Petty Grotesques

Mark Ford

  • Democratic Vistas by Walt Whitman, edited by Ed Folsom
    Iowa, 143 pp, $24.95, April 2010, ISBN 978 1 58729 870 7

In August 1867, Thomas Carlyle published one of his most virulent diatribes against ‘swarmery’, by which he meant the trend towards democracy. The immediate inspiration for ‘Shooting Niagara: and After?’ was the threat of Disraeli’s Reform Act, which would double the number of adult males entitled to vote, and thus, as Carlyle saw it, unleash untold ‘new supplies of blockheadism, gullibility, bribability, [and] amenability to beer and balderdash’: look at America, the beleaguered Sage of Chelsea argued, and its absurd Civil War, prompted by what he derisively called ‘the Nigger Question’:

Essentially the Nigger Question was one of the smallest; and in itself did not much concern mankind in the present time of struggles and hurries. One always rather likes the Nigger; evidently a poor blockhead with good dispositions, with affections, attachments – with a turn for Nigger Melodies, and the like – he is the only Savage of all the coloured races that doesn’t die out on sight of the White Man; but can actually live beside him, and work and increase and be merry. The Almighty Maker has appointed him to be a Servant. Under penalty of Heaven’s curse, neither party to this pre-appointment shall neglect or misdo his duties therein.

Nevertheless, blinded by swarmery and harried by abolitionists, the country foolishly went to war on the issue, with drastic results:

A continent of the earth has been submerged, for certain years, by deluges as from the Pit of Hell; half a million (some say a whole million, but surely they exaggerate) of excellent White Men, full of gifts and faculty, have torn and slashed one another into horrid death, in a temporary humour, which will leave centuries of remembrance fierce enough: and three million absurd Blacks, men and brothers (of a sort), are completely ‘emancipated’; launched into the career of improvement – likely to be ‘improved off the face of the earth’ in a generation or two!

In this last prophetic image Carlyle is evoking a relatively widespread evolutionary theory of the time; this held that the entire race of liberated black Americans would inevitably be wiped out in their struggle for survival with their white competitors. It was only their divinely appointed servitude that had enabled them to prosper and multiply as they had on the plantations of the South.

Carlyle’s article appeared not only in the magazine Macmillan’s in Britain, where it caused an immediate furore, but in various American papers. Walt Whitman read it in the New York Tribune of 16 August. ‘Carlyle always stirs me to the deeps,’ Whitman observed late in life in a conversation with Horace Traubel, and he was soon planning a response to Carlyle’s denunciations of the futility of the Civil War and his mockery of American ideals of democracy. He contacted the Church brothers, editors of the recently founded magazine Galaxy, offering them ‘a rejoinder’ to Carlyle’s essay, as well as a poem initially called ‘Ethiopia Commenting’ but eventually retitled ‘Ethiopia Saluting the Colours’. The poem is unusual in the context of Whitman’s work after 1860 in its direct treatment of the issue that dominated Reconstruction America: race.

‘Ethiopia Saluting the Colours’ is also unusual in being in rather formal tercets, and in being spoken not by Whitman’s all-embracing poetic persona, but by a specific character in the course of a specific historical event: its narrator is a soldier in the Union Army during Sherman’s campaign in the Carolinas in the closing stages of the war. Most of Sherman’s soldiers did not see the Civil War as being about freeing slaves but about preserving the Union; since most of them were from the West, they had previously met few black people, and were dismayed to find their lines encumbered by thousands of emancipated slaves whom they treated, in the main, with disdain and cruelty. The historian Joseph Glatthaar sums up their prevailing attitude with a line spoken by one of Sherman’s soldiers: ‘Fight for the nigger! I’d see ’em in de bottom of a swamp before I’d fight for ’em.’ Whitman’s speaker is less crude than this, but he was clearly chosen as a vehicle through which the poet could express his own deep uncertainties about the consequences of emancipation at the time of the poem’s composition, 1867: ‘Who are you dusky woman,’ the soldier asks,

   so ancient hardly human,
With your woolly-white and turban’d head, and bare bony feet?
Why rising by the roadside here, do you the colours greet?

The old woman replies in the poem’s middle stanza, in italics:

Me master years a hundred since from my parents sunder’d,
A little child, they caught me as the savage beast is caught,
Then hither me across the sea the cruel slaver brought.

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