The poet of Leaves of Grass is a true son of American soil and yet very un-American. So long as he sings the song of the wonders of nature, the beauties of the unlimited resources, old Walt feels part and parcel of the strength of Mother Earth, but our great poet becomes un-American when he arraigns the Puritanic interference which has paralyzed life to such an extent as to make it barren. In fact, Walt Whitman may be called the iconoclast of Puritanism. No other writer or poet in America has so thoroughly exposed the hideous slimy god as he. Just hear these wonderful words from “Specimen Days.”
“Sweet, sane, still Nakedness in Nature !—ah if poor, sick, prurient humanity in cities might really know you once more! Is not nakedness then indecent? No, not inherently. It is your thought, your sophistication, your fear, your respectability, that is indecent.”
Our poet is also un-American because he was so free from the deadening tendency of commercialism. His brother, George W. Whitman, tells us that Walt “was a man who had chances to make money, but he would never make any concession for money. He refused to do anything except at his own notion.” His mission then was not to acquire possession but to carry the message of liberty and beauty to people everywhere.
The education of Walt Whitman was that of most children of the people; he never saw the inside of a college or university, which was fortunate because it helped him to retain originality and independence of thought. He was a prolific reader, however, and in his “loafing” he leaned more of people, conditions and nature than most men who received the so called highest education. Walt was jack of many trades, school teacher, compositor, editor (he edited the Brooklyn Eagle from 1874 to 78) carpenter, builder and clerk in the various departments in Washington, and last but not least, nurse, correspondent and advisor to the sick soldiers during the civil war.
He travelled all through the west and south supporting himself as a free lance for various newspapers. When the war broke out he enlisted voluntarily as nurse, for which he was eminently fitted because of his great humanity and his deep kinship for all suffering and sorrow. In 1870, at the age of 61, Walt Whitman had a stroke which paralyzed him physically but not mentally. He remained young, alert and full of the spirit of life to the end of his days.
When Leaves of Grass was published it fell into the hands of one of Whitman’s superiors in the department. He promptly declared the work immoral which cost Walt his position. The Society for the Suppression of Vice with Anthony Comstock as its patron saint had [at] that time begun its evil operations. For the same of the American spirit be it said that that Society is still on the job, even though the Saintly Anthony is now keeping company with his Heavenly Father. What greater chance for notoriety than the suppression of the great work of a great poet. Comstock went after the publisher, Osgood and Company. The District Attorney took Leaves of Grass under consideration. He marked the objectionable parts and sent word to Whitman that we would allow it to go through the mail if these parts will be expurgated.
Of course Walt would have none of such impudence. As a result the volume was withdrawn from circulation. Later however, the ban was lifted, that it ever should have been censored proves the stupidity of puritanism, or as Whitman said “the never ending audacity of elected persons.”
His experience with both the Society for the Suppression of Vice and the government had one good effect: it helped to advertise the book and author widely. Old Walt lived to see himself proclaimed as the greatest poet of his time, not only in his own country, but nearly everywhere in Europe. In England, J. Addington Symonds and Edward Carpenter fell under the sway of the powerful originality of Whitman. In Germany it was the poet Freiligrath, a rebel to the very tips of his fingers, who rendered such a marvelous translation of Leaves of Grass that even the best critics, proclaimed it as great as the original. And of course France and Russia became enthused with the vigor, the beauty, of the clarion voice of Walt.
Much in the poetry of Whitman easily proves him to be the most universal, cosmopolitan, and human of the American writers. He is considered the glorifier of democracy, but it will take long, or better still it will never happen, that what is commonly called democracy will even remotely represent the spirit of Walt Whitman.
In a material sense Walt Whitman’s life represented an endless struggle, great hardships and economic vicissitudes. But that was the least of his concerns. He has too deeply engrossed in his inner wealth to notice his outer poverty. He was too busily engaged in his creative work to have inclination or time for material achievements. Leaves of Grass, Drum Taps, Passage to India, Democratic Vistas, Memoranda during the War, Specimen Days, Autobiography, or, The story of a Life are the children of Walt Whitman’s brain and heart. What matter all else to him?
One of the most worm-eaten fruits of Puritanism which degrades life is the notion that public men and women who have a message for humanity must measure up to the yardstick of morality. Like sinners they are tied to the block of public stupidity and are expected to defend their position and justify their acts. In other words, they are expected to become public property, to have every emotion and thought watched over by the keepers of public morals.
Walt Whitman had much to suffer from these Puritanic detectives and snoopers. Because Leaves of Grass sings the beauty and wholesomeness of sex, of the human body freed from the rags and tatters of hypocrisy, the literary critics and editors, the professors, Uncles and Aunts demanded to know if the author was not really a dangerous immoral character. In Camden, N.J., the Purists warned the mother of Horace Traubel, who has since become the biographer of Whitman, against the association of her son with the old “Sorcerer,”—the man who so brazenly sang the glory of the “Children of Adam.”
Many friends of Whitman go out of their way to prove that he was not immoral and had no hidden vices, that he was pure and innocent, a big child. I will grant that they told only the truth, but one should not throw pearls of truth before the swine of Puritanic falsehood. They known not what to do with it except to drag it into their mire.
The innermost experience of the human heart are the most sacredly private affairs, and no one should concede to the mob—be it even the literary mob—the right and opportunity to pry into them. If these Torquemadas must engage in the job of inquisition, let them find their victims, but one should never play into their hands and thus become their accomplice.
It was the vigorous poetic personality of Walt Whitman, his boundless refreshing enthusiasm which broke the age-long barriers of conventionality and sham which created so much consternation among the respectable, hence their cries: “Shameless!” “Unheard of!” Walt was interested in the whole of man, not merely in the bloodless wreckage of Christian and Puritanic training; he sings his human song, the song of the earth, of flesh and blood, of the senses, and not the cold song of the living corpses who reflect the graveyard in the home, the discipline in the school, the curtailment of law.
Walt liberates the whole of man and brings him into harmonious blending with nature, in oneness with the liberating factors of life. Walt refuses to chop man up in a mortal unclean body, and the pure immortal soul. He repudiates the line of demarcation between good and evil, virtue and vice. He takes man as he is and brings him exultantly close to the Universe.
Just as man appears to the great old Walt, so does he appear in anarchism, all equally related to life, all interwoven with society, yet each unto himself a personality. When artificial barriers are no more, and man is no longer domesticated for the State, capitalism, the Church, and Morality, when Mother Earth becomes the common heritage of the race, a means for well-being and joy, then the differentiation between society and the individual, the aggregate and the unity will be no more.
For that we need an intellectual and material rebirth. Walt realized this, therefore he pleaded in “Democratic Vistas” for a great and profound literature for America. He speaks powerfully of the material things of life, of labor, food, houses, the fields. But he was the last to see in the present conditions a democratic ideal, conditions which drive, triumph upon and degrade man into the very dust.
The poet who was nothing less than the interpreter of the Cosmos, with all its wildness, its storm and stress, its instincts and dominant urge, could certainly not pass by the psychology of sex. He exposed the human body to the glowing light of the day, he liberated our senses from hypocrisy and sham, hence he created pale terror all about him. Naturally, what are these moral spies who have grown gray with virtue to make of these passages from “Children of Adam”?
This is the female form,
A divine nimbus exhales from it from head to foot,
It attracts with fierce undeniable attraction,
I am drawn by its breath as if I were no more than a helpless vapor, all falls aside but myself and it,
Books, art, religion, time, the visible and solid earth, and what was expected of heaven or fear’d of hell, are now consumed,
Mad filaments, ungovernable shoots play out of it, the response likewise ungovernable,
Hair, bosom, hips, bend of legs, negligent falling hands all diffused, mine too diffused,
Ebb stung by the flow and flow stung by the ebb, love-flesh swelling and deliciously aching,
Limitless limpid jets of love hot and enormous, quivering jelly of love, white-blow and delirious juice,
Bridegroom night of love working surely and softly into the prostrate dawn,
Undulating into the willing and yielding day,
Lost in the cleave of the clasping and sweet-flesh’d day.
A woman waits for me, she contains all, nothing is lacking,
Yet all were lacking if sex were lacking, or if the moisture of the right man were lacking.
Sex contains all, bodies, souls,
Meanings, proofs, purities, delicacies, results, promulgations,
Songs, commands, health, pride, the maternal mystery, the seminal milk,
All hopes, benefactions, bestowals, all the passions, loves, beauties, delights of the earth,
All the governments, judges, gods, follow’d persons of the earth,
These are contain’d in sex as parts of itself and justifications of itself.
Without shame the man I like knows and avows the deliciousness of his sex,
Without shame the woman I like knows and avows hers.
Now I will dismiss myself from impassive women,
I will go stay with her who waits for me, and with those women that are warm-blooded sufficient for me,
I see that they understand me and do not deny me,
I see that they are worthy of me, I will be the robust husband of those women.
Is that not more awful than the [ ] free love? The latter is mostly theoretical, “terrible enough” but Walt glorifies the sexual senses without any limitation whatever. The Puritans argue, the sexual embrace is unfortunately indispensable for the procreation of the race, but tho if that motive does not exist, sex must be tabooed and the poet should keep in bounds. Indeed, dear old Walt expected too much of his country, which for nearly half a century maintained and paid a centralized censorship, when he gave her his glorious song of sex. Even Lowell who belongs to the free poets of America seems to have found “Leaves of Grass” too strong. Not so Thoreau. He said, “It is not Walt Whitman who is indecent, but decency and respectability are truly indecent and immoral.”
The works of Whitman are an inexhaustible force of spontaneity. Whitman considered himself an irrepressible outlaw compared with the academically trained, literary men. He completely throws overboard the paraphernalia of the estheticism, he assures us his art is not only art, but “a cause,” a world in itself.
First the human, then the literary. “Camerado, this is no book, Who touches this touches a man.” It is entirely misleading to call Whitman the poet of democracy, neither is it enough to speak of him as America’s poet in the sense that he was born in the American atmosphere: His wishes and aims were higher. It is easily understood that such a poet should be inspired by the wild ruggedness and the great possibilities of America. He hoped from this country, so young and so rich in elemental resources, that it would become intellectually a giant. He called for conscious endeavor in that direction, but he experienced many disappointments.
Horace Traubel is right when he says [that] Walt Whitman, as far as American is concerned, is very universal. He saw in America the free earth upon which a free strong humanity should dwell. But even America was to him only a part of the universe which he aimed to penetrate so passionately and poetically. One would do Whitman, the poet, a great injustice to see in him the apologist and sponsor of the democratic institutions. His art had absolutely nothing in common with the “national” art which reiterates the stale slogan of “My country tis of thee” or “Star Spangled Banner.” He was as unlike the average democrat as the anarchist is unlike the typical bourgeois.
On closer examination of Whitman’s democracy, of his ideal of the people, we will discover that it does not exist at all. Whitman did neither approve nor glorify the kind of democracy whose function consists in mustering up majorities for electional slaughter. Walt Whitman had a social and human [. ] ideal. He saw in politics nothing but a cunning game, a pastime of a shrewd clique for their own benefit.
Let us see what Walt Whitman had to say of his ideal city.
Where the men and women think lightly of the laws,
Where the slave ceases, and the master of slaves ceases,
Where the populace rise at once against the never-ending audacity of elected persons…
Just ask the democratic president, mayor, judge or politician what they think of Walt Whitman’s democracy. Their answer would probably be that it is rank anarchy inciting to riot and disorder.
In Democratic Vistas Walt Whitman demands as the basis of democracy full play for human nature to expand itself in numberless and even conflicting directions. A more rigid criticism he gave of American is hardly possible. He said this:
Know you not, dear earnest reader, that the people of our land may all read and write and may all possess the right to vote—yet the main things be entirely lacking? …
For, I say, the true nationality of the States, the genuine union, when we come to a mortal crisis, is, and is to be, after all, neither the written law, nor, (as is generally supposed,) either self-interest, or common pecuniary or material objects—but the fervid and tremendous IDEA, melting everything else with resistless heat, and solving all lesser and definite distinctions in vast, indefinite, spiritual, emotional power.
Or if we consider Walt Whitman’s attitude towards the American spirit we will find it contains more truth now than at the time it was written.