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Whitman in Selected Anthologies: The Politics of His Afterlife

ISSUE:  Spring 2005

One extraordinary feature of Whitman’s legacy is the variety of causes to which he has been summoned to lend support. The treatment of Whitman in mainstream academic anthologies aimed at U.S. high school and college students is a subject worthy of discussion on another occasion. Here I focus on the political uses of Whitman in anthologies intended for audiences outside U.S. schools and colleges—anthologies intended for workers and farmers, for soldiers, for children, for international students, and for a general American audience traumatized by the attacks on New York and Washington on September 11, 2001. There are five publishing efforts in particular I wish to examine: first, several Whitman publications from the early 1920s in the “Little Blue Books” series brought out by the socialist publisher Emanuel Haldeman-Julius (1889–1951); second, the Armed Services Editions (ASE) volume A Wartime Whitman (n.d. [1945]) and the accompanying ASE version of Henry Seidel Canby’s biography of Whitman (n.d. [1944]); third, Langston Hughes’s anthology for children, I Hear the People Singing (1946), which I contextualize by considering also his Poetry of the Negro (1949); fourth, a United States Information Agency (USIA) booklet, Walt Whitman: Poet of Democracy (1970); and fifth, a post-9/11 anthology, I Hear America Singing: Poems of Democracy, Manhattan, and the Future (2001). These five publishing efforts offer us a way to highlight central issues about Leaves of Grass and the public and—given the variety of political purposes underpinning them—about Whitman’s malleability. They clarify how Whitman has become a touchstone for addressing questions regarding the nature of the future and of democracy.

1. Haldeman-Julius and the “Little Blue Books”

In the first half of the 20th century a remarkable publishing experiment reached out to new audiences and expanded the reading public dramatically. The “Little Blue Books” series of Emanuel Haldeman-Julius, based in Girard, Kansas, sold a huge number of books: his series ran to almost 2,000 numbered items and sold at least 300 million copies, perhaps as many as 500 million. Flourishing primarily in the interwar years, Haldeman-Julius managed to make money selling books at 10 cents apiece, later 5 cents a piece, and even at his rock-bottom price of 2.5 cents apiece (a limited-time offer made in 1942). Harry Golden underscored the accomplishment of Haldeman-Julius with a prediction: “No other publisher will ever create so wide a reading audience” (foreword to The World of Haldeman-Julius [1960], 7). The audience for the “Little Blue Books” was primarily working-class. These books were especially popular in small towns and rural areas of the U.S., but they were read in the entire English-speaking world. Admiral Richard Byrd, for example, took 1,500 “Little Blue Books” with him on his expedition to the South Pole, and Emperor Haile Selassie of Ethiopia counted himself a Haldeman-Julius customer, too.

Despite being an intriguing and important phenomenon, as these figures suggest, the Haldeman-Julius “Little Blue Books” series has been little studied, so some background information and fairly extensive treatment here are in order. Emanuel Julius’s father was a Russian Jewish immigrant who worked as a bookbinder in Philadelphia. Emanuel left school at thirteen but continued to educate himself through his work in the newspaper business. He held numerous jobs with socialist papers and came to know a wide range of people, including Horace Traubel, the devoted companion of Whitman’s final years and the author of what would become the nine-volume With Walt Whitman in Camden. In 1915 Louis Kopelin, managing editor of the socialist paper the Appeal to Reason, invited Julius west to the tiny town of Girard, Kansas, population 3,000. There Kopelin and others published a weekly newspaper that had a huge circulation, reaching as high as 400,000. The Appeal was easily the largest socialist journal in the country and probably the most widely circulated weekly paper in the world. The Appeal had recently fallen on hard times because of the suicide of its publisher, Julius Wayland, and because of editorial ambivalence regarding U.S. involvement in World War I. (The Appeal would fall on even harder times when new laws prohibited its distribution through the mail.) Emanuel Julius became Emanuel Haldeman-Julius shortly after he married Marcet Haldeman, an heiress and daughter of the local bank owner in Girard. Socialists with means, they were sufficiently committed ideologically to support various causes, including a struggling socialist experiment in Fallon, Nevada.

With the advantage of Marcet’s money, the couple purchased the major interest in the Appeal to Reason. The large circulation of that periodical meant that Haldeman-Julius had in place printing services capable of handling high volume. When Haldeman-Julius initiated his book publishing series in 1919, he depicted the new enterprise as a battle against “muddled thinking” and the “poisoned books” of the “capitalist book publishers.” Haldeman-Julius tried various names—“Appeal’s Pocket Series,” “People’s Pocket Series,” “Ten Cent Pocket Series,” “Pocket Series,” and “Five Cent Pocket Series”—before finally settling on “Little Blue Books.” Haldeman-Julius published what he called “mind-liberating books.” (That he himself became a capitalist publisher who enjoyed displaying his large acreage, his fine house on the edge of town, his registered cattle, his taste for fine cigars, and his expensive car was not the sort of contradiction that troubled Haldeman-Julius.)

His publishing record reflects an evolving politics. Haldeman-Julius’s commitment to leftist politics was most notable early in the series: item 4, for example, is the Soviet Constitution. Interestingly, all of his Whitman titles appeared in the first few years of his publishing career. Early in his publishing life he advocated collective ownership of the railroads and in other ways remained close to the party line. Over time Haldeman-Julius would become a New Deal Democrat; he toned down his most radical views, and he began to shift emphasis to the education of workers, developing the series he dubbed a “university in print.” In some of the full-page ads he took out in major daily newspapers, he asked: “Would you buy a college education for $2.98?” Haldeman-Julius both imitated and departed from the approach of the Harvard Classics Series (1910), also known as the “Five-Foot Shelf of Books.” Charles W. Eliot had promised the knowledge “essential to the . . . idea of a cultivated man” and claimed that fifteen minutes a day of reading from a five-foot shelf could offer a “picture of the progress of the human race within historical times.” He encouraged a “taste for serious reading of the highest quality.” To own the Harvard series—or any of its other imitators except Haldeman-Julius—provided an opportunity to showcase books in the home and underlined the premium a family placed on taste and refinement. Haldeman-Julius, in contrast, avoided words like “highest quality” in characterizing his series. He did not try to appeal to those seeking to rise in social standing by the impressiveness of their bookshelf. He proudly noted instead that no one bought “Little Blue Books” as display pieces.

Haldeman-Julius’s business reprinted old work and also commissioned new work. Overall, he created a list that was an extraordinary mix of literary classics, self-help books, atheist and socialist polemics, and what he called “sexology”—accounts of sex, love, psychology, and marriage. (He recognized that he could improve the sales of Guy de Maupassant’s The Tallow Ball merely by offering it under the title A French Prostitute’s Sacrifice and of Theophile Gautier’s Fleece of Gold by renaming it The Quest for a Blonde Mistress.) Haldeman-Julius conducted his entire business through the mail, and the volume was such that Girard, Kansas, soon merited a Class A post office.

Haldeman-Julius held that ordinary people with little exposure to elite culture would read good literature if it were presented with their needs in mind: if it were brief enough for work-filled lives, if it fit in a trouser or apron pocket, and if it were inexpensive. (Whitman, too, once hoped that ordinary workers would slip a copy of the rather fat 1856 Leaves of Grass in a pocket and enjoy it during a break.) As early as 1924 Haldeman-Julius had acquired a cylinder press, enabling him to print 40,000 “Little Blue Books” in an eight-hour period. However, this required an unvarying 3½ x 5” product. Books were produced two-up, creating the curious bibliographical oddity that two distinct books both stemmed from one impression. The books were cut apart horizontally after printing. Thus a book by Ibsen might be part of the same impression as Confidential Chats with Husbands and would need to be precisely the same length and would, of course, have an identical print run. Only the words were different: in every other way these books were identical in appearance, so there were no visual clues to suggest that they shouldn’t be taken with equal seriousness. The number of pages of any of the Haldeman-Julius “Little Blue Books” was set by the number of signatures: the most common lengths were 32, 64, and 128 pages. The largest “Little Blue Books” contain 30,000 words. Haldeman-Julius was able to democratize literature but only by reducing it to objects that were strictly uniform in all external features. A Haldeman-Julius book didn’t look much like an ordinary book. Undersized, in lightweight paper wrappers, stapled together, this was a book to read rather than to covet.

The series contributed to the great interwar passion for self-improvement. A sampling of titles is revealing: How to Build Your Own Greenhouse, How to Get the Most Out of Walking, How to Get a Divorce, How to Make Money in Wall Street, How to Be Happy Though Married, How the Army and Navy Fight Venereal Disease, Conquer Stupidity. Fluff and practicality, silliness and titillation—one could find almost anything in the Haldeman-Julius series. Much, however, was of genuine importance. The “Little Blue Books” were a significant force in the education of many midwestern and southern radicals. If Haldeman-Julius backed away from organized socialism, his elasticity (or lack of intellectual rigor) opened a space for an intriguing variety of political offerings. Remaining always the champion of views that were marginalized, progressive, and potentially marketable, Haldeman-Julius published a wide array of radical thinkers who in some cases had no other means of reaching a mass audience. For example, he published both important responses to the anti-immigration movement and Margaret Sanger on birth control, What Every Girl Should Know. On at least one occasion Haldeman-Julius used a Whitman book to advertise this Sanger title (on the inside front cover, facing the title page, of People’s Pocket Series #73, Walt Whitman’s Poems; copy owned by Jay Grossman). This conjunction of Sanger and Whitman suggests that Haldeman-Julius perceived a connection between these two figures who shared an opposition to censorship and the Comstock laws and who both advocated a greater candor about and acceptance of sexuality.

The “Little Blue Books” also influenced the African-American community through W. E. B. DuBois’s praise of them in The Crisis. DuBois himself wrote two books for Haldeman-Julius: Africa: Its Geography, People and Products and Africa: Its Place in Modern History. Haldeman-Julius also published one of the first anthologies of African-American poetry. He also published books advocating racial intermarriage in the United States. The “Little Blue Books” contributed to African-American education and radicalization. Haldeman-Julius appeared to some to be an enemy of the state for a host of reasons, including his promotion of atheism and socialism and his troubling of the racial status quo. He made J. Edgar Hoover’s enemy list. And the FBI in turn made his list: he published Clifton Bennett’s The FBI: Basis of an American Police State; The Alarming Methods of J. Edgar Hoover (1948).

It is, then, in a context emphasizing socialism and openness about sexuality that Whitman appears in the “Little Blue Books.” Whitman scholars may be most familiar with the “Little Blue Books” through references to them in Walt Whitman: The Measure of His Song (1981; rev. ed., 1998). For instance, Meridel LeSueur remarks:

I remember when the “Little Blue Books” first published Whitman. . . . It was the publication of the workers and farmers. Most books were expensive and hard to get. These little books were blue and made to fit in the overall pocket so you could pull them out at work or at the plow and read. . . . A generation of American workers got their education from these. And they published some of Leaves of Grass to carry in your overall pocket. Walt should have been there, striding across Kansas, hearing the “Open Road” shouted from freight cars and cattle towns . . . and lonely farmers in the years of drought and ruin. Who can measure the wonder of such a thing. (423)

And Kenneth Patchen’s poem “The Orange Bears” (1949) invokes the Haldeman-Julius edition when he discusses the National Guard coming over from Wheeling to “stand in front of the millgates / With drawn bayonets jeering at the strikers.” As the speaker digs his thumbnail into the inexpensive cover (perhaps suggesting the fragility of his cause), he aligns Whitman, leftist politics, and peaceful resistance to coercive power.

The “Little Blue Books” include quite a variety of Whitman items. There are three different versions of #73: Walt Whitman’s Poems, Poems of Walt Whitman, and Best Poems of Walt Whitman. Other Whitman volumes include #299, Prose Nature Notes (set from Anne Traubel’s edited collection of Whitman entitled A Little Book of Nature Thoughts [1906], though lacking the last few pages), and #351, Memories of Lincoln. There was also a critical volume: #529, Emily Hamblen’s Walt Whitman: Bard of the West. In the first version of #73, Whitman is presented as a writer of short lyrics. There is no date of publication, no introduction, no table of contents, and no copyright notice (perhaps because Whitman’s poetry was under copyright until 1933). What we get are 102 poems (or parts of poems), with the selected texts following the Deathbed version. These are yanked out of order, so the dependence of meaning upon the original context—for example, the position of a poem within a cluster—is lost. This particular volume also makes no use of italic type, altering the meaning of Whitman’s poems in subtle but important ways. In addition, complex patterns of indentation, as with “O Captain! My Captain!” are ignored, and the volume doesn’t use section numbers. Most of Whitman’s longer and more famous works are left out altogether: this volume contains no “Song of Myself,” “Out of the Cradle Endlessly Rocking,” “Crossing Brooklyn Ferry,” or “Passage to India.” The longest poem included here in full is “I Sing the Body Electric.” The volume has historic significance as one of the earliest anthologies to present Whitman the short lyricist, though it never articulates that as an ambition. Whoever chose the poems for the Haldeman-Julius volume seems to have been guided heavily by length considerations.

Poems of Walt Whitman
—an altogether different text but also numbered 73—announces itself as “Edited, with Introduction and Notes, by Nelson Antrim Crawford.” This booklet is copyrighted 1924 by the Haldeman-Julius company (though the only material that could legitimately be copyrighted was Crawford’s contributions). It has features that the first version of #73 lacks: a table of contents, an introduction, and extended excerpts from Whitman’s longer poems. Without noting the fact, this volume of Whitman’s poetry relies on the 1872 version of Leaves (probably for copyright reasons). Thus we get assorted sections of the poem “Walt Whitman” rather than, as it was later called, “Song of Myself.” This volume presents the full range of Whitman’s work and offers a fairly routine sampling. In addition to “Walt Whitman,” Crawford offers “Out of the Cradle Endlessly Rocking,” “Come Up from the Fields, Father,” and many short lyrics, including a variety of “Calamus” poems. He mentions in his introduction “comradeship between persons of the same sex,” but he veers away from any serious consideration of the issue: “The erotic implications of the latter form a problem for the psychologist more than for the literary critic” (19).

Today we may wonder exactly how Haldeman-Julius, self-professed purveyor of “sexology,” regarded and depicted the poet of the body, of “manly love,” and of “calamus.” Haldeman-Julius wrote an essay entitled “Horace Traubel” late in his life (sometime between 1946 and his death in 1951), in which he addresses Whitman’s sexuality. He reports that Traubel urged him to wear “a soft hat, and get a flowing Windsor tie.” Haldeman-Julius says that he obeyed and wore the tie for some months until he “learned that Philadelphia’s street loafers let it be known that anyone who wore a Windsor tie must be a fairy, a queer, a pansy, a fruiter, a queen, a belle, a nance, and whatever other words they used to describe a homo” (The World of Haldeman-Julius, 94). Later in the essay he speaks directly about Whitman’s sexuality: “One didn’t have to ask Whitman. The poems themselves were plain enough. But Traubel avoided a direct answer. Later it came out that Whitman, in his New York days, was an aggressive chaser after truck-drivers, drivers of horse cars, and extremely mannish trade in general. He liked them big, masculine, and sweaty—what today’s homos call ‘rough trade’” (95). Haldeman-Julius personally regarded Whitman as a homosexual poet, but he didn’t choose to market him that way at any time between the early 1920s and his death in 1951. Instead, he chose to market Whitman in other ways: for example, as the elegiac poet in volume #351, Memories of Lincoln (n.d. [1923]).

Haldeman-Julius cared enough about Whitman—or concluded he was enough of a sales magnet—to justify a critical study of him, Emily S. Hamblen’s Walt Whitman: Bard of the West (1924). Significantly, this volume came out in the same year as Poems of Walt Whitman, edited by Crawford, discussed above. Hamblen produced a worthwhile study that deserves to be better known. She thinks of Whitman as being akin to Homer, who “inserted a canvas upon which his people recognized their own native habit, the direction of their social tendencies, the scope of their relations to Nature and the destiny of their genius” (5). She sees prophetic powers in Whitman: “What he finds in heaven and upon earth of significance and splendor he throws, not back upon the past to illumine history, but forward into the future to irradiate the paths that lead thereto” (7). She applauds Whitman’s thoroughgoing commitment to democracy and its denial of privilege. In Leaves of Grass she finds “No more songs for the tyrant, the imperator, the king, the feudal lord or family, the general or the knight. Romance is dead. Long live Romance, born again in the homes and the workshops of the People” (11). Hamblen even manages to plug the “Little Blue Books” series itself in discussing “Starting from Paumanok”: “As though foreseeing the great Girard educational plan, the poet predicts that the general chants will go ‘forth from the center from Kansas, and thence equidistant / Shooting in pulses of fire ceaseless to vivify all’” (18). Like Nelson Antrim Crawford, she is reluctant to read the “Calamus” section as being about anything other than “spiritual comradeship” (38). But to her credit, she perceives the centrality of affectionate bonds to Whitman’s political thinking: “the basis of American civilization is to be companionship, a new ideal of ‘manly love’” (18–19).

Meridel LeSueur, marveling herself over the Haldeman-Julius publishing enterprise, said: “Walt should have been there.” Well, what if he had been? What would Whitman have thought of the “Little Blue Books”? In presenting Whitman’s poetry the “Little Blue Books” functioned in ways quite counter to Whitman’s purposes. As Martin Buinicki has recently written: “The greatest connection Whitman sought, of course, was with his readers. . . . When we consider Whitman, it becomes impossible to separate the process of monetary exchange and corporeal offering: as Whitman himself repeatedly suggests, it is exactly his body that he is offering for sale to his readers” (American Literary History [Summer 2003]: 257–58). The title page of the 1888 printing of Leaves of Grass declared that the text was an “Authenticated & Personal Book (handled by W. W.).” Whitman’s volumes were marked by personal resistance to the mechanized processes of print reproduction. This was a somewhat quixotic battle to take on, but Whitman did so anyway (think of him signing, one by one, the individual copies of the 1876 Leaves of Grass, for example). Whitman gravitated toward handsome bookmaking even if it kept the price of his books somewhat high rather than toward sheer distribution of content at the lowest cost. In terms of actual (largely self-) publishing practice, Whitman tended toward the dear rather than the cheap. Whitman was at odds with some key long-term trends in publishing. While those trends led to an increased division of labor, the erosion of printing as a craft, the mechanization of book and newspaper production, the separation between ownership and management, the growth of advertising and marketing, and the subjection of authors to the power of editors and booksellers, Whitman harked back to a craft-centered ideal of a bookmaker who controlled all aspects of his creation from the words on the page to the design of the book as an object or artifact. In short, for scholars interested in Whitman from a Book History perspective, the mass-produced Haldeman-Julius volumes help highlight, by their stripping books of all distinctive adornments, the personalized, hand-crafted, and somewhat expensive nature of Whitman’s full textual production, including both verbal and nonverbal features. Whether Whitman’s poetry has different meanings in, say, one of his own texts produced by publishers he worked with personally—for example, Thayer and Eldridge or David McKay—as opposed to a Haldeman-Julius volume, or any modern reprint short of a facsimile edition, is a good question. The answer depends on our fundamental assumptions about textuality. Is meaning finally independent of the vehicle or container? Or is the text a combination of semantic and bibliographic codes, with the full meaning only received when one absorbs, in addition to lexical content, covers, typeface, margins, ornamentation, leading, etc.?

Whitman’s desire to be a poet absorbed by his country “as affectionately as he has absorbed it” exists in tension with his pricing and book production practices. This tension would remain invisible to that portion of the Haldeman-Julius audience who knew Whitman only through the “Little Blue Books.” No doubt it was a service to readers to offer a version of Whitman so inexpensively. But that version was rather far from the book as designed by Whitman. Of course, the same shortcoming characterized most reprintings of Whitman in the 20th century.

What do Whitman’s book publishing practices mean in terms of commitment to a democratic readership? Clearly Whitman wasn’t always opposed to spreading Leaves around cheaply or even freely. His enthusiastic response to a proposed Russian translation, for example, mentions neither copyright nor payments. Moreover, Whitman was willing to entertain, in his conversations with Horace Traubel, something that seems uncannily to predict the “Little Blue Books”: Traubel says, “We discussed the point—why not some time issue an edition of L. of G. in small vols, for pocket wear and tear? Song of Myself, Children of Adam, &c. &c., in separate books? W. believed in it. ‘It has long been my ambition to bring out an edition of Leaves of Grass with margins cut close, paper cover: some book rid of the usual cumbersome features. . . . It is a theory to be seriously considered: now it is perhaps too late: but others may one day think of it—act on it’” (With Walt Whitman in Camden, 3:258–59). This comment is not easy to gloss. If it had been Whitman’s “long” ambition, I wonder why he didn’t try the experiment, given the multitude of other ways in which he presented Leaves of Grass. It may be noteworthy, too, that it was Traubel who first broached the topic. Also, if Whitman in fact regarded those features as “cumbersome,” why did he labor so long over them and make sure they were included in his books, thereby driving up the price?

Near the end of his life Haldeman-Julius wrote his own epitaph:

At the close of the 20th Century some flea-bitten, sun-bleached, fly-specked, rat-gnawed, dandruff-sprinkled professor of literature is going to write a five-volume history of the books of our century. In it a chapter will be devoted to publishers and editors of books, and in that chapter perhaps a footnote will be given to me. It might say that I was a competent editor, shrewd salesman, daring advertiser, and able publisher; that I edited thousands of books; that I sold hundreds of millions of copies, and usefully served a portion of my generation with fairness, sincerity, and intelligence. It might mention my forthright attacks on all forms of Supernaturalism, Mysticism, Fundamentalism, and respectable and dignified bunk in general. It may even go so far as to say that I changed the reading habits of America and created millions of new readers for the book publishers who followed me. (quoted in Harry Golden, “Haldeman-Julius: The Success that Failed,” Midstream [Spring 1957]: 28)

The large number of Whitman titles in the “Little Blue Books” series indicates that Haldeman-Julius saw the poet as a sympathetic figure who was compatible with his own views on religion, politics, and sexuality. Explicit comments from Haldeman-Julius about Whitman are scarce, though some advertising copy in the “Ten Cent Pocket Series” is revealing: “Walt Whitman not only created a finely expressive new style in poetry, but he created a new conception of universality in the subjects of his poetical pictures. The lowliest, the most revolting, objects in nature, Whitman described along with the rest—‘Not till the sun excludes you, will I exclude you,’ he wrote.” This remark is consistent with Haldeman-Julius’s interest in the downtrodden. We can also infer his sympathy with the poet by comparing his recurrent Whitman publications to his complete neglect of a poet of comparable stature, Emily Dickinson, presumably because he found her allegiances less appealing and because he doubted that she had sales potential approaching that of Whitman. In contrast, Haldeman-Julius warmed to Whitman’s direct political engagement, his role as a champion of the common people, and his articulation of what America could become.

2. The World War II Armed Services Edition of A Wartime Whitman

Haldeman-Julius distributed Whitman books cheaply, but he could not match the absolutely free distribution of the World War II Armed Services Editions. The ASE, a series overseen by the Library Section, a division of the Morale Branch in the U.S. War Department, issued A Wartime Whitman in 1945. The Armed Services Editions have been called the largest book giveaway in history and paved the way, after the war, for the mass-market paperback movement. In this case, the audience was U.S. soldiers stationed overseas—many of these soldiers had not been enticed by reading before, but now they found themselves with time on their hands and little entertainment. The Library Section decided by 1942 that a new type of book was needed for American soldiers. (They had been relying on hardbacks.) They needed books compact enough for a GI’s pocket, appealing to varied readers, and cheap to produce. A key discovery was that the rotary presses used for large-circulation magazines were available between issues. This fact made possible the ASE volumes, produced as oblong softcover books. Interestingly, the ASE publications used precisely the same technique Haldeman-Julius had: printing two-up and then cutting horizontally. It seems likely that the ASE technique was inspired by Haldeman-Julius.

The Council on Books in Wartime wanted the full support of the publishing community. So they insisted—even to those who volunteered to forgo royalties—that one cent per copy would be paid to the author and publisher. Given that press runs were of 100,000 copies or more, this had significance. These were huge press runs for writers and publishers used to much smaller circulation figures. Some publishers worried that these volumes would flood the market after the war, but these paperbacks were designed, if not exactly to self-destruct, at least not to last. The series published classic and contemporary literature, biographies, humor, and mysteries. Given a wartime context, it is noteworthy that few ASE books were censored or banned. (George Santayana’s The Last Puritan was barred as antidemocratic, and Zane Grey’s Riders of the Purple Sage was rejected because of its anti-Mormon rhetoric.)

A Wartime Whitman
was edited by Major William A. Aiken. In Aiken’s introduction, Whitman is presented as a poet who champions the American way of life that is being defended in the war. Interestingly, the introduction goes to some pains to make Whitman’s comradely love safe for the troops. In fact, Whitman becomes, in some ways, a suggestive heterosexual poet through strategic quoting of the poem ultimately entitled “Faces”: “Many will respond to the instant urge of Whitman’s woman as she stands by the picket fence and calls to her ‘limber-hipped’ man.” Eventually the introduction tiptoes toward the question of homosexuality and then quickly retreats, meanwhile jabbing at academics for their love of what is regarded as a sickness and for self-indulgent comforts during a time of danger: “The gulf between a man’s love of woman and the love he bears his fellow man is clearer to most Americans than it may sometimes seem in Whitman’s works; yet the soldier whose buddy lies dying in a foxhole at his side will understand this identification in the mind of the poet more readily than will the literary critic, with his passion for pathology, by the fireside at home” (9).

Compared to the Haldeman-Julius “Little Blue Books,” A Wartime Whitman is marked by a more obvious editorial intrusiveness. In A Wartime Whitman, the poet’s work is categorized into seven sections. The groupings are “America Singing,” “A Poet’s World,” “A Poet’s Love,” “Pioneers,” “War,” “Aftermath,” and “Toward the Future.” Not surprisingly, there is a whole section on war, generally emphasizing the common soldier and including the sea battle from “Song of Myself.” The credit line in A Wartime Whitman notes explicitly that the text is taken from Emory Holloway’s “Inclusive Edition” of Leaves of Grass, copyrighted by Doubleday, Doran, and Co. It would have been more accurate, however, to say that Holloway’s text is used as a basis for a wholesale reconfiguring of Whitman’s poetry. The renaming of Whitman’s poetry is reminiscent of the 1890s editions of Dickinson—and just as dubious. With no authority in either Whitman or Holloway, Aiken retitled sections of “Song of Myself” as if they were separate poems.

There was even a wartime biography of Whitman issued through the Armed Services Editions—Henry Seidel Canby’s Walt Whitman an American: A Study in Biography. As the front cover proclaimed, “This Is The Complete Book—Not A Digest.” The back cover indicates why the council thought the book might appeal to men at war:

Rubicund and tumultuously bearded, egotistical, publicity-mad, idolized by his friends, slandered or ignored by his contemporaries, Walt Whitman, the man who put sex back on to the printed page, was the problem child of American literature. But he was also the prophet and seer of democracy; a poet who made articulate the American dream and the American faith, and who created a new literary style to express himself and his country in poetry.

Canby’s treatment of “Calamus” was couched in ways that created no dilemmas for the ASE editors. Whitman’s adhesiveness is “sexual only in the images it engenders.” Canby emphasizes one aspect of Whitman’s hospital nursing, while ignoring the erotically charged nature of Whitman’s encounter with some soldiers: the “soldiers he loved in the hospitals, addressed as ‘son,’ and to whom he was both father and mother at their bedsides, were to be numbered by scores” (251).

The Whitman who emerges from the Armed Services Editions is a virile heterosexual man, a trumpeter of democracy, a person equivalent to a medic with direct experience with war, a fellow a GI wouldn’t mind sharing a foxhole with. Ironically, at the same time that a print-based “Whitman” was being shipped overseas to help with the war effort, another incarnation of “Whitman”—many of his original manuscripts—was being evacuated from the Library of Congress, trucked away for wartime safekeeping, a move that led to the loss of ten notebooks, only four of which have been subsequently recovered.

3. Langston Hughes and I Hear the People Singing

In 1946 International Publishers in New York brought out I Hear the People Singing: Selected Poems of Walt Whitman. The volume was introduced by Langston Hughes and illustrated by Alexander Dobkin and was intended for young readers. Hughes’s introductory essay, “The Ceaseless Rings of Walt Whitman,” describes Whitman as one of literature’s “great faithholders in human freedom” and notes that his “all-embracing words lock arms with workers and farmers, Negroes and whites, Asiatics and Europeans, serfs, and free men, beaming democracy to all” (8–9). Hughes indicates that it is because of Whitman’s all-accepting generosity that “many academic-minded intellectual isolationists in America have had little use for [him], and so have impeded his handclasp with today by keeping him imprisoned in silence on library shelves” (9). (Interestingly, academics again come in for criticism, as they did in Aiken’s introduction to A Wartime Whitman, though here more justifiably, if, as seems likely, “isolationists” is code for “segregationists” or “racists.” The term “isolationists” also registers Hughes’s distaste for New Critical or formalist thinking that minimized Whitman’s achievements.) The sections of this anthology are “Walt Sings of Men and Women,” “Walt Sings of America,” “Walt Remembers the Civil War and Abraham Lincoln,” and “Walt Sings of Freedom and the Future.” The section on the Civil War prints the “Runaway Slave” section from “Song of Myself” and what is called “Bodies at Auction” from “I Sing the Body Electric” (I use Whitman’s final titles here for clarity’s sake). One of the clear pedagogical aims is to promote racial justice.

At about the same time as his anthology for children, Hughes, according to his biographer Arnold Rampersad, “impulsively” prepared another anthology about blacks and Native Americans entitled “Walt Whitman’s Darker Brothers” (The Life of Langston Hughes [1988], 2:112). This volume was rejected by both Doubleday and Oxford University Press. Hughes may have prepared this additional anthology rapidly, but there was nothing impulsive about his admiration of Whitman. It is seen recurrently in his poetry, from “Old Walt” to “I, Too.” Soon, Hughes, with Arna Bontemps, would return to Whitman in yet another anthology, Poetry of the Negro (1949), published by Doubleday. This volume includes selections from 1746 to the date of publication. The opening sentence of the preface makes clear that “the title of this volume has somewhat more reference to the theme and a point of view than to the racial identity of some of its contributors” (vii). The volume begins with a section devoted to “Negro Poets of the U.S.A.” The second section, “Tributary Poems by Non-Negroes,” gives pride of place to Whitman and prints four selections, three of which are from “Song of Myself”: “The Runaway Slave,” “The Wounded Person” (the passage that begins, “The hounded slave that flags in the race”), “The Drayman,” and “Ethiopia Saluting the Colors.” By giving Whitman the lead position (though he is not chronologically the first of the “non-negro” poets to write of black experience—Wordsworth, Blake, and Whittier are included, and all published work before him), Hughes underlines the high regard in which he holds Whitman’s poetry.

4. The USIA and Walt Whitman: Poet of Democracy

In 1970 the English Teaching Division of the United States Information Agency published Walt Whitman: Poet of Democracy. This was a reading and discussion unit of advanced study of English for international consumption. The biographical section is six pages in length and makes some remarkable claims. We are told that as a boy Whitman “attended church regularly.” It is true that Whitman attended Sunday school at St. Ann’s Episcopal Church, but that was to take advantage of an educational opportunity: St. Ann’s provided a free supplement to the education he was getting at the district school. He learned the scripture and catechism, but he escaped imbibing any sense of innate depravity and damnation. It is also claimed, erroneously, that his experience as a teacher and acquaintance with farm people was a valued and deep lesson in human nature, though actually Whitman loathed it. Somewhat paradoxically, Whitman is presented both as the poet of individualism and as a poet who takes his inspiration from books. Walt Whitman: Poet of Democracy becomes downright misleading when it claims that “from the American writers, Thoreau, Lowell, and Emerson, [Whitman] adopted the verse form known as free verse” (7). The volume is altogether silent on Whitman’s emotional and romantic life.

The booklet quotes Whitman’s claim that he will “mix indiscriminately” with the people, and the unattributed editorial commentary further asserts that “America was built from many nations. Its spirit is one of diversity linked with equality. Because Americans come from everywhere, they have a feeling of kinship toward all peoples” (21). Two pictures reinforce the theme of racial harmony: First, a black child rests her (?) head trustingly on the shoulder of a white woman (21). Second, a white girl peers winningly at the viewer while holding the hand of an adult who has been all but cropped out of the picture—the only part of the adult visible is a large black hand (37). The shot is curious to say the least. It is possible to read this book, generously, as having a civil rights agenda that Whitman serves to reinforce. A more plausible interpretation, however, is that racial problems in the U.S. have been purposefully excluded, suppressed—like the African American whose hand could be included as a gesture of harmony and friendship but whose larger corporeal form is excluded. (That hand, by the way, is the only adult African-American in the volume, although sixteen other adults are depicted in this heavily illustrated booklet.) One section of the book ends: “A man, a nation, a blade of grass. The poet sang of himself; he sang of the world and all that is in it. He embraced his United States, his people. He embraced all mankind. He was Walt Whitman: Poet of the People!” Apparently this language did not sound too vaguely Marxist.

The entire book packages Whitman in light of an idealized view of the poet and of the United States, at the expense of accuracy with regard to Whitman’s biography. The book includes a strange drama for the students to act out that takes snippets of Whitman out of context. The drama, like the volume as a whole, avoids the topic of same-sex love. The poems selected for reproduction are “Mannahatta,” “A Noiseless Patient Spider,” “Miracles,” “When I Heard the Learn’d Astronomer,” “Good-Bye My Fancy!” and a selection, the carol of death, from “When Lilacs Last in the Dooryard Bloom’d.”

5. Whitman and 9/11: I Hear America Singing

In 2001 Anvil Press published I Hear America Singing: Poems of Democracy, Manhattan, and the Future. Interestingly—and powerfully—there is no explicit mention of the 9/11 attacks on the United States in this anthology. The main clue that they shape the book is the epigraph, which includes the line “I am the man, I suffer’d, I was there,” followed by asterisks and then five lines about the mashed fireman:

I am the mash’d fireman with breast-bone 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 clear’d the beams away, they tenderly lift me forth.

No editor or compiler is listed on the title page. Instead we get a statement from the publisher indicating that this selection of poems is “profoundly reassuring” because of Whitman’s “moral courage.” The publisher notes that Whitman is the poet for our time just as he was for the crisis of Civil War and its aftermath.

The back cover advertising is equally revealing:

Walt Whitman . . . is the authentic voice of democratic America. . . . Whitman’s broad humanity, his love of cities (especially Manhattan), his sympathy with all conditions of people, and his visionary—even prophetic—sense of the reality of the American dream make him as much a poet for our time as he was for the time of the American Civil War and its aftermath.
        This selection of courageous and consoling poems focuses on Whitman’s vision of democracy, his love of Manhattan, his sense of the future—and of the community of peoples of this earth.

The cover design contributes to the overall meaning of this volume. Philip Lewis designed the cover based on a detail from the 1905 color lithograph by Maxfield Parrish entitled With Trumpet and Drum. The cover is both muted and colorful, joyous and somber, and filled with three furling American flags hoisted aloft by children. The flags are at once familiar and unusual because the blue background for the stars has faded to a grayish green and is in stark contrast to the box of blue bearing the book’s title. The color of the flags imparts a sense of age (and purity?) even as the children signal youthfulness. Perhaps the illustration is an invitation to return to a patriotism uncluttered with the excesses and militarism often associated with it.

Each of the anthologies examined here reinvents Whitman, reminding us of the fluid identity that Whitman himself first established in his nimble changes from dandy to rough, from journeyman laborer to bohemian poet, from gentle nurse to aged prophet. American culture has been in an incessant conversation with Whitman ever since he imbued his art with the political vision of the founders, making freedom and equality the guiding principles that literally shaped the form and content of Leaves of Grass. It is remarkable how people with very different attitudes and beliefs share an interest in Whitman and have interlaced him with their hopes and fears and with their conceptions of national identity and purpose. We look to him to understand our past and to glimpse our future.


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