On Walt Whitman, an American, one of the roughs
If you were a bookish fellow wandering past a bookseller in Brooklyn in summer, 1855, and your attention was drawn to a green volume of poems with foliage embossed on the cover and a gilded “Leaves of Grass” in fanciful lettering, you couldn’t be sure who the author was until you had read well into the longest poem in the book. The title page had no person’s name on it, only the title itself and “Brooklyn, New York: 1855” at the bottom. Opposite the title page on the frontispiece was an engraving of a bearded man in a loose white shirt and breeches, no coat or tie, a hat slanting off the top of his head, left hand in pocket and right hand on hip, but whether this was the poet or not one couldn’t say. The copyright page did print “Walter Whitman” in tiny script, but again, if you even noticed it, it may not have identified the author himself, perhaps an editor or printer or agent of some kind, instead.
Only in what later became Section 24 of “Song of Myself,” the first poem in the book, did you find a reliable marker (the 1855 edition had no title for “Song of Myself” and no section numbers). There, you read the lines:
Walt Whitman, an American, one of the roughs, a kosmos,
Disorderly fleshy and sensual . . . . eating drinking and breeding,
No sentimentalist . . . . no stander above men and women or apart from them . . . . no more modest than immodest.
This can only be him, you assume, the “Myself” he’s been celebrating for hundreds of lines already. The speaker now has a name, and there is no reason to think it is fictional. You don’t recognize the name, though you may have seen it in a local paper where for a time Whitman wrote unremarkable articles on local happenings (recently he’s spent his days as a carpenter and printer), but you’re willing to take this one-time signature as the man behind the whole thing. This boastful, carefree figure fits the picture at the front of the book, a common man, a little “disorderly,” yes, with a “sensual” air and jaunty expression. Even his name is common, just ordinary Walt Whitman, not the three-part nomenclature of America’s distinguished writers of the time, Ralph Waldo Emerson, Henry Wadsworth Longfellow, William Cullen Bryant, James Russell Lowell, John Greenleaf Whittier . . .
He calls himself an American and a “rough,” as if those two go together. The pairing echoes, in fact, what he expressly states about his countrymen several pages earlier in the Preface. Here is how he characterizes them:
Their manners speech dress friendships—the freshness and candor of their physiognomy—the picturesque looseness of their carriage . . . their deathless attachment to freedom—their aversion to anything indecorous or soft or mean . . .
That description comes near the beginning of the Preface, which, among other things, profiles this special “rough” character in breathless tones. In the preceding paragraph, he declares that Americans have “probably the fullest poetical nature” of any people at any time in history, but their “poetry,” so to speak, is no urbane, cultivated, fastidious thing. We are a “teeming nation of nations,” he goes on, “magnificently moving in vast masses,” pressing forward with “tremendous audacity” and “splendid extravagance.” Europe has its court poets and great universities and literary salons, while in America “Here are the roughs and beards and space and ruggedness and nonchalance that the soul loves.” He finds this working-class eloquence on the beaches of Long Island where, in “Song of Myself,” twenty-eight young men, naked and shouting, romp in the surf, and he hears it on the buses going up and down Broadway, which he likes to ride from one end of Manhattan to the other just to hear the rousing, bawdy banter of the drivers. Again, there is no name on the title page, but as you read an identity begins to form, the author’s and everyone else’s, along with a social habitat that runs on a brisk set of democratic norms. If you slight these citizens, Whitman warns, they will come back at you, for they have the character of “persons who never knew how it felt to stand in the presence of superiors.” No foppish Old World mores for them, and no external entitlements, either. The Whitman in the frontispiece could be a carpenter or a boatman on the Brooklyn ferry, and he’s just fine with that. If any presumptuous aristocrat took his supercilious pose out to the Bowery, he’d get laughed at all day, and perhaps cuffed, too—and rightly so.
There is a popular image of Whitman as the kindly, paternal American bard, soft-eyed and soft-spoken, an image Whitman himself promoted in his later years. He was “The Good Gray Poet,” as one of his many avid fans put it, a loving grandfather with white hair and beard, writing moving reminiscences in his last decades of an older America that had disappeared (Specimen Days collects many of these accounts). Moreover, as he revised the poems in successive editions, they lost a bit of their “rough” edge, as he himself confessed. He told Horace Traubel in 1888, “[T]here was an immediateness to the 1855 edition, and incisive directness, that was perhaps not repeated in any section of poems afterwards added to the book: a hot, unqualifying temper, an insulting arrogance . . .”
“A hot, unqualifying temper, an insulting arrogance . . .”—those may seem odd words to apply to the man who has influenced world literary history more than any other American poet. And yet, the personalities in Leaves of Grass, Whitman and others, bear it out. He is “no sentimentalist,” he insists above, and the “tale of a jetblack sunrise” (“Song of Myself,” Section 34) proves it. It is one of several historical vignettes in the poem. This one recounts the execution of American prisoners in Goliad, Texas in 1836, not long after the Alamo had fallen. The incident was notorious at the time, becoming, in fact, a turning point in U.S. opinion about the Texas conflict, more so than the Alamo itself, though few people are familiar with it today. After that legendary event in San Antonio concluded, General Santa Anna marched his army across the territory aiming to clear it of the armed Americans whom he regarded as meddlesome foreigners deserving quick death for their defiance of Mexican authority. An American force of some 500 men in a slow retreat were soon surrounded by Santa Anna’s army, and after a day of fighting, their ammunition low and leader wounded, the Americans surrendered, “treated for an honorable capitulation,” Whitman says, and expected customary recognition as prisoners of war (Whitman believes Santa Anna’s lieutenant had promised them safety).
The poet reveres them in spite of their surrender, pausing a moment to detail them in the same way that an epic poet catalogues the virtues of his warriors:
They were the glory of the race of rangers,
Matchless with a horse, a rifle, a song, a supper or a courtship,
Large, turbulent, brave, handsome, generous, proud and affectionate . . .
The list-like syntax of the lines marks the portrait as a stereotype, and that’s precisely the point. The words rise into an ideal. We can say, in fact, that Whitman here generalizes the men into what used to be called the “national character,” as if he were outlining who and what Americans really are, all of them. The adjectives are understood to be common traits, not individual ones, and they are noble and exceptional. They emerge even more clearly in what happens next. Whitman doesn’t mention him, but Santa Anna didn’t share the praise, of course, and he ordered every soldier put to the sword. As Whitman describes it, once the men learned of their doom, they didn’t cower one bit. On the contrary,
None obeyed the command to kneel,
Some made a mad and helpless rush . . . . some stood stark and straight,
A few fell at once, shot in the temple or heart . . . . the living and dead lay together,
The maimed and mangled dug in the dirt . . . . the new-comers saw them there;
Some half-killed attempted to crawl away,
These were dispatched with bayonets or battered with the blunt of muskets;
A youth not seventeen years old seized his assassin till two more came to release him,
The three were all torn, and covered with the boy’s blood.
When it’s over that morning, the sky turns “jetblack” because hundreds of bodies burning in a pit produce a lot of smoke. The episode ends on that grisly note. Not much historical context here, and no political opinion about the Texas situation. Those don’t interest Whitman, only the indomitable character of the Americans, here and everywhere else in the country. We are invited to regard these unnamed soldiers as exemplars. They don’t kneel, because Americans never kneel to any man; no pleading, either, no weakness; “turbulent,” yes, but always fair and large-hearted no matter how reckless and passionate—they would have to be in order to leave their lives in the States and fight for another’s freedom, as did Davy Crockett when he left Congress (he had served two terms, but lost in 1835), remaining briefly in his home state of Tennessee until he had raised a group of volunteers and set out for the Alamo. Now, that’s an American story.
Needless to say, we have lost this version of the ideal American. Show a member of today’s elite a specimen of Whitman’s “roughs,” a figure a little uncouth and insolent, ever honest and upright, but boisterous and headstrong, and our 21st century high-achiever would back off and shun him. The strictures of modern sensitivity and political correctness would filter that refractory soul out of the higher ranks instantly, setting him amidst the “deplorables” and moving on. Liberals in high places cast this ethos of diversity-equity-tolerance as an advance, and though it’s a tepid and uninspiring outlook, we have seen many times how ruthlessly it is implemented. The rebellious temper, the pioneer spirit, the working-class pride, the self-made man . . . they have given way to institutional pipelines that demand obedience and conformity.
I bring Whitman up here because of his place at the pinnacle of American literary history. To reject his “roughs,” as liberalism has done, is to deny one of the nourishing traditions of our country. For Whitman is not the only historic figure who extolled the primitive or renegade personality. Throughout our literature and our history, too, we have unruly types doing rebellious things. Young Ben Franklin bristles under the dictates of his brother, to whom he has been apprenticed, and so he sneaks out of Boston and makes his way to Philadelphia with no money and few prospects. Thoreau heads off to the woods because he can’t stand the sentiments of his Concord neighbors. Huck must “light out for the territory” because he doesn’t want to be “sivilized.” Bartleby won’t work, Ahab enlists the ship and crew in his own obsession, Emily Dickinson goes to her room and shuts the door, Hawthorne takes a Federal job at the Custom House in Salem, then writes a nasty satirical essay on his experience and fellow workers (people were furious at him for it), the Invisible Man lurks in his basement, Kerouac hits the road . . .
For their part, conservatives, too, have erased this unruly identity from the core meaning of America. Instead, they have fled to ideas. Congressman Paul Ryan perfectly illustrated the belief in a speech to Capitol Hill interns in March 2016, when he told them, “America is the only nation founded on an idea, not on an identity.” That pat assertion sounds just and clear, like Lincoln’s faith in our national “dedication” to a “proposition,” but Emerson and a dozen other eminences from the past wouldn’t agree. They believed in national “types” (Emerson wrote a book entitled English Traits). The third chapter of Crevecoeur’s Letters of an American Farmer bears the heading “What Is an American?” and he doesn’t go to Aristotle, John Locke, or Montesquieu for the answer, rather to the practical habits and dispositions of the citizens.
On the left, then, I would say, we have a sentimental picture of the best of America (diversity, &c.), while on the right we have an intellectualized picture. Neither one can admit the “roughs,” and this is a loss for us all. As we watch the sham solemnities and self-protectiveness that issues throughout the elite zones, our moral and aesthetic senses cry out for a plain-speaking, uncalculating leader who might voice something like what Crockett did after voters in Tennessee voted him out (he’d lost support previously because he had opposed the highly-popular Indian removal policies).
I told the people of my district that I would serve them as faithfully as I had done; but if not, they might go to hell, and I would go to Texas.
Featured image: The Laughing Philosopher: American poet Walt Whitman photo (1887) by George C. Cox via Wikimedia Commons.
Mark Bauerlein, an Emeritus Professor of English at Emory University, is a contributing editor at First Things. His books include Whitman and the American Idiom (1991) as well as The Dumbest Generation (2008). He invites you to follow him on Twitter.