- My America is still all in the making: it’s a promise, a possible something: it’s to come: it’s by no means here. Besides, what do I care about the material America? America is to me an idea, a forecast, a prophecy: it may evolve to noble fruition or end as an incommensurable disaster. I don’t want to be tied to the little conclusions of a petty nationalism. America will extend itself as an idea, never I hope in conquest. I’d rather anything should happen to us than that we should add one inch of territory to our domain by conquest.
- (Whitman to Horace Traubel)
- Sex contains all, bodies, souls, Meanings, proofs, purities, delicacies, results, promulgations, Songs, commands, health, pride, the maternal mystery, the seminal milk, All hopes, benefactions, bestowals, all the passions, loves, beauties, delights of the earth, All the governments, judges, gods, follow’d persons of the earth, These are contain’d in sex as parts of itself and justifications of itself. Without shame the man I like knows and avows the deliciousness of his sex, Without shame the woman I like knows and avows hers.
- (“A Woman Waits for Me”)
United States presidents have usually gotten exactly the Walt Whitman they deserved. During his own lifetime, Whitman admired and disdained presidents with unusual passion, rising to some of his most sublime language to evoke Lincoln (“the sweetest, wisest soul of all my days and lands”) and descending to some of his coarsest to describe Benjamin Harrison (“the scalawag who was and is . . . the shit-ass! God damn ’im”). There was a long foreground to Whitman’s Harrison-register of voice, brought on in the 1840s and 50s, while he watched helplessly as a whole line of hapless presidents allowed the country to slip toward civil war:
The sixteenth and seventeenth and 18th terms of the American Presidency have shown that the villainy and shallowness of great rulers are just as eligible to These States as to any foreign despotism, kingdom, or empire. . . . Never were publicly displayed more deformed, mediocre, sniveling, unreliable, false-hearted men! Never were These States so insulted. . . . The President eats dirt and excrement for his daily meals, likes it, and tries to force it on The States.
This last comment was directed at Franklin Pierce (whose term in office Whitman described as “a filthy Presidentiad”), but James Buchanan, who was about to be elected, was also very much on his mind. It was this sorry political state that spurred Whitman to begin writing Leaves of Grass and publish it 150 years ago. And by the third edition in 1860, Buchanan had directly entered Whitman’s book, the subject of this memorable little Whitman tribute:
To a President
All you are doing and saying is to America dangled mirages,
You have not learn’d of Nature—of the politics of Nature you have not learn’d
the great amplitude, rectitude, impartiality,
You have not seen that only such as they are for these States,
And that what is less than they must sooner or later lift off from these States.
As outspoken as Whitman was about presidents during his lifetime, what is astonishing is how our national poet keeps re-emerging at key points in the terms of presidents in the century-plus since his death. It would be instructive to track how every president since Whitman’s death has at some point encountered the poet in a significant way, but we have time here only for our two most recent Presidentiads, during which Walt has made some surprising reappearances.
So let’s fast-forward to the Clinton presidency when Whitman made one of his most abrupt and stunning returns to national consciousness. Bill Clinton was a president who actually read Leaves of Grass and was in the habit of giving copies to those with whom he was intimate. Lost in our sleazy memories of Monica Lewinsky’s thong, her blue stained Gap dress, and her telltale gift-copy of Whitman’s poetry inscribed by the president himself, is the fact that Clinton was one of our most poetically literate presidents, capable of quoting a variety of poets on command. He was also a president unafraid of confronting the more controversial and political edges of poetry, as when in November 1997 he gave what Peter Baker in The Washington Post called “the first speech by a sitting president to a gay rights organization.” In that speech to a Human Rights Campaign fundraiser, Clinton recalled Harry Truman’s historic remarks to an NAACP rally a half-century earlier, when Truman told thousands of African Americans gathered in front of the Lincoln Memorial, “And when I say all Americans, I mean all Americans.” “Well, my friends,” Clinton said to his largely gay audience that night in 1997, “all Americans still means all Americans.” And, though he failed to quote any Calamus poems on this occasion, Clinton did evoke Whitman in his call to once again broaden our conception of democracy: “So I think one of the greatest things we have to do still is just to increase the ability of Americans who do not yet know that gays and lesbians are their fellow Americans in every sense of the word to feel that way. I think it’s very important. . . . After experiencing the horrors of the Civil War and witnessing the transformation of the previous century, Walt Whitman said that our greatest strength was that we are an embracing nation. In his words, a ‘Union, holding all, fusing, absorbing, tolerating all.’ Let us move forward in the spirit of that one America.”
What none of us knew then but would all come to know far too well over the following few weeks is that eight months earlier Clinton had given a young White House intern named Monica Lewinsky what the Starr Report would describe as “a special edition of Walt Whitman’s Leaves of Grass,” a gift, it would turn out, that he had also given to his wife Hillary Rodham when he was courting her (it was just “his method of operation” claimed several commentators, and one noted that “smooth operators tend to stick with what works”). The president actually gave Ms. Lewinsky a number of gifts, but none caught the imagination of the nation’s media like Whitman’s book. The Starr report itself was labeled Leaves of Crass on the cover of the The New Republic, and, in a drawing in The New Yorker, Leaves appeared with a zipper running up its spine. Reason ran a cartoon of a naked Clinton reading Leaves and imagining budget graph lines warping into the shape of a woman’s body. Memories of Clinton’s moving evocation of Whitman at the gay rights event quickly faded to be replaced by analyses like this one by Florence King in The National Review (March 23, 1998): “It all goes back to Bill Clinton’s arrested development. . . . Any adult deeply moved by Leaves of Grass has an assy-gassy mind ruled by an achy-breaky heart. Walt Whitman belongs to the interlude Clinton admirers call ‘youthful idealism’ and do their best to stretch into an eon. . . . Leaves of Grass is a State of the Union message in verse: unstanched puerile prattle with every scheme but a rhyme scheme.”
Monica Lewinsky, for her part, seemed to appreciate Leaves in a way that the press would simply ignore: she described the book as “the most sentimental gift he had given me . . . it’s beautiful and it meant a lot to me.” In her thank-you note to Clinton, she wrote with a striking blend of sincere appreciation and sexual flirtation: “I have only read excerpts from ‘Leaves of Grass’ before—never in its entirety or in such a beautifully bound edition. Like Shakespeare, Whitman’s writings are so timeless. I find solace in works from the past that remain profound and somehow always poignant. Whitman is so rich that one must read him like one tastes a fine wine or good cigar—take it in, roll it in your mouth, and savor it!” After quoting this letter in his report, Kenneth Starr could not help but remind us that the very night Lewinsky received Leaves from the president, she performed fellatio on him in the bathroom off the Oval Office, and his “seminal milk” (Whitman’s term, not Starr’s) stained her blue Gap dress which, it might be argued, led to his impeachment. Whitman’s Leaves was, in Starr’s retelling of the event, nothing more than a seductive gift; he lumped it with the cigar Clinton gave Lewinsky as just another disguised sex toy. Paul Berman in The New York Times Book Review (October 18, 1998) faulted the Starr Report because, despite its “literary qualities,” it “quotes no poetry.” “It is a wonder that Kenneth Starr has chosen not to quote from the book,” Berman writes; “A few selective passages from ‘Leaves of Grass,’ offered in an innocent spirit of legalist accuracy, would have demolished the President’s dignity even more and could have made Whitman look pretty bad too, and with any luck might even have got his poetry banned from the public libraries.”
I remember at the time getting a phone call from a reporter from an upstate New York newspaper, asking if I could identify for him some specific “oral sex” passages in Leaves, so that he could explain to his readers why Clinton would have given Lewinsky Whitman’s book, of all things. Robert Hass noted in The Washington Post that “Leaves of Grass has been in the news again,” and “this time around, because it was given as a gift by a president to a White House intern, it was described by one print journalist, with a not very well-concealed leer, as ‘a favorite passed among lovers, specifically for one poem, Song of Myself.’” Hass goes on to note, as only a poet could, “I hope it does get passed among lovers, and I hope presidents continue to give it to interns. It would cheer me up about American literacy.” Hass thinks “Whitman might have been amused” to find how the American media was still fretting in 1998 that “Song of Myself” “was a particularly lewd poem,” one that caused television journalists to “ogle at the mention of the book’s name.” But Hass was one of the very few who imagined that reading and literacy, that Clinton’s love of poetry and desire to pass that love on to his intern-lover, could have been the motivation for this particular gift. Leaves got mentioned more in the American (and international) media in 1998 than perhaps ever before, and the book was universally portrayed as a kind of odd sex manual: “it has long been a high-end aphrodisiac,” wrote Nick Gillespie in Reason. The Tabloid News Service (January 26, 1998) reported it this way: “The book—Whitman’s classic ‘Leaves of Grass’—was reportedly a gift from Clinton. Various media have honed in on a Whitman verse in the book about the glories of oral sex; Lewinsky is reportedly on tape saying the only sex she had with the president was of the oral variety.” CNN, in February 1998, felt it necessary to identify for its viewers just what this weird book was and did so by defining Leaves of Grass simply as “a book of poetry reportedly given to Monica Lewinsky by President Clinton.” After Barbara Walters held up Leaves in her March 1999 “20/20” interview with Monica Lewinsky (and asking her how she felt when she learned that Clinton has given the same book to Hillary, who reportedly burst into tears when she heard the news), the book shot up the Amazon.com charts and had to be restocked. It was déjà vu all over again: Whitman’s sales had spiked after Leaves was ruled obscene and banned from the mails in Boston in 1882.
Whitman became so embedded in the Clinton/Lewinsky scandal that the poet was seemingly absorbed into the sex act itself. One commentator captured what television and radio began to sound like during those mind-numbing days when the Lewinsky testimony was recited endlessly: “I entered the White House at 5:53 p.m. We kissed in the hallway. Then he lifted my sweater. I will watch. We talked about everything under the sun. He fondled and sucked my breasts. He gave me Leaves of Grass by Walt Whitman. He masturbated into the Oval Office sink. He touched my genitals. I brought him pizza. I sucked his penis. He didn’t ejaculate. I saved the dress when he did.”
Since those heady days when all kinds of taboo topics and terms suddenly became fair game in the mainstream media, cultural studies scholars have of course begun to explore some of the deeper implications of the newly gained cultural freedom to talk openly and publicly about such things as the president’s penis, his ejaculations, and his proclivity for using cigars as sexual aids. If Whitman unveiled the penis in poetry by “bathing my songs in Sex, / Offspring of my loins” and by equating the poem with a penis—“This poem drooping shy and unseen that I always carry, and that all men carry, / (Know once for all, avow’d on purpose, wherever are men like me, are our lusty lurking masculine poems)”—so did his work also become implicated in the great unveiling of the presidential penis, what Loren Glass has called “the most noteworthy penis to preoccupy the public’s attention in the past few years: President Clinton’s.” Glass goes on: “Only in America in the nineties could the president’s penis provoke a constitutional crisis. And it is crucial to understand that we were fascinated not with the phallus, the symbol of his office, but with his actual anatomical penis: The palpable specificity of Clinton’s penis stood at the center of the crisis, from [Paula] Jones’ allegation that she could identify its physical idiosyncrasies to Kenneth Starr’s irrefutable scientific claim that there is only one penis out of 7.87 trillion which could have spilled the semen onto Monica Lewinsky’s dress.” “Our attention to Clinton’s penis,” Glass argues, “indicates an unprecedented unmasking of the Lacanian Law of the Father, which dictates that the anatomical referent be masked behind the transcendent signifier. Patriarchy to a great degree depends upon concealing the anatomical penis behind the symbolic phallus. The penis—in the end a paltry thing—must be concealed if its fictional equation to the omnipotent phallus is to be sustained.” Glass concludes that the media carnival that exposed the president’s penis “reveals that the patriarchy is in trouble, that traditional discourses of masculine authority are disintegrating.”
We might say, then, that Whitman revealed what lurks behind all poems, and the Lewinsky scandal revealed what lurks behind all presidents (so far in American history, at least). Leaves of Grass in this way serves as a kind of heuristic for reading the significance of the scandal, though conclusions like Glass’s that masculine authority is disintegrating now seem, well, a bit premature. Having finally unveiled the previously concealed penis, Whitman wrote a poetry in which sex would now take its place as a healthy organic part of the whole anatomy, part of love and digestion and perspiration and inspiration, not distorted by its concealment into something bizarre and giant and dangerous, like a sword or a missile. As Whitman put it, “The vitality of [sex] is altogether in its relations, bearings, significance—like the clef of a symphony.”
But the media orgy surrounding Clinton’s penis hardly led to a healthy acknowledgment of the natural place of sex in all of our activities, what Whitman described as the way “all the governments . . . of the earth . . . are contain’d in sex as parts of itself and justifications of itself.” If Glass is correct, however, and if the Clinton scandal really was the most spectacular sign of a general cultural disintegration of masculine authority, then the reactions of the Right, the utter revulsion and contempt for Clinton, a Democrat who always seemed willing to compromise with the opposition, someone who was good at feeling our pain, begin to make sense. The scandal unveiled the president as a girly man, someone with a penis instead of a phallus, a male who didn’t even use his penis as a tool for domination and power. Much was made, of course, of Clinton’s odd claim he “did not have sexual relations with that woman” because he never inserted his penis in her vagina. “Oral sex” was what Clinton and Whitman were all about: of course he would give Leaves of Grass as his standard love gift, for Whitman was the master of turning sex oral. We all learned that Lewinsky and Clinton thoroughly enjoyed phone sex, talking instead of doing, and when they did it, they didn’t actually do it—it was always oral. Whitman was the great teacher of oral sex, of speaking the forbidden, unveiling it in language; one of the biographical mysteries about Whitman remains what (if anything) he ever did sexually besides write about it.
We all remember the Gore vs. Bush campaign and the way that the fateful night Clinton gave Monica Lewinsky Leaves of Grass and then came on her dress in the Oval Office stood behind everything George W. Bush meant when he said he would “restore dignity to the Oval Office.” The Bush agenda, in other words, was to restore the omnipotent phallus to the office, to thoroughly conceal once again the president’s penis behind all the phallic transcendent symbols of state power. Commentators, emboldened by their years of coverage of the Clinton phallus, could not resist drawing phallic associations 9/11, pointing out again and again how Al Qaeda’s attacks were precisely on the most powerful giant phallic symbols of the U.S. What did the attacks call for in terms of an American response? Humility, sorrow, and understanding, or pride, confidence, and fierce power? Penis or phallus? Words or action?
And so Whitman made his first major appearance during the Bush administration right after 9/11. In many media outlets, Leaves suddenly entered American consciousness again, this time not as a sex manual, but rather as a guide to how we could identify with grief and loss. David Remnick in The New Yorker wrote of how Whitman “seems to have projected himself forward a century and a half into our present woe, our grief for the thousands lost at the southern end of Manhattan, and for the hundreds of rescuers among them, who walked into the boiling flame and groaning steel,” and he quoted “Song of Myself”:
Agonies are one of my changes of garments;
I do not ask the wounded person how he feels . . . . I myself become the
My hurt turns livid upon me as I lean on a cane and observe.
I am the mashed fireman with breastbone broken . . . . tumbling walls buried
me in their debris,
Heat and smoke I inspired . . . . I heard the yelling shouts of my comrades,
I heard the distant click of their picks and shovels;
They have cleared the beams away . . . . they tenderly lift me forth.
Describing Whitman’s legacy as “largeness of empathy,” Remnick said “one would have to be possessed of a heart of ice not to have felt in recent weeks the signs of Whitman’s legacy: a civic and national spirit of resolve, improvisation, and kindness when panic and meanness might also have been expected.” It was the last gasp of the Clinton Whitman, feeling our pain and teaching us to empathize instead of separate, to merge instead of differentiate, to love instead of hate, to understand instead of dominate. We recall those odd services where Bush spoke to America about the need to understand the great Muslim faith, where Muslim priests were invited to join rabbis and Roman Catholic priests and protestant ministers in a show of unity. The world seemed united against the brazen act of terrorism on 9/11. Humility and sorrow, reaching out, seemed the rule of the day. Traffic stopped in countries around the world as people signaled their unity in sorrow for what had happened to America.
Then came the ominous silence, the invasion of Afghanistan, the “axis of evil” speech, the new doctrine of preemptive war, the buildup to the invasion of Iraq, and the re-emergence of a different Walt Whitman. In January 2003 Laura Bush sent out invitations to a group of scholars and poets to attend a White House Symposium on “Poetry and the American Voice” (“note the singular,” wrote Katha Pollitt in The Nation at the time), part of Mrs. Bush’s “Salute to America’s Authors Series,” a series that would come to an abrupt halt with the cancellation of this particular symposium, which was dedicated to an examination of Whitman, Emily Dickinson, and Langston Hughes. The symposium was scheduled for February 12th, and, with war in the air, poet Sam Hamill began to organize a brilliant protest, an e-mail campaign to poets asking them to write poems or statements against the war that he would carry to the White House and present to Laura Bush at the event. Thousand of poets responded, the media picked up the story, and the White House quickly (and permanently) “postponed” the event, with Laura Bush’s statement that “There is nothing political about American literature” getting quoted frequently. At the end of January, the White House press secretary’s office issued a statement saying “it came to the attention of the first lady’s office that some invited guests want to turn what is intended to be a literary event into a political forum. . . . While Mrs. Bush understands the right of all Americans to express their political views, this event was designed to celebrate poetry.” Meanwhile poets celebrated their right to express their political views by reading anti-war poems at hundreds of protest gatherings across the country. The invasion of Iraq would begin five weeks later. I had planned to carry with me to the White House symposium a copy of Iraqi poet Sa’di Yusef’s Arabic translation of Leaves as a suggestion of less destructive invasive ways to nurture democracy in the Middle East, but instead I was left with a nonrefundable midweek ticket to the nation’s capital, where Whitman had once again, briefly, been invited into the White House (on Lincoln’s birthday!) as long as he promised not to go political on us.
Meanwhile, one of Bush’s mainstream apologists, New York Times columnist David Brooks, was busy appropriating Whitman for the new Bush preemptive agenda. In the May 2003 Atlantic, Brooks published a piece called “What Whitman Knew,” timed to appear just as Bush was declaring an end to combat operations in front of the giant “Mission Accomplished” banner. Brooks, perhaps loath to contradict Mrs. Bush’s ban of political poetry, was more interested in Whitman’s prose, specifically Democratic Vistas, which he read as a kind of apologia for the neocon policy that believed we could force democracy on a grateful Iraq, which, during weeks of relentless bombings, so we were told, would lie back and enjoy it, eventually showering us with flowers: “No one since Whitman has captured quite so well the motivating hopefulness that propels American policy and makes the nation a great and restless force in the world.” Whitman’s work, in Brooks’s view, could help Americans deal with the sting of having lost the sympathy of the world and having become, in the year and a half since 9/11, despised internationally: “Whitman’s essay, with its nuanced understanding of the American national character, stands today as a powerful rebuttal to, for example, the parades of European anti-Americans. What these groups despise is a cliché—a flat and simpleminded image of American power. They do not see, as Whitman did, that despite its many imperfections, America is a force for democracy and progress. ‘Far, far indeed, stretch, in distance, our Vistas!’ Whitman wrote. ‘How much is still to be disentangled, freed!’” So, Brooks says, despite “its hodgepodge nature,” Democratic Vistas is “our nation’s most brilliant political sermon because it embodies the exuberant energy of American society—the energy that can make other peoples so nervous.”
Here is Bush’s Whitman, too political for Laura but strong enough to feel no one’s pain, proud and hopeful enough to force himself on anyone who dares resist, capacious and capricious enough to make everyone at least a little bit nervous. This is a Whitman that is perhaps not as distant from the Clinton Whitman as it may at first seem. In one of the more perceptive analyses of Clinton’s Whitman, called “Poetic Licentiousness: What does the president see in Leaves of Grass?,” Nick Gillespie, editor-in-chief of Reason, wrote at the height of the Lewinsky scandal of the dangers of carrying Whitman’s absorptive poetics—political as they may sound—too fully into the political world, of applying Whitman’s notions of an erotic democracy to the actual business of politics: “Of course, it’s one thing for a poet to envision himself having socio-sexual intercourse with the American people. When Whitman writes, ‘In me the caresser of life wherever, moving, backward as well as forward sluing, . . . Absorbing all to myself,” it is a thrilling act of poetic and political solidarity. When an elected official evinces a similar mindset, it becomes downright disturbing, and suggests a final parallel with Leaves of Grass’s White House disseminator.” Gillespie goes on to examine the charges of sexual harassment against Clinton by Paula Jones and Kathleen Willey and asks “at what point does a proposition or an embrace become a kind of stranglehold, a means of control and coercion rather than a consensual coupling?” There’s a dark side to Whitman’s absorptive love, Gillespie cautions, a “dystopic potential in [Whitman’s] conception of America, where romance can turn closer to rape,” and he quotes Whitman’s lines from the 1855 Leaves: “On all sides prurient provokers stiffening my limbs, / Straining the udder of my heart for its withheld drip, / Behaving licentious toward me, taking no denial, / Depriving me of my best as for a purpose, / Unbuttoning my clothes.” Such passages, says Gillespie, not only remind us of Clinton’s sexual behavior but of his “public policy initiatives” like “the failed national health care system (from which no one would have been allowed to opt out) and the ongoing ‘dialogue’ on race (which got off to an inauspicious start when the president tried to bully dissenters into line).” And “romance turned to rape” describes the trajectory of the Bush incursion into Iraq—from the fantasized expectation of liberated Iraqis strewing flowers in the streets to the bleak reality of black-hooded and sexually humiliated Iraqis in Abu Ghraib, as the car bombs proliferate and Americans have to imprison or kill more and more Iraqis in order to impose the freedom we think they should be thanking us for.
Virtually everyone who has written on Whitman and imperialism or colonialism or expansionism or hegemonic discourse—and there have been numerous illuminating studies in the past two decades—comes up against some version of this unavoidable paradox: the poet who celebrates diversity, multiple identities, and democratic tolerance can sometimes seem awfully damned hegemonic. The democratic lover can be downright pushy: he is, as he says, “around, tenacious, acquisitive, tireless . . . . and can never be shaken away.” Here’s where the Bush Whitman and the Clinton Whitman seem to converge, in that dark borderland of America where the big, boisterous, generous democratic “I” meets the Other and decides, without asking, to make the Other a part of the I. There’s a sexual valence to this dynamic and an imperialist one as well. Back in 1986, Doris Sommer, in her essay called “Supplying Demand: Walt Whitman and the Liberal Self,” examined the poet’s “absorption of difference,” identifying this as “the feature that appears to result in a political ambiguity between a democratic embrace through the leveling of relationships and an imperialist, centralizing thrust that denies difference and autonomy.” Whitman, Sommer warns, “will love you, but he may love you to death.”
Betsy Erkkila defined the problem elegantly: “The paradox of Whitman’s poetic democracy is that, at the very moment when he seeks to be most inclusive, universal, and democratic, his poetry becomes most powerful—and most powerfully dangerous—in silencing and denying the rights, liberties, and differences of others.” “We have not come fully to terms with the extent to which his bound-breaking work is simultaneously bound up with the paradoxical promise and limits, hope and blood violence that mark the history of American democracy,” writes Erkkila. Awareness of this paradox goes back a long way. Thomas Mann’s son, Klaus Mann, wrote in 1941 about Whitman that “in many cases both elements—the spirit of nationalistic expansion and the spirit of universal solidarity—overlap and interfuse together.” Even Mauricio González de la Garza’s 1971 book, aggressively entitled Walt Whitman: Racista, Imperialista, Antimexicano, puzzles over how this “hombre contradictorio” could write such internationally inflected poetry while holding such imperialistic attitudes in his journalism. And Kerry Larson has written an entire book investigating one aspect of this paradox, what he calls Whitman’s “conservative radicalism,” exploring how this tension manifests itself in the very fabric of Whitman’s poetry, in his familiar addresses to the reader that “simultaneously extend the promise of conversational intimacy at the same time they are driven to insist upon a textual authority that barricades itself against all scrutiny.” Here we have it: Whitman the cozy intimate, wanting to share your most inexpressible desires as he invites you to create his poem; and Whitman the tyrant, who tells you what you must do in order to even begin to understand him. All of us who have read Whitman have felt that touch of Whitman’s hand, that violation, that release, that liberation, that incarceration, that caress, that reprimand.
Since this paradox defines a crucial aspect of both Clinton’s Whitman and Bush’s Whitman, it is important to try to figure out just what Whitman actually was up to by embedding such a contradiction so deeply and inextricably into his work. As is so often the case with this poet who celebrated contradiction, the crucial thing for Whitman was to keep the contradiction in play, to keep the tension alive, never to let the rubber band break (as Brooks does) between “sympathy” and “pride”: the soul, Whitman says, “has sympathy as measureless as its pride and the one balances the other and neither can stretch too far while it stretches in company with the other. The inmost secrets of art sleep with the twain. The greatest poet has lain close betwixt both and they are vital in his style and thoughts.” This is the great tension on which democracy is based, a valuing of the individual but an equal valuing of all individuals and the society that joins them: “One’s-Self I sing, a simple separate person, / Yet utter the word Democratic, the word En-Masse,” as Whitman puts it in the very first poem of his final edition of Leaves. That’s what Democratic Vistas and most of the rest of Whitman is about—finding a way to value the self without devaluing others, to value others without devaluing the self. It’s the yin and yang of American political life: leave me alone, please don’t leave me alone. Keeping this impossible tension vital and alive is what the history of democracy, in Whitman’s eyes, is.
So it is instructive to listen to one of those surprising comments Whitman made late in his life while talking to his young disciple, Horace Traubel. Traubel had just made a casual comment about “America,” by which he meant the United States. Whitman gently reprimands Traubel: “How is it, Horace—are we America? In Canada I was always astonished to hear people speak of us as Americans—as if they were not as really American as we were. . . . Of course there is no difference at all—we all acknowledge it—and yet we go on calling ourselves exclusively American at somebody else’s expense. Why not all American—the Canadian, the Mexican, the Panamanian, the Nicaraguan—what-not! . . . It affords an astonishing instance of how corruptions get legitimized—gain currency—become orthodox and are defended” (italics mine).
It’s a bit of a shock to hear Whitman in 1889 already anticipating the distinction between “American literature” and “United States literature,” as we’ve become at least partially accustomed to saying it over the last couple of decades. And it’s revealing to know that Whitman at some level meant the adjective “American” to mean something beyond the borders of the U.S., moving north into Canada and south into Mexico and on down Latin America, embracing South American countries. Such a geographical reach for a term that most citizens of this country—then and now—hear as a synonym for the United States creates a palpable cultural tension, as if the term itself is at once imperialistic and anti-imperialistic. We can hardly hear a suggestion that Canadians and Nicaraguans should be “American” just like those in the United States, without hearing a kind of jingoist edge. But just how did Whitman conceive that, as he says, our “calling ourselves exclusively American” always comes at “somebody else’s expense”?
The opening word of the first edition of Leaves of Grass is “America,” as Whitman begins his preface with this odd image: “America does not repel the past or what it has produced under its forms or amid other politics or the idea of castes or the old religions . . . . accepts the lesson with calmness . . . . [. . .] perceives that the corpse is slowly borne from the eating and sleeping rooms of the house.” Whitman begins the second paragraph of his preface with an equally intriguing formulation of “America,” claiming that “The Americans of all nations at any time upon the earth have probably the fullest poetical nature.” We can hear this sentence of course in a couple of ways—“out of all the nations on earth, Americans have the fullest poetical nature,” or, “Americans of all nations” have the fullest poetical nature. In the first reading, “America” is synonymous with the “United States,” but in the second “America” designates not a nation but a quality—here a quality that nurtures the poetic nature—available in all nations.
Whitman uses “America” as a noun five times in the 1855 preface, and he puts it in a kind of creative tension with the term “United States,” which he uses four times, all in the first two pages, while “America,” after opening the preface, does not reappear again until the end of the essay. It’s the “United States,” he tells us, that “are essentially the greatest poem,” and it is the greatest poem because “here is not merely a nation but a teeming nation of nations.” In that phrase we can hear an affirmation of states’ rights, each state in the expanding nation retaining its own independence, and we can also hear a celebration of the country’s immigrant base, its citizens all from other nations. “United States” was always a kind of fluid pun for Whitman, who would argue that we are, every one of us, “united states” of being, a single identity composed of endless contradictions, conflicting states that somehow form a single self, a self that in a democracy needs to be able to identify with all the other selves in the en-masse.
But it’s interesting that in the preface, Whitman tends to attach the term “United States” to specific aspects of the country he lived in: “the genius of the United States,” he says, “is not best or most in its executives or legislatures [ . . .] but always most in the common people.” But when it’s a quality that transcends the nation as he knew it, the United States of the mid-nineteenth century, the term shifts to “America”: “America is the race of races,” he says, and we can hear in the shift the way that “America” now inflects toward a wider geography and a wider history than the “United States.” It’s the “United States,” he tells us, that “most need poets,” but these poets, he says later, “shall arise in America and be responded to from the remainder of the earth.” “America” is a word that for Whitman has valences that tend to attract places outside the United States. There’s nothing systematic or formulaic in Whitman’s usage here, but it’s an insistence that builds through his multiple usage of these two terms.
The “United States” is for Whitman, then, a specific expanding nation-state, growing by absorbing semi-independent new states and becoming a nation of nations in at least two ways, but “America” is something different—a projection of the future, something the United States is a part of, but something that names a wider set of qualities and possibilities, spawned by the various nations of the world sending explorers, settlers, emigrants, to mix and meld and form something new named “America.” So, on the first page of the preface, Whitman is careful to point out that the revolutionary development in the New World is not just the United States but what has “transpired” in “North and South America.”
“America,” then, is another one of those Whitmanian terms with an incomplete definition. He had a number of such terms. One of them was “democracy,” “a word the real gist of which still sleeps,” he wrote, “quite unawaken’d, . . . . It is a great word, whose history, I suppose, remains unwritten, because that history has yet to be enacted.” The United States may claim the word “democracy” as part of its definition, but Whitman insists it’s a word that actually must still wait for “America” to emerge, however large or international or multicultural or dispersed that thing might turn out to be. And when the United States arrogantly claims “America” as its own realized moniker, it does so, Whitman notes, at the “expense” of those other Americas that are emerging too.
Consider why Whitman became more and more interested in the translation of Leaves of Grass into other languages. His interest might have been fueled by his “pride” side, the hegemonic desire to have Leaves take over the world poetically, or it might have been a more sympathetic desire, as he once expressed to a potential Russian translator: “You Russians and we Americans;—our countries so distant, so unlike at first glance—such a difference in social and political conditions, and our respective methods of moral and practical development the last hundred years;—and yet in certain features, and vastest ones, so resembling each other. . . . And as my dearest dream is for an internationality of poems and poets binding the lands of the earth closer than all treaties or diplomacy—As the purpose beneath the rest in my book is such hearty comradeship for individuals to begin with, and for all the Nations of the earth as a result—how happy indeed I shall be to get the hearing and emotional contact of the great Russian peoples!” Or to one of his first German translators: “It has not been for my own country alone—ambitious as the saying so may seem—that I have composed that work. It has been to practically start an internationality of poems. The final aim of the United States of America is the solidarity of the world. . . . One purpose of my chants is to cordially salute all foreign lands in America’s name.”
Phrases like “saluting all foreign lands in America’s name” cannot help but sound ominous to us today, to rhyme somehow with the occupation of Iraq. But this returns us to the heart of the paradox of Whitman’s internationalist work: note he is “saluting” the lands in America’s name, and note too that in his letter to the Russian translator, he employs the full phrase “United States of America”—something he does very rarely—only in juxtaposition with the phrase “the solidarity of the world,” as if the United States could embrace “America” only when something like the solidarity of the world would be achieved. All I’m suggesting, finally, is that Whitman heard something in the term “America” that we do not hear today, in part because the term has been so fully appropriated by the United States as a synonym for itself, “at somebody else’s expense,” as Whitman would remind us. “America,” for Whitman, had something to do with “joining” and “uniting,” and there can’t be joining and uniting without expansion—and so the double-edge keeps emerging in the interstices of the buried tropes of our language. Whitman is always ripe for appropriation by a president with designs on an intern or on infidels.
What has interested me over the decades I’ve been tracking Whitman’s influence on and existence in other cultures is that almost all countries have a dual tradition in absorbing Whitman. He enters most cultures as both invader and immigrant, as the confident, pushy, overwhelming representative of his nation, as the large and inscrutable voice of the United States; and as the intimate, inviting, submissive, endlessly malleable immigrant, whose work gets absorbed and rewritten in some surprising ways. In this country, we have tended in recent decades to nationalize Whitman, to read him mostly as a source for understanding our cultural evolution, our attitudes toward sexuality, gender, democracy, expansionism, urbanization, class, and so on. That Whitman translates to other cultures, but usually to the academic elite of those cultures, who read Leaves in English and study American history and culture. The other Whitman is more of a naturalized figure, part of a popular tradition, who takes up a new citizenship and gets read right into various native cultural traditions, often argued with or reinterpreted in ways that seem alien to most American readers. So we get books in India that read Leaves of Grass as a kind of Western yoga discipline, as in O. K. Nambiar’s Mahayogi Walt Whitman, or that see him as a Western inheritor of Vedantic tradition. In China, he often is read as a modern connection to Taoism, as someone who reattached twentieth-century Chinese poets to the ancient texts of Lao-Tzu and Chuang-tzu. He also has been read in detail in China and in the former Soviet Union as a proto-socialist poet. It’s the cultural version of what Whitman demanded of each of his readers—“ 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.” So it is with each country that translates the work, as Whitman knew: what would get translated would be something new, something his text would furnish hints for while the original work itself would remain untranslatable. Leaves, in good democratic fashion, would eventually become something so vast it would incorporate all languages and traditions, altering them and simultaneously changed by them.
Finally, it’s worth noting that the Whitman poem that inevitably gets noticed in other countries is one that seldom gets discussed in this country, and, when it does, it is usually a source of some embarrassment. It’s Whitman’s “Poem of Salutation,” as he called it in 1856, changing its title, in a fumbling act of partial translation, to “Salut au Monde!” in 1860, as if to suggest that the poem was slipping off into another language even as it was being read. “What widens within you Walt Whitman?” the poet asks here, and answers, “Within me latitude widens, longitude lengthens,” as he creates catalogs answering the questions, “What do you hear Walt Whitman?” and “What do you see Walt Whitman?,” catalogs that extend around the globe, to all continents.
Irene Ramalho Santos has recently read Whitman’s “poetic effect” here as “pretty much that of an unfolding of subjectivity . . . which ends up totally encompassing its object.” “To be ‘ready’ for the Bard of America,” Ramalho Santos concludes, “is to have been ‘penetrated’ (the phallic metaphor is Whitman’s) by the ‘divine rapport’ of its all-encompassing, indeed, all-generating, spermatic imagination.” Walter Gruenzweig, however, hears the poem in a very different way and has offered a bracing internationalist reading of “Salut,” which he calls “Whitman’s most successful individual poem . . . from the point of view of the international reception to his work.” Gruenzweig views the poem as tied to Whitman’s enthusiasm for “the mid-century revolutionary movements” in Europe, showing how Whitman’s seemingly deaden-ing catalogs in fact work to “render insignificant the ‘official governmental map.’ Oceans, mountains, rivers, and peoples form natural entities reaching beyond and thus ignoring political borders and institutions. Borders play no role whatsoever; the world in Whitman’s poem is a liberated one.”
This is the poem that Jorge Luis Borges cited when he made his famous point about Whitman having created a singular fictional entity, a hero with a “threefold nature”: one being Walt Whitman, the biographical entity living in the United States in the nineteenth century, the second being a projected shadow of that man, also named Walt Whitman, “magnified by hope, by joy, by exultation,” and, finally, “also the reader, any reader, any one of his present or future readers. How this was done we shall never quite know. Whitman felt very keenly the strangeness of the link between the man who reads a book and the unknown or dead man who wrote it; this may have helped him to work the miracle he needed. He makes the reader speak to him: ‘What do you hear Walt Whitman?’” Whitman’s great feat, Borges says, was to make “the editor of the Brooklyn Daily Eagle into Walt Whitman, into America, into all of us,” and this “plan of making a character out of the writer and the reader,” Borges claims, “has not been attempted again; and, for all we know, it may be impossible.” Borges hears in the term “America” that broader projection, that desire that dissolves the United States into something larger. And so he hears the end of “Salut au Monde!” far differently than most of us today do, in a time when Bush’s Whitman is in the saddle:
Toward you all, in America’s name,
I raise high the perpendicular hand, I make the signal. . . .
There’s that familiar Whitman hand again, the American hand—welcoming, reprimanding, greeting, threatening, . . . saluting.
Some of the earliest proto-lines Whitman wrote for Leaves of Grass were these:
I am the poet of slaves and of the masters of slaves
I am the poet of the body
And I am
I am the poet of the body And I am the poet of the soul
I go with the slaves of the earth equally with the masters
And I will stand between the masters and the slaves,
Entering into both so that both shall understand me alike
I am the poet of Strength and Hope
From the beginning, Whitman was busy embedding deep in his work the impossible contradictions, and he always wedded opposites with his omnipresent “and.” He would not be the poet of slaves nor the poet of masters, but rather only the poet of slaves and masters. Whatever democratic voice he invented would have to speak for both, or it was doomed to be partial and thus not representative. And to stand between masters and slaves, of course, was to stand in a politically and sexually charged space, historically a place of rape and torture, but a place also where mixing and hybridity began. There’s no easy space to inhabit in American history, and Whitman was courageous enough to insist on speaking for the full range, from the most powerful to the powerless, and to recognize that there are no slaves without slavemasters, no slavemasters without slaves, and that only when every individual begins to recognize the slave and the slavemaster within himself or herself will a democratic voice begin to merge and emerge.
But since Whitman built his poetry on maintaining the contradictions (and setting up a dynamic) between strength and hope, the individual and the en masse, pride and sympathy, the United States and America, there was always the risk that he would be read partially, heard simply as the poet of strength, individuality, pride, and the United States, or simply as the poet of hope, camaraderie, sympathy, and something more inclusive than the U. S. that we might call America. So American history continues its wild, unending fluctuation between celebrating the rights of the individual and celebrating the rights of the diverse multitude, between favoring the strong and favoring the weak, between coercing people into freedom and freeing people from coercion, between turning red and turning blue, between the Bush Whitman and the Clinton Whitman and all the other partial Whitmans that keep appearing like broken talismans in the troubled evolution of the United States of America.