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Critical Excerpts on Whitman and Syntax, Slavery, the Civil War, Labor, and Sexuality

Wai Chee Dimock

"Song of Myself" is thus a poetry of sequence without sedimentation, a poetry that sallies forth, its syntactic possibilities unmarked and undiminished by what it has been through. It is a poetry that dwells ever in the present, not because it refuses to look back, but because past events are so strangely foreshortened, so devoid of any weight of time, that they have the effect of being contemporaneous with all events subsequent to them. The operative process here is something like the transposition of serialty into simultaneity—the constitution of memory as a field of spatial latitude rather than temporal extension—a process that, I argue, makes for the perpetual openness of the poem, its boundless horizons of experience.

from Wai Chee Dimock, "Whitman, Syntax, and Political Theory" in Breaking Bounds, eds. Betsy Erkilla and Jay Grossman, 73.

D. H. Lawrence

Whitman said Sympathy. If only he had stuck to it! Because Sympathy means feeling with, not feeling for the negro slave, or the prostitute, or the syphilitic--which is merging. A sinking of Walt Whitman’s soul in the souls of these others.

He wasn’t keeping to his open road. He was forcing his soul down an old rut. He wasn’t leaving her free. He was forcing her into other people’s circumstances.

Supposing he had felt true sympathy with the negro slave? He would have felt with the negro slave. Sympathy--compassion--which is partaking of the passion which was in the soul of the negro slave.

What was the feeling in the negro’s soul?

"Ah, I am a slave! Ah, it is bad to be a slave! I must free myself. My soul will die unless she frees herself. My soul says I must free myself."

Whitman came along, and saw a slave, and said to himself: "That negro slave is a man like myself. We share the same identity. And he is bleeding with wounds. Oh, oh, is it not myself who am also bleeding with wounds?"

This was not sympathy. It was merging and self-sacrifice. "Bear ye one another’s burdens"; "Love thy neighbor as thyself": "Whatsoever ye do unto him, ye do unto me."

If Whitman had truly sympathized, he would have said: "that negro slave suffers from slavery. He wants to free himself. His soul wants to free him. He has wounds, but they are the price of freedom. If I can help him I will: I will not take over his wounds and his slavery to myself. But I will help him fight the power that enslaves him when he wants to be free, if he wants my help, since I see in his face that he needs to be free. But even when he is free, his soul has many journeys down the open road, before it is a free soul."

from D. H. Lawrence, Studies in Classic American Literature, 183-184.

Betsy Erkkila

Tramping up and down the aisles of the hospital wards, Whitman came closer to achieving his dream of reaching the democratic masses than he would ever come through his written work. "It has given me my most fervent views of the true ensemble and extent of the States," he said of his hospital experiences. . . . Ministering to a cross section of the democratic nation, North and South, black and white, Whitman literally became the invigorator, comrade, fuser, and reconciler of the American republic he had wanted to become through his writing.

from Betsy Erkkila, Whitman the Political Poet, 200-01

Timothy Sweet

Whitman opposes textual representation to the unrepresentable traces of war in a prefatory note to Specimen Days, in which he describes the process of composing the Memoranda. The mediating term is memory, which here assumes the form of inarticulate "associations":

I have dozens of . . . little note-books left, forming a special history of those years, for myself alone, full of associations never to be possibly said or sung. I wish I could convey to the reader the associations that attach to these soil'd and creas'd livraisons, each composed of a sheet or two of paper, folded small to carry in the pocket, and fasten'd with a pin. I leave them just as I threw them by after the war, blotch'd here and there with more than one blood-stain . . . . Most of the pages from 26 to 81 are verbatim copies of these lurid and blood-smutch'd little note-books. (Prose Works 1892, I:2)

These papers affect Whitman not so much because of their words, but because they bear traces of the violated human body which cannot be represented and thus must fail to become part of the public record of the war. The very presence of the "blood-stain[s]" prevents Whitman from representing them; their reality thwarts textualization.

from Timothy Sweet, Traces of War, 48.

Alan Trachtenberg

There is always the question with Whitman about the status of his key terms. Is America a political word, the name of a political entity, or a metaphysical category? Is labor a social activity or a metaphor for an aesthetic state? . . . How [Whitman] figures labor in his poems, the figure labor makes, offers insight into the baffling issue of Whitman’s politics, the place of democracy in his poetry. In Democratic Vistas he does not, for example, see America realizing or performing itself in unions of laborers. Poets, not organized industrial workers, are his political agents. His writings and recorded conversations show that he felt increasing unhappiness and anger with the economic system greedily taking charge of the country after the Civil War and producing among its negative effects what he called "the tramp and strike questions." In notes made in the late 1870s for a projected lecture on the subject, his remark that "the American Revolution of 1776 was simply a great strike" alludes to the great railroad strike of 1877. But his tone is resigned; the militant labor movement held out, for him, no real hope for the conversion of America into democracy . . . Whitman’s laborer tends to be a person in the condition of potentiality: not so much a social figure but, like America and democracy, a literary figure, a trope of possibility.

from Alan Trachtenberg, "The Politics of Labor and the Poet’s Work: A Reading of ‘A Song for Occupations’" in Walt Whitman: The Centenniel Essays, ed. Ed Folsom, 120-121, 123.

Alan Trachtenberg

Occupation belongs to the system of thought of laissez-faire, and Whitman is less its critic than its great poet. Capitalism emancipated labor, the great historic feat which Karl Marx believed would eventually undo the system—emancipated labor into the system of wages. Whitman's guise as one of the laboring class he consistently mythologized as America's middle class swept him up in contradiction, the paradox of an emancipation which leads to a new, less visible or tangible enslavement, an enslavement disguised by the American theory of race: white is free, black is not. Whitman subscribed to the racialist theory; he celebrated the liberatory effects of capitalism and closed his eyes to the rest. The social logic of the wage system escaped him, though he registered its effects fitfully during the Gilded Age. Still, he grasped the difference, if not its cause, between use-value (the value itself) and exchange-value, and he joined in powerful tropes and a music of amalgamation, use with being, work with art. From the contradiction between use and exchange he extracted a heroic celebration of labor as life, work as art. He asks, what does it mean to be occupied, to possess an occupation, to repossess oneself within an occupation? He does not ask how labor, property, and society might otherwise look, does not imagine the overthrow of the system of occupations or the social relations of labor but subsumes that system by singing it, subsumes it to an ideal version, a convertible America the poet's work might bring about. Readers today may want to define their own work as the refiguring of that America with all its historical contradictions intact, retrieving it, with the aid as much of Whitman's blindness as his insight, from the clutch of the White Republic.

from Alan Trachtenberg, "The Politics of Labor and the Poet’s Work: A Reading of ‘A Song for Occupations’" in Walt Whitman: The Centenniel Essays, ed. Ed Folsom, 130-131.

M. Wynn Thomas

There is plenty of evidence that Whitman was not immune to [Gilded Age] propaganda—the most nauseous example of it being, perhaps, the mutual admiration that developed between him and Andrew Carnegie. Or, to put the latter more kindly, it is probable that in the sentimentalization of labor Whitman found both relief from the real intractable labor problems of the day and grounds for a continuing belief in a ‘single society’ theory of American life.

from M. Wynn Thomas, "Whitman and the Dreams of labor" in Walt Whitman: The Centenniel Essays, ed. Ed Folsom, 147.

Betsy Erkilla

In support of the idea of the increasing split between private and public in Whitman's works in the post-war years, as Whitman the lover of men gives way to the iconography of the good gray poet, many emphasize the changes that Whitman made in his "Calamus" poems after he was fired from his job at the Department of the Interior for moral turpitude. But here again, a close study of the changes that Whitman made in future editions of Leaves of Grass reveals no clear pattern of suppressing or even toning down his love poems to men. In fact, Whitman's decision to delete three poems from ‘Calamus’—‘Who Is Now Reading This?,’ ‘I Thought That Knowledge Alone Would Suffice,’ and ‘Hours Continuing Long’—suggests that he sought not to tone down or suppress his expression of "manly love" but rather to suppress the more negative dimensions of his love for men and to blur the distinction between public poet and private lover he set forth in ’Thought That Knowledge Alone Would Suffice.’


This representation of same-sex love between men as the base of a new social order [first elaborated in Calamus] underlies the visionary democracy of Democratic Vistas (1871). In this important and wide-ranging attempt to come to terms with the problems of democracy in America, Whitman concludes that ‘intense and loving comradeship, the personal and passionate attachment of man to man," represents "the most substantial hope and safety of the future of these States.’ ‘It is to the development, identification, and general prevalence of that fervid comradeship, (the adhesive love, at least rivaling amative love hitherto possessing imaginative literature, if not going beyond it),’ Whitman explains in a footnote, ‘that I look for the counterbalance and offset of our materialistic and vulgar American democracy, and for the spiritualization thereof.’ Amid what he called the aggressive selfism, vulgar materialism, and widespread corruption of the Gilded Age, Whitman looked not to marriage or to the traditional family but to "the personal and passionate attachment of man to man" as the social base and future hope of the American republic. ‘I say democracy infers such loving comradeship as its most inevitable twin or counterpart, without which it will be incomplete, in vain, and incapable of perpetuating itself.’

 from Betsy Erkilla, "Whitman and the Homosexual Republic" in Walt Whitman: The Centenniel Essays, ed. Ed Folsom, 166.

 Michael Moon

In the face of the overwhelming grief and guilt he shared with many of his contemporaries over the terrible losses of the war, Whitman does not simply renounce sexuality by making melancholy and self-castrative gestures in his poetry .As psychoanalytic theory long ago made clear, melancholic and self-castrative impulses are themselves behaviors with strong erotic components, however conflicted they may be. Far from renouncing or ‘moving beyond’ sexuality in ‘When Lilacs Last in the Dooryard Bloom'd,’ Whitman relaunches a self through a poetic congeries of the defiles of signified desire through which he has launched his earlier models of the self in the earlier editions of his book. In its intertwinings of the entry of the subject into sexuality with the recognition of death, ‘Lilacs’ links the political and historical catastrophe of the Civil War and the assassination of Lincoln with what Whitman represents as the recapitulation of the catastrophe in the psychic career of each of his readers, of every subject who enters the culture.

from Michael Moon, Disseminating Whitman: Revision and Corporeality in Leaves of Grass, 219.

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