I sit here fighting the crash that must follow my caffeine high because I refuse go to bed (to gear up for my 6 a.m. shift tomorrow morning) without riffing a little more on why Whitman is a superior but equal-opportunity-believing poet. As soon as I suggested that Whitman was more democratic than T. S. Eliot because the former relies more on the reader, I realized someone could easily throw the latter poet’s “Let us go then, you and I” (if not other quotes) in my face.

To clarify something I was thinking and others may already be thinking anyway, Whitman’s reliance on the reader is, I think, less in-your-face than Eliot (or other you-employing writers), which is really liberating as well as creepy and probably contrived. While I have minimal experience with any literature before Romanticism, my very vague and generalized sense of earlier literature is that it had strict forms (the many kinds of sonnets, villanelles, limericks, whatever) and, I think, those forms ended up doing a lot of work for the reader. Often there was a “right way(s)” to view that literature; the meaning you could/should derive was less open-ended. A simple connection is that the forms of poems (and plays and essays and early novels) echoed the way in which codes of conduct (religious, governmental, social) were already set for the average citizen, who was expected to be docile and passive and follow those codes. Note: I’m NOT trying to say that reading pre-Romantic lit is a passive or easy activity! (I certainly don’t have the authority to say so.) I’m merely suggesting that order was more or less blindly enforced and adhered to until the 18th/19th century (or so) when we see a bunch of social, political, religious, literary, etc. revolutions.

And, in more vague and possibly timeless terms, around the time we now view as the emergence of Romanticism, people were, in great numbers, questioning what was formerly unquestioned. As Christians were starting to believe that they could find God in active ways (exploring nature, raising a child) as opposed to strictly in church or in the Bible, Whitman, among other authors, fell in line with that trend and compelled readers to do it with his literature. He says in Democratic Vistas, “ . . . the reader is to do something for himself, must be on the alert, must himself or herself construct indeed the poem, argument, history, metaphysical essay–the text furnishing the hints, the clue, the start or frame-work. Not the book needs so much to be the complete thing, but the reader of the book does” (1017, my emphasis).

I had a lot of trouble getting a good grade on a paper on Twelfth Night once, and my diehard-Shakespeare-fan roommate insisted that it was because I see literature as something that doesn’t have to depend on authorial intent, as long as the reader forges some meaningful understanding, but with Shakespeare (and others of his time), that was a lot more valued than perhaps it has been since then.

With that in mind, I’m seeing Whitman as possibly setting the stage for this “gymnast” (1016) reader he references. In the aforementioned 1017 quote, he outright says the literature you read isn’t the be-all-end-all– it just isn’t that monolithic or cut-and-dry. The reader her/himself is the one vested with the power, and to some extent, responsibility, to create meaning. It’s the same worn-out question of if a tree falls in a forest with no people to hear it, does it make a sound? Whitman can write the most brilliant stuff in the world, but what is it worth if we don’t sit here analyzing (or agonizing over) it? He becomes a genius by prompting us to have these discussions, discussions that at times center around him as a person, and at times push us to go in myriad fascinating directions.

So, the fact that Whitman claims the literature itself is less important than the reader’s subsequent thoughts and actions both enables us to find/create the unprecedented American identity, AND it creepily retains the title as impetus for such discoveries/creations. Maybe it even compels us to say, “What are you talking about, Whitman? Of course your books are magnificent and more powerful than my measly thoughts.” I think that duality (multiplicity . . . ) makes him use the reader in a unique way. I love T. S. Eliot, I really do, but he almost pales in comparison when he says, “Let us go then, you and I.” It’s like, thanks, dude, you recognize I as a reader exist and then string me along to these really stress-inducing streets, when Whitman places his own text secondary to any impending thoughts or actions of my own. I just can’t stop thinking about how Whitman’s statement simultaneously opens up these huge avenues of possibility for ANY reader of his work (how democratic!) and places himself as a part of all I do, say, and think (how Big Brother!). (And how brilliant.)