Posted by: Erin Longbottom | 18th Oct, 2009

Erin for 9/20

Every week, I feel like I learn something new about Whitman. This week I learned that Whitman was apparently a racist. I suppose I had just assumed that since he was a forward thinker, and that he wrote about sheltering a runaway slave in Song of Myself that he was for equality. Of course this isn’t the first time that my initial impression of what Whitman thought was wrong, but I suppose it’s a little more shocking to me this time because we’ve been studying him for half a semester now, and somehow I didn’t pick up on this at all. I especially thought Morris’ comment on how Whitman romanticised native Africans, but he was prejudiced against blacks in America was weird. For a man who loves America and everything in it so much, I found it a little strange. It doesn’t mess with my personal view of him too much, since I’m already at odds with his treatment of women.

In spite of all this, I found myself feeling a lot of admiration for what Whitman did for those soldiers. Referring to the prompt for this week, he really did treat those soldiers the way that Whitman as speaker tells his audience how he wishes to treat them. He is tender, and while outwardly trying to be non-sexual, it’s evident in his writings and Morris’ description that he struggled with his feelings while with the soldier, and formed more than casual relationships with some. He holds them, caresses them, tries to make them feel better, much like Whitman the speaker does for his readers through his poetry. According to Whitman, the soldiers responded positively to him, in the same way I’m sure Whitman wanted his readers to react. While Morris notes that “you are always the hero of your own biography” it seems very plausible to me that Whitman would be well accepted among the soldiers. I mean, who wouldn’t want someone to visit them and bring them gifts when they were trapped somewhere as foul as those hospitals, being taken care of by soldiers who weren’t good enough to go off to battle?

So often I feel that I am looking at a juxtaposition of two very different sides of Whitman, and the two opposing sides are making my decision on how I view him incredibly difficult. Part of me wants to, and does, accept him as the great American poet, someone who’s poetry is beautiful and inspiring, and yet I can’t reconcile that to my frustration at his all-knowing stance in his poetry, in which his personal view points are not always what I want them to be.


I had the same response when reading this week, especially when I read what Whitman had said in his editorials. Where is the all-encompassing empathizer there? Sometimes I wonder, though, if we ask too much of Whitman when we try and define the all American poet. Can one man really be for all and every person, and can he really empathize with them? Not if he’s human, which I think Whitman demonstrates; his allegiances lie to unity among men, and if there is an individual or group who falters in that, or has the potential to destroy it, that does not hold with Whitman.
I think moments like these are where Whitman’s bravado falters, and where we see the divide between Whitman the man and the poet-prophet. And maybe we grow so irritated with him because we want that divinity so badly (and he does such a good job convincing us of it). I can forgive a man for his faults; he’s human. But how can we forgive the poet-prophet, who is supposed to have none?
Anyway. Good post.

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