Around 1890, Thomas Edison allegedly recorded Whitman declaiming his poem "America." That voice is known by millions of people, thanks in part to a massive advertising campaign for Levi's jeans. As the 1855 frontispiece image of Whitman has become iconic, so have his words. They have been reprinted in thousands of books in hundreds of languages and have shaped the ideas of "old and young, the foolish as much as the wise."
Today, Whitman helps sell Brooklyn-made ice cream
, luxury cars
and at least nine types of beer. His words are quoted by presidents, poets and celebrities (Madonna, Lana del Ray, Iggy Pop
, Tupac Shakur and, yes, even Bill Murray
). They are carved into stone in Canada's Bon Echo Provincial Park, displayed under his towering bronze likeness in Moscow, and around the New York City AIDS Memorial. And the conversations they sparked on democracy, freedom, and humanity's common bonds still fire hearts and minds. Walt Whitman and his words are with us
— even a little ahead of us.
At the same time, this bicentennial moment is not the moment for uncritical hero worship. It is an occasion to reflect on what being "America's Poet" actually means. To celebrate Whitman as the poetic embodiment of unsettled democracy must also be to acknowledge his stature as an exemplar of the long history of America's political polarization. Whitman represents the most inclusive — and the most insidious — aspects of our national character.
Whitman's "Leaves of Grass" (1855) is, in many ways, our cultural declaration of independence. It paved the way for a distinctly American literature at a time when the United States was still fumbling to forge a national identity on the world stage. Between the book's covers, 12 unrhymed, unruly poems celebrate America as a "teeming nation of nations" — a community of equals across race, gender, economic class, politics and sexual preference.
Whitman, in many ways, lived out that radical vision of equality in his poetry and in his life. Decades before the word homosexual was in common parlance, over a century before the dawn of America's organized LGBTQ movement, whose work we honor with Pride Month in June, Whitman declared his intention to "celebrate the love of comrades" and to establish a community of same-sex lovers in the "Live Oak, With Moss" and "Calamus" clusters of poems.
Befriending activists, including Abby Hills Price and Paulina Wright Davis at the very start of the women rights movement, Whitman also wrote poems that honored women's central role in the establishment of a democratic society
and demonstrated that
the female body — and even female desire — are fitting subjects for poetry (consider the enduring shock value of "Unfolded Out of the Folds,"
an extended meditation on the physicality of birth and sex, and the "28 Bathers" passage of "Song of Myself," in which one woman fantasizes about not one but 28 potential partners).
More generally, Whitman trained his poetic eye on those left marginalized by society. He defended "the rights of them the others are down upon" (to quote Section 24 of "Song of Myself"
) by breaking long-held literary convention. He got personal with readers instead of maintaining a safe distance across the page and liberated poetry from rhyme and meter, writing in long lines that sound — even look — natural and free.
His radical democracy represents the Whitman many of us know and love. And yet in recent years, an important conversation has developed about another Whitman — for some an unfamiliar voice, one easier to dislike. While he equally considered "red, black, or white" in such poems as "I Sing the Body Electric," openly defied the 1850 Fugitive Slave Act in Section 10 of "Song of Myself" and portrayed the righteousness of active vengeance against slavery's supporters in 1855's "The Sleepers," some of his prose writings and statements made later in life denigrate African Americans in a way that can only be described as racist.
He seems to have been
captivated by racist pseudoscience after the Civil War, and while he opposed slavery, he defended the exclusion of black Americans from Western territories of the United States.