When Walt Whitman published Leaves of Grass in 1855, it drew some savage reviews. The splenetic Rufus W. Griswold (famous for slandering the dead Edgar Allan Poe) could barely contain his fury. In an anonymous review, he wrote that “it is impossible to imagine how any man’s fancy could have conceived such a mass of stupid filth, unless he were possessed of the soul of a sentimental donkey that had died of disappointed love.” As we celebrate (some of us, anyway) the bicentennial of Whitman’s birth, old Walt remains just as controversial now as he was then: In a blistering National Review piece, translator Sarah Ruden recently denounced Whitman in terms that would make Griswold smile in his grave.
Reacting to a hagiographic Atlantic piece on Whitman, Ms. Ruden calls him a racist and a “proto-fascist,” and credits the author of “Song of Myself” with creating a culture of narcissism that has led to “the Kardashians, mommy bloggers, the ‘creative writing’ and identity-study industries, the whole mutually trampling stampede of ineffable individual specialness.”
It’s a tour de force of searing prose, and it reveals Ms. Ruden’s wide-ranging knowledge of American poetry; but her philippic shows little serious engagement with Whitman’s actual writing, even seeming to confuse his poem “Out of the Cradle Endlessly Rocking” (about a mockingbird who loses his mate) with his magnificent elegy for Lincoln, “When Lilacs Last in the Dooryard Bloom’d.”
The essay lapses at times into the character assassination and self-righteous outrage so prevalent in our public discourse. The claim that Whitman “didn’t deny having sex with his tenant’s teenaged son” seems like proof of Whitman’s guilt in the eyes of Ms. Ruden. And she makes much of his documented participation in the racist attitudes of his day, but she makes no mention of the powerful anti-racist passages in his poems. In “Song of Myself,” the poetic speaker defies the despicable Fugitive Slave Act by helping a slave escape north. In “I Sing the Body Electric,” Whitman deconstructs a slave-auction scene in order to assert human equality. Under our skin, he insists,
. . . runs blood,
The same old blood! the same red-running blood!
There swells and jets a heart, there all passions, desires, reachings, aspirations,
(Do you think they are not there because they are not express’d in parlors and lecture-rooms?)
For all Whitman’s limitations as a man of the 19th century, his poetry rejects both slavery and racial bigotry.
Ms. Ruden mentions Whitman’s epic hospital ministry during the Civil War in an aside, as if making a small concession about an otherwise reprehensible man. But from 1863–64, Whitman spent countless hours sitting up—sometimes late into the night—with injured, sick, and dying soldiers, northerners and southerners alike. He once estimated that he had visited between 80,000 and 100,000 soldiers in the hospitals, and that service alone secures him a place in the pantheon of admirable Americans.
Ms. Ruden further scorns Whitman’s Civil War poems as “panoramas of weird shallowness and simplicity, such as young men marching and gazing up at flags.” In response to this we might simply quote the intense proto-realist field-hospital scene in “A March in the Ranks Hard-Prest, and the Road Unknown”:
Surgeons operating, attendants holding lights, the smell of ether, the odor of blood,
The crowd, O the crowd of the bloody forms, the yard outside also fill’d,
Some on the bare ground, some on planks or stretchers, some in the death-spasm sweating,
An occasional scream or cry, the doctor’s shouted orders or calls,The glisten of the little steel instruments catching the glint of the torches . . .
The dim light, the smells, the chaos of sounds; this is a poem from a man who has been there.
Ms. Ruden complains that Whitman shows little insight into the psychology or real human experience of war. But I would recommend “The Artilleryman’s Vision,” a brilliant depiction of a postwar flashback of a traumatized veteran struggling to adapt to civilian life. In the poem, though “the wars are over long,” and the veteran lies in bed next to his wife and child, memories come flooding back unbidden. It’s not a dream, since it occurs “as I wake from sleep,” he says. Then suddenly the vision is upon him: “the great shells shrieking as they pass” and the grapeshot “like the hum and whirr of wind through the trees”; we see “the wounded dripping and red” and we feel the “devilish exultation and all the old mad joy” — all the horror and adrenaline-rush some soldiers have experienced in battle.
Finally, unfriendly critics sometimes miss the real contribution of Whitman’s democratic project: In elevating all human beings as the proper subjects of his art, Whitman shows their inherent dignity and their equality within the American republic. He populates his poems with firemen and prostitutes and young soldiers, factory girls, slaves, blacksmiths; all have dignity and a place in his verse, just as all have dignity and a place in the nation. “I will not have a single person slighted or left away,” Whitman writes. This would include those people Ms. Ruden’s article denigrates. Yes, even “the Kardashians” and “mommy bloggers” have dignity and are welcome in Whitman’s America. And, I might add, in the broader human family.
What’s missing from Ms. Ruden’s piece is the same thing missing from so much of our cultural discourse: magnanimity. Two centuries after Whitman’s birth, his affirmative democratic poetry may offer us just what we need.