O Whitman! Whose Whitman?
Sarah Ruden’s piece on Walt Whitman (“Song for Himself,” August 26) is 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. Ms. Ruden makes much of Whitman’s documented participation in the racist attitudes of his day, but she makes no mention of the powerful antiracist passages in his poems. In “Song of Myself,” the 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. For all of 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 to 1864, 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.
Unfriendly critics sometimes miss the real contribution of Whitman’s democratic project: By 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. 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.
Sarah Ruden responds: While regretting the error of confusing two of Whitman’s poems — I’m getting too old to rely on memory — I must stand by my opinion of him.
Declarations of love for humankind, abhorrence of suffering, praise of equality and diversity, and even portraits of the self in selfless service have, on their own, no more literary value than a college-application essay or the song “My Grown-Up Christmas List.” But because readers tend to be baffled when asked to admire Whitman’s writing, he needs special pleading as a person — though open-eyed forays into his biography defeat the latter strategy on several grounds.
I’m a classicist, so I’m used to finding things to appreciate and share in texts that are mainly dull, dishonest, narrow, or creepy. But I can’t imagine how I’d sell a class on Leaves of Grass.