Unscrew the locks from the doors!
Unscrew the doors themselves from their jambs!
— Walt Whitman
In Walt We Trust is an unusual book. It is neither a work of literary criticism nor a book about politics in the traditional sense. It is a reflection on some of the themes in Whitman’s poems. In his most well known poem, “Song of Myself,” Whitman defined himself as the poet of both the body and the soul. With the radical Deists of the 18th century he shared a belief in the creator Deity and human progress. I have always thought that the greatest contradiction in Whitman was his faith in progress for America and the fact that he had no conception of evil. This contradiction is articulated throughout Leaves of Grass. John Marsh seems to agree. He is less clear concerning the other limitations of Whitman’s vision of America.
I will approach Whitman’s poems first by considering some of his most obvious limitations. He spoke positively of working people, but he had no notion of a working class or class struggle. He was concerned about poverty but without having a clear concept of capitalist society. He understood capitalism to be defined by the greed for money. He talked about the equality of human beings, but he viewed humanity as divided into a hierarchy of races with Europeans being the only group capable of culture and democracy. This is, of course, not the whole story about Whitman’s poems. Nor was Whitman the only person in the 19th century who held racist views. Most of the abolitionists held such views. Prior to writing Leaves of Grass, Whitman was the editor of several Democratic Party newspapers in the 1840s like the Brooklyn Daily Eagle, where he often expressed racist views about Indians and Africans. Whitman came to oppose slavery by 1855, when he published Leaves of Grass. Like Lincoln, Whitman opposed the expansion of slavery..
Whitman believed in liberty, equality and solidarity as human values. John Marsh suggests that solidarity was the filter through which Whitman imagined modern society. He valued women, but mostly as sexual partners and mothers. He asserted the existence of equality between the sexes. Sex played an important role in Whitman’s poems: both between men and women and between men and men. For Whitman, sex unites people. It creates solidarity between comrades. He often addressed his readers with the term, “Comerado.”
In Walt We Trust provides a reflection on some of the themes in Whitman’s poems. John Marsh offers a creative and reflective reading of Whitman. He reads Leaves of Grass with a series of questions in mind. Was Whitman a socialist? Was he gay? Whitman also raised other questions for Marsh concerning the meaning of death and the crisis of democracy. Marsh provides chapter-long treatments of each of his questions and offers tentative answers.
In 1888, Whitman told a journalist that he was a socialist, but what could this have meant? For Whitman socialism meant equality, liberty and solidarity, not the collective ownership of the means of production. Whitman was more a liberal humanist than a socialist. He was not what one thinks of when looking for a proletarian poet.
It would be stretching things a bit to call Whitman a gay poet. Whitman wrote homo-erotic poems. He desired the love of men, but he lived at a time before a gay culture existed. Whitman was not gay in the sense we now use this term. To call Whitman a gay poet would be to put him into a box that did not yet exist. Whitman believed in the immortality of the soul. Rather than life ending when we die, he imagined that our atoms are recycled. He said that our bodies are compost and that grass grows on our graves.
Marsh’s approach to reading Whitman is highly personal. His treatment of Whitman as a socialist is forced. The workers depicted in Whitman’s poems were independent mechanics, not Marx’s “society of producers.” His politics were most clearly expressed in his book, Democratic Vistas. In this short book, written soon after the Civil War, Whitman discussed the political corruption at the heart of American society in government and business. He also called for the creation of a democratic literature along the lines of his Leaves of Grass.
He viewed the American Civil War as a human tragedy. During the war, he held a patronage job in Washington and spent a good deal of time reading to soldiers who had fallen on the battlefield. He shared President Lincoln’s view of the war as a defence of the union. His poems about Lincoln express an idealized view of the president. Consider for example, “When Lilacs Last in The Dooryard Bloomed.” Given the context of the civil war and the assassination of Lincoln, Whitman’s treatment of him made perfect sense.
In Walt We Trust is a highly accessible and non-academic treatment of Walt Whitman, both the poet and the man. It also discusses the innovative nature of Whitman’s poetry. Marsh makes it clear that Whitman was a cultural radical, not a political or economic radical. What he attempted to provide his readers with in his poetry and prose writings was a vision of a democratic culture. The depiction of political and economic corruption in Democratic Vistas is similar to what Mark Twain called the Gilded Age. Both Twain and Whitman offered their readers critical reflections on the nature of American society.
The appreciation of Whitman’s poetry has always been mixed. For Jorge Luis Borges he was a great modernist poet; for Henry James Whitman’s poetry lacked any aesthetic value. Marsh clearly sides with Borges in his evaluation of Whitman’s poetry.
Reviewed by George Snedeker
SUNY/College at Old Westbury