Monday, November 09th, 2009 | Author:

Do I contradict myself?

Very well, then, I contradict myself

(I am large, I contain multitudes)

–Walt Whitman

Nowhere did Whitman contradict himself more than in his racial attitudes. Whitman is celebrated as an egalitarian poet who transcended the racism of his time. Outside his poetry, he frequently made racist statements, both as a young journalist and old man.  Whitman’s record on race seems to be a perplexing mix of prejudice and admiration. Of particular interest is an article I found by Xiao Li published in Walt Whitman Quarterly.

Li looks at Whitman’s relationship with Asian-Americans. Whitman was horrified by anti-Chinese immigration laws passed in the 1880s, even threatening to denounce his citizenship. Whitman supported unlimited, unrestricted immigration from all countries. Li recounts the story of Sadakichi Hartmann, a half-German, half Japanese immigrant who was born in Japan. While a student in Philadelphia, Hartmann sought out the aging poet in Camden. Hartmann became a Whitman disciple, but their relationship soured when Whitman told Hartmann,  “There are so many traits, characteristics, Americanisms which you would never get at . . . After all, one can’t grow roses on a peach tree.” Hartmann’s publication of these remarks angered the poet, who told Traubel that Hartmann possessed the “Asian craftiness.” The two men made peace shortly before Whitman’s death.  The Hartmann story might be the best anecdote to outline Whitman’s racial contradictions.

Li, Xilao. “Walt Whitman and Asian American Writers.” Walt Whitman    Quarterly Review 10.4 (1993): 179-194. Print.

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  1. Avatar of bcbottle bcbottle says:

    That’s a really interesting article, thank you for posting it.

    I’ve been struggling a lot with Whitman’s racism, it bothers me that someone who seems so progressive in some areas would be so conservative in others. His feelings on immigration only serve to complicate the issue. Whitman was indeed rather contradictory.

  2. Great post, Adam. Throughout his poems, I’ve noticed him stressing the equality of African-Americans as well as Native-Americans, but little did I see Asian-Americans. But now that I read your post, I see your point! Yay for Whitman.

  3. Avatar of kevinv kevinv says:

    Yo adam take a look at my annotations let me know what u think.

  4. Avatar of pieruccm pieruccm says:

    This information is a bit surprising to me because if I only knew Whitman based on his poetry, I would have never known the contradictory nature of his writing to his actual behavior and opinions regarding non-white people. I find it a bit disappointing that he would write as though he believed in and stood for equality, yet his words in public were the opposite, therefore making the first few lines of “Song of Myself” much more real.

  5. Avatar of pieruccm pieruccm says:

    P.S. I meant the few lines that you included from “Song of Myself” (I know that they’re not the first few lines…sorry)

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