header image

Whitman, we need to talk

Obviously I’m a big fan of Whitman. If you haven’t realized that yet you may need to stop sleeping during class. However, reading the Morris article I was forced to come to terms with a side of Whitman that I’m not so much a fan of. He was kind of racist, and by kind of I mean, he was just racist. Now I have mentioned before that Whitman clearly didn’t speak for the masses as much as he wished to. He tried to be all inclusive but he failed to include women to the extent he included men and although he spoke several times of being there for the slaves as well as the masters, Morris makes it clear that he did not mean this in an equal rights kind of way.

This is where Whitman’s belief in his own power of observation causes a difficulty with his message. As is clear from his poetry, particularly pieces such as “Song of Myself,” Whitman has a belief that observation of the world leads to pure understanding of the world. This idea is rather flawed considering the fact that several people can view the same thign in a variety of different ways. Just look at Rorschach ink blots.

What surprises me is that Whitman did not have this epiphany on his own considering his rapid and rather drastic change in views from 1855 to 1867, and even within Drum Taps. the man goes from describing death as a beautiful stage in the cycle of life to a disease which fills the earth with compost. Clearly he realized one could change one’s opinion about things, but I guess this doesn’t necessarily mean he understood that one could have differing opinions.

The problem however, is that I do not think that he could have produced much of the work he did without this belief. He couldn’t have spoken in such grandiose terms without being confident in his right to speak them. Nor do I think that he was incorrect in believing in his right to speak this way. The problem, I think, is that there were no other poets that could match him. Whitman speaks of the Great American Poet, and seems to imply that he is that poet, but he doesn’t recognize that he alone cannot manage to speak for the country.

America, needed, and still needs really, someone with Whitman’s confidence and talent who is able to fill in other views in society. There needs to be a female Whitman, Waltina if you will, and and African-American Whitman, and a Latin-American Whitman, and on and on. One man cannot speak for all, as much as Whitman wanted this to be the case.

I think Whitman recognized this in his own life while caring for the soldiers, with all the good he did he still realized that he could not address all the soldiers, or befriend them all before they died. What he failed to realize was that this was more than just an issue of time constraint, but a issue of world view and understanding. I think if Whitman lived in today’s world he would have understood that, although he might not have been able to develop teh grandiose attitude which shapes his poetry.

I think the best thing to do is to recognize Whitman’s limitations in his writing but understand that his message still stands.

~ by bcbottle on October 18, 2009.


2 Responses to “Whitman, we need to talk”

  1. I think you make a lot of valid points here, and really so much of Whitman’s challenges stem from an air of infallibility in his work. Even when he contradicts himself, he does so with disclaimers that he is aware of the existences of his own contradictions. Because of this, he has set the bar so incredibly high on were his expectations fall, that when he does not live up to these expectations, we judge him. Would we judge him so harshly if he did not claim to be the “Great American Poet” (or at least heavily insinuate it), I would say probably no. What much of this set of readings has done, then, is to force us to view Whitman as a more human being as opposed to the savior his poetry would suggest he is.


  2. I think we can, though, find moments in “Drum-Taps” that suggest Whitman’s elevated awareness of his own worldview’s limitations. For example, the speaker of “Ethiopia Saluting the Colors” must wonder aloud why an aged African American woman would be saluting the flag of his home country. Must wonder, because he does not know. Whitman also increasingly insists in “Drum-Taps” on the perspectival impasse between those who have experienced the war first-hand and those who have not (see especially “To a Certain Civilian”), thereby less generously offering readers the reassurance that whatever he or anyone already is “shall be you.” However, because he aligns himself with those soldiers whose stories non-combatants shall never understand, he does seem to fundamentally violate that same sense of perspective specificity, tacitly asserting that he, the exceptional American poet, can inhabit both the soldier’s and the civilian’s experience of war.

Leave a Reply

Skip to toolbar