If I were to count up the things I love best about America, this tableau would be high on the list: Walt Whitman, on a street in Washington, exchanging a respectful bow with Abraham Lincoln as the president’s carriage rolled by. That the United States managed to produce either of these gentlemen, the self-taught frontier president and the great poet of democracy, reflects well on our way of life. That a lucky pedestrian could watch the two of them pass close enough to acknowledge one another—such original minds, such extraordinary beards—nearly makes the notion of a special dispensation for America ring true.
As far as anybody can tell, Lincoln and Whitman never paused for a proper conversation. It’s too bad, because if they had, it would have been a latter-day constitutional convention. After the Civil War exposed some limitations of the Framers’ plans, it fell to Lincoln to bring forth, through his reconciling speeches and his sacrificial death, a “new birth of freedom” for the Union he helped to save. But Whitman, if we read him right, proves to be just as much a Founding Father as Lincoln, and for many of the same reasons.
Ethnically, geographically, and materially, the United States had careened outward during the 19th century. More vibrantly than anybody else, Whitman sang a hymn of praise to what he grasped would become “not merely a nation but a teeming nation of nations.” He saw how our continental democracy could benefit citizens’ souls but recognized how much openness and equality this would demand—the nearly infinite differences that would arise. “I hear America singing,” he wrote in Leaves of Grass, “the varied carols I hear.”
Neither Whitman nor the president he eulogized in his great elegy “When Lilacs Last in the Dooryard Bloom’d” are ever far from America’s consciousness; neither is what you’d call neglected. But sometimes our need for one of them is more than usually acute. Lincoln offered a touchstone when we tried to make sense of Barack Obama’s election in 2008. Now, C. K. Williams has written a book on Whitman, and it arrives not a moment too soon.
This isn’t just a dark time for the American economy; politics have grown so vicious and corrosive, it’s turning into a dark time for the American soul. Creeping militancy. Mounting cynicism. Talk of division—up to and including secession. Affection for the Confederacy, whose sympathizers (does this not bother anybody else?) killed Abe Lincoln. Until his death in 1892, Whitman opposed all those forms of ugliness. He knew they would subvert American democracy’s ability to bring about his most earnest dream: a people with large spirits and heroic souls. “How short we have fallen compared to what he saw for us,” writes Williams, “how in so many ways have we regressed.” Those shortcomings make right now an excellent time for our mystic chords of memory to be touched by the poet who is—if anyone is—one of the better angels of our nature.
In On Whitman, Williams takes an approach that’s more innovative than it sounds: he keeps his focus on the poems. He wants to strip away the heavy theorizing and layers of biography that have accrued around his fellow poet. Williams’s aim is to restore the strangeness and power he encountered when, at age 16, he made a Whitman anthology his first poetry purchase. “For a young poet, reading Whitman is sheer revelation, sheer wonder, a delight bordering on then plunging into disbelief. How could all this come to pass?” His slender book offers a convincing answer.
For Williams, the first source of Whitman’s power is the music of his verse. It was the result not of steady development of craft but of an epiphany. The poet spent his early years toiling in and around New York City as what his biographer Justin Kaplan calls “an inconstant newspaper editor, a sometime demagogue, and a writer of imitative fiction.” Then, like Robert Johnson returning from the crossroads, the 36-year-old journeyman erupted with Leaves of Grass, a book that sounded like nothing he’d written before—or that anybody else had, for that matter. Whatever its origins, Williams writes, his musical system “was magically encompassing and had within it echoes of other singings, the Bible, oratory, opera, even some older poetry, but was entirely unique as well.”
Out of his wild and spontaneous seeming word music, Whitman used the “I” of lyric poetry to create a new kind of self—really a new kind of consciousness—to suit the New World. The secret, Williams writes, is a radical form of sympathy. The first lines of “Song of Myself” proclaim:
I celebrate myself,
And what I assume you shall assume,
For every atom belonging to me as
good belongs to you.
Whitman wanted his “I,” according to Williams, to be “the container and enactor and, he hopes, the redeemer of others’ ‘I’s.” Thus Leaves of Grass wasn’t meant to be a mere spectacle or performance, it was an act of kinship. “Stop this day and night with me and you shall possess the origin of all poems,” he promises. With our eyes opened, with our tongues loosened by his example, we are accounted for, enfranchised, even ennobled. As Williams puts it, “We will be again first persons adequate to our greatest selves.”
In this expansive vision of democracy, the individual isn’t lost in the “en-masse.” There is room for an “I,” a “you,” and a “we,” Williams writes, but “there is no ‘they.’?” In “Song of the Open Road,” Whitman celebrates “the profound lesson of reception,” that “none but are accepted, none but shall be dear to me.” In fact, he was banned in Boston for welcoming even a prostitute:
Not till the sun excludes you, do I
Not till the waters refuse to glisten for
you, and the leaves to rustle for you,
do my words refuse to glisten and
rustle for you.
Whitman’s views on racial equality lagged the progressives of his time, but his poetry redeems him. The American kaleidoscope nowhere seems lovelier than in the long catalogs of places, professions, sights, and sounds that dot his work. This is his analog to the majestically evenhanded speeches that Lincoln used to knit the Union back together. This is the spirit that the poem projects forward until today.
That lesson takes many different guises. Whitman’s insistence on universal respect, for instance, is one reason why he remains such an eloquent voice for gay rights. Having written frankly of heterosexual sex and masturbation, Whitman devoted the Calamus poems to “the manly love of comrades.” Michael Robertson’s Worshiping Walt, a fascinating recent study of his disciples, tells the story of John Addington Symonds, who pressed Whitman for years to acknowledge that this meant sex between men. The poet denied it, but he didn’t stop Symonds, or countless readers since, from finding in his work a benediction on all kinds of love.
A man who wrote pansexual poetry and looked like Gandalf doesn’t fit our prevailing image of a die-hard American patriot, but even now, we can learn from Whitman’s love for his country. It wasn’t the chest-thumping kind that dominates today—the kind that, in its most brittle version, amounts to the notion that America is a place where some must die so that others may grow rich. Whitman celebrated the openness, solidarity, and energy of the Americans, since it gave them an “ampler largeness and stir” than any people who preceded them. The possibilities of this great creative ferment made him insist that our future matters more than our past.
According to Williams, Whitman really believed his poems would help America realize this vision. That sounds grandiose, but he may yet be right. For Whitman sweeps away one of the vilest notions in contemporary life: that there is such a thing as “real America.” He once used the phrase to describe the geography of the plains states, but when it came to human beings, he rejected the idea that only people who meet some sort of checklist belong. “Kanuck, Tuckahoe, Congressman, Cuff, I give them the same, I receive them the same,” he wrote. Leaves of Grass is our Declaration of Acceptance, the charter for an America that knows the only way this experiment works is if our primary action isn’t to keep drawing little borders around people, it’s to erase them.
Today, that would mean no more questioning another’s patriotism; no more sneering at the East Coast, or the Midwest. Here, again, is a point of harmony with Lincoln, and the heart-rending plea from his first inaugural, “We are not enemies, but friends. We must not be enemies.” And here, too, is a prefiguration of Barack Obama, who made his career by insisting that there are no red states and blue states, only the United States. In fact, during his recent commencement speech at the University of Michigan, the president went further, linking good citizenship to a Whitmanesque embrace of variety. If the graduates seek out people different from themselves, Obama said, they “will learn what it’s like to walk in somebody else’s shoes, and in the process, you will help to make this democracy work.”
The fact that so many find Obama’s viewpoint so original means, I think, that we’re missing the evidence of Whitman’s vision all around us. A few weeks ago, on one of the first pretty days of spring, I took my Whitman books to Central Park. It seemed fitting to read him along the Mall, the long paved walk that’s lined with statues of literary figures. There’s Shakespeare, Walter Scott, and the obscure Fitz-Greene Halleck—but, in what always seems an egregious oversight, there’s no Walt Whitman. Or is there?
At the end of the Mall, past the pirouetting Rollerblader and two or three jazz bands, at Bethesda Fountain, a black man with a silver trumpet drew a crowd of hundreds. He played a Michael Jackson song, then a Dave Brubeck song. Then, right there in the middle of godless Manhattan, he led his audience in a singalong version of “Amazing Grace.” Whitman was present in spirit, if not in stone.