To contemplate Walt Whitman now, at the dawn of a new millennium in an America so deeply troubled by division and hypocrisy—almost the antithesis of the great nation of inclusion and tolerance he envisioned in Leaves of Grass—is intensely ironic indeed. Instead of his beloved Abraham Lincoln, the president who defended the freedom and integrity of the United States against the perpetuation of the odious institution of slavery, we now have in office a president who, buoyed by unanimous support from the very same states that once sought to secede from the Union, seeks to do the reverse, by enshrining discrimination against another oppressed minority in the Constitution. The unrefined, countrified Lincoln, disdained by the high society of the Capitol, was said to have admired Whitman’s poetry, and after his untimely death he was eulogized in the poet’s greatest work, “When Lilacs Last in the Dooryard Bloom’d”; the current occupant of the White House instead proclaims his suspicion of the arts with a down-home swagger that suggests that the celebration of narrow-mindedness, and not the quest for more enlightened mutual understanding, should be the democratic leader’s response to ugly elitism.
Whitman, whose expansive voice once helped to define the optimism and vitality of a young nation of what seemed then limitless potential, was not too insecure in his masculinity to stoop to serve wounded soldiers who fought in the Civil War. The conditions of the field hospitals in and around Washington, D.C., where he worked as nurse were deplorable: naked corpses decayed in fetid piles at the entrance to one, and alongside another ran a canal choked with the raw sewage and amputated limbs of its war-ravaged inmates. In his shocking poem “The Dresser,” he writes,
Bearing the bandages, water and sponge,
Straight and swift to the wounded I go,
Where they lie on the ground, after the battle brought in;
Where their priceless blood reddens the grass, the ground;
Or to the rows of the hospital tent, or under the roof’d hospital;
To the long rows of cots, up and down, each side, I return;
To each and all, one after another, I draw near—not one do I miss;
An attendant follows, holding a tray—he carries a refuse pail,
Soon to be fill’d with clotted rags and blood, emptied, and fill’d again.
I onward go, I stop,
With hinged knees and steady hand, to dress wounds;
I am firm with each—the pangs are sharp, yet unavoidable;
One turns to me with his appealing eyes—(poor boy! I never knew you,
Yet I think I could not refuse this moment to die for you if that would
It is impossible to know exactly what Whitman, champion of manly love and corporeal perfection, thought of the unimaginable suffering he saw inscribed upon these beautiful, mangled bodies. Something of his disbelief, of his refusal to accept man’s inhumanity to man, seems to be preserved in that last long line, that lingering desire not to let go.
Perhaps he also felt something akin to what I did as a young gay man caring for dying AIDS patients on the wards of San Francisco General Hospital during a more recent time of crisis: that these horrible deaths might somehow be retold and redeemed in the endless larger narrative of our struggle to be a better people. Whitman, whose abiding love of humanity is enacted in “The Dresser” in his refusal to look away from even the most degraded body, surely knew that in the empathetic poem lay a chance to transform physical pain into a healthier moral consciousness; he knew that while the suffering of another person could never be fully comprehended, it was his duty to serve as a conduit to the possibility of abjection, to allow us into closest proximity to the disgusting, needy, miserable other. (It is remarkable how the speaker, though he tends to the awful wounds, never really sanitizes them, nor does he displace with his poem the soldiers’ pain with an artificial monument to their heroism—but rather, on the contrary, in the ebbing and flowing of the mostly end-stopped lines, plainly and strikingly represents the pattern of their agonal breathing.) This genuinely Christian notion—ultimately, to give my own life to save yours—is the true sage’s gift to the world. Let us return to Whitman now, proud American, matchless poet, and brave healer, to be reminded during these dark times so inimitably of this invincible hope.