Magazine | August 26, 2019, Issue

Walt Whitman Isn’t America’s Greatest Poet

Walt Whitman in Brooklyn, N.Y., September 1872 (New York Public Library)
He’s more the father of empty celebrity than of the Democratic spirit

In its May issue, The Atlantic published what may be a new acme (or nadir) of literary hagiography, “Walt Whitman’s Guide to a Thriving Democracy.” The article, by Mark Edmundson, is one of some quite vigorously spurting celebrations to mark the 200th anniversary of the poet’s birth. But Edmundson goes so far as to anoint Whitman America’s greatest poet, necessary for the country to “discover its spirit” after the Founders shaped its mind. 

I fumed and fumed. Whitman is, factually, the poet whom ordinary Americans most reviled (inasmuch as they noticed him) in the days when the genre was democracy’s main artistic expression, and ignored with the most determination thereafter. One morning I even woke with the paranoid conviction that Edmundson had made his claims largely without reference to Whitman’s actual poetry. 

But in looking back at the article, I found plenty of quotations: the bard delighting to be outdoors in various settings, enjoying fellatio (presumably indoors), contemplating with bliss his personal bliss over American equality, dazzled by the variety of the country’s activities: the carpenter, pilot, and printer ratcheting in alongside the lunatic being locked up and the “quadroon” girl being sold in a slave market. (He himself didn’t much like activity as such — but no matter; he had a compulsion to brazen out what he couldn’t rationally defend: He not only didn’t deny having sex with his tenant’s teenaged son, for example, but he also posed with the boy for a photo in the style of married couples’ portraits.)

But my delusion wasn’t without cause; clearly, the quotations of poetry had impressed me even less than the article writer’s own prose in the same vague and hyperbolic style, so I had simply forgotten them. Whitman’s writing is everything and nothing, a wind storm of assertion indiscernible in its parts and knowable mainly through the damage it leaves behind — in his case, to literary culture, whose essence is memory.

I’m not going to inveigh here against free verse and the relative difficulty with which its words register in the brain. In the right hands, free verse, like good prose rhetoric, is more piercingly memorable than formal verse with its sound maps, because to succeed without those requires a resounding eloquence, on the order of Stephen Spender’s “I think continually of those who were truly great,” or Robert Lowell’s “My eyes have seen what my hand did,” or Sylvia Plath’s “Her bare / Feet seem to be saying: / We have come so far, it is over.”  

I have done my dutiful reading of Whitman, the American intelligentsia’s spoiled darling since the time Emerson, his champion, was a leading tastemaker, and I can remember practically nothing. If he is the nation’s greatest poet, it’s odd that he never seems to be quoted spontaneously, for the sheer powerful pleasure of it or to make an urgent point. His (likely) best-known statement, that he contradicts himself, but so what, because he “contain[s] multitudes,” has as bad a natural taste right now as it did in his era, that of the breakdown of North–South relations, the Civil War, and Reconstruction. The nation can’t operate like that, but has to arrive at a workable version of truth, one certified by its persuasiveness and beauty in prevailing memory.

Among the most popular contemporary poets, Edgar Allan Poe, Henry Wadsworth Longfellow, James Russell Lowell, and John Greenleaf Whittier, all but Poe (a southerner) were committed abolitionists — Whittier so committed that he called his signature on a seminal anti-slavery petition the most important thing he ever wrote. Whitman was a Free Soil man and did pay a price professionally, but the Free Soil movement was comparatively narrow and self-interested, deploring in particular the competition slaves created for the working class, which both was Whitman’s background and contained the human scenery he found most delicious: toiling young men.

He was, with vulgarity and explicitness (“baboons,” “wild brutes”) unusual in a man of letters, even in that era, a racist. Worse, he was a proto-fascist, confident that inferior peoples would be eliminated by “the law of races, history, what-not.”

Granted, he served devotedly as a comforter and factotum for the wounded in the Civil War, but his vision — that is not a lofty word in his case — of the war is dispiriting: panoramas of weird shallowness and simplicity, such as young men marching and gazing up at flags. The clunkiest popular songs took more account of what was happening, in its elements: duty, love, friendship, hatred, rage, fear, pride, piety, grief, hope, idealism, pity, longing. 

Hence there seems to be no possibility for special pleading about his shortcomings as a writer. He plainly never experienced the imaginative, transcendent commonality that he never stops gushing about. He could not attach his mind to what didn’t feed his own intimate pleasures, desires, and ambitions. He effectively had no imagination, could not narrate, could not wield metaphor well, could not ever see himself with instructive objectivity or allow others to enlarge his view of the world.  

He accordingly contributed next to nothing to the healing and growth of culture in the post–Civil War era. It was Whittier’s “Barefoot Boy,” “Barbara Frietchie,” and Snow-Bound, Longfellow’s Song of Hiawatha and Evangeline, and other nostalgic, patriotic, romantic, and moralistic poems that were read at firesides into the opening West and incorporated into readers for primary schools. Leaves of Grass would have fallen away had not professors like Mark Edmundson championed it. 

During the 1970s, I met a woman who was over a hundred but could still recite a poem in which a bird laments to a child about her dead young, which he has “destroyed.” It reminded me of an incident that was formative for the first great American anti-slavery campaigner and defender of Native American rights, the Quaker John Woolman (1720–1772): As a boy, he killed a mother bird, realized what his cruelty meant, and killed the chicks to spare them a prolonged death by starvation. Through the activities and writings that his unforgettable impression of responsibility gave rise to in time, his inner revelation became a worthy part of the American narrative.

Notice the contrast with Whitman’s take on a similar incident, which became the basis for “When Lilacs Last in the Dooryard Bloom’d.” The language of the poem is in fact resplendent. In one scene, a child observes a pair of nesting thrushes; later, after the female disappears, he hears the male’s song of loss. The poem is “about” Lincoln’s assassination, but, with brutal tastelessness, swoons into the speaker’s ecstasy in anticipating his own death, ecstasy like a sexual transport or a privileged intoxication. The nation’s tragedy is not considered, except briefly in the form of mass funerary spectacle. I suspect that Whitman liked crowds of humanity, and stereotyped exemplars of it, for the same reason propagandists do: The inconvenient compassion and compunction normally felt for individuals did not intrude.

Whitman, whose professional self-promotion was pretty much as relentless as his literary self-glorification — the two are almost indistinguishable — looks to me less like the father of the American spirit than the father of empty American celebrity: the Kardashians, mommy bloggers, the “creative writing” and identity-study industries, the whole mutually trampling stampede of ineffable individual specialness. Whitman, as far as he could, did not so much foster democratic mores as undermine them. Democratic tolerance, goodwill, and constructive energy struggle in the face of the Whitman dream: a publicly extolled sinecure of the private self.

This article appears as “Song for Himself” in the August 26, 2019, print edition of National Review.

Sarah Ruden is the author, most recently, of a translation of Augustine’s Confessions.

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