Thus, I began to work with what I had been given. Instead of noting great trends among the responses, I instead took on the task of charting the perceptions as related to my own. This experiment became more for me as an attempt to view Whitman’s work through the eyes of someone beyond the American borders, which I have attempted to do here. This analysis does not necessarily attempt to discern why the reader responded in this manner, nor does it define whether the response is accurate or not. Instead, it places the images defined in Whitman’s work and looks at them through a different lens, while relating the same concepts through an American view. Finally, it also looks at Whitman’s image and attempts to define why the American tag has been disassociated with him within the results of the study.

The poems reviewed within this analysis are from the Death-bed edition, with the exception of analysis of Balazevic’s response, which specifically referred to the 1855 “Song of Myself.” I felt that the Deathbed would be the edition that most readers are comfortable with.

The responses received from Novi Sad in Serbia were among the most interesting. Serbia is a country entirely different from America. Once a part of Yugoslavia, it has endured many changes in government and philosophy. It has been communist and has suffered under the duress of ethnic tensions, spending many of its years fighting for Serbian gain in the former Yugoslavia. Serbia has struggled under reigns such as Slobodan Milošević, and Radovan Karadzic (State Department). The latter was a great lover of “Leaves of Grass,” so I anticipated antipathy from the students at Novi Sad because of Whitman’s association with a man who caused ethnic genocide. What I received, however, was not hostility, but an entirely different interpretation of Whitman from American beliefs in Whitman’s stances and ideals.

Josip Balazevic responded to my questions, stating that he loved Whitman because “ his philosophy on human rights is very close to [Balazevic’s] views.” Later, he cited this passage from “Song of Myself” in the 1855 edition as his favorite, stating that it represented a “racial battle”:

Her father and his friends sat nearby crosslegged and dumbly smoking . . . . they

had moccasins to their feet and large thick blankets hanging from their


On a bank lounged the trapper . . . . he was dressed mostly in skins . . . . his luxuriant
beard and curls protected his neck,

One hand rested on his rifle . . . . the other hand held firmly the wrist of the red girl,

She had long eyelashes . . . . her head was bare . . . . her coarse straight locks
descended upon her voluptuous limbs and reached to her feet.

The runaway slave came to my house and stopped outside,

I heard his motions crackling the twigs of the woodpile,

Through the swung half-door of the kitchen I saw him limpsey and weak,

And went where he sat on a log, and led him in and assured him,

And brought water and filled a tub for his sweated body and bruised feet,

And gave him a room that entered from my own, and gave him some coarse clean

And remember perfectly well his revolving eyes and his awkwardness,

And remember putting plasters on the galls of his neck and ankles;

He staid with me a week before he was recuperated and passed north,

I had him sit next me at table . . . . my firelock leaned in the corner.”

“I saw the marriage of the trapper in the open air in the far-west . . . . the bride was a red girl,

I took this to be a presentation of the “human rights” that Balazevic had previously mentioned. Serbia’s ethnic struggle against Bosnians and the rest of the Slavic nations has lasted for over fifty years; it has attempted to preserve its identity against the rest of the Slavic nations in the former Yugoslavia. Therefore, it is easy to look at the stance taken by this commenter. In this passage, Whitman is taking different ethnicities and uniting them peacefully, allowing them to work together for peace rather than annihilate each other, a task that the nations in the former Yugoslavia have been struggling with for years.

Within this section, Whitman uses the act of “marriage,” a union between two people. Here, Whitman is taking two separate, fighting races and assimilating them into the same household and culture. The trapper has cast off his “white” clothes and has instead taken on animal furs, a product of his trade and closer to that of his wife’s tribe. Similarly, the bride is crossing the cultural lines by marrying the trapper and performing the duties of a wife to a non-Native American, which presumably include vastly different duties than marrying one of the warriors of her tribe. Furthermore, one may look forward to the product of the union, a child which will diminish the differences between the white culture and that of the Native Americans.

The second portion of the passage can also be interpreted in this manner. Here, the speaker is taking the servile position, reversing the racial norm for the time. Whitman is also playing the wound-dresser here as he “put[s] plasters” on; although this is an embodiment that does not fully develop until the Civil War, this can still be read as an earlier manifestation of the persona. Whitman’s Wound Dresser status displays great love for the individuals he watched over; to show that great care for a slave places his feelings with that of a rights activist, or at least a sympathetic view in the slavery struggle. Whitman also describes the slave as “limpsey and weak” with a “sweated body and bruised feet.” This derives sympathy for the runaway slave, rather than derision.  Whitman also notes the equivalent status of the two men; although one is a runaway slave, virtually a criminal, the white speaker makes himself a criminal in aiding them. They share the same rooms and eat at the same table.

The image of a gun is also an interesting one; its placement in a corner could signal Whitman’s stance that weapons were not needed. Rather, the gun, a symbol for violence and death stands alone and unused while the two men eat, an act that nourishes life rather than destroy it.

Although  Balazevic interpreted the passage in this manner, my class in Fredericksburg, Virginia, took the passage to have an entirely different meaning. We saw Whitman as a front-runner in the equality movement, but still noted that he fell far short of being a supporter of human rights—at least, for a modern American. For instance, the marriage passage can be read in an entirely different manner. Whitman applies the term “red-girl,” easily a slur, to the Native American bride. The description of the trapper is also problematic. Rather than be at ease in what should be a happy day, the trapper holds his bride’s wrist “firmly,” as if she is a small child. He is clearly the dominant one in the passage, as the other males, all Native American, do nothing but smoke on a bank. The trapper’s other hand is on his rifle, implying that he feels a need to be defensive, despite the fact that he could be celebrating. When Whitman describes the trapper’s beard, he says that its curls “protect” his neck, another defensive term. This marriage is not necessarily one of happiness.

The slave passage was also interpreted differently. Whitman’s descriptions of the slave, particularly “weak,” “revolving eyes,” and “awkwardness” call to mind animalistic qualities rather than human ones. Even the “crackling” noises the slave makes in the woodpile imply that he is an animal; it brings to mind the image of a stray. This immediately places the speaker at a higher level than the slave, particularly in mental capacity. The speaker gives the slave a room connected with his own; the motives for this could be interpreted as a means for keeping an eye on the slave, as if the speaker is mistrustful.

The gun also takes an interesting place here; its presence alone implies a foreboding and defensive stance. If the speaker is entirely peaceful, why would Whitman feel the need to mention it at all? From the placement of the gun, the reader can infer that Whitman’s sympathetic aid is also a wary one; although he is willing to help, he does not trust the slave enough, whether it is because he is inferior, or he is a criminal. The way the gun is placed also correlates with this; rather than remaining flat on the ground, unused and unwanted, the gun remains standing in the corner, ready to come alive in its master’s hands at any notice.

There were also other instances where the American interpretation varied. In the “Looking for Whitman Project,” a project that taught students Whitman’s poetry in the digital age, students were required to pick a word within Whitman’s poetry, define it, and place it within context in the poem. Elma Lena Porobic, another student from Novi Sad, chose the word “comrade.” Although she listed the general definitions that I would have assumed, “one that shares the same fortunes or experiences as another: intimate friend,” “companion,” and “brother in arms,” Porobic also listed “communist.” As an American, this term brings up vague, detached imagery; I think of the red scare and the Cold War and McCarthyism. I think of China. Instead, as an American, I see “Comrade” as an “erotically charged [term]…the basis of social equality” and Calamus can be seen as the change from an industrialist, alienated society, to one populated by loving equals. It establishes intimacy, not only with others but with one’s own body (Mulcaire).

For Serbians, however, this is an entirely different playing field. Having been a communist nation for nearly 50 years, the term “comrade” would strike a different feeling in them. Although the nation is now a “parliamentary republic,” the militaristic feelings within the connotation of “comrade” are essentially valid. This, combined with the communist embrace of Whitman, as well as the fact that Whitman is not as well represented to Serb-Croatians (Several Whitman translations contain the entirety of the poem rather than pieces of it), make Whitman a very interesting case within Serbia (Golden 284). It is no surprise that the New Age Journal noted in reference to Whitman, “the fact that the early Socialists called each other Comrade without distinction of sex is Significant” (Scanlon).

“For You O Democracy” is a piece devoted to the comradeship in Calamus. When I read it, the piece looked to me like Whitman’s standard view for the American nation. Whitman’s democracy was America’s democracy. Whitman wanted America’s people not to be divided along geographical lines. Rather than north and south, the country would be “inseparable.” Through Whitman’s prophetic guidance and the “manly love of comrades”, Americans would unite and absolve their differences. Whitman can also promote manifest destiny in here; he would create “the continent indissoluble,” spreading American democracy not only to Americans, but to Canada and Mexico as well.

However, if one takes the poem within a communist context as one might do living under communist influence, the entirety of the poem changes. Whitman’s concept of “democracy” may even change. This is particularly evident in the ways that Whitman has been embraced throughout the twentieth century. Both the Bolsheviks and the Chinese communists embraced Whitman as a promoter of the common man, so he was seen not as a proponent of democracy and capitalism, but a force with which to promote communism (Folsom 5). Mendelson, a Soviet critic in the 1950s, does just this. He creates portrays Whitman with a “Soviet Spin,” claiming that Whitman’s “publistic writing in the in the fifties advocated the deepening of bourgeois democracy” and that “American twentieth century literature [was] inspired by socialist ideas.” Mendelson takes the Communist lens and he phrases Whitman to a new perspective. He even cites the ideas in Calamus such as “a great city” and a city of “the faithfullest friends” as proof that Whitman had socialist leanings.

“For You O Democracy” can be read with the same “Soviet Spin.” The phrase “continent indissoluble”(LoG 272) becomes a phrase not denoting manifest destiny, but instead promoting a nation of one mind. Throughout the poem, Whitman insists, firmly, that the only salvation is through comradeship and through the love of men. He repeats the idea of the “love” (LoG 272) several times throughout the piece. Whitman’s nation becomes great and lasts because of the “life-long love of comrades” (LoG 272). The nation survives because of the love and governance of the people. With life-long nationalism, the nation continues. Whitman’s planting of the camerado love “along all the rivers…and along the shores of the great lakes, and all over the prairies” (LoG 272) also works within the realm of communism. The plant spreads much in the way that communism was said to spread—quickly and all-encompassing. So, it can be interpreted that Whitman is working and anticipating the rise of Communism. Even the phrase “to serve you, O Democracy”(LoG 272) changes. Here, Whitman can be working for the nation while governing it. He, as the voice of the common man, works for the nation. And by being the common man, he is a governor of the nation state.

This is an entirely different look at democracy—at least, Whitman’s democracy. The term “comrade” is mentioned 16 times within Calamus and it is significant to the work. Perhaps Whitman did not intend democracy as Americans see it; perhaps it was not so much one of republics, but one devoted to governance by the people, a government run by men who loved one another. For this, Whitman may be a negative figure among other nations. In seeing communism in Whitman’s work, a individual in a former Communist country may resent his promotion and contributions to the cause. In any case, we do not have Whitman to tell us what he intended, and Whitman’s intention, although important, is not necessarily the only response one can get out of the poetry, and other interpretations are not wrong. In fact, they display and highlight Whitman’s universality even more.

This kind of global reception—taking Whitman’s universality and interpreting it to one’s own means—is also seen within China, particularly within the realm of poets and communism. Following the May Fourth Movement in 1919, a social movement in which many Chinese questioned their “traditional” customs, China began enthusiastically calling for western writings, particularly that of Whitman and Poe. Whitman was well-received during this time and had an important influence on many important Chinese poets such as Guo Moruo, Hu Shi, Tian Han, Xu Zhimo, and Wen Yiduo. Each of these poets either translated Whitman in an attempt to assimilate him into Chinese culture, or consciously utilized him in their work (Ning 199). Because of this, Whitman is seen not only as a proponent of democracy, but as a major influence in the Chinese modernist movement.

Guo Moruo especially idolized Whitman, “celebrating the self and nature” in his work Nushen, or The Goddesses. Disturbed by the racial tensions that were occurring between China and Japan at the time, Moruo found in Whitman a compatriot that promoted democracy, nationalism, and a profound sense of self that did not exist in any other writer he had previously encountered (177). Although Moruo, obviously, is not a response to this project, it is a response to Whitman and one that takes Whitman’s imagery in the same way the Serbian responses did by using Whitman’s imagery within its own cultural context. By viewing the imagery through a different cultural lens, it automatically changes the American perspective and interpretation of the imagery

Whitman’s influence is evident in many of Moruo’s poems, especially in The Goddess. This prefatory poem in the work easily speaks to his influence:

I am a proletarian:

Because except for my naked self,

I possess nothing else.

The Goddesses is my own creation,

And may be said to be my private property,

Yet I want to be a Communist,

Therefore I make her public to all.


Go and find the one with the same vibrations as me,

Go and find the one with as many kindling points as myself.

Go and strike the heartstrings

In the breasts of my dear young  brothers and sisters,

And kindle the light of their wisdom!

It is easy to see Whitman’s influence in Moruo’s repetitions and egotism. Interestingly enough, critics called The Goddesses a failure for the same reasons that Whitman was disliked: “abstractness and verbosity” (Huang 410). Like Whitman, Moruo also plays the leader, “strik[ing] the heartstrings/In the breasts of my dear young brothers and sisters.” But, unlike the democratic Whitman of America, Moruo takes the call for democracy and unity and makes it his own, making the tie between Whitman’s democracy and communism. Rather than a solely Whitmanic poem of democracy, this is “an important poem making clear Moruo’s political stance and charting his future as a Communist-oriented poet with Whitmanian individualistic characteristics” (409). Like Novi Sad’s interpretation, Whitman’s democracy retranslates itself and works towards a new goal.

The lines “Because except for my naked self/I possess nothing else” reflect Whitman’s sense of simplicity; Whitman is a common man who empathizes with the working class. He “exist[s] as [he] is, that is enough” (LoG 207). However, in Moruo’s terms they are also a call to give up the richness of the higher classes; rather than struggle to climb the capitalistic steps towards aristocracy, the common man must be a simple one, giving his goods to work with the state. Those in the higher classes must also strip themselves of goods, owning nothing extra except their bodies. They can not, as Whitman says, stand “above men and women or apart from them” (LoG 210). Even the product of their labors must be given to the state, hence Moruo makes The Goddesses “public to all.” Like Whitman, he acknowledges that his work is completely his own, yet Moruo strips that individualism by making it available to all. In this sense, so does Whitman; by making his lofty, educated ideas open to everyone, from the prostitute to the opiate, he is also giving up the product of his work to the country. Whitman’s promotion of the unification of the public working together to make America great also aligns with Moruo’s ideals. It is a government completely for the people, and, idealistically, run completely by the people.

Moruo’s second stanza also displays Whitman’s influence. Just as within Whitman’s work, there is a call to enlighten the people, as well as a sense of egotism. Moruo is the leader in the Communist ideal; it will be difficult to find one as revolutionary and enlightened as he. Moruo and Whitman place themselves as forerunners of their movements, calling for reform for the country. However, Moruo’s stance can also be seen as a call for equality and sameness. The country is united in the terms “brother” and “sister,” terms that Whitman also addresses his fellow citizens with. Moruo does not necessarily stand apart from the Chinese for long; the immense wisdom they possess is also “in [their] breasts.” It merely needs to be awakened. The same is for Whitman; he acknowledges that he “is the mate and companion of the people, all just as immortal and fathomless” (LoG 194). Although Whitman calls for individuals to surpass him, it is so they can all be on an equal playing field.

Finally, there is also the issue of Whitman’s association with America (or lack thereof) in the responses. The answers I can offer are merely speculations. However, I believe that, at least for the rest of the world, Whitman has transcended the status of national poet and instead has become a world poet; his universality is applicable to anything one may need him for. This is why there are two distinctive Whitmans: Whitman (the American Poet) and whitman (the world poet). The reason for this distinction is because of the translation that has occurred while the text is crossing borders (Thomas 145-146). As with translations from any other language to English, so many subtle nuances get lost within the text. Furthermore, it is up to the translator to include whatever they deem necessary, and the choice of diction lies solely with him/her. For example, the Uruguayan Armando Vasseur produced the first anthological translation of Leaves of Grass. This was the “breviary in which Hispanic poets learned their Whitman” (Alegría 93). Vasseur’s translation, however, omitted 750 lines of “Song of Myself” knowing that the bridge might be “fatal” (93) to the text. Vasseur had full artistic license within the text, omitting and adding lines, substituting metaphor where he saw fit, and often taking selections whose real weight did not shine without the rest of the poem. The language within Vasseur’s work also fell short; he supplied Spanish preterit where participles should be, stopping the immediacy of the text. In short, Vasseur was editing to his taste; Whitman’s ideologies did not appeal to him (93). For an individual to pick up a text like this, Whitman as an American would be completely withdrawn. Instead, this is whitman filtered through a Spanish lens. The same happens with any other translation; selections are made, things are omitted and changed (although hopefully not as grossly in within Vasseur’s), and the text is given another flavor. Furthermore, as seen with the other responses, the effects of one’s cultural background are enough to change the view and interpretation of the poet so much that the work does not seem a product of its homeland. Rather, the reader interprets and connects with the poet through his/her own nationalistic terms and views them more as a poet of their own country.

Curiously enough however, Americans, who are able to view the text in its original forms and editions, also did not apply America to Whitman. Perhaps because they were within the country, there were merely taking his “American-ness” for granted. However, most American responses did not even take Whitman’s ideology into account; they preferred to express the skill within his poetry. Even those who said that preferred the man, such as Neva S. Trenis who said “I think I’ve come to love the man first, then his writing,” seem to love the man without ideology. Trevis continues, “No one escapes the pleasure, the pain, the fallibility, the fragile nature that is life incarnate.” Whitman is celebrated for his expansiveness, his empathy—the celebrated Whitman, to the average reader, is no more than the persona created within the text. He is, as Thalia Cady says, indivisible from “the poetry [or] from the man himself. That would be impossible.”      Even the poems selected as favorites lacked Whitman’s politics, citing the mournful Whitman of “When Lilacs Last in the Dooryard Bloom’d” or the line “I contain multitudes” from “Song of Myself.”

But why is he stripped down? Why do we not associate equality or human rights such as Balazevic does? Why do the responses not place him with democracy or within some form of government, like Moruo or Porobic? Perhaps as Americans, our understanding of racial equality is on an entirely different plane than Whitman’s. Hence, the different readings of the earlier passage from “Song of Myself.” We see racial equality less as letting other races sit at the table with us and letting them escape, and more as an opportunity for jobs, or the way we behave around one race versus another. It’s just as much there, but more subtle than the rampant injustices during Whitman’s time. America’s expansion is also more subtle; it is not so much “manifest destiny” anymore, as it is using resources in other countries. We don’t necessarily feel the need to expand our borders.

Alternatively, because people latch onto the persona with Whitman’s poetry, perhaps there are too many personas to latch onto. Rather than militaristic, democratic Whitman, Americans latch onto the tender Whitman of Drum-Taps, the expansive all-knowing prophet of “Song of Myself,” or the “Good Gray Poet” of the Deathbed edition.

Go on to the Conclusion.

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