, he also permits the reader to become the hounded slave. When reading the passage aloud, every mention of “I” invokes a personal sensory experience with pain, so that every dog bite, every crack of the whip, every pounce on the head, creates a simulated physical experience, rather than a mere emotional one.
Perhaps Whitman recognized that his contemporaries would miss the very personal identification with passages like these, which is why he turned his attention toward the future reader. Repeatedly, one gets a sense of his frustration with his society for their lack of progress toward true democracy. He tells Traubel, “More and more do I see that it is with the young man, the young woman,–that there lies the future of Leaves of Grass–that its real constituency will be these newer personalities” (Whitman, Camden 87). Therefore, Leaves of Grass can be read as a performance in future poetics; as a transcending composition written expressively for Whitman’s hopes and future dreams of the egalitarian republic neither he, nor his contemporaries could possibly achieve in their life time; or possibly even us in our time. Recognizing his own shortcomings and personal contradictions, Whitman’s “Song of Myself” is a practice in paradox; it is a mirror reflection of both the poet and the public persona amalgamated into one long verse which declares: “Do I contradict myself? / Very well then I contradict myself, / (I am large, I contain multitudes.)” (Whitman 123).
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—. Walt Whitman: The Complete Poems. Ed. Francis Murphy. London: Penguin Books, 2004.