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.

These lines are a reminder of the extraordinary delicacy and compassion with which Whitman described the pursuit and capture of a ‘hounded slave’ in ‘Song of Myself’ (‘I am the hounded slave, I wince at the bite of the dogs,/Hell and despair are upon me …’), but there is none of that direct identification here. The next line is ‘No further does she say,’ and the poem then turns to ponder a troubling gulf between the ‘hardly human’ woman, whose saluting of the colours implies a willingness to take a greater role in the nation’s affairs, and the soldier who, although he has played his part in liberating her, seems unsure why:

What is it fateful woman, so blear, hardly human?
Why wag your head with turban bound, yellow, red and green?
Are the things so strange and marvellous you see or have seen?

It is probably the only moment in Whitman’s poetic corpus where he sounds almost like Thomas Hardy.

Whitman certainly seems to have found the effects of the 14th and 15th Amendments to the constitution ‘strange’ – they included, among other civil rights, extending the vote to black men – but nothing he wrote suggests he found these developments ‘marvellous’ in the modern sense of the term. Washington DC, where he had lived since 1863, was in the forefront of the experiment in enlarging the franchise, and his occasional comments on the way this was reshaping the city suggest that his sympathies lay largely with the white citizens who were vigorously opposing the Republican drive towards a more multiracial society. Of a black parade to celebrate the election of the Republican Sayles Jenks Bowen as Washington’s mayor he observed in a letter to his mother:

the men were all armed with clubs or pistols – besides the procession in the street, there was a string went along the sidewalk in single file with bludgeons & sticks, yelling & gesticulating like madmen – it was quite comical, yet very disgusting & alarming in some respects – They were very insolent, & altogether it was a strange sight – they looked like so many wild brutes let loose.

A recently discovered manuscript indicates he was not immune to the arguments of ‘ethnological scientists’ either: ‘the blacks must either filter through in time or gradually eliminate & disappear, which is most likely though that termination is far off, or else must so develop in mental and moral qualities and in all the attributes of a leading and dominant race (which I do not think likely).’ That he hated the institution of slavery there is no doubt: in a footnote to Democratic Vistas he compares ‘the extirpation of the Slaveholding Class’ to the cutting out and throwing away of a cancerous tumour. But about black suffrage he was less sure; although he talks, again in a footnote to Democratic Vistas, about favouring ‘the widest opening of the doors’, it was in part his doubts about the matter that led to the collapse of his relationship with one of his earliest and most fervent champions, W.D. O’Connor, author of the first extended defence of Whitman, The Good Gray Poet (1866). And when Horace Traubel inquired, in 1888, about Whitman’s views on racial integration, he was dismayed to receive the following answer: ‘The nigger, like the Injun, will be eliminated: it is the law of history, races, what-not: always so far inexorable – always to be. Someone proves that a superior grade of rats comes and then all the minor rats are cleared out.’

That such views on race were at odds with his egalitarian poetic persona was fully apparent to Whitman, and in his writings published after the Civil War he largely skirts the issue, though in an essay of 1874 he insisted that blacks had ‘about as much intellect and calibre (in the mass) as so many baboons’ (this sentence, happily for his reputation, was excised when he came to reprint the essay). In his early thirties he had strongly opposed the principle of the Fugitive Slave Act of 1850 (though he’d also argued that runaway slaves should be returned to their owners), and his sympathetic treatment of the slave on the run in ‘Song of Myself’ of 1855 is one of the poem’s most moving encounters:

Through the swung half-door of the kitchen I saw him limpsey and weak,
And went where he sat on a log, and led him in and assured him,
And brought water and filled a tub for his sweated body and bruised feet,
And gave him a room that entered from my own, and gave him some coarse clean clothes,
And remember perfectly well his revolving eyes and his awkwardness,
And remember putting plasters on the galls of his neck and ankles;
He stayed with me a week before he was recuperated and passed north,
I had him sit next me at table … my firelock leaned in the corner.

Whitman’s racial politics have come under increasing scrutiny in recent years. They were the subject of a superb essay by Ed Folsom called ‘Lucifer and Ethiopia’ that was published in the collection A Historical Guide to Walt Whitman (edited by David Reynolds), and they also feature in Folsom’s excellent introduction to this facsimile edition of the first book publication of Democratic Vistas. Spurred into prose by Carlyle’s taunts and barbs, Whitman set himself the task of composing three essays that would defend America and democracy, indeed would use, as he puts it in the first essay, ‘America and Democracy as convertible terms’. The poetry he had written up to this point, and which he was sure would eventually lead to his being absorbed by his country as affectionately as he had absorbed it, had been inspired by the same nationalist ideal, but the unbounded faith and hope of the early editions of Leaves of Grass had somewhat curdled by 1867, as he confronted, and promised not to ‘gloss over’, ‘the appalling dangers of universal suffrage in the United States’. Still, the three essays, ‘Democracy’, ‘Personalism’ and ‘Orbic Literature’, were intended not only to outline the challenges facing the democratic ideal in the new era, but to propose a solution: the creation of a literary culture commensurate with the new nation’s achievements and potential.

For in this, for all its military and industrial and political triumphs, America had singularly failed:

Do you call those genteel little creatures American poets? Do you term that perpetual, pistareen, paste-pot work, American art, American drama, taste, verse? I think I hear, echoed as from some mountain-top afar in the West, the scornful laugh of the Genius of These States.

As with each of the new editions of Leaves of Grass, the fourth of which was published shortly before he began work on ‘Democracy’, Whitman had high hopes that this new articulation of his vision would get him recognised as deserving the admiration, rather than the scorn, of the Genius of These States. Alas, neither the essays, only two of which eventually appeared in the Galaxy, nor Democratic Vistas itself, gained much attention outside Whitman’s immediate circle, though Democratic Vistas would become popular in Britain in a cheap edition published in 1887 by one of his socialist admirers, Ernest Rhys.

‘The priest departs, the divine Literatus comes.’ Whitman’s conception of the role of the poet in relation to 19th-century American culture contrasts vividly with the indifference with which his own productions were received, even those most lavishly praised in numerous ‘anonymous’ reviews, which were all of course penned by Whitman himself. Nevertheless, his belief in America’s overriding need for a new kind of poetry in order to fulfil the promises inherent in democracy never wavered, and it burns brightly, at times indeed desperately, in Democratic Vistas. The Civil War had driven him to contemplate the possible fragmentation of the Union, a prospect he found intolerable. No ‘foreign conquerors’, he is confident, could subdue America, ‘but the fear of conflicting and irreconcilable interiors, and the lack of a common skeleton, knitting all close, continually haunts me.’ His analysis of America’s cultural health is more sombre here than his poetry would ever permit, and at times verges on the savage, or Carlylean. ‘Society,’ he writes, ‘in These States, is cankered, crude, superstitious and rotten’: ‘Never was there, perhaps, more hollowness at heart than at present, and here in the United States. Genuine belief seems to have left us … The spectacle is appalling. We live in an atmosphere of hypocrisy throughout.’

Terrible things happen in Whitman’s poetry, as in the ‘hounded slave’ vignette from ‘Song of Myself’, but the poet himself remains buoyant, the better to offer solace: ‘O despairer, here is my neck,/By God! you shall not go down! Hang your whole weight upon me.’ But in Democratic Vistas it is Whitman himself who often seems close to despair:

Confess that everywhere, in shop, street, church, theatre, bar-room, official chair, are pervading flippancy and vulgarity, low cunning, infidelity – everywhere, the youth puny, impudent, foppish, prematurely ripe – everywhere an abnormal libidinousness, unhealthy forms, male, female, painted, padded, dyed, chignoned, muddy complexions, bad blood, the capacity for good motherhood deceasing or deceased, shallow notions of beauty, with a range of manners, or lack of manners, (considering the advantages enjoyed) probably the meanest to be seen in the world.

Every which way he turns he finds ‘corruption, bribery, falsehood, mal-administration’, and a political class consisting mainly of ‘thieves and scalliwags’. It is a ‘dry and flat Sahara’ that Whitman surveys, populated by ‘petty grotesques, malformations, phantoms, playing meaningless antics’.

But all this the divine Literatus can cure by infusing the country with soul, with moral conscience, by modelling, as Whitman had done with such spectacular freedom and success in ‘Song of Myself’, the ideal democrat. Yet whereas the poems in the 1855 Leaves of Grass celebrate the present, defiantly and dramatically asserting that there ‘will never be any more perfection than there is now’, in Democratic Vistas Whitman must avert his gaze from the rampant materialism and tainted politics of the Reconstruction era, and peer into the future, if he is to recover his confidence in the American experiment. ‘For our New World,’ he concedes in the book’s second paragraph, ‘I consider far less important for what it has done, or what it is, than for results to come.’

This faith in the future is what most distinguishes Whitman from such as Carlyle and Arnold and Ruskin, who all trace and lament an irreversible degradation in standards. Like all his publications, Democratic Vistas is a declaration of independence; it repudiates, as the great preface to the 1855 edition of Leaves of Grass had done, the outdated and inappropriate literary models America had inherited from ‘feudal’ Europe, but to which it still appeared perversely wedded, and asks for a ‘great original literature’ to develop in its stead. It is only, Whitman argues, through a nation’s arts that it can achieve genuine ‘status’, and thereby export its political system to all those other nations of the world that are so badly in need of it. At moments in Democratic Vistas Whitman can seem not that far from any American president of the last 50 years who justifies his country’s invasion of a rogue nation that has not yet signed up to the ‘democratic principle’. Whitman prophetically imagines this principle coming, ‘with imperial power’, to ‘dominate mankind’, and then, having ‘swayed the ages with a breadth and rectitude tallying Nature’s own’, eventually creating ‘a New Earth and a New Man’.

This utopian vision of the universal export of the American way seemed a long way off in 1867. Healing the rift in the Union, and what to do with all the freed slaves: these were the actual problems confronting President Andrew Johnson (1865-69), in whose attorney general’s office Whitman toiled by day as a government clerk, and whose leniency to the former Confederates he defended in arguments with friends such as O’Connor by night. Like Lincoln and Harriet Beecher Stowe, Whitman had for a time been convinced that all those emancipated should be repatriated to Africa, which may be why he stresses the Ethiopian origins and African colours, yellow, red and green, of the turban of the ancient slave who catches the attention of Sherman’s soldier in ‘Ethiopia Saluting the Colours’.

In the end the Galaxy never published ‘Ethiopia Saluting the Colours’, perhaps because, as Folsom argues, in none of the three essays that Whitman sent the Church brothers did he get around to discussing the racial issues that the poem broaches, and which he promised not to ‘gloss over’. They rejected the last essay, ‘Orbic Literature’, too, although Whitman assured them it was guaranteed to ‘rouse editorial & critical remark’. A couple of years later, however, he had the good fortune to be taken up by the New York publisher J.S. Redfield, who in the 1850s had issued the first complete edition of the works of Edgar Allan Poe. After a decade out of publishing Redfield was looking to establish a new list, and decided the controversial Whitman should be its centrepiece. Accordingly, in late 1870 (though the title pages of all three bore the date 1871), he issued simultaneously the fifth edition of Leaves of Grass, A Passage to India and Democratic Vistas. The last of these garnered some appreciative reviews across the Atlantic, but only one in the great Democracy itself: the New York Times dismissed it as one of the ‘curiosities of the book world’. Two years later Redfield went bankrupt.

An anonymous reviewer of the 1881 edition of Leaves of Grass pointed out what he called the ‘great anomaly of Whitman’s case’: here stood the poet, as in the famous frontispiece to the 1855 edition, in his slouch hat, one hand on his hip, the other in his pocket, the ‘aggressive champion of democracy and of the working-man’; and yet his admirers, the reviewer noted, ‘have been almost exclusively of a class the furthest possibly removed from that which labours for daily bread by manual work. Whitman has always been truly caviare to the multitude.’ Beloved of European intellectuals, embraced by European socialist movements, treated, towards the end of his life, by his disciples as if he were a messiah, his books remained unbought by the great American reading public, whose shelves groaned instead under tomes such as Longfellow’s Evangeline or The Song of Hiawatha. Whitman knew his work required a different kind of reader, and in Democratic Vistas he declared that the books of the divine Literatus were premised ‘on the assumption that the process of reading is not a half-sleep, but, in highest sense, an exercise, a gymnast’s struggle; that 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 framework.’ Only this vigorous engagement on the reader’s part will create ‘a nation of supple and athletic minds, well-trained, intuitive, used to depend on themselves’. The rewards for such an engagement could hardly be greater, as so many of his poems prove; for to each of these supple, athletic, intuitive readers Whitman whispers: ‘I have loved many women and men, but I love none better than you.’