“Coming Back to Whitman” by James McKee

whitman-1879-nypl.jpg
New York Public Library

1.

The poet Shelley once observed that we spend life’s second half correcting the mistakes of its first. True enough for romance and money, it’s true as well of literary opinions. Yet beware the books you revisit. I gain and lose when a sober rereading snuffs the fallen-angel smolder of an enfant terrible, or razes the awe fencing off a polymathic wizard. Skepticism, the fruit of disappointment, sours as it ripens.

In the season of later wisdom, however, other orchards mature as well. Self-correction, for being an acquired taste, has a savor all the more bracing. That a book I once judged bad turns out to be good is a small re-enrichment of the world. Wrong for years, we’ve lived to be right; discarded in error, a treasure is recovered. Just how precious will depend not only on what it offers to the needs then noisiest within us, but also on the climate of its finding. Our hearing will be dulled or distorted by the background tumult of the day. Book, rereader, and world must align. And align they did for me, when the garish and malignant farce that opened with the rug-yank of Election Day 2016 turned out to be the right time, perhaps the best possible time, for coming back to Whitman.

2.

To my younger self, 19th Century US Literature presented a staid and dreary procession of dour male worthies corseted in frock-coats and bristling with odd facial hair. Not once do I ever recall scanning more than a page of Melville or Twain, Hawthorne or Thoreau, except in sullen compliance to a teacher. Even this brush with those sepia-toned fogeys was intensely off-putting: page blotting paragraphs like cold, inert slabs; line after line of either dated (and therefore corny) vernaculars or orotund (and therefore orthodox) latinities. I threaded their sentences with a squeamish distaste, lest I be smeared with the grease of uplift or the sap of sentimentality. But this was about more than style.

As children under Nixon and teens under Reagan, first-wave Generation Xers like myself have spent our lives watching the rout of the political left from power. As the Colosseum’s marbles were plundered to build palaces for popes, progressive reforms from the New Deal and Great Society were dismantled piecemeal to enrich a profiteering few. White backlash against the Civil Rights Movement hangs like a fume, bitter and indispensable, over every decade I’ve traversed. No wonder I scorned authors whom I took to be the progenitors of our headlong rightward regress. Who’s easier to blame unfairly than the dead? Their likenesses, gazing down from our literary Rushmore, were all the proof I needed to condemn them as reactionaries better left unread. And it is true, after all, that they spoke from an age when the dominant culture was brutishly racist, inveterately sexist, imperialist without apology, and homophobic by default. Why bother with the laureates of the patriarchy’s Golden Age?

There was more. Youth, though not only youth, is prone to believing it inhabits a time uniquely depraved, an era dire without parallel. Current crises leave texts from earlier periods utterly drained of relevance, quaint artifacts from the days before “shit got real”. And ours is the age, as each day makes plainer, of planetary warming and runaway ecocidal capitalism, when laboratory-birthed apocalypse has become an overworked trope and the easeful futures projected by earlier generations seem both laughable and tragic. What could authors from a pre-Holocaust, nonnuclear, no-screens world possibly offer us, except nostalgia and negative examples? The 19th Century’s blithe ignorance of cataclysms to come made its writing seem naïve, even childish, confronted with our grim birthright of world wars, genocides, and techno-nightmare.

Later I was to learn how spectacularly unjust, self-serving, and ill-informed this dismissal was. Not for the first time, I oversimplified what I preferred not to see. Meanwhile, learning that Emerson had been ordained a minister gave me an excuse to ignore his essays for years.

3.

I think I could turn and live with animals, they are so placid and self
contain’d,
I stand and look at them long and long.


They do not sweat and whine about their condition,
They do not lie awake in the dark and weep for their sins,
They do not make me sick discussing their duty to God,
Not one is dissatisfied, not one is demented with the mania of owning things,
Not one kneels to another, nor to his kind that lived thousands of years ago,
Not one is respectable or unhappy over the whole earth.

    –“Song of Myself,” Section 32

That’s Whitman, showing his teeth for once, damning the endemic religiosity and materialism that has disfigured American life from before his time right on through to ours. This isn’t the Good Gray Poet you probably encountered in high school, declaiming Camerado! or cataloguing in his barbaric yawp (whatever that was) names of rivers and species of trees. Sure, he’s heard America singing, but here even a bovine torpor seems preferable to the societal grotesqueries taxing the patience of this supremely tolerant man. Such lines sounded to me, through the bewildered outrage and spiking dread of a then-nascent 45th presidency, like a summons, urgent and succoring. So did these:

Behold through you as bad as the rest,
Through the laughter, dancing, dining, supping, of people,
Inside of dresses and ornaments, inside of those wash’d and trimm’d faces, Behold a secret silent loathing and despair.


No husband, no wife, no friend, trusted to hear the confession,
Another self, a duplicate of every one, skulking and hiding it goes,
Formless and wordless through the streets of the cities, polite and bland in the

parlors, […]

Smartly attired, countenance smiling, form upright, death under the breast-
bones, hell under the skull-bones,
Under the broadcloth and gloves, under the ribbons and artificial flowers,
Keeping fair with the customs, speaking not a syllable of itself,
Speaking of any thing else but never of itself.

    –“Song of the Open Road,” Section 13

Misery under its mask; a familiar enough theme today, a surprise in Whitman. But surprises abound:

Piety and conformity to them that like,
Peace, obesity, allegiance , to them that like,
I am he who tauntingly compels men, women, nations,
Crying, Leap from your seats and contend for your lives!

I am he who walks the States with a barb’d tongue, questioning every one I
meet,
Who are you that wanted only to be told what you knew before?
Who are you that wanted only a book to join you in your nonsense?

    –“By Blue Ontario’s Shore,” Section 4

Was I one who listened only for what I already knew? It seemed I was. Had books abetted me in my many nonsenses? They surely had. Not the least merit of passages like these (besides the permanent surprise of that “obesity”) is the good stiff shake they deliver to facile assumptions of pastness. Whitman, as he promised all along, is always up ahead, awaiting us patiently. In each of his best poems there are moments when we come around a corner or into a clearing or out under a glorious night sky and find ourselves suddenly brought up short by his slouching, scruffy, miraculous presence:

Walt Whitman, a kosmos, of Manhattan the son,
Turbulent, fleshy, sensual, eating, drinking and breeding,
No sentimentalist, no stander above men and women or apart from them,
No more modest than immodest. […]
I speak the password primeval, I give the sign of democracy,
By God! I will accept nothing which all cannot have their counterpart of on
the same terms.

Under his gaze, genial but shrewd, stale misconceptions about him and about the country he sang of simply fall away, like heaped clutter cleared from a disused room. A refreshed sense of its true proportions, a look through its long-obstructed windows, tempt us to linger there. Much better, we say, almost aware that what buoys us is the absence of detritus largely of our own careless amassing. The surprise comes when we recall this feeling’s name: freedom.

4.

What is it then between us?
What is the count of the scores or hundreds of years between us?

Whatever it is, it avails not—distance avails not, and place avails not,
I too lived, Brooklyn of ample hills was mine,
I too walk’d the streets of Manhattan island, and bathed in the waters around
it,
I too felt the curious abrupt questionings stir within me, […]

    –“Crossing Brooklyn Ferry,” Section 5

I quote this famous passage to exemplify what is for many readers, including myself, the most distinctive, original, and strange feature of Leaves of Grass: the Whitman persona. Outlandish, approachable, warmhearted, vatic, this fictive being is the reader’s companion through the book’s pages. And your response to it will largely depend on how much you enjoy—or let yourself enjoy—its hushed confidences and blustering exhortations, its pomp and whimsy and easy affection. The Whitman persona’s exact existential status is elusive, addressing us now from an Olympian vantage outside of time and beyond death, now with the unpretentious intimacy of a fellow idler strolling down Broadway. It unites claims for the poetic imagination as ambitious as any made by Wordsworth or Coleridge to an uncompromising solidarity with laborers and streetwalkers, runaway slaves and Native Americans. To do this as successfully, as credibly, as Whitman does, is one of the book’s miracles:

I am of old and young, of the foolish as much as the wise,
Regardless of others, ever regardful of others,
Maternal as well as paternal, a child as well as a man,
Stuff’d with the stuff that is coarse and stuff’d with the stuff that is fine,
One of the Nation of many nations, the smallest the same and the largest the
same, […]
Of every hue and caste am I, of every rank and religion,
A farmer, mechanic, artist, gentleman, sailor, quaker,
Prisoner, fancy-man, rowdy, lawyer, physician, priest.

I resist any thing better than my own diversity,
Breathe the air but leave plenty after me,
And am not stuck up, and am in my place.

    –“Song of Myself,” Section 16

There is more to this than just another display of a Keatsian poet’s chameleon nature, however. The reader soon realizes that the Whitman persona, in speaking of itself, speaks as well for the nation in toto. America not merely contains, but is, its people in all their myriad hues and ranks and styles. And since the persona cannot successfully “resist” its own “diversity,” neither can the country. Nevertheless, as Whitman knew, it could try.

5.

Whitman saluted America as a “Nation of many nations” during the 1850s, when the US was enduring another ugly outbreak of its congenital nativism. He understood that too many of his compatriots would refuse to celebrate, or even to acknowledge, the human diversity that had been propelling the American enterprise since before the republic’s founding. And I suspect he would be saddened but not entirely surprised to learn that just as many, perhaps more, still vehemently decry it today. Had our intrinsic, evolving variety not been such an unpalatable truth for some Americans (mainly white ones, of course) to accept, Whitman would not have needed to state it—to perform it—so forcefully and with such an abundance of examples. He could be admirably blunt. Looking on some “immigrants just landed on the wharf,” he admonishes us that

Each belongs here or anywhere just as much as the well-off, just as much as
you,
Each has his or her place in the procession.

    –“I Sing the Body Electric,” Section 6

Lines like these cause the deep love I feel for Whitman’s poems to well up anew, freshened by the sheer imprudent goodness of the man. They’re just another example of how he asserted, against the slashing retrogressive hatreds of his day, the essential and equal humanity of all America’s people. How moving it is, the sight of a poet deploying his gifts to beguile a citizenry, riven then as now by fear and rancor, into a more magnanimous version of themselves.

Of ourselves.

By continually eliding the distinction between himself and this nation of manifold peoples, mores, and regions, Whitman demonstrates that we cannot make sense to ourselves except as constituents of this variegated whole. And because we share in it, we share in all of it—North with South, city with country, blue with red, agnostic with religious, even free with slave. The country I claim is the one that claims me. As none of us are entirely immune to provincial biases and sectarian discords, so we have all known a deep longing for harmony and reconciliation. This seems hard to believe partly because we don’t want to believe it: some of what it means to be “us” is not being “them.” A portion of our dividedness is willed. We must, Whitman says, unwill it. But how would we even begin? Perhaps like this:

O I see flashing that this America is only you and me,
Its powers, weapons, testimony, are you and me,
Its crimes, lies, thefts, defections, are you and me,
Its Congress is you and me, the officers, capitols, armies, ships, are you and
me […]

    –“By Blue Ontario’s Shore,” Section 17

Here is the stuff that kinder people, nobler nations, and better worlds are made of. It delivers a burst of that “human energy” Muriel Rukeyser once defined in The Life of Poetry as “the capacity to produce change in existing conditions.” And this is why his egalitarian approachability is so important: the magnificently unpretentious voice of “Walt Whitman, one of the roughs,” continually reaches towards us, inviting, welcoming, embracing. He claims no special status or gift or spiritual discipline setting him apart from us. He wants to be understood and excludes no one from potential understanding. He pays his audience—his whole audience—the supreme compliment of treating us as equals, of wanting the best for us. Of having hope for us.

6.

No great poetries are more easily left respected but unread than those that are, like Whitman’s, overtly invested in their audience’s moral health. And god knows the 19th Century suffered no dearth of didactic poets, sermonizers on patriotism, hard work, piety and the like, some of them little more than laureled flacks for the hierarchies of their day. Yet Leaves of Grass may never have been timelier, more necessary, more true, than right now. For the current ill-heath of our polity, we might well diagnose a deficiency in the pragmatic, humane values modeled by the Whitman persona, which supply the nutriment to democratic self-government. It seems obvious that contempt is not democratic; Whitman goes further, to show that neither is self-contempt.

I have loved the earth, sun, animals, I have despised riches,
I have given alms to every one that ask’d, stood up for the stupid and crazy,
devoted my labor and income to others,
Hated tyrants, argued not concerning God, had patience and indulgence
toward the people, taken off my hat to nothing known or unknown, […]
Dismiss’d whatever insulted my own soul or defiled my body,
Claim’d nothing to myself which I have not carefully claim’d for others on the
same terms, […]

    –“By Blue Ontario’s Shore,” Section 14

The integral American character, as Whitman conjures it, does not simply act from a higher quotient of generosity, kindness, and tolerance, crucial as those life-enhancing virtues are. It also refuses to abase itself before gruesome idols of criminal wealth. It does not contrive a bitter and squalid self-definition by degrading the vulnerable. It cannot be flimflammed into colluding with its own dispossession. Above all else, it instinctively acknowledges the radical, absolute equality of all with all. It would never, therefore, have tolerated the cruelties and injustices that seem of late to have irreparably diminished our collective future.

 7.

Inevitably and to our loss we must come to the facts of Whitman’s life, and be disappointed to find only the homely makeshift muddle of a man, and not the alien consistency of a saint. Outside the precincts of Leaves of Grass, Whitman often sounds much more the lumpen product of his times that he surely was, and less the heroic transcender of them that he claimed to be. He succumbed to faddish fatuities like Shakespeare denial and phrenology. He was a tireless and unshrinking self-promoter, puffing his own work under various aliases and even printing Emerson’s famous laudatory letter, without permission, in newspapers and later editions of Leaves of Grass itself. To readers who saw in him a champion for same-sex equality, he flatly disowned the plainly homoerotic content of the “Calamus” poems. And it gets worse. He was unsympathetic towards the Reconstruction Era’s struggle to establish the political, social, and economic rights of Freedmen. Scattered throughout his hack journalism are passages of ugly bigotry against Native Americans and other non-white peoples. And he disgraced himself, in speech and in print, by his use of racist slurs towards Blacks. How he could let himself so egregiously betray the sentiments of his poetry, I cannot say. But it is clear enough that the values celebrated by the Whitman persona were as aspirational for Whitman himself as for the rest of us. Where the poems succeeded, the man failed.

Oppress’d with myself that I have dared to open my mouth,
Aware now that amid all that blab whose echoes recoil upon me I have not
once had the least idea who or what I am,
But that before all my arrogant poems the real Me stands yet untouch’d,
untold, altogether unreach’d,
Withdrawn far, mocking me with mock-congratulatory signs and bows,
With peals of distant ironical laughter at every word I have written,

    –“As I Ebb’d with the Ocean of Life,” Section 2

As V.S. Naipaul said (and he would have known) writers are often far better people in their books than in their lives. If much of Whitman the human being was indefensible, his poems require no defending.

As V.S. Naipaul said (and he would have known), writers are often far better people in their books than in their lives. If much of Whitman the human being was indefensible, his poems for the most part require no defending.

8.

I don’t yet know why it took times as disheartening and turbulent as these for me to grasp the extent, the grandeur even, of Whitman’s achievement. No American, in poetry or prose, in paint or stone or sound, has articulated a superior—more generous, more inclusive—vision of what we, as individuals and as the one nation we still are, should strive to make of ourselves. He gave us a gift whose value I think we may never fully understand until we no longer need it, when we will either have achieved a society free of racial and class inequities, or else will have allowed our folly and greed to extinguish us. In the meantime, we are lucky, blessed even, to have Walt:

Behold, I do not give lectures or a little charity,
When I give I give myself. […]
I have embraced you, and henceforth possess you to myself,
And when you rise in the morning you will find what I tell you is so.

    –“Song of Myself,” Section 40

It suffuses me with hope, as almost nothing else has, that my country once produced such a poet. Despite the vicissitudes of literary fashion in the century and a half since Leaves of Grass was first published, we have never forgotten him, never stopped reading and teaching and arguing about him. In a land oddly and profoundly dismissive of poetry, he represents us to ourselves and to the world in the way only a national poet can. Which is what, insofar as we are a nation, our Whitman is. Somehow, we knew better than to disregard or trivialize him completely. Surely that says something about America, too.

9.

Think back over the novels and stories, essays and poems you’ve read recently: how many of them actually have hope for us—for all of us?

Camerado, I give you my hand!
I give you my love more precious than money,
I give you myself before preaching or law;
Will you give me yourself? will you come travel with me?
Shall we stick by each other as long as we live?

    –“Song of the Open Road,” Section 15

Yes, Walt. Let’s.

✶✶✶✶

James McKee

James McKee enjoys failing in his dogged attempts to keep pace with the unrelenting cultural onslaught of late-imperial Gotham. His debut poetry collection The Stargazers is due out in 2020, and his poems have appeared or are forthcoming in Acumen, New Ohio Review, The Raintown Review, Flyway, Saranac Review, The Comstock Review, THINK, The Midwest Quarterly, Xavier Review, and elsewhere. He spends his free time, when not writing or reading, traveling less than he would like and brooding more than he can help.